It's because we're rich that we must impose peace for others

The problem that many parts of the world face today is not too much policing, but too little
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The Independent Culture
I DON'T know what they were doing the morning Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany, but I bet they weren't watching the style editor of OK! magazine demonstrating how to make oneself look like Gwyneth Paltrow on Oscars night. My idle wish, yesterday, was that one of the passing B52s would take a brief detour and bomb the studio from which that edition of Vanessa was being broadcast. A serious one was that more people in this country would understand what was about to happen on the other side of the continent.

Which was that our Government was about to join in an attack on a foreign sovereign nation, in order to impose upon it a settlement concerning a part of its own territory. And what had the Serbs done to us? Insult our intelligences, maybe, but what else? Had Serb bombs gone off in British cities, or Serb sailors made landfalls on Pitcairn or St Helena? Had Serbia invaded a country to which we are committed by an agreement for mutual defence?

And what about the price? At some point in the next few days - though no-one wills it to be so - a Nato missile or bomb, supposedly heading for a Serb command centre or tank park, will be dumb enough to drop through the roof of an ordinary family, and kill Serbian children. And it may be the pilot son or (occasionally, these days) soldier daughter of the woman sitting next to you on the bus who dies or is mutilated because of what we asked him or her to do.

How impressed are we by those who become our allies? The KLA Black Tigers, with their bandanas, macho swaggers and great big, powerful weapons, look as though they too have been made over, in this case by the style advisor of Massacres Monthly. How optimistic are we about the fate of the Serbs left behind when Kosovo goes its own way, or what will happen between the Demaci and Rugova factions of the Albanian majority when power is up for grabs? Godalming this is not.

For all that, I have no doubt whatsoever that the intervention is right. It is right for humanitarian reasons and for political reasons. The only way in which Serbia can hold on to a province in which nine out of 10 people reject their sovereignty is by further massive repression and by ethnic cleansing on a scale that will make Bosnia look like a parish council tiff.

My main worry about this action would be whether Nato should not soon follow air strikes with a ground invasion. Sure, it would have been better to have got an agreement in which the Serbs conceded autonomy, and the means to police it internationally, but Mr Milosevic would not sign it.

I have heard the usual arguments - as over the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait - that some other way might be found to get Belgrade to back down. But these, as ever, turn on the notion that doing nothing is always preferable to taking military action. I am not a pacifist, and I don't believe it. So I think we will end up with what the author Timothy Garton Ash has described as a Western protectorate in Kosovo, not unlike the current one in Bosnia.

Where next? One reason why Britain's contribution to the Kosovo air armada is so limited is that we are already heavily committed elsewhere, not least in the Gulf. Nor are our current commitments the only ones we might incur. What do readers think we should we do if we saw another Rwanda developing? I hope that, along with others, we would intervene even though we have no direct interest at all in the region. And surely, to do that, we will have to possess armed forces capable of such intervention.

This isn't what a lot of us expected when the Berlin Wall came down. True, some terrible old pessimists and retired generals had warned that the bacilli that had been frozen in the permafrost of the Cold War would soon become active again. But most of us expected a nice, fat, peace dividend. We would beat our swords into stocks and shares - or into improved public transport, at any rate. Then we could relax, wealthier and safer than ever before.

And there has been another objection to assuming the global truncheon and wandering round the world to see if the shops are all locked up. The legacy of imperialism has made many good people immensely suspicious of foreign adventures, especially in the Third World. It was we Brits who went hunting Aborigines in Tasmania, machine-gunning Tibetans near Lhasa with Sir Francis Younghusband (50 years before the Chinese ever got there) and sending gunboats up rivers. And it was our pals, the Americans, whose battle with the Russians saw them acting in armed cahoots with every corrupt, medal-bedecked junta from Saigon to Santiago.

I understand this feeling, but it's time we got beyond it. The problem that many parts of the world face today is not too much policing, but too little. When the inhabitants of Freetown feted the same representative of Britain who was so criticised over the Sandline affair, there was an important message there for us. Our former colony has fallen into a barbarism that is almost beyond description. Given a choice, do we really think that the suffering civilians of Sierra Leone would object to a military presence by the British? My sister-in-law is from Sierra Leone, and she does not rail much against imperialism.

There are other Sierra Leones. Each week seems to bring a crop of photographs of severed heads and terrorised kids from some part of the world. Do we observe these things simply so that we might feel a horrible schadenfreude? Or so that we might do something about them?

As to why us - well, if not us, who? The Chinese? The Vanuatans? Tintin and Captain Haddock? We, and our European and our American friends, are richer, healthier and safer than ever before. We also live by rules that - on the whole - most peoples of the world would like also to enjoy.

Usually, if our soldiers kill civilians they are subject to discipline and trial, and that is a whole lot more than can be said for the armed forces of many other countries.

Not a little of our great wealth and security has been bought at the expense of peoples elsewhere. Some of our obligation to them can be met through targeted aid, some by debt reduction, some by refusing to profit from arms sales. But the biggest test is whether you'll risk the lives of your soldiers. So by all means let's tax the rich, and then let's spend more money on the armed forces. Otherwise our much-vaunted peace dividend will be paid for with the blood of Africans and Albanians - almost all of whom want that peace as much as we do, but do not possess the means to secure it.