IA Forum speaks with David Chandler, Professor of International Relations at the Centre for the Study of Democracy, University of Westminster, on the topic of Western interventionism in the name of ethics, democracy and the national interest.
International Affairs Forum: In ‘Empire in Denial: The Politics of State-Building’, you argue that state-building as it is currently conceived, does not work. States without the right of self-government will always lack legitimate authority. The reason for this, you suggest, is that the international policy agenda focuses on bureaucratic mechanisms and is therefore unable to overcome the social and political divisions of post-conflict states. If that’s the case, why don’t those involved in state-building refocus their strategies to include an understanding of the social, political, and ethnic tensions of a given state - and move away from these restricting bureaucratic structures?
Professor Chandler: What we’re witnessing is a disjunction between policy proposals and realities on the ground. The reason being what’s driving international policy is not a greater concern and a greater engagement with countries or regions on the other side of the world, but a disengagement. One of the novel aspects of intervention today is that it often takes an international form, so instead of one state going in and pursuing its’ interests or taking control, often it’s a collective intervention led by the U.N or by specific states trying to get as many involved as possible. In the past this would have been very peculiar as then there was conflict between Western states; in fact a lot of their actions were made to keep other states out, as in the scramble for Africa. Today we’re looking at a very different set of interventions. These interventions are internationalised and collective, mainly because leading Western or Great Powers aren’t interested in pursuing narrow traditional self- interest; in fact it’s the unwillingness of these powers to be engaged in the long-term that leads to the collective mechanisms of state-building and avoiding the state-building responsibilities of the long-term. Interventions used to be strategic, seeking to put compliant elites in power and geo-strategic interests were pursued. Today I’d argue that state-building is the opposite of state interests. Policy proposals of state-building often have little strategic interest in the given society. They’re normally off-the-cuff policy proposals of people who know little about the region; the intervention and organization of interventions often marginalises regional experts. You can see that in Iraq and the Balkans. The new interventions since the end of the Cold War has been led by executive governments who have marginalised the Foreign Office and – to an extent – the military. Aspirations and ethical claims, human rights frameworks and the rule of law – these are part of the desire of states to proclaim themselves as ethical but having very little interest in strategy, as we have seen in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, where even the goals and aims of the interventions change from day to day or week to week. In these cases there are very few plans for stability, therefore rather than securing any narrow, long-term interests or any geo-strategic strategy, there is very little clarity of what the end goal is.
IA-Forum: Would you say this emphasis on state-building is part of the strategy itself or is it more to do with the way Western policy makers frame their arguments for intervention?
Prof. Chandler: I think it’s to do with context. With the end of the Cold War states find it very difficult to articulate a collective national interest in the international sphere. That’s partly to do with Western states’ and elites’ disconnection from their own societies - they have very little clarity about domestic programmes, no one really knows what political parties stand for, election manifestos are fairly threadbare and party membership and engagement in parties is limited – so governments have little sense of a coherent programme domestically, or of their own capacities to follow through on policies. In the international sphere we find something very similar; Western governments have little sense of their strategic vision or purpose. If you go to the Foreign Office website you’ll find it’s no different to that of NGOs, you can see their list of priorities grows week by week; from saving the environment to stopping poverty, HIV and Aids, it’s like a global agenda for saving the problems of the world, not just stopping conflict but also stopping the causes of conflicts. It’s like a policy agenda a five-year- old might come up with in class.
IA-Forum: Would you say this meaninglessness of foreign policy priorities is representative of all Western states?
