12 March, 2012Issue 18.5Politics & SocietyWorld Politics

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Mountain Rescue

Nakul Krishna

BritishRory Stewart and Gerald Knaus
Can Intervention Work?
W. W. Norton & Co., 2011
144 pages
ISBN 978-0393081206


The tenor of recent debates in Europe and America on how to respond to widespread repression in Libya, Syria, and Iran reveals a growing scepticism about humanitarian intervention: whether it can ever be legitimate, whether it can ever be successful. Faced with the evidence of a decade of interventions gone wrong, the new discourse threatens to slide into a weary quietism, an amoral cynicism.

The authors of Can Intervention Work? share the scepticism but hope to resist the slide into cynicism. They are, as their title suggests, centrally concerned with the limits of political possibility, and their emphasis is a salutary one. It may be that Western countries have exaggerated the extent of their obligations, but it does not follow that they have no obligations at all. Equally, it may well be that interventions cannot achieve everything their proponents hope for, but it does not follow that they can achieve nothing.

Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus, formerly colleagues at Harvard, can fairly be described as insiders in the North Atlantic establishment. The book consists of an essay from each—respectively on Afghanistan and Bosnia—and a jointly authored introduction. Neither contributor raises any fundamental doubts about the moral legitimacy of international interventions, suggesting an intended audience of readers who share their ethical outlook in the broadest sense. Theirs is, rather, a sort of critical ethnography, an account of “the particular context, temptations, predilections, and neuroses of twenty-first-century interveners”, employing a fruitful stylistic hybrid of memoir, moral philosophy, and social science.

The authors come to their project as committed but sceptical participant-observers, writing with a mordant wit that draws attention to the gaps between the rhetoric of interventions and their often messy reality. They chronicle the permeation of the language of business management (“best practice”, “cross-cutting themes”) into political contexts to which this lexicon is plainly inadequate. They come down hard on strategies of intervention that adopt objectives so abstract it is impossible to tell what would count as their having been achieved (“good governance”, “the rule of law”). They describe a culture of compulsory optimism, where any attempt to draw attention to the role of “uncertainty, ignorance, and contingency” is dismissed as “unhelpfully nihilistic”. These observations are not wholly new, but they have seldom been made as part of a readable structural critique of Western institutions that is both philosophically and historically literate.

Stewart and Knaus find in modern political culture what they perceptively describe as a tendency to lurch “between Machiavellian horse-trading and the most vacuous idealism”. They attribute this tendency to, among other things, a lack of available theoretical alternatives and the lack of voices telling the truth without either sentimentality or cynicism. This will strike a chord with all those who have rued the tendency of public discourse to put the question in dangerously binary terms, a tendency best exemplified in Time magazine’s disquieting cover image of a mutilated Afghan girl to go with a story titled “What Happens If We Leave Afghanistan”. The condition of women under any future Taliban regime is indeed central to the debate. But the fallacy consists in supposing that there are no other considerations or that any other considerations are “mere” logistical hurdles. Stewart’s essay shows a strong awareness of how the coalition powers in Afghanistan, for all their military wherewithal, are strictly limited—by their lack of local knowledge—in how much they can achieve there.

The authors trace the contemporary pathology back to a set of theoretical and policy debates on colonialism in Victorian Britain. Stewart finds the dialectic between the optimism and cynicism of today mirrored in Victorian debates about the first and second Afghan wars. He notes that many Victorians made claims about Afghanistan that will strike the 21st-century reader as depressingly familiar: fears of “failed states” and a terror of losing face. However, he points out, the Britain of 1879 still had such figures as General Frederick Roberts and Viceroy John Lawrence, products of a system that rewarded the sort of knowledge that could only be gained from a deep immersion in local realities. They were consequently able to give the lie to their opponents in a way that their nearest modern equivalents—with their lack of skill in foreign languages and a culture of overseas tours that seldom last longer than a few months—simply cannot. The reference to colonial administrators in this context is not new, but this account of their place in the Victorian debate is.

Stewart argues spiritedly for restoring these quaint emphases on languages, local knowledge, and long-term overseas postings. But the problem is not simply an institutional one. In an intriguing suggestion that the practical focus of the essays does not allow them to develop, Stewart and Knaus speak of a deeper modern malaise, the failure of our moral thinking to “incorporate practical ideas…of context, and of luck into moral judgments”.

The claim is an abstract one and not easily verified. But observers of Western campaigns against genocide in Darfur, or more recently Ugandan warlords, will recognise the terrifying swiftness with which the international cause célèbre of the moment immediately prompts well-intentioned but ill-considered calls for military intervention. There is something, then, to the authors’ suggested explanation in a deeper modern pathology to think about matters of foreign policy in such abstractions as, say, “reducing suffering”, yielding a culture in which there is not nearly enough attention to the question of whose place it is to do this, and how, and at what cost to whom.

Stewart and Knaus’s often admiring references to the wisdom of colonial administrators will seem, on first glance, to ally them with the more gung-ho of their neoconservative opponents, the sort who call unironically for “the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets”, as the neoconservative Max Boot did in October 2001. But Stewart and Knaus can allow that the men who went out into the Empire in the 19th century had their own metaphysical abstractions, their own unspoken prejudices. As Stewart bluntly puts it, they “could be racist, harsh, and unpleasant.” They were, in short, products of their time and place. But, it is easy to forget, so are we. The deep critique implicit in this book is the suggestion that the modern world has failed to find in its risk assessment forms, its cost-benefit analyses, its principles of bureaucratic accountability, and its norms of discursive rationality a genuine set of robust alternatives to the older values: courage, prudence, honour, judgment.

The American critic Lionel Trilling once wrote insightfully that “the strength of toryism at its best lies in its descent from a solid administrative tradition, while the weakness of liberalism, arising from its history of reliance upon legislation, is likely to be a fogginess about administration”. Can Intervention Work? is, in the broadest sense, a profoundly tory book, albeit one whose toryism has a distinctively 21st-century flavour. Its resistance to abstractions bespeaks not an aversion to principles but a painful awareness of the fact that principles alone do not get one very far. It proposes no all-purpose legislative solutions—if its argument is sound, there are none such to be found anyway—but still less does it advocate efforts to “replicate a nineteenth-century ethos” among administrators. Rather, it urges international institutions to put their trust in the advice of those with the local knowledge to “make the detailed, country-specific arguments” that “can minimize the abstraction and isolation of our policy elites.”

Some will find this advice unhelpfully ambiguous for all its good sense. To this, the proper response is that it is an ambiguity of the right kind. “Judgment” and “prudence” are indeed vague, but no more so than “good governance” and “the rule of law”. Stewart’s model for thinking about humanitarian intervention is mountain rescue, with its rule of thumb, “Be prepared to turn back if conditions turn against you”. This, Stewart is at pains to stress, is not a fatalistic creed: “Not all action is futile.”

No indeed, and Knaus’s essay on Bosnia argues persuasively that at least one recent intervention managed to do some good. However, as the analogy is meant to illuminate, at least some interventions are, or swiftly become, futile, and no good comes of occluding this fact. There is no doubt something to admire in a civilisation that takes “Failure is not an option” for its motto. But the motto is strictly false, however effective it be as a spur to the will.

Courage, prudence, honour, judgment—and crucially, truthfulness—must be incarnated as dispositions in people rather than principles in a policy document. And this leaves virtually all the important questions to be answered in the line of fire. But as Stewart and Knaus cogently show, the error lies precisely in supposing that they could really be answered anywhere else.

Nakul Krishna is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford.