National Interests, National Identity
and 'Ethical Foreign Policy
by David Chandler
Senior Lecturer in International
Centre for the Study of Democracy
University of Westminster
International Sociology Association
'Racisms, Sexisms and Contemporary Politics of Belonging/s', London,
Today there is a consensus that the foreign
policy of leading Western powers cannot be understood through
considering nation states as egoistic actors pursing narrow self-interest.
Since the end of the Cold War, major states have increasingly
stressed the importance of ethics and values in the shaping of
international goals and have intervened internationally on the
basis of ethical foreign policy concerns such as human rights
and international justice. Many commentators have understood this
shift to 'value-led' or 'ethical' foreign policy through an 'outside/in'
approach to the question, viewing this value shift as a response
to international pressures of globalisation and the creation of
new cosmopolitan constituencies and new national identities. This
paper instead employs an 'inside/out' approach which suggests
that the shift away from the articulation of national interests
and the drive to defend ethical 'values' through international
intervention can be understood as products of and responses to
the crisis of national identity highlighted by the domestic political
malaise at the heart of Western politics, often referred to in
the US as an outcome of the 'Culture Wars', the response to the
loss of cohering national values and shared goals resulting in
'the loss of respect for authorities and institutions'.
The interest here is not so much the cultural struggle itself,
rather the consequences of this well documented concern that 'there
is no common purpose, or common faith'. The drive behind ethical
foreign policy is located in the attempt to resolve the political
crisis of Western national identity, reflecting the lack of a
shared framework of meaning and sense of socio-political purpose
connecting Western states and their citizens. The inability
to establish a shared socio-political vision of what 'the nation'
stands for the lack of a strong 'idea of the state' in Buzanian
terms has meant that Western powers find it difficult to formulate
a clear foreign policy or to legitimise the projection of power
abroad in terms of national interest.
Today the key actor in international relations, the nation state,
appears to have lost the capacity or will to pursue its self-interest
defined in terms of power. Commentators from a variety of theoretical
perspectives argue that the most developed nation states increasingly
see themselves as having moral obligations to international society.
The key theoretical framework for understanding the international
sphere, that of state interest, not only central to realism but
also to the rational choice perspective of neoliberal frameworks
of international co-operation, appears to have lost its explanatory
power. Rather than states and national interests shaping the direction
of policy it appears that there is a new agenda set by non-state
actors, whether it is the normative values and transnational concerns
of the 'principled-issue' campaigners of global civil society
or the threats to security from terrorist networks such as Al-Qaeda.
The Constructivist approach rejects the 'outside/in' approach
of understanding national interests as structured through the
logic of anarchy, suggesting that national interests and identities
are contingent and socially constructed. Nevertheless, these
interests are still constructed in the international sphere itself,
even if states do have the potential to make and to act on alternative
identity 'choices'. While the domestic political framework
and institutional structures play an important role it is generally
held to be a secondary one. It is transnationally operating non-state
actors which are the active agents of change, diffusing 'principled
ideas' and 'international norms' related to human rights and transnational
justice. It is in response to this changed international context
that states are generally understood to have been driven to reshape
or redefine their national identities. The largely instrumental
use of 'principled ideas' during the Cold War is held to have
given way to the institutionalisation of new practices in the
international sphere, sustained by the pressure of transnational
human rights networks 'from above' and supported by civil society
pressure 'from below'.
Liberal internationalists argue that power is not exercised in
the old way. Influential US liberal theorist Joseph Nye, for example,
argues that the traditional distinction 'between a foreign policy
based on values and a foreign policy based on interests' should
be rejected. Nye writes that the challenges of the 'global
information age' have required the redefinition of national interest.
The Responsibility to Protect report, from the high-level
International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty,
asserts the consensus view that nation states are not forced 'by
systemic or structural factors' to pursue narrow interests, but
are free to make moral choices. It appears that critical theorists
like Andrew Linklater and Ken Booth have successfully pre-empted
developments in international relations theorising with their
focus on a 'bolder moral standpoint' and desire to move away 'from
accumulating knowledge about 'relations between states' (what
might be called the 'dismal science' of Cold War international
relations) to thinking about ethics on a global scale'.
