No, we're right to fight this war

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The Independent Culture
EVERY COUNTRY has its own sort of argument about this war. Characteristically, the currency of our British argument seems to be 19th-century statesmen. In a leading article entitled "End This Liberal War", The Spectator argues that we should "replace Gladstone with Bismarck or at least Disraeli". "The national interest has been scorned" in favour of a woolly attachment to the cause of "humanity in general", the magazine suggests.

In a commentary in The Times headlined "Bloody Liberals", Simon Jenkins also starts with Gladstone, and goes on to denounce the new "liberal imperialists - specifically located in The Independent, The Observer and The Guardian - whom he finds to be distinguished by a "reckless recourse to force, especially air power". It is, he says, "as if they yearn to unleash their pent-up aggression against the sins of the world". In sum, the half-baked, emotional, romantic, moralistic, hypocritical, neo-Gladstonian pursuit of liberal values has led us into this mess, while only a cool, hard-nosed, Disraeliesque or Bismarckian appraisal of national interests will lead us (though hardly the Kosovars) back to the valley of peace and reason.

As something of a bloody liberal myself, I want to break a lance for neo-Gladstonism. But, since we also try to be bloody honest, let us start by acknowledging three things. First, there is something unusual, a touch of the bal paradoxe, about a war whose strongest supporters are on the left and fiercest critics on the right. Second, some of the rhetoric, whether from Tony Blair, Bill Clinton or the Nato spokesman Jamie Shea, has been over the top. Third, and most important, nearly a month into the war we can see that Nato began it with a disastrous miscalculation of Milosevic's reaction to an air offensive. His forces had made some quarter of a million Kosovar Albanians homeless in the year before the bombing began; they have expelled perhaps three times that number since. This is Nato's 50th birthday present to itself.

However, that tragic blunder does not in any sense flow consequentially from a liberal view of how we should act. Yes, the liberals Clinton and Blair misjudged the dictator Milosevic. But the conservative Neville Chamberlain misjudged Hitler, the conservative Churchill thought he had a deal with Stalin and the Gaullist Jacques Chirac admired the pragmatic moderniser Saddam Hussein. Underestimating the perfidy of dictators is the common fault of most democratic politicians. And the strategic mistake was not the decision to threaten the use of force. It was the decision to start bombing without having prepared the ground troops to make the threat credible. The irony in this case is that if we had prepared the ground troops we might not have had to use them in combat; because we did not, we probably will. So the problem was not too much liberal readiness to intervene militarily, but too little.

Gladstone! Had'st thou been living at this hour! What Gladstone pioneered was an approach that attempted to marry liberal values to the traditional, unbounded self- interest of states. He preached (and preaching is very much the right word, for him as for Tony Blair) a philosophy of what I call liberal order. He was ahead of his time - this philosophy gained acceptance in principle by leading Western states only after 1945.

This approach still accepts as the foundation of international order the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of sovereign states. But it qualifies this by saying: what rulers do to their own citizens is not purely their own affair, and there are a few extreme things they may do - such as killing, maltreating or expelling large numbers of those citizens - that in principle justify the intervention of the "international community" to prevent it, or at least to punish the perpetrators afterwards. This is the philosophy underpinning linkages between trade and respect for human rights, the monitoring activities of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the international court for war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is what Tony Blair tries to articulate in his rather evangelical way.

"Humbug!" cry the scoffers from the hard-nosed "realist" right - and a few from the far left, too. "If these are your principles, why didn't you bomb the killers in Rwanda or East Timor. Or intervene to defend the Kurds against our Nato ally, Turkey?" Well, of course there are double standards - multiple standards, in fact. Yet it's also true that we can't intervene everywhere. Because I don't prevent a murder in Brooklyn, it doesn't mean I shouldn't try to stop one in Camden. Duties are related to distance: strongest to those nearest.

So then comes the argument that we should act over Kosovo because it is "in Europe". This has to be handled with care. What we are emphatically not saying is that white European lives are more valuable than black African lives. What we are saying is that this is nearer to us and that we are part of European institutions that have a capacity to act in those parts and are directly affected by what happens there. Here the moral argument shades into the political one - the one about interests.

The non-interventionists tell us that they fail to see how any British national interests are involved. But that is, precisely, a failure to see. They are (since we are trading in dead prime ministers here) perpetrating the Neville Chamberlain mistake of believing that things happening in such far- away countries of which we know little will not affect us, too, in the end. Simon Jenkins, for example, has consistently argued for a British policy of non-intervention in Yugoslavia. I respect the consistency; but it is a dangerous illusion to believe that we could have left it to work itself out on its own.

No, what these critics force us to address is not the folly of liberal interventionism, but the folly of half-measures. What we have needed all along, during the whole decade since the end of the Cold War, has been a systematic effort of neo-Gladstonian realism to build a liberal order for the whole of Europe. This would have required - and requires still - a many-sided commitment, economic, political, diplomatic, non-governmental as well as governmental, for a whole region. In such a policy, the dangerous paradox of "humanitarian war" is only the last resort, the ultimate deterrent. But then it has to be a credible deterrent, as our bombs clearly were not in this case.

Such a many-sided commitment also requires a commitment from many sides. Where the important principle of non-intervention is to be overridden, it is essential that as many different states as possible are involved. Otherwise any old state could bomb any other in the name of humanity. Gladstone foresaw this imperative of multilateralism, calling on "United Europe" to protest against Turkish brutality (ironically, the Serbs were among the people he was speaking up for). Perhaps the most difficult problem for liberal internationalists in supporting more decisive action in Kosovo, including the ground troops that alone can reverse the ethnic cleansing, is not the charge of double standards or that of ignoring interests - for the long-term interests are there - but this matter of the mandate. Yet having reached this point, having put Nato's credibility at stake, having precipitated the humanitarian disaster, we cannot allow Russia alone to veto further action.

To sustain popular support for such action, we have our latter-day Gladstones, Clinton and Blair, echoing the grand old man's magnificent peroration about the affront to "the laws of God, or if you like, of Allah; to the moral sense of mankind at large". Well, is what Serb forces have done to the Kosovars such an affront? So let The Spectator support Bismarck on this issue; me, I'll stick with Gladstone.

`History of the Present: Essays, Sketches and Despatches from Europe in the 1990s' by Timothy Garton Ash will be published by Penguin in June