Prof. Chandler: Yes, because it’s not just a problem of Western elites' relationships with their own society. At the international level we are also seeing an attenuation of politics and conflict. We have no great power or superpower rivalries. I would argue the geopolitics or realpolitik that used to make the world go round is in abeyance today - even states like America have no real sense of strategic priorities. Without political contestation or ideological challenges you find that governments might have a lot of power in terms of guns, tanks, soldiers and money, but they find it very difficult to project military power internationally in a meaningful way; what are the goals and the meaning of those interventions? This is why even the most powerful governments pose their policies as being in the interests of others and ‘promoting democracy’ is a classic. ‘We don’t have any aims or goals therefore it’s up to you’; it’s the abnegation of responsibility. However at the same time as seeking to avoid responsibility, they are giving responsibility to the U.N or, if you are a European power, giving responsibility to America. Governments also have a very fearful and inward-looking view of the international sphere - where the less certain you are about your strategy and of your capacity the more everything else seems threatening. So we have an inversion of reality where major Western states see themselves as vulnerable; ‘we are the vulnerable and weak West, it’s our technology, our economic development, it's our communications capacity that makes us vulnerable’. We look at ourselves and see the worst scenarios. What would the terrorists do? ‘We have a nuclear power station, transport complexes, computer terminals etc., we are vulnerable’. The threats seem to be existentialist somehow - we can’t really place them. Somewhere out there it’s the failed states and few individuals proclaiming their affiliation to groups such as Al Qaeda. You can see there’s a sense our Western leaders lack strategic vision, engaging in the world and making the world out to be the opposite of what it is. So threats are magnified, the possibilities for the West are marginalised. We have a world where everything is pushed on to international institutions and responsibilities are pushed onto NGOs, etc. We have a set of policies which sound very nice, about exporting democracy and state-building, but have no relationship to the needs or interests or stability of other parts of the world. I think it’s historically unique that we have this situation, it’s very difficult to grasp so people are always looking for some sort of conspiracy behind it; ‘Oh there must be a plan, America must have planned to do this in Iraq, or Kosovo or the Balkans’, which is a very problematic way of looking at the world.
IA-Forum: So are you saying this lack of strategic vision is inevitable because of the way state-society relationships have changed?
Prof. Chandler: It’s a lack of political contestation. Politics works in a fairly universal way. The same way left- right ideological divisions have diminished as a way of shaping domestic politics, equally on a broader scale that contestation - whether its posed as communism and capitalism, Russia and America, or the aspirations of national liberation movements against Empires - doesn’t really exist, except perhaps in the imagination of some academic theorists.
IA-Forum: What would you say to those who suggest there exists today a definite civilisational divide between Islam and the West – as portrayed by the War on Terror?
Prof. Chandler: Again that’s the projection of Western fears. If you listen to Western leaders they will say they have no problems with Islam; Tony Blair and George Bush were reading the Koran and saying there isn’t a war on Islam. That’s the major problem with the War on Terror. Most interestingly there’s a concern about ideas on multiculturalism and community and you get a sense that when Western governments talk about the War on Terror being a battle of ideas you get a real sense of their lack of connection with their own society. They think fundamentalist Islam is going to win over the British population because they have no sense of what Britain stands for and no sense of a political project which will create a sense of coherence or community. So in terms of this War against Islam it’s a sign of the desperation and inward looking Western elites and their lack of self- consciousness and lack of connection with their society. Those fears are then projected through the international sphere. They talk continually about interventions and international politics as a way of expressing our identity, but the more Western leaders act in the international sphere the more it becomes clear our problems are at home; people are asking why are people dying? Yet it is not so much why are Iraqis and Afghans dying but why are our troops dying in Iraq or Afghanistan? It becomes clear there is no sense of purpose or mission and no sense of what these ideals or values are.
IA-Forum: One might concede that those states in the West have a lot to answer for in terms of misjudgements and ill-conceived strategies both at home and abroad, yet you seem to be going further and laying the blame for everything at the door of the West? Are non-Western states then blameless for the warfare, conflicts, poverty, inequality and economic mismanagement that exist within their societies?