This view of the end of traditional national interests has attained
a broad consensus from radical postmodernists and left-leaning
academics to senior British diplomats. Michael Hardt and Antonio
Negri, for example, argue that Vietnam was the last attempt the
US made to play an imperial role, pursuing its national interests
'with all the violence, brutality and barbarity befitting any
European imperialist power'. But the defeat in Vietnam marked
a passage to a new regime of genuine internationalism. For these
radical critics, the 1991 Gulf War illustrated that the US had
now become 'the only power able to manage international justice,
not as a function of its own national motives but in the name
of global right' [emphasis in original]. Sussex professor,
Martin Shaw, argues that rather than the imperialism of national
interest, the projection of Western power since the Cold War has
been 'post-imperial' a moral response to crises provoked by non-Western
powers which still seek to pursue territorial claims and the narrow
interests of power.
Leading European Union and British government policy-advisor Robert
Cooper argues that leading Western powers are 'postmodern' imperialists,
no longer asserting any national interests of their own:
A large number of the most powerful states no longer want to fight
or conquer. It is this that gives rise to both the pre-modern
and postmodern worlds. Imperialism in the traditional sense is
dead, at least among the Western powers.
Cooper writes that we now live in a 'postmodern world, raison
d'étate and the amorality of Machiavelli's theories
of statecraft, which defined international relations in the modern
era, have been replaced by a moral consciousness'. If there
is a 'national' interest that is seen as respectable today it
is the 'national interest in being, and being seen to be, a good
international citizen& regularly willing to pitch into international
tasks for motives that appear to be relatively selfless'.
The radical response
In the face of the current consensus that national interests and
national identities do not operate in the old way to shape international
policy-making, one response has been to defend a traditional 'realist'
or rationalist approach. However, today it would appear that the
few defenders of national interests or narrow rational instrumentality
as a guide to understanding the international sphere are marginal
critics from the Left. Alex Callinicos, for example, argues that
the US is still an imperialist power pursuing national interests
and that international co-operation stems from the need to contain
and structure the conflict and competition inherent in international
capital. Peter Gowan similarly asserts that behind the drive
for economic globalisation lies traditional US imperialism.
The 'realist' view of timeless competition for power appeals to
commentators who wish to argue that the ending of the Cold War
has made little difference to the operation of capitalism and
the power inequalities implicit in the world market.
For many critics on the Left the talk of postmodern imperialism,
human rights and cosmopolitan justice is merely the latest in
a long line of moral justifications for national interests. For
"the new interventionism" is replaying an old record.
It is an updated variant of traditional practices that were impeded
in a bipolar world system that allowed some space for nonalignment&
With the Soviet deterrent in decline, the Cold War victors are
more free to exercise their will under the cloak of good intentions
but in pursuit of interests that have a very familiar ring outside
the realm of enlightenment.
In the post-1945 retreat from Empire, non-Western states won the
formal rights of political and legal equality and the new 'constitution'
for international society, the UN Charter, guaranteed the collective
rights of sovereignty and self-government against intervention
from major powers. In this context, it is undoubtedly true that
ethical internationalism has legitimised the rewriting of the
rules of the international order, facilitating a return to Great
Power intervention and the overturning of the political gains
of the post-colonial period. However, the collapse of the
Cold War balance of power and shift to a unipolar world under
US domination would suggest that the protections of the UN framework
of 1945 would no longer have withstood the post-1989 realignment
of power, regardless of how this was legitimised after the event.
Rather than simply assert the existence of power-political competition,
it would seem more challenging to ask a question rarely posed
by the critics of 'humanitarian' wars and 'postmodern imperialism'
'Why is it that traditional national identities appear to have
been so roundly rejected?' Even in the 'war against terrorism'
the US has continually asserted that it was not acting out of
traditional national concerns. For example, the invasion of Afghanistan
was promoted as an act of concern for the people of the region.
When President George W. Bush announced the start of the bombing
campaign on 7 October 2001 he presented it as one in aid of the
'oppressed people of Afghanistan' rather than an entirely legitimate
action of self-defence in response to an attack on American national
symbols of economic and military power. Rather than emphasising
national interests, Bush stressed America's humanitarian aims:
As we strike military targets, we'll also drop food, medicine
and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children
of Afghanistan. The United States of America is a friend to the
Afghan people, and we are the friends of almost a billion worldwide
who practice the Islamic faith.
