This essay looks at the background to liberal theories, especially in relation to main theoretical rival, Realism, before examining in detail the doctrine of humanitarian interventionism, so often, associated with liberalist theories, and criticisms from, among others, Noam Chomsky, who see it as little more than the continuation of Western-style ‘imperialism’.
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In recent years, in the field of International Relations studies, as well as in the broader study of the Social Sciences, a range of new theories have emerged to challenge the ‘foundationalist’ school of thought, in which traditional ideas, such as Realism and Liberalism, feature as main components’.
These new theories, which include, ‘Post-Modernism’ and ‘Social Constructivism’, however, are most often used as a means for criticizing ‘foundationalist’ or ‘traditionalist’ theories, rather than (as traditional theirs are said to do), form firm criteria for analysing ‘real world’ international relations, between nation-states.
In this, traditional theories such as Liberal Internationalism, which forms the basis of discussion in this essay, have also undergone a revival; particularly since the end of the Cold War, when with the failure of the leading traditional theory, that is, ‘Realism’ to predict the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, often seen as the symbolic event marking the Cold War’s end, led to a revival of its main rival, ‘Liberalism.’ Ironically, it was at the expense of Liberalism, that Realism arose earlier in the twentieth century, largely in the failure of the Liberalist project, after the First World War, and the inevitable onset of the Second World War.
In the study of International Relations theories, this fall of Liberalism and rise of Realism was most associated with the work of E.H. Carr’s 1939, classic text The Twenty Year Crisis (Cambridge, 2001).
This inter-war period, might also be seen as a time when ‘Imperialism’, reached its high point, that is, when the world’s major powers, mainly the United States and the UK, both, not coincidently, victors in the First World War, looked first, to further their own interests, over what was billed as the championing of self-determination and liberalism, over the old realist ideas of self-interest and what might be termed ‘might is right’.
While, the United States at this time, stood as the champion of anti-imperialism’, this stance, right throughout the United States’ existence, has served only to mask its own imperialistic ambitions, notably, as Alex Callinicos, in his Imperialism and Global Political Economy (Cambridge, 2009), states, in the early twentieth century and the neo-conservative policies under the presidency of George Bush Jnr.
Indeed, for many, the Liberalist project died with the failure of the League of nations, set up in 1919, and supposedly the international body, through which the much-trumpeted ‘new world order’ would come into being. The ideas behind the League however, did not die out entirely, and indeed, were in some ways revived and retried, in the early years marking the end of the Second World War in 1945, through the creation of the United Nations in 1949.
As mentioned however, Liberalism’s revival did not take place at the same time, but rather developed at a time, when in the West, at least, the collapse of Communism throughout Eastern Europe, was attributed to the triumph of Western values, and not, as argued since, largely, the result of the internal problems underpinning Socialism, as practiced in the former Soviet Union.
In the new wave of optimism this created among Western Powers, a new doctrine, to replace the old Cold War ideologies, arose, namely, championing the idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’, as part of creating a new ‘Liberalised’ way of solving international crises’ and dealing with the new style of intra-state’ conflicts that marked the end of the Cold War, was forwarded.
This, in essence, championed ‘human rights’ issues, over and above traditional boundaries where ‘sovereignty’ lay alone with a ‘nation state’, and its right to act as it so willed within its set borders.
In the eyes of those who oppose this idea however, one major point of argument raised, is that, whatever ideals are championed, that in practice the right to intervene in another state’s affairs, amounts to nothing more than the West’s renewed pursuit of ‘Imperialism’, especially, as practiced during its height, in the nineteenth century.
Here, often, the right to intervene and then govern foreign territories was based on arguments of ‘civilization’ and the duty of Western powers to bring good government to uncivilized countries. A major champion of this view is the scholar Noam Chomsky, who has attacked the policy of humanitarian intervention from the beginning of the early 1990s, and the first test case of its kind, in the breakdown of the former communist Yugoslavia, in the Balkans.
Chomsky, saw this interference, and the use of the West’s combined military might, supposedly to end the ‘genocide’ taking place there between the warring factions, as based on the false pretence of ‘humanitarianism’, its real agenda, to enforce Westernized’ values and extend the West’s powerbase in Central Europe. As it stands today, the debate concerning the West’s true intentions extends to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasions of Iraq, in 1991 and 2005.
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Chomsky’s continued considerable influence, in asserting his position as exposing the hypocrisy at the heart of the humanitarian argument, shows how, outside those states which stand opposed to Western interference, the doctrine is a controversial one, even within, western circles.
This highlights then, how contrary to what supporters of ‘humanitarian interventionism’, such as United States President during the 1990s, Bill Clinton, and UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, at the time of the Kosovo intervention in 1999, say, that the doctrine represents a ‘moral stand’ and a refusal on behalf of Western governments to stand aside while governments around the world abuse human rights, that for those who stand against this position, the arguments hinge not on issues of liberal morality, but old-fashioned means for establishing ‘imperialist’ designs on the non-westernized world.
This view, in particular, finds support among those who opposed the recent Iraq and Afghanistan invasions, and consequently, for those, holding this opinion, liberalist arguments, are more than complicit, but lead the way in how the West’s international relations policies of today, are no different from those practiced during the height of ‘imperialism’.
To conclude, therefore, as does, the scholar, Alex Callinicos, in his recent study, Imperialism and Global Political Economy (Cambridge, 2009), which especially focuses on the United States, as chief among these complicit Western Powers ‘imperialism is far from dead.’
That is to say, the ideas put forward by supporters of humanitarian interventionism, that the principle underlying it, that is, the sovereignty of human rights, as belonging to a new age, or new world order, one not beholden to respect nation-state borders, that until now, remained sovereign, remains hugely contested.
That whether these ideas are cloaked in liberalist rhetoric or not, and regardless of their legitimization through international bodies such as the United Nations, that the underlying principles remain profoundly Realist, and represent only what the Great Powers in the West, have always sought, their increased power throughout the sphere of international relations.
Callinicos, A., Imperialism and Global Political Economy (Cambridge, 2009).
Carr, E.H., The Twenty Year Crisis: 1919-1939: An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 1939, 2001).