Friday, September 30, 2011

Cameron at the UN

Professor Jason Ralph

If David Cameron thinks Libya has drawn a line under the uncertainty caused by Britain’s Iraq debacle he is mistaken.

His speech to the General Assembly conveys the impression that the only thing wrong with the UN is a lack of will to act more forcefully in the face of repression. Condemnation of tyrannical regimes is taken for granted. Now we must go beyond that and act forcefully to promote democracy. Yet there has never been complete agreement on when and how best to protect human rights and the world remains divided. There is a range of opinions (and interests) and these often prevent consensus, even among established liberal democracies. Tony Blair did immense damage to liberal internationalism when he ignored this fact. Cameron and his LibDem partners shouldn’t make the same mistake.

The human rights declarations that Cameron mentioned do not give other states license to intervene in each other’s affairs. The moral imperative to ‘do something’ competes with legal and political considerations. Often rhetorical condemnation is the only thing a state is willing to do. That might seem hypocritical. But sometimes limited intervention is the most prudent course of action. More hard line policies - economic sanctions, military action - can do further harm to the victims of repression. They might also delegitimize home grown forms of resistance.

Making the judgment of when to go beyond rhetoric is difficult. If liberal interventionism is committed to the rule of law it should also be a multilateral one. This is for two reasons. The first is that public deliberation is at the heart of liberal internationalism. It can help deliver better outcomes. Anne-Marie Slaughter for instance acknowledges that ‘we [the US] would have gotten a better outcome in Iraq if we had really listened to other countries at the United Nations’. The second reason is that there are legitimacy costs to the state that unilaterally asserts it is acting in the common interest. Interventions on behalf of universal values have more claims to legitimacy if they are the result of representative forms of public deliberation.

Cameron recognises the issues. We should not impose western values. Democracy has to be developed patiently from the grass roots up. And on Libya he says the UN played a vital role in authorising international action. But potential problems can be found in the details. What exactly is ‘a vital role’? What would Cameron do in the future if his muscular form of liberalism was rejected by the Security Council? Would he seek to form his own ‘coalition of the willing’ as Bush and Blair did on Iraq? To intervene in Libya was a brave decision. But the claim that it is a model for liberal interventionism is only possible because all the pieces fell into place. None of our current political leaders have told us what they would do if they could not secure a UN mandate for moral action that they considered necessary.
The world has long abandoned the norm prohibiting intervention in the internal affairs of another state. A crucial turning point came in the early 1990s when the Security Council identified humanitarian crises inside Iraq and Somalia as threats to international peace and security. States invoked the peace enforcement principles found in Chapter VII of the UN Charter to go beyond rhetorical condemnation. Here the moral and legal imperatives were, at least for a while, aligned with the political will to act.

But then we had Bosnia and Rwanda. The moral imperative to go beyond the norm of non-intervention was not matched by the willingness to risk soldier’s lives on the ground. Tony Blair’s liberal interventionism was conceived in this period. The UN was failing not because it couldn’t agree on what to do. It condemned genocide. It was failing because states believed there was no national interest in doing right thing. Blair therefore took the realists to task. Foreign policy had to be ‘guided by a more subtle blend of mutual and self-interest and moral purpose’.

The problem for liberal internationalists is that Blair’s combination of the moral and political imperatives became too dominant. He never forgot the legal piece in the liberal internationalist’s jigsaw, but he certainly trimmed the awkward corners off it. The consequences need not be repeated at length. The Iraq war was wrong. It was illegitimate. And liberal interventionism was almost confined to the dustbin of failed foreign policy doctrines.

Of course the UN Security Council doesn’t always get it right. There’s no need to remind readers that the great power veto can be used unreasonably and this is the source of much frustration. But that does not give states license to ignore other multilateral procedures and the need for deliberation at the UN, especially when they claim to be acting on behalf of the universal values. Cameron is aware of this. But his emphasis on finding the will to act, risks losing sight of the mandate to act. Liberal internationalists need to find ways of reconciling these potentially competing imperatives. Blair tried and failed. Moving on from Iraq involves articulating how UK policymakers should act when the Security Council vetoes action they consider morally and politically right.

Jason Ralph is Professor of International Relations at the University of Leeds and a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow. His latest publication is ‘After Chilcot. The doctrine of international community and the UK’s decision to invade Iraq’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations Vol.13 No.3 August 2011.