Liberal Intervention

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:53 pm on 15th November 2007.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Deputy Leader, House of Lords, Spokesperson in the Lords, Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs, Spokesperson in the Lords, Home Affairs 1:53 pm, 15th November 2007

My Lords, I must apologise for my late arrival in this debate. I had anticipated that the previous debate would finish early, but not quite as early as it did, and the distance from the other side of Portcullis House to this Chamber is rather longer than one would wish. I sometimes feel that I get my daily exercise by going to two meetings per day in Portcullis House.

Both in preparing for the debate and listening to the previous speeches, I felt that I was back as a professor at the London School of Economics, where we used to debate order versus justice in international relations. Indeed, there is a seminar in my old department next week, at which Professor Anatol Lieven will talk about the cases for and against liberal intervention.

I approach this debate, however, with some hesitation and find myself much more in sympathy with the noble Baroness, Lady Camden, than with the noble Lord, Lord Bew, because I have spent too much time during the past 10 years or more with the followers of Henry Jackson and the neo-conservatives than I would have wished. I have had to argue the case against liberal imperialism with them, and one needs to be very cautious about going down that route. I read the speech that the noble Lord, Lord Soley, made to the Henry Jackson Society. It worries me that we are being presented with an argument for the United States being the force for good against the evils of the world. It is a very black-and-white presentation, and just as Liberals at the time of the Boer War were cautious about British liberal imperialism and got a lot of stick for opposing that war, and just as we got a lot of stick for opposing the Iraq war in the run-up to it, one needs now to be very careful about moral absolutes. I recognise the dangers of moral relativism, but talking about the world in black-and-white terms—the forces for good versus the forces for evil—leads one down a dangerous road.

We need to recognise the enormous difference between what one does about failed states and what one does about authoritarian states. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, in his speech today and in his speech to the Henry Jackson Society, seemed to fudge the difference between the two. The difference between Bosnia and Serbia, for example, is between a failed state, in which I entirely agree we should have agreed to intervene properly in 1991—the French Government were prepared to put troops in; John Major's Government, unlike what Mrs Thatcher as Prime Minister might have done, were extremely sceptical—and an authoritarian state. To have gone further and forced regime change in Serbia, as some might like to have done, would have been to unleash the worst kind of Serbian nationalism—we have enough problems as it is.

One has to be hesitant about pushing for regime change in nasty states or even, sometimes, in criminal states. Therefore, there was a case for the Vietnamese intervention against Pol Pot and for Tanzanian intervention against Idi Amin—although the case in Uganda was less extreme and did not involve quite the same kind of genocide as committed by the Pol Pot regime—but if one is talking about regime change in Iran, because it is an authoritarian regime that we do not like, as the rhetoric in Washington goes, I say no. The authoritarian regime in Iran is not in any sense a nice regime, but it is not totalitarian, and we have to be cautious about how we approach it. If one is going to talk about pushing democracy on the world, I ask whether we intend to invade Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan. How far do we wish to push? We need to be careful in our use of terms.

The right to protect is about humanitarian intervention. One has to distinguish between humanitarian and liberal intervention. As the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, said, liberal intervention slides very easily into liberal imperialism of a Disraeli type. There are those who would like the United States to be the neo-Disraeli of the 21st century. I am in the middle of reading William Dalrymple's book on the Indian mutiny. One of its causes was the shift in British policy from recognising that we were playing with the local culture to wishing to convert India to modernity, democracy and Christianity. That was one of the underlying causes of the revolt of the sepoys.

Forcing democracy and a transformation of values through the barrel of a gun simply does not work. If you were to ask me to compare the EU approach to democracy in the Middle East with that of the Bush Administration, I would have no difficulty in defending the soft-power approach against the hard-power approach. I have been involved in debates on that during the past few years. In Washington, post-9/11, a surge of people has said, "We are going to democratise the Middle East in the next 10 years". We all had to explain that it might take a little longer than 10 years because culture change is generational. Promoting the rule of law, education and independent media may look less glamorous and much more a matter of dirty compromises, but it does not provoke the nationalism and the resistance to occupation which we have seen as a result of our invasion and occupation of Iraq, and which we are already seeing within Iran as a result of the sanctions that the western community is imposing on Iran, and the hostility that it is showing towards it. Persian nationalism is a legitimate force, and the complete inability of people in the US Administration to recognise that US policy towards Iran provokes Persian nationalism is part of what I think is mistaken about the policy of the current American Administration. One always has, in international relations, to recognise that the other side sees the world in a different way and that resistance to western imperialism is a very powerful force in the developing world.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, says that he has heard neo-conservatism criticised more in this House than terrorism, but one of my concerns is that there is a relationship between the two. A depiction of international politics in terms of good versus evil and western values versus Muslim values is the sort of thing that provokes greater sympathy for terrorism. I speak as a liberal, and liberals are always open to the charge of moral relativism, in religion—and I am an Anglican—as well as in politics; but I would defend a degree of moral relativism as a necessary beginning for politics to take place. Once one slips down the road to moral absolutes, we fight and kill each other, and that is not the world order in which we wish to live.

I add some other cautions about western intervention. What one hears from the supporters of the Henry Jackson Society and others in Washington and London is of a world in which the white man's burden still has to be taken up. It is the community of democracies and an expanded NATO that will impose our values on the world, for which the rest of the world will of course be deeply grateful. I think that that moment is past; we should be trying to co-opt the Indians and Chinese into promoting world order and preventing genocide in picking up failed states, because white men can no longer run the world.

I quote in my support the speech given in Chicago some years ago by our previous Prime Minister, in which he talked about the case for liberal intervention and set out a number of conditions to be met before we committed ourselves to any form of intervention. He asked:

"First, are we sure of our case?".

On the question of Iran, I am quite clear that we ought not to be sure of the case for any form of military intervention. He then asked:

"Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options?... Third... are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term?".

He added that,

"having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over", which the United States has now done twice in effect in Afghanistan—and we are now trying to pick up the pieces having lost time. Finally, he asked,

"do we have national interests involved?".

That is a good hard, realist set of questions, but I suggest that the United States does not quite have national interests involved at present in forcing regime change in Saudi Arabia or Uzbekistan. Our former Prime Minister went on to say:

"If we want a world ruled by law and by international co-operation then we have to support the UN as its central pillar".

He said that knowing that on Kosovo—and this was very much a speech in the context of Kosovo—the UN is not a perfect instrument. We are dealing, after all, with a majority of authoritarian regimes inside the UN, but that is the situation that we are in.

We have to address the question of what our capabilities are. Are the Government confident of public support? Can they hope to generate enough public support? On Iraq and Afghanistan, those questions remain open. As we shall debate on the Conservative debate day next week, what we are doing to our Armed Forces by attempting to push through a long-term commitment on liberal intervention that we cannot entirely support within our own capabilities is a matter for a very serious judgment, which of course weakens the case for further liberal intervention unless we can co-opt on humanitarian intervention grounds our Asian partners—the Indians, Chinese and others.

I say yes to humanitarian intervention. On liberal intervention I say it should be done only very exceptionally and very cautiously—as I understand Tony Blair was saying in the Chicago speech. On liberal imperialism, I say that that time has passed and that 19th century liberals were right to oppose it then.