Keeping the Peace / UN: New world order? Just too many scores to settle: Historian Donald Cameron Watt warns that military intervention in the world's small wars risks costly failure
Sunday 06 December 1992
In Bosnia, the United Nations is engaged in intervention and mediation; so is the European Community. But our television screens still display scenes of starvation, shelling and the deaths of women, the old and the young amid the posturing of private armies. It is not surprising to find voices raised for more vigorous intervention by UN forces: to impose peace, punish the wrongdoers and end the conflict by military action.
The Americans are to send 28,000 troops to Somalia in the hope that they can bring order to the mayhem and food to the hungry. In Cambodia, after the seizure of UN force members by the Khmer Rouge, it is easy to imagine another wave of international outrage developing at the prospect of Pol Pot's forces reverting to the behaviour of the 'killing fields' of the 1970s. Meanwhile, around the frontiers of Russia, civil conflict of the Nagorny-Karabakh kind paralyses half a dozen new states, still waiting for the world to take notice.
THE CONCEPT of the 'new international order' sprang from the end of the Cold War, the break-up of the Soviet bloc and the Soviet Union, and the success of armed international co-operation in the Gulf war. It parallels the hopes placed in 1919-20 on the League of Nations, itself the outcome of the first great world war. The UN, whose mechanisms emerged from the second great global conflict of the 20th century, survived the Cold War largely by a policy of intervening only when and where the superpowers saw no advantage in thwarting it.
In so doing, it fathered a whole series of interventionist devices, beginning with the UN Emergency Force of 1956, which supervised the Anglo-French withdrawal from Suez and separated Egyptian and Israeli forces in Sinai for 10 years. But none of the UN interventions, with the exception of that in the Congo in 1960, went beyond the interposition of small, lightly armed forces from neutral powers, that were prohibited from the use of force except in self-defence. The UN has only twice authorised the full-scale use of force: first in Korea in 1950 and then against Iraq 40 years later. It was this latter that was accompanied by trumpetings of 'a new international order'. It is worth taking a closer look at the history of intervention to see the problems those trumpetings ignored. In the 19th century, intervention by one country in the internal affairs of another was tolerated in specific cases: to enforce international agreements against uncivilised practices such as the slave trade; to deal with states reneging on international debts; to combat piracy; to protect the lives and property of citizens of the intervening state. Towards the end of the 19th century, the European great powers began to intervene collectively to manage threats to peace such as those constituted by the break-up of the Manchu and Ottoman empires. What had earlier often been an excuse for individual state imperialism became a device for the collective management and control of conflicts.
This broke down in 1914 after the assassination at Sarejevo, although the covenants of the League of Nations incorporated many of its doctrines and practices. But the league's main obsession was with the prevention of war by criminalising its initiation, save in self-defence. Procedures were established for the peaceful resolution of international disputes. Punishment of violators consisted of economic, or, if necessary, military sanctions in which all league members were supposed to participate. These arrangements combined deterrence and punishment; or so it was hoped.
Critics decried this system as 'perpetual peace through perpetual war', but there were problems on the perpetual war side. Individual states were left to decide on the extent of their participation in an international action.
The League of Nations is now remembered chiefly for its failures. It did not restrain Japanese action against Manchuria. It did not restrain Italy from attacking and annexing Ethiopia. It did not act when Hitler remilitarised the Rhineland. As a result it was marginalised. But its record was not all failure. It broke up an incipient war between Greece and Bulgaria in 1925. It resolved the disputes over the Aland Islands in the Baltic, over Spitzbergen, over the future of Alexandretta.
It did not work where the credibility of its deterrent machinery was questioned. It did not work when potential aggressors failed to believe that its members would act together. It encouraged its main supporters to economise on their military expenditure to a point where military sanctions became too hazardous for them to contemplate. And it created in public opinion a false sense of security, assuming the league to be endowed with power, force and determination other than its individual members states possessed. Above all, it failed to include the United States among its members, and the Soviet Union joined only when Germany and Japan had left it.