Even the avowedly hawkish National Security Strategy, issued in
September 2002, seems remarkably 'soft' in its humanitarian emphasis
on nation-building with the assistance of NGOs. On the one hand
the US writes a blank cheque for the exercise of power in its
declaration of a unilateral right to strike pre-emptively before
threats materialise, yet on the other it pledges to 'continue
to work with international organizations such as the United Nations,
as well as non-governmental organizations, and other countries
to provide the humanitarian, political, economic, and security
assistance necessary to rebuild Afghanistan'.
The critics take the national identities and the national interests
behind foreign adventures as a given. This paper suggests that
there is more to the 'postmodern' rejection of national interests
and government declarations of 'ethical foreign policy' than PR
spin. That, in fact, critics from the Left ignore a central facet
of the post-Cold War world the problem that Western powers have
in articulating a clear sense of national identity or national
interest. Rather than military interventions abroad being driven
by traditional national interests of power competition, it would
appear that they are motivated by the inability of leading Western
states to cohere a clear national identity, an inclusive vision
of their national interests. This study contends that the projection
of power abroad is more a response to the difficulties of negotiating
national goals and aims, than a straightforward projection of
these pre-given interests.
Culture Wars and the Crisis of National Identity
The majority of commentators adopting a liberal or constructivist
framework today tend to reproduce the 'outside/in' approach of
structural realism in attributing the shift away from national
interests to changes in the international sphere. In place of
the external structure of anarchy imposing a uniformity of decision-making
it is asserted that the external development of 'principled-issue'
constituencies and a globalised cosmopolitan consciousness compels
nation states to adapt to a new international environment. Rather
than deriving new national identities or interests from international
pressures, this article emphasises the possibility that international
interventions can be driven by a domestic process of constituting
and defining national identity. There has been a long tradition
of thought, since Kant's essay on Perpetual Peace, which
considers the impact of domestic political institutions and national
identity in shaping the projection of power internationally.
However, less has been written about the use of international
activism abroad in the attempt to forge a national identity at
home. Let us consider the two most interventionist powers, Britain
and the US.
At the domestic level it appears that political power can no longer
be exercised in the traditional way. Governments are increasingly
seen to be less important or influential. There is increasing
cynicism and doubt over government and politics, demonstrated
by falling turn-outs at the polls, declining party memberships
and lower viewing figures for the nightly news. Even General Election
victories, the defining point of the domestic political process,
no longer bring governments a sense of authority or legitimacy.
This was clear in the contested victory of George W. Bush in the
2000 elections, which turned on the problem of the 'hanging' chad
in Florida. However, the problem of deriving legitimacy from elections
is a much broader one, not directly connected to concerns of manipulation
or even to voter apathy. In the British elections in 2001 Tony
Blair achieved a land-slide second term mandate, the government
has little political opposition to speak of either in the British
parliament or in the country at large, yet there is no sense of
a connection to the general public or of a political project which
can engage society
No matter the size of the parliamentary majority, without a political
project, which can give meaning to government actions and the
passing of legislation, governments appear weak and ineffectual.
Domestic policy decisions, whether in education, health, transport
or policing, appear to be short-term or knee-jerk responses bereft
of any long-term aims. Without an ideological context, policy
is liable to be reversed or undermined at the first sign of funding
difficulties or problems in implementation. Rather than 'modern'
politics where the state had a political programme or project
which promised to transcend the present, to take society forward,
today governments are caught in a 'postmodern' malaise. There
appears to be no vision or project which can give government a
sense of mission or purpose. In this context, domestic policy-making
is caught in the 'everlasting present' where legislation is passed
to deal with crisis-management and policy-making is contingent
on events rather than shaped by government.
Without a sense of purpose or mission, governments lack coherence
and credibility. In this context, foreign policy can be a powerful
mechanism for generating a sense of national identity, of shared
political purpose and mission. While the end of the Cold War
has highlighted the domestic political malaise which makes government
coherence and political vision difficult, it is important to note
that the problems are rooted in a lack of confidence of the Western
political elite which has deeper historical roots. Hardt and Negri,
for example, note that Vietnam marked the 'point of passage' away
from the confident pursuit of US national interests. After
Vietnam, US power could no longer be projected with moral certainty.