Prof. Chandler: Forget the broader issues of who is to blame, as if someone is to blame for poverty and inequality in many parts of the world – these are broader issues. 9/11 is an interesting point; that was an arbitrary act of a few individuals that by a stroke of luck and coincidence for them, led to such a catastrophic disaster. The question really is how do we respond to that? I fully agree with Baudrillard’s response – that what was really revealing about Western culture and Western society was that people either sought to justify 9/11 as an act of the poor and the repressed, or saw that we had it coming to us, that we were guilty. It’s that sensibility in the West that we are under attack or that we’re too rich or wealthy, or we’re guilty for colonialism and imperialism which gave a sense of meaning to 9/11 that structured our lives. Governments jumped on it as well to structure a framework of meaning for international relations. This response is an entirely subjective one that has nothing to do with 9/11 itself. Another response would have been to say these few individuals managed to carry out an arbitrary act. It's the same as a school shooting – how do you respond to it? Do you see it as meaning we need security guards in all the schools, ban guns, etc. Or, do you see it as an arbitrary act that no matter how much you police it you’re probably not going to stop it? It’s just one more reflection of our modern sensibilities where everything that happens governments and individuals seek to use it as a bandwagon to give meaning to life and to politics in a world where it’s not clear what politics means for us. In the same way of trying to create a meaning from an arbitrary school shooting, so creating meaning out of 9/11 as an anti-imperialist struggle or as an indication of post-territorial asymmetric warfare completely exaggerated the importance of it.
IA-Forum: So you’re saying 9/11 was purely an irrational act?
Prof. Chandler: It was an arbitrary act. You can explain any act but the question is what does it represent? My point is that the individuals behind it were not responsible for how that act was represented. The representation of that act - and the meaning for it - was given by Western culture and society. It was given a meaning that would shape international politics and even domestic politics - with a restriction on civil liberties and homeland security etc. To me that tells us that politics is in a vacuum, where any arbitrary act can suddenly become central. As you can see, the War on Terror hasn’t created a sense of meaning. Going to war without knowing if you’re winning or losing, a war without metrics, the ‘unknown unknowns’, just goes to show that even a declaration of war doesn’t create a sense of purpose, or a sense of collectivity and cohesion.
IA-Forum: In your writings you have highlighted the dangers of current policy – including the redefinition of sovereignty and the subsequent erosion of ties linking power and accountability. How do you see sovereignty as redefined and would you agree this shift has been inevitable considering how globalisation has radically transformed the international security landscape? Or would you prefer states maintain a Westphalian approach to sovereignty at the expense of turning a blind eye to potential threats to their citizens from elements within weak or despotic states abroad?
Prof. Chandler: You can’t - by an act of will - seek to define sovereignty in a way that might be better or worse. However, discussions on sovereignty reflect a transformation of how we understand international relations, and the important thing is that that transformation is at the level of our ideas - our ideas about the importance of politics and political actors or sovereign governments and what they can do. I don’t think the changing material world – globalisation, as we glibly call it – has changed the way we view sovereignty. Sovereignty is a political-juridical concept – and as long as we’ve had sovereign states we’ve had a globalised interconnected world; we’ve had world markets for the last 200yrs. It’s only in recent years we’ve started to question the role of sovereignty and in a world without political contestation, clearly sovereignty means much less to us – whether its our own sovereignty or someone else’s, it only makes sense as part of a contested world. Whereas in the past politics was about the struggle for state power which was contested between different political groups or forces with different ideas about how they wanted to organize society - without that contestation state power seems much less relevant. If you look at political parties today for example, it’s difficult for them to develop their political programmes and it makes you question why do we even need elections today? Everyone is embarrassed by elections - the hangover from when politics meant something and it was contested. If politics has been reduced to management, to administration and to technicalities then surely there’s no need for elections, surely just the best bureaucrats should be in government? As our own view of sovereignty changes so too does our relationship to the state and the political elites’ relationship with their society changes. So Western governments who are uneasy engaging with their own people would rather argue they don’t have any power – it’s either been devolved to the local level or the power belongs to the EU or UN. So we have a context where quite paradoxically those Western government leaders are trying to deny their own sovereignty, let alone the sovereignty of others. When you transfer that onto the international sphere it becomes clear that sovereignty is fairly meaningless - the example of Kosovo’s sovereignty immediately comes to mind where instead of the EU declaring a protectorate they declared Kosovo as independent, however Kosovo’s sovereignty goes alongside giving up their political autonomy to the EU. So sovereignty is becoming increasingly administrative rather than having any connection to ideas of political autonomy, although this is not merely because of shifting power relations at the international level. One might question what does political autonomy mean without politics? It’s a broader issue about how we understand the world and engage with it.
