Liberal Interventionism: The Crisis Within

Liberal Interventionism: The Crisis Within
The American Air Mobility Command assists in Central African Republic peacekeeping mission, 2013. Senior Airman Corey McGrath, a Security Forces Phoenix Raven, ensures all weapons are clear before Burundi soldiers load onto a C-17 Globemaster December 13, 2013 at Bujmumbura Airport, Burundi.U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Erik Cardenas

By Katja Lindskov Jacobsen

Center for Military Studies, University of Copenhagen

Liberal interventionism today not only responds to crises in countries experiencing violent conflicts, distress, and disaster. It also responds to a crisis within. This crisis is not simply about post-Trump budget cuts and the broader withdrawal from liberal interventionism’s key institutions, including the UN. It is also a “crisis of confidence,” caused in large part by post-9/11 interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and their failure to deliver democracy, stability, and peace.

Whilst there is general agreement that liberal interventionism is facing a “crisis within,” there is less agreement about how the institutions of liberal interventionism should respond. Some scholars identify a need to adjust the existing system. Others see a need for more radical changes. Yet others find that liberal interventionism is retreating. Some ask whether we are seeing a “return” of proxy intervention. A parallel debate calls attention to the need to revisit the very notion of intervention. Some argue that we need to think more broadly about what intervention is. Should we include capacity building projects, stabilization efforts, security sector reform, and so on?

It is crucial to link these two debates. On the one hand, taking a broader look at how intervention can contribute to liberalism’s response to this “crisis within” is bound up with the emergence of new forms of intervention. On the other hand, the “crisis within” is part of the reason why new forms of intervention emerged in the first place, and hence signals that rather than retreating, liberal interventionism is instead expanding and taking new forms.

Two trends illustrate this. One is the renewed emphasis on conflict prevention within the UN. This needs to be understood as an interventionist practice rather than as preceding intervention. The other is the shift to digital technology, which is not simply a neutral means of liberal intervention, but has important effects on the scope and mode of intervention.

With recent reviews of UN peace operations and renewed focus on conflict prevention, “a number of different modalities have been explored.” These are best understood not as endeavours that precede “intervention” but as forms of engagement. In part, these are a response to the crisis of confidence surrounding common large-scale interventions. Indeed, preventive endeavours leave interventionist footprints.

Thinking about prevention as a form of intervention calls attention to at least two important points. First, these endeavours may have implications other than simply reducing levels of conflict. Second, they are not always welcomed by the host country. These issues draw attention to “unintended consequences” and resistance to “early warning.” The debate needs to be broadened to include new efforts at conflict prevention.

The case of Burundi is illustrative both of how the UN’s preventive endeavours were not regarded by the government as preceding intervention but as an act of “early aggression” (p. 33). Concerning unintended consequences, the risk of “retaliation against witnesses” (p. 39) became clear. This critical issue receives little attention in current conflict prevention debates. Moreover, preventive endeavours may affect conflict dynamics within Burundi in ways that cannot simply be expected to align with the aim of reducing the level of conflict.

Concerning new digital technology, one key ambition — namely liberal democracy — is increasingly bound up with new forms of technology, such as biometric registration. From Ghana to Kenya, from Pakistan to Cambodia, the EU supports biometric voter registration for national elections. Biometrics, they say, can help “improve the integrity” of the voting process and thus reduce the probability of disputed elections escalating into violence. Much can be said about this, but the point to stress here is that rather than simply retreating from efforts aimed at spreading liberal democratic values, these aims are now pursued through different means — including biometric voter registration.

This perspective on contemporary liberal interventionism opens up a series of questions about the implications of such new technologies of intervention. Will biometric registration enhance voter trust in “disputed” democratic processes? What will be the effect of biometric voter registration on power relations and on the contours of the “security/development nexus”? In settings where biometric registration is used for counter-terrorism, anti-piracy, and national security objectives, expanding this technology to other programmes raises concerns about the implications of data-sharing. One example is the concerns raised by Syrian refugees in Lebanon about UNHCR’s mandatory use of biometric refugee registration (see chapter 9). Could this deter rather than encourage people to vote, especially if biometric registration is mandatory, yet with no clear data-sharing policies?

In these and other ways, liberal interventionism responds to this “crisis” by testing new modes of engagement that, although they may fall short of large-scale interventionism, nonetheless still leave an interventionist footprint on conflicts in the unruly global periphery. In light of this, it is clear that in order to assess the state of contemporary liberal interventionism, a broader conception of intervention is necessary. It is also clear, that such a conception needs to pay careful attention to the potential of unintended consequences stemming from new modes of engagement (e.g., shifting patterns of violence, data-sharing concerns), and from the trialing thereof. In this case, the kinds of questions we should be asking involve not only a diagnosis of the current ‘crisis’ but also a questioning of how the institutions of liberal interventionism respond. Only then can we begin to appreciate the implications of a contemporary liberal interventionism whose response to crisis is not simply to retreat.

This article is part of a six-blog series that follows from a workshop on International Relations in a Post-Liberal Era. The workshop was hosted by CIPS and marks the start of the Copenhagen–Ottawa Research Exchange (CORE). For other blogs in this series, click here:

After Abdication by Peter Marcus Kristensen

NATO: A Liberal Alliance in an Increasingly Illiberal World? by Alexandra Gheciu

Trump’s Genius by Michael C. Williams

In Africa, “America First” means “Development Last” by Rita Abrahamsen

CETA after Opinion 2/15: Legal Clarity or Confusion? by Jens Ladefoged Mortensen

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