The American establishment no longer had a belief in their 'manifest
However, the 'postmodern' state was born not in military humiliation
in the Far East but in the disintegration of the moral certainty
of US national identity at home. The lack of consensus over Vietnam
reflected the lack of collective identification with US 'national'
interests. Of the 2 million young men called up for the military
draft an unprecedented 139,000 refused to serve. As Christopher
Coker astutely notes, it was not the failure of intervention in
Vietnam in itself that made the assertion of US national interests
problematic, but the domestic response to the war. Reflecting
broader social trends of individualisation or, in Ulrich Beck's
terms 'reflexive modernisation', the decay of traditional social
bonds and values meant that the nation-state could no longer be
seen as an end in itself.
The 'postmodern' shift was a product of a lack of confidence in
the innate superiority of the American way of life. The US establishment's
defeat in the 'Culture Wars' of the late 1960s and 1970s corroded
the old certainties about truth, justice and the American way.
Everything about the past was called into question as American
history was increasingly seen as tainted by racism and colonialism.
Since Vietnam, dissent became respectable and there could no longer
be a 'grand narrative' about US national identity or 'national
interest'. The Cold War framework served to minimise the postmodern
domestic 'crisis of meaning', the lack of confidence of the American
establishment in any great project. The end of moral certainty
in the justness of the projection of US power meant that American
intervention abroad could no longer find legitimacy in a 'vision
of the future' instead it was 'reduced to managing the present'.
Rather than acting in national interests, the US rejected any
positive project for the claim to be a subject-less world policeman.
The end of the Cold War and the removal of restrictions on an
increasingly activist foreign policy created the possibility for
the US establishment to use the international sphere to reverse
the defeats of the Culture Wars, to lay to rest the 'Vietnam Syndrome'.
The attempt to regain a sense of mission was strengthened by the
restored sense of national pride in the aftermath of 'victory'
in the Cold War. This restoration of American mission was initially
articulated in the moral language of human rights and humanitarian
intervention. The language of Wilsonian internationalism appeared
to restore a sense of America's historic mission. Ethical concerns,
such as the human rights of others, seemed to provide a moral
framework which could project a sphere of agreement and consensus
and point beyond the cultural relativism and pessimism of 'postmodern'
times. The moral dualism of 'us' as upholders of human rights
and 'them' as perpetrators of human wrongs has been the leitmotif
of the post-Cold War shift to ethical foreign policy-making. As
Francesca Klug notes: 'the post-Cold War search for new ideals
and common bonds in an era of failed ideologies appears to have
contributed to a growing appreciation of human rights as a set
of values'. Joseph Nye devotes a major section of his recent
book, The Paradox of American Power, to 'The Home Front'
and argues that while the impact of the Culture Wars has not been
so great as to 'inhibit our capacity to act collectively' there
is, nevertheless, a problem of articulating a common interest:
The problem of the home front is less the feared prospects of
social and political decay or economic stagnation than developing
and popularising a vision of how the United States should define
its national interest in a global information age.
It would seem that rather than a response to international pressures
and civil society mobilisation, this demand for a new 'national
identity' or 'national ideals' has been generated by governing
elites. In Britain, 'ethical' foreign policy was consciously seen
as a key element in New Labour initiatives aimed at 'rebranding'
Britain, creating a modern multi-cultural British identity.
Opinion studies have consistently demonstrated that the idea that
there is public pressure for a policy shift towards more 'ethical'
concerns has been exaggerated. For example, in the mid-1990s,
polls showed that only a minority of the American public backed
human rights promotion as an important foreign policy goal, well
behind stopping the flow of illegal drugs, protecting the jobs
of American workers and preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.
This finding was illustrated by the fact that President Clinton
had to explain where Kosovo was on the map, before attempting
to promote military action in 1999, because there was so little
public interest in the issue.
Perhaps the most important example of the British and US governments
attempting to create an 'ethical' interventionist agenda is the
case of Iraq. For the last ten years US and British political
leaders have used Iraq as an international cause which they can
use to raise their status at home and emphasise their commitment
to a moral mission abroad. The British and UK publics have never
been as enthusiastic as their governments in pursuing conflict
with Saddam Hussein and the emphasis on Iraq in foreign policy
initiatives has little to do with international lobbying or shifts
in public opinion. For example, in July 2002 when George W. Bush
and Tony Blair prepared the public for a possible military conquest
of Iraq, polls showed that only a small, and declining, majority
of American people were in favour. Opinion polls consistently
demonstrate that the Western public tends to share a narrow view
of foreign policy priorities, based on perceptions of personal
interests, rather than the more ideological 'crusading' perspective
often pushed by their government leaders.
