Humanitarian Interventionism: the moral coat

“It is no use painting the foot of the tree white, the strength of the bark cries out from beneath the paint” (Aime Cesaire).

After years in the doghouse, the doctrine of humanitarian intervention is once again scratching at the door – begging for a return from exile. The line of obfuscation: “we were hijacked by neo-cons in the case of Iraq, really the doctrine stands for the type of morality exhibited in Sierra Leone or the Balkans”. The recent media contortions of unrest in Libya have not only opened the doghouse, but added a sense of immediacy to the need for debate of this issue and let the mongrel back in.

Having myself previously espoused the theory, believing it to be a continuation of the internationalism of the left, I critique it on the most fundamental issue with the doctrine – that it is a moral cloak. The doctrine is of no practical value – it is merely ideological. Platitudinous as it may be, it needs to be said: military aggression is never “humanitarian”, neither is starving third world countries through sanctions, installing puppet governments nor riding rough shot over historical and cultural traditions. Abstract morality, the supposed guiding principle, necessarily excludes historical analysis – as from a vacuum it is far easier to make blunt Manichean decisions where the West is good and all systems that are different are evil. Engaging in a genuine global political discussion of ethics entails fidelity to the truths of history – acknowledging that Western imperialism in all its forms and guises is not the solution, but the fundamental problem stifling true progress through imposing its will upon the world. Our global ethic seeks to break the chains of hegemony and unleash the forces, some good, some bad that have been excluded from the modern conception of statehood and stability.

Humanitarian language is spoken to drive up popular support for what would otherwise be seen as antithetical to the values of freedom, democracy and justice. The self-acknowledging imperialist does not care for internationalism and does not recognise the universality of their obligations. Their support is harnessed through statistics and analysis about the effect on Western markets – a cost/benefit analysis suffices to garner their support.

Fluffed up language about alienated and oppressed “others”, who require the liberal media to speak for them is used for a purpose. At times prefiguring imperial intervention it is worth comparing the business and mainstream news. The business is brazen in its intentionality – the mainstream news argues for the same conclusions, not through appealing to heads or wallets, but to hearts. It is of no coincidence that the manual for liberal intervention is dusted off when the cost of a barrel of oil has increased to as much as it was pre-Iraq. Liberal humanitarianism carries the “compassionate” along with the imperial without the vast majority being aware of this reality.

Although bereft of practical functionality, the doctrine evokes “morality” as if it is absolute and recognised by all. An analysis of our moral heart is instructive. Principles of exception run through all moral calculuses from Bentham to Rawls. Action based (deontological) and consequentialist (teleological) ethical systems have restricted scope that essentially break down to subjective choices on the part of the moral agent. When applied internationally a deeply Eurocentric and worrying political ethic manifests. The realpolitick, as most know only too well, restricts moral salience to nation-hood, cultural affinities or whiteness. The unseen foundation upon which abstract thought takes place is oppression.

Liberal internationalism is paternalistic and neo-colonialist at heart. The presupposition is that the Enlightenment provided the whole world with the tools and pathway for progress – in light of this, all that predated must be destroyed for the dawn of the new demands the disintegrating of the old. The march of “progress” and “civilisation” can only be described as barbarous. World history will judge the damage of our new ontologies – our whole way of being in the world is infected with a sense of mastery. Liberal internationalism is predicated upon the global hierarchy which places the thought, products, culture and lives of the West on high and all “others” upon low. Our moralising is nothing more than a shrill call for assimilation.

Human Rights may purport to be universal. In their abstract form, the declarations are universal in scope – but never in application. That many do not even reflect upon their inconsistent and contradictory ethics is enough to underwrite their claims. Universal morality is not an ideal that I wish to shatter, rather, like Aime Cesaire: “I have a different idea of a universal. It is of a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all”. It is time we all realised we cannot attain this ideal without acknowledging the rotten core of Western morality and its vacuous and decrepit universality, and follow the consequences of this realisation through, no matter the cost. In the short term this entails removing the West’s global military and “diplomatic” presence, not extending it.

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