[A-List] The echoes of 19th-century imperialism

Sabri Oncu soncu at pacbell.net
Wed Jan 18 02:20:37 MST 2006

The New York Times
January 15, 2006
The Way We Live Now
A Nation of Pre-emptors? 

The fact that political debate over the U.S. intervention in Iraq breaks
down largely along party lines, with Republicans generally in favor and
Democrats skeptical or opposed, has tended to obscure the fact that American
interventionism has historically been a bipartisan impulse. Indeed, far less
separates the parties than it might seem from the current polarized
discourse in Washington. For all their scruples about the Iraq adventure,
few Democrats question the idea that it is right for the United States to
"promote" democracy in the world, by force if necessary. It could hardly be
otherwise. As George W. Bush has pointed out, nation-building was a
principal foreign-policy cornerstone of the Clinton administration.

Nonetheless, the pervasive sense that the Bush administration bungled the
mission in Iraq has led Democrats to play down their own ideas about
reshaping the global order. Recently, however, a number of Democratic
foreign-policy analysts have tried to reinvigorate their party's
internationalist traditions. In a series of articles, Ivo Daalder and James
Steinberg, both of whom held senior positions in the Clinton administration,
have argued that "states have a responsibility to head off internal
developments - acquiring weapons of mass destruction and harboring
terrorists, to name two - that pose a threat to the security of other
states." If they do not do so, outside powers may and sometimes must
intervene. "It would be unfortunate," they write, "if President Bush's
doctrine of pre-emption were a casualty of the Iraq war." For them,
"conditional sovereignty" is "central to a new norm of state
responsibility." Implicit in their argument is the view that nondemocratic
states are especially likely to breed threats. For this reason, the lack of
democracy may itself pose a security problem - a notion that Britain's prime
minister, Tony Blair, once summed up when he declared that "the spread of
our values makes us safer." 

At first glance, such a foreign policy combines the best of Wilsonian
moralism and sober realism. What could be wrong with a global consensus
supporting action against states that commit crimes against their own
citizens or maintain a nasty habit of supporting terrorists or seeking to
develop weapons of mass destruction? But the sad fact is that what at first
may seem morally obvious may prove to be morally ambiguous as well. The
problem is that it is probably not the "international community" that will
be doing the intervening; it is particular states - above all, the United
States and its allies. And as the international reaction to the Iraq war so
painfully demonstrated, the gap between the international perception of the
legitimacy of America's actions and the American view could scarcely be

The Bush administration has claimed that the essential question is not
whether an intervention is unilateral or multilateral, United
Nations-sanctioned or not, but whether it is right or wrong. Agree or
disagree, it is a coherent position: the world needs American leadership,
and America must provide it.

The new theorists of conditional sovereignty share this benign vision of
American power. Where they differ is over global realities. While they know
that the United Nations is unlikely to achieve global peace and security,
they view the Bush administration's unilateralism as doomed to failure both
because of the opposition it will mobilize across the world and because it
will ultimately prove too expensive to sustain. As an alternative, Daalder
and his fellow analyst James Lindsay have called for concerted multilateral
action by an "alliance of Democratic states" that would, if necessary,
constitute "an alternative, and more legitimate body" than the U.N. "for
authorizing action."

But what may seem like Wilsonian idealism in Washington appears, in much of
the rest of the world, like the multilateralism of a very small club. Unless
you believe in American goodness as a matter of faith, a troubling question
arises: what countries would actually qualify for admission to this
alliance? The answer is obvious: the United States, Canada, the European
Union nations, Australia, Japan, South Korea. But this means it would be
largely an alliance of the prosperous and the powerful. The corollary is
even worse. What countries, deemed to have forfeited their sovereignty,
would be subject to "action" by the alliance? Answer: The countries of the
poor world - many of which only recently overcame colonial domination and
acquired that sovereignty in the first place.

The echoes of 19th-century imperialism are there whether you like it or not.
At least Americans need to recognize that these echoes shape the
understanding of ideas like conditional sovereignty in much of the world. In
Europe or the U.S., sending NATO forces to Darfur may seem like fulfilling
the global moral responsibility to protect. But in much of the Muslim world,
it is far likelier to be experienced as one more incursion of a Christian
army into an Islamic land.

On the evidence of Darfur, where the deployment of African Union
peacekeepers has been largely ineffective in stopping the slaughter, it may
prove impossible to intervene in the world's gravest crises without arousing
fears of imperial agendas. If this is true, then a number of questions have
to be faced squarely: should a humanitarian or a human rights justification
always trump other concerns? What if the state doing the intervening has
little or no credibility in the region, as the polls suggest is now true of
the U.S. in the Middle East? Iraq should have taught us that good intentions
are never enough. And no matter what a given intervention may accomplish, it
is worth remembering that rules of action fashioned by small groups of
countries, no matter how democratic, are unlikely to look legitimate in the
eyes of people who had no say in their making. 

David Rieff, a contributing writer, writes regularly about international

More information about the A-List mailing list