The attention to the articulation of a political mission, beyond
the directionless of domestic politics, through foreign policy
activism abroad has been an important resource of authority and
credibility for British and US political leaders. The ability
to project or symbolise unifying 'values' has become a core leadership
attribute. George W. Bush's shaky start to the US presidency was
transformed by his speech to Congress in the wake of the World
Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks, in which he staked out his
claim to represent and protect America's ethical values against
the terrorist 'heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th
century'. Tony Blair, similarly, was at his most presidential
in the wake of the attacks, arguing that values were what distinguished
the two sides of the coming conflict: 'We are democratic. They
are not. We have respect for human life. They do not. We hold
essentially liberal values. They do not.'
The search for ethical or principled approaches emphasising the
government's moral authority has inexorably led to a domestic
shift in priorities making international policy-making increasingly
high profile in relation to other policy-areas. The emphasis on
ethical foreign policy commitments enables Western governments
to declare an unequivocal moral stance, which helps to mitigate
awkward questions of government mission and political coherence
in the domestic sphere. The contrast between the moral certainty
possible in selected areas of foreign policy and the uncertainties
of domestic policy-making was unintentionally highlighted when
President George Bush congratulated Tony Blair on his willingness
to take a stand over Afghanistan and Iraq: 'The thing I admire
about this Prime Minister is that he doesn't need a poll or a
focus group to convince him of the difference between right and
wrong.' Tony Blair, like Bush himself, of course relies heavily
on polls and focus groups for every domestic initiative. It is
only in the sphere of foreign policy that it appears that there
are opportunities for Western leaders to project a self-image
of purpose, mission and political clarity.
In the aftermath of the Cold War the United States was the unchallenged
world power with the preponderance of military might. Yet despite
having unrivalled power, the US lacked an ideological framework
to exercise its superiority. There was no grand project, no vision
or policy framework to give the exercise of power meaning. It
was in the context of this policy vacuum that the new doctrine
of humanitarian intervention attempted to provide a new rationale,
a new legitimacy to the exercise of US power.
In the international arena the new ideological framework initially
promised success. The US was able to rewrite the laws of international
relations opening up a new sphere for international policy activism.
At the end of the Gulf War, UN Security Council resolution 688
on 5 April 1991 ruled that domestic policies towards the Iraqi
civilian population were a threat to 'international peace and
security' and therefore subject to legitimate international intervention.
The interventions of the early 1990s in Iraq, Somalia and Bosnia
extended the rights of major powers to project their authority
and rolled back the gains of the UN Charter period. Driven by
America's unchallenged power the old Cold War framework of equal
sovereignty and non-intervention was steadily undermined.
However, the US was not able to shape a new national mission through
humanitarian intervention for two reasons: firstly, it failed
to secure long-term international legitimacy and secondly, it
provided no broader positive vision of meaning that could give
a sense of purpose to domestic politics. Rather than helping to
overcome the Vietnam syndrome, attempts to project US power in
the 1990s merely confirmed the corrosion of US confidence.
The concept of humanitarian intervention could not win long-term
international legitimacy because it failed to convince the majority
of the world's governments, who feared that their sovereignty
was threatened, and provoked resistance from European allies concerned
that their international standing would be undermined by US unilateralism.
The view that human rights could 'trump' sovereignty was resisted
by the majority of non-Western states, concerned about their own
sovereign rights. The war over Kosovo revealed that the UN
Security Council was split, with Russia and China resisting, but
more telling was the fact that the US and Britain were reluctant
to take the issue to the UN General Assembly for fear that the
necessary majority, under the 'Uniting for Peace' procedure, would
not be forthcoming.
While the US could build 'coalitions of the willing' in support
of a particular intervention, the principle of humanitarian intervention
itself could not win wider acceptance. There was no international
consensus on any new international framework or amendment to the
UN Charter restrictions on the use of force because both Western
and non-Western states recognised that the blurring of domestic
and international responsibilities could be fundamentally destabilising.
The problems with winning any broader legitimacy were drawn out
in the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty
report, The Responsibility to Protect. The Commission explicitly
recognised that it was unlikely for any collective international
institution to sanction the use of force on humanitarian grounds
without a consensus of support in the UN Security Council:
An inhibiting consideration always is the fear that the tiger
of intervention, once let loose, may turn on the rider: today's
intervener could become the object of tomorrow's intervention.