IA-Forum: Would you argue then, that international institutions ought not to intervene in the political crises of weak or failing states, but instead allow them to fail?
Prof. Chandler: This is a peculiar question because often what we call state failure depends on an international context, and states, particularly post-colonial states, exist in a very close relationship with international society. Often when international powers or international institutions change their policies and relations to them then they might become more fragile. So the idea this is an autonomous process that goes on in these states in isolation from the world economy, or from international politics, is a bit peculiar. I think the first thing is to understand that economic, social and political problems have a context - they aren’t just products of bad governance, or the fact that political leaders haven’t been trained in Western values, or don’t have a civil service that has been adequately trained. I think understanding economic and social conflicts as shaping the political frameworks means that when addressing state failure we do it in a sense of looking at causes rather than results. Trying to resolve things cheaply at the level of governance or state-building at an institutional level probably won’t have that much of an impact. If we were really concerned with the inequalities of the world market and the fragilities of the political systems in many parts of the world we’d need a more radical overhaul of policymaking, rather than seeing these things as political questions at a narrow institutional level. No matter how great the administration of Afghanistan or those states in sub-Saharan Africa, they are really not going to resolve the problems they are currently facing.
IA-Forum: You emphasise the role of the media in discourse on interventions and how this has affected – and continues to affect – policy formulisation. If this is so why don’t Western states become more involved in areas where there is a lot of public pressure to see more action – such as in Darfur?
Prof. Chandler: Discourses are important to understand, but that does not necessarily mean that the role of the media is an important or determining one. I think the media often follow policy and the ideas of government. I think it was a 90’s myth that in the context of a globalised, interconnected world the media would show pictures of a child suffering and global networks of international civil society would then force governments to act. It’s much clearer that the media are no different to governments in their search for a moral sense of purpose and mission. However, I would argue issues that become a focus closely relate to international policy making, for example the media aren’t in the Congo a lot of the time although there’s a lot more conflict there than there is in Darfur. So there is a close relationship between the media and the government. However this is different to the ideas of discourses - of how we see the world and how we justify interventions. One could argue that the dominant discourses of international relations have fundamentally changed. Until recently they were shaped by nation-states pursuing their interests and we saw the world in a state-based framework in which states were the main actors. Today there is a rise of a cosmopolitan and ‘universalist’ discourse which argues problems are universal - and looks at power relations in different ways. Rather than states being seen as political and legal equals, we have this notion of the ‘responsibility to protect’, as states that are poorer have less resources, and are being less responsible and are protecting the rights of their citizens to a lesser extent than those in the developed West. So this understanding of sovereignty is about capacity and having the function to deliver economic and social services. I argue this has created a very divisive and hierarchical vision of the world – even though it goes under the banner of Cosmopolitanism and of Universal human rights. Essentially it has created a more permissive environment for Western states to intervene and for NGOs to argue they have a right to intervene in other states to assist them in building their capacity to provide for their citizens and help in building their social welfare, good governance and the rule of law. Furthermore, I think that this more permissive, interventionist discourse is a reflection of the wider change in international relations.
IA-Forum: So you are conclusively making the claim that states no longer intervene in the affairs of others primarily in order to protect their national interests?
Prof. Chandler: I see it as going to the level of conspiracy theory to read national interests into these interventions. For example, you might say yes, there is an oil pipe line just 1000 miles away from Kosovo, or that the war in Iraq was all about oil, but I don’t think these arguments really stand up. America didn’t have any problems extracting oil from Iraq before the war - if you think about it they’re a primary oil producer – they are not going to produce anything else for the world market - they are dependent on the world market. Particularly where interventions and issues are moralised and internationalised, it seems to be in areas where there is actually little interest. Yugoslavia is a brilliant example; its geo-political importance was central during the Cold War as a Soviet ally and next to the Soviet Union. After the Cold War it had less geo-strategic importance and that’s when it became a framework for intervention. It’s the same thing if you look at interventions in Africa or even in Iraq. America and Britain had been bombing Iraq for ten years before the 2003 war. Similarly, if you look at Afghanistan it had been ignored by the international community. It was isolated and had sanctions placed upon it - you can hardly argue that the intervention and continued occupation of Afghanistan has got something to do with national interests. Where national interests are at stake - for example trading with China - you see much less intervention or an exaggeration and moralisation of these questions. It seems to me that intervention takes place when there isn’t an interest at stake. I would argue therefore that state-building and intervention is a sign there’s a lack of any serious interests being at stake.
