Friend of the blog Elias Isquith, in a thoughtful piece on prospective U.S. intervention in Syria posted at the League, refers to “the pivot point at which an international action to stop an atrocity becomes something much closer to regular old imperialist meddling.” The problem, for Isquith and others, is that, by political necessity, any intervention on behalf of the Syrian rebels, especially as justified on the basis of the crimes of the Assad regime, becomes objectively intervention requiring defeat of the Assad regime, just as intervention in the Balkans objectively meant the eventual fall of Milosevic and company, and intervention in Libya meant the fall of Gaddafi. ((Afghanistan may appear to be an exception, but, if so, it is a typical one: A muddled war muddled to a muddled non-finish. We might suggest instead that the real war ended with the killing of Osama bin Laden. Alternatively, we might consider the peculiar nature of shadow war or 4th Generation war against non-state or crypto-state actors.)) Put broadly: War remains war, and any justification of intervention is finally a justification for the defeat of an enemy, in effect at all costs just as it will be truly at all costs to everyone who kills or dies, in Syria as anywhere else – or will be no true justification at all. ((Justification for war is either the assertion of a universal and indispensable necessity, greater than any mere “interest,” or it is not even an interest. The assertion of a universal and indispensable necessity is always implicitly the assertion of a universal state, the underlying impetus of world history as “world history.”))
Isquith concludes by pointing to the contradiction or apparent contradiction, a classic contradiction, between human rights protection and anti-imperialism, both of which interests he treats as non-controversially sound, in other words consensual and universal:
I know there’s some naivety in thinking the United States — or any major power — would put the kind of prestige on the line that comes with armed conflict and not expect out-and-out victory in return. But that’s what the Responsibility to Protect demands; and if the project of stopping the kinds of evil we saw in Rwanda and the Balkans during the 90s is going to succeed, the liberal interventionists need to disentangle the interests of the individual nation-states from those of the broader international community.
Otherwise interventions on behalf of human rights will continue to be seen by many — and not unreasonably — as neoimperialism’s trojan horse.
Isquith’s difficulty provides us with an opportunity to re-consider the notion of a positive neo-imperial interest somewhat more concretely, though my remarks will remain somewhat generalized, since connecting this most general of interests, a global or world-historical interest, to particular facts on some particular ground is a more complex operation than I have the time or ambition to attempt today.
What may be “unreasonable” is any belief that in the final analysis hard and fast distinctions along Isquith’s lines – between a human rights regime and a neo-imperial regime – can ever remain very hard or fast, or sustainable at all. Put differently, “Responsibility to Protect” may be inherently and objectively imperialistic or neo-imperialistic, may presuppose a global state and global guardian of its interests, but saying so may confirm that the neo-imperial interest, which most of us may embrace more or less unconsciously, includes values, goals, and norms that we consider universal and as a matter of irrevocable and foundational commitment.
We can view the same matter in (so far) non-military spheres as well. ((In a truly “global” analysis every sphere and every factor of power or every power potential relates to every other.)) So, climate change: If we presume that cooperative and coordinated international and transnational action involving leadership by the major industrial powers, including especially the world’s militarily and economically most powerful nation, is necessary to cope with and eventually halt ecological destruction crossing all borders, and will require relinquishment of elements of national sovereignty as understood traditionally, then combating climate change will be an authentically “neo-imperial” project. We will have declared neo-imperialism, under whatever name makes us most comfortable or seems most practical, a good. (We are setting aside those who might rather see the world destroyed than have their perfect freedoms pried from their cold dead hands etc.)
Likewise, if we agree that we want a world in which nation-states do not use chemical weapons against their peoples, or a world in which chemical and other WMD use does not spread in interstate or other conflict situations, and the only way to ensure that worthy goal is to assert and enforce a transnational imperative, then we are neo-imperialists, and the only reason we do not confess as much is that we have inherited an ideological-terminological allergy. We want to be neo-imperialists, but to be able to call what we do liberal internationalism or human rights activism or pure ecological reason. Whatever names we use, a global state of affairs in which human rights are guaranteed, or chemical weapons use is constrained, or ecological apocalypse is prevented requires and would actually constitute a global state, whether or not we sing a global anthem and vote for a global president.
We seem to have found that the system that works best or at all, in other words practically, is the one in which the nation geographically least suited to occupation and for related reasons best suited to power projection – the United States of America – handles the role of global hegemon or neo-hegemon, or neo-imperial power, producing an equilibrium between nation-state and global-state responsibilities. The latter are partially, but unevenly, shared with weak, possibly nascent, possibly hollow international institutions that also provide venues for less well-suited candidates for “world cop” to join forces and somewhat peaceably establish rough accountability and restraint. The overall picture happens to be a bloody, complicated, uneven, contradictory, and difficult one, since it is the equivalent of the administration of all of human history, including future history, in real time, but the only alternative we, as in Homo sapiens sapiens, have known is an international (or pre-national) state of nature, which was already often very remarkably savage and destructive even under pre-modern technological and economic conditions, and has been reasonably judged intolerably dangerous under modern ones.