The numerical majority of any collective organisation, almost
by definition, will be the smaller, less powerful states, suspicious
of the motives of the most powerful in their midst, and reluctant
to sanction interference by the powerful against fellow-weaklings.
A more fundamental problem was that the US could not tie in other
Western states around this agenda in the long-term. Humanitarian
intervention was no substitute for the Cold War's political and
ideological defence of Western security. The US's major European
allies, the UK, Germany and France, have shown themselves to be
increasingly reluctant to see the US sideline the UN Security
Council and undermine the cooperative institutions which they
have used to enhance their standing internationally.
The framework of humanitarian intervention openly threatened to
sideline the United Nations as the authorizing authority for military
intervention, and through granting increased authority to ad-hoc
'coalitions of the willing', making the Security Council subordinate
to US power. The European powers concern to tie the US into
multilateral institutions which preserved their positions of importance
could be seen in resistance to the US opt out from the International
Criminal Court (ICC). The trans-Atlantic rows over the ICC were
not based on the possibility of US services coming before the
new court, the Europeans had already offered assurances that this
would not be the case, but on the principle that American 'exceptionalism'
could not be openly legitimised.
The vision thing
The problem with humanitarian intervention was that while the
doctrine could serve to facilitate the exercise US power and to
overcome the formal barriers posed by the existing framework of
international politics and international law, it was unable to
create any positive framework of legitimisation. Rather than resolving
the domestic political malaise, foreign activism tended to export
the problem to the international sphere. Coker argues that the
reason for this is that the doctrine of humanitarianism offers
no positive view of the future - there is no mission or political
project that transcends the present. Humanitarian intervention
is a doctrine of crisis management, which lacking any historical
perspective becomes a slave of contingency, based on responding
to emergency: 'And emergency does not constitute the first stage
of a project of meaning: it represents its active negation.'
The doctrine of humanitarian intervention enabled the US to project
its power internationally, but did not operate as a source of
meaning. The dualism of 'human rights and human wrongs' had a
strong negative pole but no positive substance. The prevention
of conflict and the protection of victims of human rights abuses
became an end in itself rather than part of a broader political
or ideological project. David Rieff highlights the problem with
taking the ideological vision out of international intervention
and the projection of power:
I think you can have just wars that don't have a humanitarian
basis. One of the ways the conception of humanitarianism is being
bent completely out of shape, losing its specific gravity to use
another image, is that suddenly we talk about everything in humanitarian
terms. My friend Ronnie Brauman at MSF France says if Auschwitz
happened today they would call it a humanitarian emergency. We
can have a just war without there being a humanitarian emergency.
Indeed the opposite is true. In this sense the Left is surely
correct. Wars tend to exacerbate humanitarian crises not improve
them, that's the nature of war. So already it's a fantasy.
The project of exercising power abroad through 'humanitarian intervention'
was shot through with contradictions. As Rieff suggests, the project
of 'ethical' foreign policy was a fallacy; it was impossible to
develop a coherent political strategy based purely on prevention.
No matter how many countries were intervened against, there could
be no victory or lasting success. The logic of a consistent ethical
foreign policy would be an untenable 'war without end' and the
breakdown of the mechanisms holding together international society.
The ideal of preventing human rights abuse or conflict, like preventing
domestic crime, cannot be achieved by policing and punishment.
To cite Coker:
Victory is no longer an objective. Postmodern societies do not
fight wars to secure a final peace; they use war to manage insecurity&
Wars are no longer wars, they are police actions. For there is
no 'peace', no world order, no imperial mission, only the endless
prospect, to quote President Clinton, of 'a world in which the
future will be threatened'.
Rather than projecting power in a way which could reinstate a
national vision, the predominant image of humanitarian intervention
was one of weakness. The defining motifs are not ones of US strength
and power - most manifest in the bombing of a major European capital,
Belgrade - but weakness in failing to intervene in Rwanda and
failing to act decisively in Bosnia until it was too late. The
humanitarian framework made the aggressive assertion of US power
appear contentless, without meaning and long-term justification.
Even Kosovo, the leading example of intervention for moral values,
is seen as a failure, merely encouraging, or being powerless to
stop, the 'reverse' ethnic cleansing of the Serb minority. The
problems of the Balkans appeared to remain the same, all that
had changed was the pecking order.