IA-Forum: Do you include security interests in this assessment?
Prof. Chandler: There are two discourses - one discourse says that all interventions around the world are about ethics and altruistic because our consciousness has suddenly become global, another discourse says it’s about security - it’s in our security interests to intervene in these places because in a globalised world an un-policed hillside in Afghanistan could lead to annihilation, etc. I believe that both the ethical and interest-based discourses tend to seek to give meaning and rationality to policies which aren’t based on a traditional framework of international relations; the security discourse seems to be free-floating as though everything possible is related to security. As we know from studies there are few links between failed states and terrorists and that many of those involved in Al Qaeda and 9/11 were trained and educated in the West. It seems crazy to think that international criminals and drug smugglers and terrorists would hang out in the most un-policed, remote parts of the world. So I think the security interests have been over exaggerated. It’s difficult to grasp the nature of international interventions in today’s world and its not surprising people try rationalising these things either through ethics or security interests. I think international policy is driven much more by a domestic sense of mission and purpose and the international sphere is used to bring purpose, but equally a lack of desire to take responsibility for international actions. So international policy-making so often becomes ad hoc, arbitrary and ill thought through - and may be disruptive and destabilising.
IA-Forum: David Miliband’s speech ‘The Democratic Imperative’ last month championed democracy as the pre-eminent foreign policy strategy for Great Britain. Would you interpret this as a continuation of Blairite Liberal internationalism, and are you surprised at the slightly ‘neocon’ terminology used by the Foreign Secretary who might seek to distance himself from the Iraq debacle? Moreover, does this sound the death knell for realpolitik?
Prof. Chandler: It’s not surprising at all. You can see that Miliband is trying to distance himself from Blairism in his arguments for a civilian surge, in direct contrast to Petreus’s military surge, but the underlying drive is exactly the same. Western political leaders cannot leave the international sphere alone as they have very little to offer that is of substance in terms of domestic politics. All they can do is aspire to have a sense of purpose and mission by looking to the rest of the world. Miliband poses it in terms of the imperative for democracy - which really highlights the lack of strategic vision and willingness to take responsibility. By saying that democracy is imperative, that it’s basically up to them to decide what they want to do and we’re just precipitators, it’s very clear there’s never a need to come up with anything strategic, or anything specific. It’s purely rhetorical but that rhetoric will mean Britain will continue to be involved in overseas ventures. The irrational nature of going to war in order to promote democracy is so obvious it seems clear that, despite the lack of content, this is all that Western leaders have going for them. Despite disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq and other interventions without strategic interests at stake, this isn’t going to prevent further interventions. There will be more military interventions because Western governments have got so little to give in terms of a sense of purpose derived from the domestic sphere.
IA-Forum: How do you foresee the future for such interventions?
Prof. Chandler: I don’t hold much optimism for the future. Even with a change of governments in Britain and America, it won’t make much difference. One thing that won’t change is the desire of Western states to intervene in the rest of the world. Although it is important to understand that the dynamic towards intervention is a very different one to that of the colonial past. These interventions, which are not driven by clear national and strategic interests, are much more ad hoc and potentially destabilising than traditional interventions based on clear geo-strategic concerns.
Professor Chandler is the founding editor of the ‘Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding’, a cross-disciplinary journal devoted to academic and practitioner analysis of international intervention with the purpose of strengthening state capacities. He is also the author of ‘Empire in Denial: The Politics of State Building’ (Pluto, 2006) and has edited and co-edited countless publications on subjects including ethical foreign policy, state-building, interventions and global civil society.
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