Volume 16 Number 5
After Intervention, What Next?
01 October 2003

Rajmohan Gandhi looks at the challenges facing a world where sovereignty is no longer seen as an absolute.

A peace dove perched on his shoulder and a halo suspended over him, Uncle Sam declaims from a book on ethics. Such is the illustration for the opening article in the summer 2003 issue of the American journal, Foreign Affairs. In large, bold font, a sentence presenting the article reads, ‘Morality, values, ethics and universal principles have taken root in the hearts of the US foreign policy community.’

What could be a cartoon in a European journal is in Foreign Affairs an earnest self-image of America. The accompanying article, co-authored by Leslie Gelb, President of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, and Justine Rosenthal, a PhD candidate at Columbia University, speaks of ‘states endorsing the principle that morality trumps sovereignty’. That is, some states can lawfully ‘invade the sovereign territory of other states to stop massive bloodshed’. The authors concede that the principle would be seen by some as ‘a postmodern version of the “white man’s burden”.’

Morality apart, it seems clear that governance by non-nationals is growing in the world. Some nations (or peoples) ask for intervention from afar; and on occasion the UN, or some states, seem willing and able to intervene. While still fiercely espoused, national sovereignty is no longer the inflexible given.

In August this year, Liberians exploded with joy when Nigerian soldiers entered Monrovia. Earlier, a US Congressman had said it would be racism if America failed to intervene in Africa after having done so in Europe and Iraq. And at an international conference in Caux, Switzerland, this summer, Samuel Doe of Liberia, speaking in the name of the people of failed states, made a powerful case for regional and global involvement.

Then there was, and is, Iraq. The attacks by the USA and the UK on Iraq produced the sharpest cleavage in world opinion seen in recent years, separating a majority of Americans not only from traditionally critical populations in the Middle East but also from a majority of Europeans. But the division focused far more on ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘by whom’ intervention should occur, than on ‘whether’ it should. Now, with continuing guerilla-style attacks on US forces in Iraq and their supporters, the subject of debate is ‘After intervention what?’

This question, to be fair, was posed well before the Iraq war. It was pointed out that American and British forces would find governing Iraq harder than uprooting Saddam and his regime, and that establish-ing the rule of law and democracy in a post-Saddam Iraq would prove harder still.

At the risk of appearing to promote a book of mine, let me refer to a chapter in Revenge & Reconciliation: Understanding South Asian History (Penguin Books, India, 1999) that records the painstaking, and successful, way in which the British–the imperialists that Indians like me know best–enlisted the Sikhs of the Punjab. This happened shortly after the British had defeated the Sikhs in the bitter and gory Anglo-Sikh Wars of the 1840s.

Apart from army units charged with maintaining the peace, scores of British officers, civil and military, served for several years in a carefully prepared structure of governance that reached out to every Punjab village. These officers helped build roads and canals, and introduced post and telegraph offices. Even more important, they brought the rule of law to the Punjab countryside. In this accomplishment they were aided less by their guns than by their dedication. They learnt the local language, Punjabi; accepting risks, they made themselves accessible to the peasants; and they seemed prepared to give a lifetime, if needed, to the Punjab.

The result was seen within a few years. When in 1857 Indian soldiers in the armies of the British rebelled in many parts of northern and eastern India, captured Delhi, and were about to declare the end of British rule, the Sikhs of the Punjab gave the British the critical help necessary to put down the Great Rising.

Iraq 2003 is a far cry from the Punjab of the 1850s. Yet even today successful imperialism (using the word to mean governance far from home) may demand a dedication that includes a long-term disdain of comfort and fear. Americans involved with Iraq have to ask themselves whether they are willing to embrace it.

But imperialism also means one race or nation lording it over another, an idea that Iraqis hate and Americans shrink from. To return Iraq to the Iraqis is the stated American goal, but the process is unlikely to be smooth or quick. (Though the stories are hardly comparable, it should be remembered that India, conquered portion by portion from the 1760s to the 1840s, was not returned to Indians until 1947.)

America’s position has not been strengthened by the explanation that the passionately stressed justification for the war–Iraq’s supposed stock of weapons of mass destruction–was only a tactic for mobilizing sentiment for the war. The long-suffering Iraqis, on their part, can do with fresh leadership that rescues them from bizarre notions. A friend recently returned from Iraq says that while Iraqis welcomed Saddam’s exit, many of them also thought the Americans and British were in their country to Christianize it, while the International Herald Tribune reported a rumour passing among Iraqis that Jewish prostitutes had flown into Iraq to infect the country with Aids!

Washington wants a group of countries, not just the USA and Britain, to police, govern and rebuild Iraq until the Iraqis come into their own. Several nations, including Poland and Ukraine, have responded with contingents, but others have stayed out, claiming that they might consider joining the Iraq exercise if the UN, rather than the USA, leads it.

The USA will not find it comfortable either to stay in Iraq for a long time, or to hand Iraq over to the UN, which does not enjoy great respect among Americans. The notion that all states, irrespective of strength or numbers, are sovereign equals finds reflection in the UN General Assembly but invites ridicule in the Pentagon and the White House.

If some outside America view the USA as a trigger-happy ranger, many Americans think of the UN as an unmusical show with a multinational cast on a New York stage lent by the US. Even Americans who disagree with their country’s Iraq policy– and there are many–react impatiently to a UN that fails to mirror the reality of where strength lies in the world, a UN where the world’s most powerful country is, at best, one of five equals in the Security Council.

This equation is perfectly illogical, even as it is illogical, 58 years after the end of World War II, to assign humble positions in the UN’s power structure to Germany and Japan, disregarding their remarkable progress in every area. It is peculiar, likewise, that India, with over a billion people, and large countries like South Africa, Nigeria and Brazil should be
equated with the world’s tiniest nations.

Irritated by the UN’s ‘democracy’, Americans are also disappointed at the failure of much of the world to recognize what 9/11 did. It is not just that the American mainland was hit for the first time, and on a large scale. Americans were shocked at the hate directed at a nation that has welcomed immigrants from every corner of the globe.

Historic experiment
They may not always articulate it, but Americans harbour a wish to be recognized not only as the earth’s most powerful nation but also as a people conducting within their shores a historic experiment of uniting and equalizing all human beings. As one among countless foreigners who have received openness and opportunities in the USA, I am more than willing to acknowledge the experiment and to concede America’s privileged position.

Yet as a friend of many in America, and rejoicing in the American experiment, I must express my disagreement with American unilateralism. It is true, of course, that neither the UK nor France nor Germany nor Russia nor China nor Japan nor India is anywhere near being as strong as America, and I doubt that any of the countries named is as open to the newcomer as America is.

All the same, America needs the world. Moreover, it is hardly true that only ethics and universal principles shape US foreign policy! Americans, including policy-makers, are as human as anyone else in the world: over the Middle East, for instance, they appear to many to have failed to hold the scales even between Israel and the Arabs.

As suggested earlier, the world and its neglected, maltreated millions are increasingly likely, despite resistance, to seek and receive more governance from afar. But this governance will have to be
as multilateral, just and disinterested as possible. How governance of this sort can be arranged and financed is a question greatly beyond my competence. I suspect that one part of the answer lies in restoring the broken bridge over the Atlantic, another in rectifying the UN, a third in involving as many countries as possible, and a fourth in reducing the distance between the West and the Muslim world.

And who may address these immense tasks? I guess people with minds strong enough to face our world’s cruelties, and hearts large enough to accommodate the ‘difficult’ race or nation.

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