Mary Dejevsky: Intervention may breed instability

There may be times when big and small countries should be left to sort things out between themselves

Share
Related Topics

At a time like this, with Georgia and Russia fighting over a scrap of territory in the Caucasus, it is hard not to long for the simplicities of the Cold War. In those years, the heavily-fortified border between East and West constituted a line that neither dared cross. National sovereignty and territorial integrity were inviolate; interference in another country's internal affairs was recognised as perilous.

This did not prevent the angry trading of accusations, or dangerous stand-offs, such as the Cuban missile crisis, or the fighting of proxy wars in Central America, Africa and elsewhere. And it hardly needs to be said that this clarity brought with it enormous injustice and suffering, especially for those who found themselves on the wrong side of the line when the negotiating stopped. Prague, when I first visited it, three years after the Soviet invasion, was one of the saddest cities on earth. Similarly the Baltic States under Soviet rule. Nor was the doctrine of mutually-assured destruction which held all this in place exactly civilised. I crossed many a Cold War land border. The process was long, nerve-racking and intimidating. The train from Yerevan in Armenia to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, ran for some distance along the Turkish border. Illuminated and defended with layer upon layer of electrified wire, this Nato-Warsaw Pact frontier fixed a state just short of war. But war, as such, did not happen. From the late 1940s to the late 1980s – sometimes brutally – the line held.

In retrospect, the dissolution of the Soviet empire presented a unique opportunity to establish a new order governed by more enlightened, and consensual, precepts. Nato could have transformed itself into a genuinely multilateral organisation for peace-keeping. The sudden fluidity of borders could have been turned to advantage, too, with the status of minority enclaves, such as those now being fought over in Georgia, determined by plebiscite. It is regrettable – if understandable, given the kaleidoscopic changes of those days – that none of this came about.

There was also a positive reason why no new international rules were set. The end of the Soviet Union was peaceful beyond every expectation. In 1991, plans were in place to cope with millions of freezing, starving Russians. It reflects well on all concerned that this did not happen. And Germany was reunited as peacefully as the Czechs and Slovaks divorced. But a vacuum was left where formerly crude rules of self-preservation had applied.

The collapse of Yugoslavia posed the question starkly, as different ethnic and religious groups divided up territory on the often ruthless principle, might is right. The European Union watched, conscience-stricken, as Bosnian Serbs slaughtered Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, and Serbia drove the ethnic Albanians of Kosovo to certain death in the mountains.

It was in this context that Tony Blair became one of the first to formulate a justification of humanitarian intervention that would permit the use of armed force in someone else's country. Saving lives thus overrode national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Laudable as this doctrine might be – and who could deny its humane idealism – the decision to use force is likely to rest on an assessment of the situation which is more immediate and emotional than might be advisable when a country decides to commit its armed forces. There are practical flaws, too. Some countries will be judged too powerful or hostile for outside military intervention – and will thus be beyond the reach of the new rules. Burma after Cyclone Nargis was one example: France – which, in Bernard Kouchner, has a foreign minister who is humanitarian intervention personified – kept its aid-carrying warship outside Burmese waters rather than challenge the Burmese junta. The US has repeatedly called for military intervention in the Darfur region of Sudan, but it has wanted other people to do it.

The other difficulty is that legitimising outside intervention – even, under certain circumstances, assuming an obligation to intervene – presupposes objective criteria that very rarely exist. Which brings us back to Russia, Georgia and those awkward enclaves. When Russian forces crossed into South Ossetia, which abuts Russia but is inside Georgia, Moscow claimed that its purpose was to protect an endangered minority, many of whom hold Russian passports. It is quite hard to argue that there is one law for assisting Albanians in Kosovo and quite another for Russians and Ossetians in Georgia. The weakness of humanitarian intervention as a guiding principle of international behaviour is further highlighted by the case of China. Beijing has been much criticised in Western political circles lately for its policy of non-interference – another way of saying its reluctance to put pressure on Sudan over Darfur. But would those advocating a more interventionist China be so enthusiastic if Beijing applied it, say, to Taiwan, or overseas Chinese in parts of South-East Asia?

For all its idealistic garb, humanitarian intervention can quickly become a means for powerful countries to destabilise less powerful ones from within. And that can be the effect, even if it is not the original intention. It may also help prolong a situation made unstable by irreversible demographic or economic trends. The EU is guaranteeing Kosovo's independence, even though the region is far from viable as a country. And the so-called frozen conflicts left over from the Soviet Union are frozen less because the sides are evenly matched, than because one or both sides are proxies for others.

It may seem unpalatable, but there may be times when idealism must cede to realism and big and small should be left to sort things out between themselves. A conflict where the balance is artificially altered by third-party military intervention may delay the only lasting solution.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A picture posted by Lubitz to Facebook in February 2013  

Andreas Lubitz: Knee-jerk reaction to 9/11 enabled mass murder

Simon Calder
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, presides at the reinterment of Richard III yesterday  

Richard III: We Leicester folk have one question: how much did it all cost?

Sean O’Grady
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss