Saturday, June 14, 2008

Practicality and humanitarian intervention (Norman Geras)

As usual, what Norman Geras says in the item below is on-target. And that includes Norm's tactful suggestion that the recent post by Matthew Yglesias to which he's responding was a bit frivolous, morally and intellectually, in the way it encouraged an increasingly widespread throw-out-the-baby-with-the-bathwater reaction against the whole idea of humanitarian intervention.

It's only fair to add that I don't believe Matt Yglesias's position on these issues is really as flippant and dismissive at it might have sounded. Nowadays, there are all too many people--including both long-time self-styled "realists" and disillusioned former idealists, along with apologists for oppressive and murderous regimes of all sorts--who genuinely do maintain that the appropriate and "realistic" response of the so-called "international community" to cases of genocidal mass murder, politically engineered humanitarian mega-catastrophes, and other large-scale crimes against humanity should be for the rest of us to shrug our shoulders (and to ridicule or attack anyone who proposes to do anything to stop or prevent these catastrophes). On the basis of a lot of other things Yglesias has said, it's clear to me that he is not one of those people.

Instead, my sense is that the main problem--though not the only one--with that post and some related ones that Yglesias has written is that the ideas were expressed too hastily and carelessly. There are also some potential grains of truth buried in Yglesias's discussion, even if they tend to come out there in the form of misleading or straw-person arguments. For example, even in cases where morality and practical judgment do call for an international response to large-scale crimes against humanity or preventable humanitarian catastrophies, that doesn't always mean that the right solutions will be purely or exclusively military solutions. (But, then again, did the op-ed by Madeleine Albright that Yglesias was criticizing actually "identify humanitarianism with invasions" or "assume that military coercion is the be-all and end-all of human betterment"? As a matter of fact, no.)

Nevertheless, it's fair for Norman Geras to point out that Yglesias's treatment of the substantive issues in that post was "not enlightening" (to quote Yglesias's own criticism of Albright's piece) and that he tended to evade the hard questions in favor of polemical point-scoring. We can all do better than that, I hope.

=> As a starting-point, I once again recommend a lapidary formulation by Michael Walzer that Norman Geras, Matthew Yglesias, and I should all be able to agree on:
It is a good idea to strengthen the UN and to take whatever steps are possible to establish a global rule of law. It is a very bad idea to pretend that a strong UN and a global rule of law already exist.
--Jeff Weintraub
Norman Geras (Normblog)
June 13, 2008
Practicality and humanitarian intervention

Matthew Yglesias finds a piece by Madeleine Albright on the issue of sovereignty and intervention 'not very enlightening'. He's right, in a way. It isn't. Anyone who has been paying attention to these matters over the last few years will be familiar with the contours of the problem Albright sets out. Still, she does draw attention to a real problem - what she calls 'weakened support for cross-border interventions even for worthy purposes' in the wake of the Iraq war.

What Matthew Yglesias says, on the other hand, seems to me to fall more squarely under his own charge - of being unenlightening. He's obviously right to think that shaping US policy in the spirit of norms of 'moral universalism' is a practical problem, and that the following won't do as a guiding principle: 'America is sovereign, and also can invade other countries whenever it wants to, but other countries can't do that'. At the same time, he has nothing to say on what would serve as an adequate guiding principle, or about the fact that the prevailing international system, as expressed through the UN, ensures on a pretty regular basis that no practical solution is found to ongoing human disasters, as in Darfur or Zimbabwe. Principles of 'moral universalism' - we're not starting from scratch here, after all - just go by the board because of the moral non-universalism by which special national interests can block interventions that could otherwise occur, be life-saving and justified. The suggestions for other good humanitarian policies, so as to discourage an identification between humanitarianism and 'invasion' - like being open to immigration and imported goods, programmes to hand out mosquito nets, maintaining good relations between the great powers - are all very good in their way, as well as practical in themselves; but they don't address the problem Albright was speaking of, or the present plight, just for example, of the Zimbabwean people.

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