War Will Set You Free, A History Boy, 23/12/2015

Here's another story that helps explain how influential Antonio Negri's thinking was for me. I had a prof at Memorial who was particularly wonderful to work with – a specialist in, among other things, theory of international law and organizations. 

N introduced me to the philosophical theory surrounding humanitarian intervention, justifying when it was necessary and when to use different means of intervention. Economic or personally targeted sanctions, asset seizure of political or military leaders, and outright invasion and regime change.

Yes, in 2006, I was introduced to a philosophy that justified military invasion and the total political regime change of a country. It feels weird to say this in the context of the modern left, where voices like Stop the War have become elder states-organizations growing past their prime.

The left united in opposition to Slobodan
Milosevic's war on Yugoslavia and Serbia's
Muslim population, and so did the great
powers of the modern West. Those were
the days, weren't they?
It’s a serious generational break in the popular left, the left of the masses, ordinary folks working on activism together. The left used to advocate for humanitarian intervention, that a military force would invade a country and act as peacemakers to defend civilians from massacres, ethnic cleansing, and total genocide.

There was a popular left-wing movement across Europe and North America in the 1990s advocating United Nations or NATO military action against Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavian and Serbian government.

Then George W Bush led the public relations blitz to invade Iraq, ostensibly to liberate the Iraqi people from Stalinist authoritarianism and let them build a democracy, to dismantle Saddam Hussein's stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, and to punish his regime for cooperating with Al Qaeda in the Sept 11 attacks.

So, in reverse order: a hugely improbable lie, a mildly believable lie, and an insane ideology.

Yet humanitarian intervention and its core principle, the international accord on the responsibility to protect, were cornerstones of progressive politics in the international arena for a generation. The United Nations was supposed to be the arena to settle conflicts between states by peaceful means, and UN peacekeeping forces were supposed to protect vulnerable populations from slaughter.

Bush and the Iraq invasion changed all that. There would always be skepticism on the left of any Western country’s attempt to use military means to protect or defend people at risk of violence. 

“Colonialism! Imperialism! Secret agendas! It’s all about oil!” They sound ridiculous, but they’re what’s replaced advocacy for Western protection of the vulnerable. The attitude of Hannah Arendt and Karl Jaspers, two examples I've read while researching Utopias, that American military power was a force for liberation, is well and truly dead forever.

When I was learning the philosophy behind international law’s concept of responsibility to protect and the architecture of humanitarian intervention, it was 2006. My experiences watching the Iraq invasion, occupation, mass murders, civil war, and its fallout in the Western left made me suspicious of the idea. 

R2P mandates a massive military blitz to stop massacres
like the attempted genocide in Kosovo.
But I couldn’t fully articulate why until I read Antonio Negri. Humanitarian intervention and the philosophy of responsibility to protect is a very noble idea in its motivation. But it’s very dangerous in its execution.

It normalizes the level of violence required to invade a country and decimate a national army, which was needed to put down the Serbian massacres and ethnic cleansing of Muslims from Kosovo. It makes invading a country into an ordinary police action.

And it justifies such violence as a means of achieving peace. That’s what just war theory does, and I've never been able to contain my inability to take just war arguments seriously. 

It's as if splitting hairs about how many civilians are permissible collateral damage or the relative level of aggression among belligerents can justify when to bring a multi-billion dollar army to battle. It all seems Strangelovian to me. 

Negri helped me finally understand that the only rational response to violence is not more violence, but an end to violence. And he helped me understand that conventions about military humanitarian intervention normalize and justify wars that may not even really be justifiable, even on their own logic.

When Responsibility to Protect was first officially formulated, it was a beacon of hope. Its supporters never saw its dangers.

No comments:

Post a Comment