A Critique of Intervention

November 23, 2011

A Critique of Intervention


Rory Stewart is a member of the British Parliament and best-selling author who has spent the better part of his career at the epicenters of various human rights and humanitarian crises. In his new book with political economist Gerald Knaus, Can Intervention Work?(part of Amnesty International's Global Ethics Series, published by W.W. Norton & Co. to commemorate AI's 50th anniversary), Stewart distills his firsthand observations of political and military interventions into an incisive examination of what we can and cannot achieve in a new era of "nation building." The following is the full transcript of Stewart's interview with Jungwon Kim, the editor of Amnesty International magazine.

Q: Why did you decide to write a book about intervention for the Amnesty International Global Ethics series?

A: I am deeply interested in this subject partly because of my experience working as a diplomat in the Balkans and then in Iraq; more recently I've been working in Afghanistan. The entire 20 years of my professional career has been around the edge of these interventions, and how we get these things right and how we get these things wrong has been my obsession.

Q: In Can Interventions Work, you are critical of recent international interventions. Do you think it's better to forgo intervention?

A: I'm not against intervention at all. What happened in Bosnia, for example, is something the international community can justify and about which it can be proud—we've made an enormous difference, alongside Bosnians, in Kosovo. But we need to avoid situations where the international community doesn't have the levers to achieve what it wants, where its understanding of the situation is limited, where it finds itself opposed by an indigenous population, and where it is drawn deeper and deeper into an attempt to at nation building while fighting.

Q: Why did you decline to address the moral question about the right or obligation to intervene?

A: Because I think the moral question is, in a sense, the easier question. That we have a moral obligation towards other human beings is something that is true and is important for us to reassert. But the danger of focusing only on the moral, as opposed to the practical questions, is that we forget that ‘ought' implies ‘can' and that you don't have a moral obligation to do what you cannot do.

If somebody is stuck on top of a mountain and you're on the rescue team, it's easy to understand that you have a moral obligation to get him. But the important thing is how you do it. Do you carry water? What if you face a sudden avalanche, blizzard, change in weather, altitude sickness? Most importantly of all, at what point do you turn back, because as a mountain rescuer, there is no point to you going up there if you kill yourself in the process. What I am trying to look at in this book is not: ‘Do we have a moral obligation to the Afghan people?' We have a moral obligation to the Afghan people, but that doesn't mean you should keep 135,000 soldiers on the ground and spend $125 billion every year indefinitely.

Q: What are some of the forces that doom a foreign intervention to fail?

A: The first and most central one is a widespread insurgency. If people begin thinking that they're fighting for their country and for their religion against foreign military occupation, it's impossible for an intervention to succeed and almost impossible to do a development project or engage in political work because you can't travel outside your embassy except in an armored vehicle and body armor.

The second thing that is very dangerous for an intervention is emotion— in particular, our paranoia and our fears. When we exaggerate our fears about a country, when we say, as Obama said about Afghanistan, a country is “one of the most dangerous place in the world,” or when you begin to say, “If Afghanistan falls, Pakistan will fall,” that's the worst of all because all rationality goes out of the process. It's no longer possible for you to reassess, pull back, try something else, be more patient. To return to the rescue analogy, it becomes a race to the top regardless of the avalanche, regardless of the blizzard, regardless of whether you have any idea about the person at the top—because failure is not an option. And those two things—lack of local consent on the one hand and the manias of the international community on the other—create a fatal combination.

Q: What is the role of human rights activists in these situations?

A: The international human rights community is an incredibly important player and has achieved far more since 1948 than anyone could have predicted. These values and norms have become increasingly universal, and some have become totally universal. The international human rights community has also consistently been very good at pushing policy makers to do more than what they think they can do.

Q: What lessons can be drawn from grassroots human rights work?

A: What's great about Amnesty International is that you're doing stuff in Western countries as well as in developing countries, so you understand how difficult this stuff is. But it's amazing how quickly people forget how difficult it is to do in your own country. In fact, it should be much easier to do in your own country: you speak the language fluently, you live in the same culture, you understand all the values, norms and context within which you're operating, you can move entirely freely, there's a vibrant civil society already, there's a free media, there's accountability, there are government structures, there are constitutions…there's everything to help you argue against the death penalty in Texas, for example. Move over to Afghanistan where none of that exists, where you don't speak the language, you don't come from the culture, you don't share the same norms or same background, constitutional structures don't exist, government structures don't exist—it's immeasurably more difficult and yet somehow, for some bizarre reason, we imagine it must be much easier.

Q: When it comes to human rights, are you a relativist or a universalist?

A: I'm absolutely universalist. I think the Universal Declaration of Human rights should be applied to everybody everywhere without exception. But if you're serious about change, if you're serious about making a country like Afghanistan more prosperous, more humane and more stable in 30 years' time, you have to do it through an incredibly detailed, patient, serious engagement. I love the way the human rights community challenges policy makers, pushes them to come up with solutions. That should be what the human rights community is doing, not pretending that problems don't exist but working along with policymakers to create the kind of patience, the context, the energy, the determination to achieve real change.

Amnesty International Global Ethics Series

The Amnesty Global Ethics Series is a groundbreaking collaboration between Amnesty International and W.W. Norton & Co. to commemorate Amnesty International's 50th anniversary. Edited by Princeton University professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, whose own father was a prisoner of conscience who was released from prison in Ghana after AI intervention, the series presents short books authored by acclaimed scholars on a variety of complex human rights issues. For more information on the series: http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Amnesty_International_Global_Ethics_Series/