The lessons of its failures were much invoked in 1950, when the Korean conflict broke out and international action was called for. One lesson that was forgotten then, however, was the way in which the League's condemnation of Italian action against Ethiopia was transformed into viewing the issue as one between Britain and Italy.
In Korea, the perception of the conflict as one between the UN, as the defender of the status quo, and any regime that challenged it, gave way quickly to the view that the conflict was one with American imperialism.
Such switches in international perceptions demonstrate a problematic fact: that 'world opinion' is a good deal less than single-minded in its acceptance of the basis of world peace through international action.
The 1930s provide another example, the survival of an alternative doctrine to that of intervention: the isolation of a conflict. The non-intervention agreement on the Spanish Civil War involved an attempt to fence in the conflict to prevent its escalation into a Mediterranean war (as Hitler, and possibly Stalin, hoped and expected). This represented a return to 19th-century concepts. The agreements, notoriously, were regularly breached, but there was no overt escalation.
THE United Nations now has a longer record than the league and has devised a variety of mechanisms, some successful, some not. One can distinguish four kinds of situation where UN intervention has been called for: where domestic order breaks down entirely, as in the Congo in 1960 or in Somalia today; intervention in civil war; intervention in small wars; and intervention against the new breed of pocket Hitlers, permanent enemies of international order such as Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein.
So far, the UN has been successful in three areas. It has provided a way by which intruding powers can be removed from a civil conflict where there is stalemate, as in Namibia. It has provided an excuse by which moderates on both sides of wars of mutual hatred can restrain and outmanoeuvre the warmongers, as in Cyprus. And it can provide an interim regime for territory to be handed over from one country to another, as with the former Dutch New Guinea and Indonesia in 1963.
It has not been unique in these actions. The Soviet Union mediated an end to the 1966 Indo-Pakistani conflict. President Carter presided over the Israeli agreement with Egypt at Camp David. Lord Carrington negotiated an end to Rhodesia's UDI. The UN's great strength has been the degree to which it can mobilise 'world opinion' against those who ignore it.
But all of this was before the end of the Cold War and the break-up of the Soviet Union, and before the CIS and Russia threw their lot in with the US, first against Kuwait and then in the UN intervention in Bosnia. The 'new order' rests - precariously - on the majority of four of the five members of the Security Council (China being the exception).
The limits to further international action are psychological and practical. Together they make for a new situation. The fear of a 1914-type escalation still lives, but it is balanced by the TV factor: images of mass starvation and ethnic brutality in every home. Confronted with such images, the world's heart rules its head, and demands intervention.
On the practical side are the military advisers. Intervention to impose peace, they say, means more war not less, means casualties, means open-ended, ill-defined commitments in unfriendly terrain. Despite the claims of those who believe that air action is enough, intervention, the military men point out, means bodies on the ground, soldiers in uniform, at a time when reduction of military expenditure at home has cut available military manpower.
Intervention means guerrilla warfare in terrain created for guerrilla warfare. No military commander wants this. Making war on guerrillas, said Lawrence of Arabia, is messy: like eating soup with a fork. Two kinds of warfare devour men: street fighting, and escorting convoys against guerrillas in a hostile countryside in inhospitable terrain. Bosnia, let alone Cambodia, offers both.
At present, no military adviser can produce a credible battle plan for the UN to follow in Bosnia if the threat has to be made a reality. But unsuccessful intervention would destroy any hopes of a new world order as surely as the League of Nations was destroyed by the failure of the economic sanctions it imposed on Italy after the invasion of Ethiopia.
Yet the old beliefs, in the 'indivisibility of peace', in the need to eradicate war as if it were a pandemic, and in the need for those who claim world leadership to satisfy the expectations of their media-sensitised people, may still tip the balance against the military pragmatists.
We are on the edge not of one big Armageddon, but of a creeping, multiplying, multi-cellular family of mini-Armageddons. Perhaps the old non-intervention committee technique has something to be said for it after all. Perhaps it would be better to have a leaky ring-fence around the few existent fires than to run out of firefighters because there are too many fires to fight.
Donald Cameron Watt is professor of international history at the LSE and the author of 'How War Came'
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