Mary Dejevsky: Intervention may breed instability

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

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.