The very foundations of British foreign policy need to be examined, because all is muddle and confusion. We don’t seem to be able to think straight about when, if at all, it is right to intervene in another country. In an echo of Tony Blair’s doctrine of liberal interventionism, we appear to have foreign policy ambitions that once again outstrip our military capabilities.This post revisits the origins of Blair's “liberal interventionism”, and, interestingly, it was in his 2005 book, DC Confidential, that Meyer had provided a well-informed view of the speech (‘The Doctrine of the International Community’) which Tony Blair had given in Chicago on 24 April 1999, and to which the concept now seems to be attached:
Blair delivered a speech of some significance. It completely blindsided the Foreign Office. Against the background of Kosovo he promulgated a doctrine of international community and humanitarian intervention, almost pre-emption: that it was justified to violate the frontiers and sovereignty of a state if within its borders genocide was about to be, or was being, carried out. This was not a million miles from one of the main arguments used to justify the attack on Iraq in 2003. They say, though I could not corroborate this myself, that the ideas underpinning the speech were borrowed from the foreign policy analyst and academic Lawrence Freedman.
The speech made a lot of people sit up. Some even went as far as to say that the basic principles of the modern nation-state, established after the Thirty Years War in the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, had been overturned. In fact, it was not that radical. The right to intervene on human-rights grounds in the internal affairs of another country had, to all intents and purposes, been ceded in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the grand bargain between the western and communist halves of Europe, which became one of the pillars of détente.
The speech, eloquently delivered in Blair's evangelical style, was received with a thunderous standing ovation from the hundreds of Chicagoans who filled the cavernous ballroom of one of the city's largest hotels.Sir (now) Lawrence Freedman is Professor of War Studies and Vice Principal at King’s College, London, and a member of the Iraq Inquiry Committee. On 18 January 2010 he wrote to the Inquiry chairman, Sir John Chilcot, enclosing a memo, ‘Chicago Speech: Some Suggestions’, that he had sent to Jonathan Powell, Blair’s Chief of Staff at the latter’s request on 16 April 1999. (Powell was to give evidence to the Inquiry on 18 January 2010).
With a few changes, Freedman’s memo provided the International Security section of the Blair’s speech. It is interesting to examine the non-trivial alterations (underlinings below are mine). Blair began following Freedman closely:
We now have a decade of experience since the end of the cold war. It has certainly been a less easy time than many people hoped in the natural euphoria that followed the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Our armed forces have been busier than ever – delivering humanitarian aid, deterring attacks on defenceless people, backing up UN resolutions, and occasionally engaging in major wars, as we did in the Gulf in 1991 and are currently doing in the Balkans.but then omitted Freedman’s subsequent cautionary sentence:
In the search for a peace dividend the armed forces of the west were cut back, but they can be cut no further and we are starting to worry about overstretch.and that was in 1999, before current Western cuts/savings and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan! Later Freedman pointed to enlightened self-interest as a rationale for intervention:
As we address world problems, at the NATO summit and G8 meetings, we might be tempted to think back to the clarity and simplicity of the cold war. T here were arguments about the right strategy to adopt to contain the Soviet threat but the threat itself was well understood. Now we have the luxury but also the dilemma of choice. Our most vital interests demand very little of us these days. They are not at risk. Yet we can see values that we cherish being violated daily and images of humanitarian distress that touch our hearts and our consciences. We know that these are often symptoms of political upheavals that could have knock on effects that will eventually be felt at home.Blair took only the first sentence here, and chose a more moral tone for value-spreading:
As we address these problems at this weekend’s NATO Summit we may be tempted to think back to the clarity and simplicity of the Cold War. But now we have to establish a new framework. No longer is our existence as states under threat. Now our actions are guided by a more subtle blend of mutual self-interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too. The spread of our values makes us safer. As John Kennedy put it “Freedom is indivisible and when one man is enslaved who is free?”.He then followed Freedman again:
The most pressing foreign policy problem we face is to identify the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts. Non -interference has long been considered an important principle of international order. And it is not one we would want to jettison too readily. One state should not feel it has the right to change the political system of another or forment subversion or seize pieces of territory to which it feels it should have some claim. But the principle of non-interference must be qualified in important respects. Acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter. When oppression produces massive flows of refugees which unsettle neighbouring countries then they can properly be described as “threats to international peace and security”. When regimes are based on minority rule they lose legitimacy – look at South Africa.except that Freedman had proposed “Non-interference … has long been considered a basic principle of international order”, (and also "foment", not the malapropism “forment”).
Then Freedman’s “five tests”, on the issue of when and whether to intervene, became, in the speech, five concise “major considerations”. Among these, Freedman’s:
2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options? At times we must negotiate with evil-doers and negotiate seriously. This requires enormous clarity about our concerns and objectives. Of course a desperate desire for compromise can be exploited – but so can a refusal to compromise.became Blair’s:
Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo.and Freedman’s:
4. Are we prepared for then long-term? We have perhaps in the past talked too much of the need for `exit strategies’ for the good reason that we do not want our forces to be tied up indefinitely. But it is a matter of fact that once we have made a commitment to these unfortunate societies we cannot simply walk away once the fighting is over. There will always be a job of political and economic reconstruction. Better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than to return for repeat performances with large numbers.became Blair’s:
Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? In the past we talked too much of exit strategies. But having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over; better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than return for repeat performances with large numbers.Blair then drew the International Security section of the speech to a conclusion, emphasising the role of the UN and the Security Council, with a similar, but much briefer, argument to Freedman's.
So what is to be done about Libya, particularly by the UK? In his Daily Mail article Meyer suggested:
Nor will the inevitable contradictions in British foreign policy disappear by baldly asserting that our democratic values and our commercial interests go hand in hand, or are, in effect, the same thing, as David Cameron and George Osborne have done in recent speeches. They are plainly not the same. If they were, Britain would do no more business with, for example, the autocracies of Saudi Arabia and China. But we cannot possibly cut our business links with these countries — were we to do so, tens of thousands of British workers would lose their jobs. What Mr Cameron and Mr Osborne would do well to remember is that the first responsibility of a British government is to the security and prosperity of the British ¬citizen — not to those citizens, however deserving, who yearn for freedom in foreign countries across the world.No doubt consideration is underway relating to Freedman’s third test for intervention:
We have to recognise that change and reform in countries come from within and not through the influence of outside powers. There is very little that we can, or should, do in Libya unless mass slaughter or genocide were to threaten. The last thing on earth Britain wants is to get sucked into a Libyan civil war. It is not a ‘vision’ Britain needs in its foreign policy, but an enlightened pragmatism.
On the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations that we can sensibly and prudently undertake?as echoed by Blair in the Chicago speech, and also to Freedman’s early point about overstretch which Blair had omitted. Presumably, if as seems to be the case, the UK is working closely with partners on a Security Council resolution on a no-fly zone in Libya on a contingency basis, the UK expects to be able to make a contribution. However, the opportunity cost of committing to Libya and then not being able to act elsewhere could be high. On the other hand, as in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, how long can the rest of the world stand by and watch a dictator turn his armour and air power against a civilian population? The nature and extent of the involvement that the US is prepared to provide will, of course, be the key factor.