Walzer, Metternich, dictators and R2P

UK Ministry of Defence CC BY-SA 2.0
UK Ministry of Defence CC BY-SA 2.0

Professor Michael Walzer gave the annual Fred Halliday memorial lecture at LSE this evening. Professor Walzer is most famous for his book Just and Unjust Wars. If you’re interested in when it is right to go to war (and when it is not) Walzer’s text is the place to start.

He offered a number of reflections on the responsibility to protect against the backdrop of the ongoing conflict in Syria. Some of the points he raised reminded me of some thoughts I had on the subject but never quite got round to writing down. Spoiler alert: l am a cynical post-doc. The idealists among you will not enjoy what I am about to say. I know because I tested it on one of my students (sorry Brian).

Walzer proposed three criteria for judging when externally-imposed regime change should be considered in response to atrocities in a conflict situation. According to Walzer, an intervening state should:

  • Ensure there is a viable alternative government and support it as it establishes its authority over the state
  • Secure the regime’s weaponry. This may mean co-opting elements within the regime and especially its security forces.
  • Guarantee the physical safety of minority populations within the state.

Walzer noted these three requirements probably mean boots on the ground. He argued against ‘half-assed’ interventions that seem likely to make conditions worse. But he also argued that intervention in Syria could not possibly have been worse for the Syrian people than what has in practice been allowed to take place.

Later in the talk, Walzer argued for an incremental approach to regime change. This means in part achieving peace and security first, and keeping the establishment of liberal democracy as a longer-term goal. It means also getting the international community on board through the UN Security Council, and corralling neighbouring states to contribute their share.

All of these points got me thinking. Walzer’s argument was predicated on the assumption that any intervention in a conflict such as that in Syria (or Libya, say) inevitably meant changing the regime. But what if you relax that assumption? After all, the worst excesses of both the Assad and Gaddafi regimes came after the descent of their countries into de facto civil war. Before the fighting started they were engaged in what Walzer described as the ordinary repression conducted by authoritarian regimes; morally reprehensible, but short of the standard for the responsibility to protect to apply.

I am increasingly of the view that the outside world should indeed intervene at an early stage when an armed uprising threatens the stability of an authoritarian state. But not on the side of the rebels. On the side of the regime.

Prime Minister Tony Blair (UK) meets President Bashar al-Assad (Syria) in the aftermath of 9/11.
Prime Minister Tony Blair (UK) meets President Bashar al-Assad (Syria) in the aftermath of 9/11.

Backing the existing regime would meet all three of Walzer’s criteria. We know the Gaddafi and Assad regimes were capable of running their countries; they’d been doing it for years before the extraordinary circumstances of the Arab spring transformed simmering grievances into outright insurrection. We know they can secure their weapons. We know they are capable of not massacring their minorities; I say again, neither started engaging in the sort of activities that would trigger the responsibility to protect until after the risings against them began to make headway.

The UN Security Council could unite around backing an existing regime. So could regional powers; they’ve been living with it for years, after all. There would probably be no need for outside boots on the ground. And the sum of human suffering that would result would fall well short of that produced by the chaos we have seen when authoritarian regimes are allowed to fail (or indeed destroyed from outside, see Iraq).

A default stance in favour of existing regimes would have a clear strategic basis. The international community’s failure to unite around the Soviet effort to shore up the Communist regime in Afghanistan led to chaos and the rise of the Taliban. The decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein led to chaos, years of violent instability and the rise of ISIS. NATO’s action in Libya created a vacuum, as did the outside world’s inaction in Syria. Outside intervention that commanded the support of the international community and neighbouring states would not suffer from the legitimacy deficit that has dogged so much Western foreign policy in recent years. It would be more likely to achieve its objectives than the more nebulous efforts to spread ‘freedom and democracy’ we have seen in recent years. There would be fewer conflicts, fewer opportunities for extremist opportunists to capitalise on instability, fewer civilian casualties and fewer refugees.

Prince Klemens von Metternich
Prince Klemens von Metternich

The problem, of course, is the moral basis for this sort of policy stance. So far I’ve made the ‘realist’ argument. My inspiration has been less Walzer himself and more Prince Klemens von Metternich, State Chancellor of the Austrian Empire during the decades after the Napoleonic Wars. Metternich believed the greatest threat to human society lay in the instability associated with revolution. His ‘Metternich system’ of European congresses included a promise by Ancien Regime states to intervene to support each other in the event of rebellion.

The problem, of course, is that Metternich was profoundly anti-democratic in his objectives and intent. From the perspective of a liberal democrat, his approach is morally problematic. My student was concerned that my proposal shut down the possibility of human progress. I disagree. For me it creates the space for progress. For example, it is important to distinguish between my argument, that shoring up authoritarian regimes is better for their citizens in the short term, and an orientalist belief that ‘those people’ simply cannot do democracy. I am not saying that. I am arguing for playing a long game.

I am arguing that ‘those people’ most certainly can do democracy. Given the choice all people everywhere would choose to live in a state that makes overthrowing the government peacefully relatively straightforward, that provides the security and the institutions necessary for politics to reconcile conflicting interests, and that protects human rights. Of these things, security is the most fundamental, however. There can be no freedom without security. And there can be no security without the state.

Our objective in intervening should be, in the short term, to end the fighting, and ensure the existing state is sufficiently secure that the immediate crisis can be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed. From a moral perspective we justify this approach as the least worst outcome considering the descent into chaos likely following the collapse of an authoritarian state.

In the long term, then, our objective should be to bring about a gradual transition to a representative democracy. Here we can use our willingness to support the regime as leverage to a certain extent, getting it to agree to concessions without which we will take the support away (and possibly transfer it to rivals within the state). From a moral perspective we justify this approach in the same way we justify any political action; the only way conflicting interests are reconciled without violence is through negotiation and compromise. There are conflicting interests. Therefore there must be negotiation and compromise. We still retain the option of turning on the regime if we really need to. But we should give it the space to transform itself peacefully.

We don’t, in other words, give up our belief that liberal democracy is the way to go. But we show ourselves willing to work towards it incrementally, rather than seeking immediate, and unrealistic, change.

It’s not an inspirational approach to humanitarian intervention. It’s clearly far from ideal. But a Metternich-inspired strategy would, I submit, produce the least worst set of outcomes than all the alternatives I can see.


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