The Price Of Hyper-Intervention

The Syrian crisis dominated debate at an international conference last week in Stockholm that reviewed a range of global strategic issues. Organised by the London-based Institute of Strategic Studies, the meeting discussed several key issues, but one question reverberated in many sessions. Will the aversion of war-weary western publics to overseas military intervention, that is driving their governments towards ‘restraint’, turn out to be a transient or a longer-term trend?
Many participants asked if a decade of hyper interventionism by the US-led west – reflected in long and costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – had now swung the pendulum in the other direction, into reluctance to get involved in conflicts abroad. One speaker described the US as a “hesitant and selective superpower”, and depicted the present western posture as having moved from hyper activity to inaction, even paralysis. Some cautioned this should not be read as “isolationism”. It only meant Washington will be more selective in its engagements. Others saw this as the consequence of lack of leadership and argued that this might be a passing phase.
More thoughtful speakers however interpreted this to indicate deeper currents caused by several factors. One was the inefficacy of military action itself and the inability to achieve desired outcomes, as Iraq and Afghanistan amply exemplified. The anti-interventionist mood in the west was the consequence of three factors, argued Philip Stephens of the Financial Times. One, public opinion that is urging governments to shun foreign entanglements; two, economics and the preoccupation with fixing financial problems; and three, US dominance is now being contested by the rise of other powers who are pushing back on issues like respect for state sovereignty and non-interference. For these reasons the impulse to “draw back” or stay at home will strengthen.
The view that limited goals will flow from limited western influence echoed at the conference. This also figured as a theme in the recently published annual IISS Strategic Survey. John Chipman, its director general, reiterated this at the conference by casting 2012 as “the year of living tactically”, where the constant flow of events constrained the ability of governments to exercise control over foreign policy outcomes. This left no room for strategy, much less grand strategy. One of the big challenges ahead, Chipman said, was how to conduct a sustainable foreign policy when the demands of crisis management were so urgent and imposing. This urged modesty of strategic ambition rather than strategic conceit, which would be far more dangerous.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Carl Bildt agreed. There was absence of strategic thinking and action – more so in the 24/7 and social media environment. Bildt also referred to international scepticism about using force to achieve even limited goals as in Syria. The audience concurred with his assertion that diplomacy had helped take the Syrian situation to “a better place”. But Bildt also called for a new consensus on intervention – less frequent, more broad-based and determined.
More importantly he pointed to three diplomatic opportunities opening up the Middle East that could have “determining” consequences if they were seized: Syria, Iran and the Palestinian-Israeli peace process. If these strategic opportunities for diplomacy were to succeed, they would usher in an “era of hope”.
Many of these points were picked up in a session, in which I was also a speaker, titled ‘Who manages international security?’ Panellists agreed that at the moment nobody managed global security on any consistent basis. One speaker lamented that the US was no longer able to play the role of global policeman, while others asked if drift and disarray would mark this phase of a world in uncertain transition.
My remarks focused on the need to transition to a rules-based international order that can produce solutions supported by consensus and where the management of security is a shared, not unilateral enterprise. The key pillars of such an order should include a) renewed adherence to the non-use of force unless authorised by international law; b) renewed commitment to multilateral solutions and c) respect for the principle of non-interference.
The security of some should not be deemed more important than that of others. Exceptionalism was not the answer. Inclusion is. No one state or group of states could, on their own, manage the complex challenges and threats to international security. The only solutions were multilateral, I argued. They were more difficult, cumbersome and slower to achieve. They also created the need to accommodate multiple interests, different cultures and values and to utilise the best possible human and technical resources for the purpose.
I also argued that only fair and just solutions would endure. In our interdependent world, security needed to be managed by adherence to principles rather than power. Most of these principles have been prescribed in the UN charter and other international instruments. They now needed to be applied in practice.
Much interest was generated at the conference by what was said by Sergei Ivanov, chief of staff to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. With debate raging in various sessions about Russia’s “comeback”, Ivanov called for “indivisible security for all”, for “sticking to the law” and coordinating the international approach to resolve conflicts. Consensus must be achieved, no matter how difficult. On the consequences of military action he said, “Foreign intervention doesn’t stop but prolongs a conflict”. This was the lesson of Iraq and Libya. Military force had failed to bring “more freedom or democracy”. Colonialism also cloaked the pursuit of raw interests in such high-sounding language. Peaceful diplomacy, Ivanov said, is never easy, but there was no alternative.
It was left to an Israeli speaker to assert, in the context of the Middle East and in reference to Iran, that “diplomacy cannot be effective if you take the military option off the table”. Other participants also maintained that “military force remained a condition for diplomatic success” and argued that if Washington had not threatened military action against Syria, the Russian diplomatic initiative to persuade Syria to give up chemical weapons, would never have materialised.
In one of the most insightful presentations at the conference, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry laid out several lessons from American’s intervention in Afghanistan – drawing these from the military and diplomatic missions he headed there over the past decade. One lesson was that when setting goals and the level of ambition, “one must consider the time and resources available and the probable sustainability of the enterprises”. He cited in this regard the ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu who said, “There has never been a protracted war from which a state has benefited.” It made sense, Eikenberry said, to “plan for exit even before arriving”.
A second lesson was on finding a post-intervention political settlement or equilibrium. Major powers often believed that a two-step process follows a decision to intervene: defeat the regime against whom the intervention is aimed, and help constitute a new government. In fact, he said, the defeat of the regime creates an entirely new dynamic of conflict within a country that can confound efforts to establish political stability, as both Iraq and Afghanistan testify. In Afghanistan there had long been an absence of national political reconciliation, with the Taliban merely a symptom of a larger and deeper problem. A third lesson concerned the need to build consensus among the concerned major and regional powers, but this proved to be elusive in Afghanistan. A fourth lesson was that as soon as a decision was made to intervene militarily, opportunity costs rose exponentially. Based on these lessons, Eikenberry’s cautionary advice for future interventions was simple: “look before you leap”.
This reinforced another theme that emerged at the conference. At such an unsettled juncture for a non-polar world, where no one had the power to determine outcomes, it was time for humility and a departure from the phase of hubris that neither gave the world stability nor helped the west secure its goals.