The most ardent advocates of humanitarian intervention, as symbolic
of a new sense of Western political identity and moral vision,
were caught in a bind. On the one hand they insisted that governments
should be willing to sacrifice their own troops for a 'just' cause,
on the other hand, they had no political framework to justify
such a sacrifice. It was as if just acting in a morally committed
manner could become a replacement for a grand mission. The key
issue was the demonstration of social commitment and engagement
rather than the exercise of power in itself. Going to war was
no longer enough to restore a sense of moral mission, the public
had to be galvanised too. In Britain strident interventionists
like Mary Kaldor argued that military action was not enough to
give a sense of meaning to humanitarian intervention. Rather than
just focus on bombs, the government needed to work on the 'home
front' to convince the public on the question 'whether it is acceptable
to sacrifice national lives for the sake of people far away'.
David Rieff emphasised the need for the US government to involve
the public in 'a truly democratic debate' about the 'kind of world
the United States wants' what it is willing to sacrifice&to
achieve its goals'.
Rieff and others bemoaned 'the indifference with which the American
and Western European public lethargically assented to the Kosovo
war, always providing, that is, that there were no casualties
on our side'. Perhaps the most trenchant criticism of the
US government's failure to use humanitarian intervention to forge
a new national vision came from Michael Ignatieff. The title to
his book on Kosovo, Virtual Wars, highlights the problem.
Unlike wars of the past, Ignatieff argues Kosovo failed to mobilise
or cohere society and offer people 'a moment of ecstatic moral
communion with fellow citizens'. The public were alienated
[Citizens of NATO countries] were mobilised, not as combatants
but as spectators. The war was a spectacle: it aroused emotions
in the intense but shallow way that sports do. The events were
as remote from their essential concerns as a football game&
commitment is intense but also shallow.
While the pro-war advocates wanted the moral mission abroad to
have an impact at home, their moralisation of conflict illustrated
just how deep the problems were. Even though there was little
domestic opposition to the principle of military intervention,
the impact of the Culture Wars weighed heavily in the domestic
focus on military strategy, on the methods and practices of the
intervening forces. A moral debate that started with the 'human
wrongs' committed by the Miloaevi government was soon transformed
into a critique of NATO strategy, the accidental or 'collateral'
killing of civilians and the reluctance of the US government to
commit ground troops, which it was held may have minimised the
deaths of non-combatants.
The argument that US and British lives could not be treated as
if they were more valuable than those of Bosnian, Albanian or
Rwandan people demonstrated the difficulty of exorcising the ghost
of Vietnam - of asserting a new national interest or identity
through the humanitarian framework. Rather than winning wars,
the moral mission of humanitarian intervention was self-defeating
in its inevitable questioning of any strident use of power. As
the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty
note, traditional warfighting was no longer possible as 'democratic
societies that are sensitive to human rights and the rule of law
will not long tolerate the pervasive use of overwhelming military
power'. While the cause was popular, governments themselves
achieved little moral authority. It was the humanitarian NGOs
who gained legitimacy from the militarisation of humanitarianism
rather than the military. The British Army could gain little credibility
as the 'military wing of Oxfam' when military means were now seen
as ethically suspect. After Kosovo, the concept of fighting
war for humanitarian reasons was increasingly treated with scepticism
by both governments and humanitarian organisations. Rather
than addressing the domestic malaise, through providing a framework
for the coherent projection of power, the doctrine of humanitarian
intervention proved only to have intensified it.
The War on Terror
It appeared as if the horrific events of 9/11 would rewrite the
norms and practices of international society and provide the 'defining
paradigm' missing from 'the global order' since the end of the
Cold War. The doctrine of humanitarian intervention had exposed
the US to accusations of double standards and given the moral
high ground to aid agencies rather than military forces. In the
wake of 9/11 the US government had the opportunity to regain the
moral mantle. In a world of victim politics, the US could at last
claim to be a victim itself. In the words of Martin Shaw, the
US and Britain now had the 'moral capital' they needed to overcome
the legacy of Empire and tackle the Culture Wars at home and abroad.
Initially Bush and Blair were upbeat about the possibilities for
developing a new vision of the future. For the hawks in the US
establishment, 9/11 provided the legitimacy to project US power
in a more confident way and long term plans for war on Iraq were
already considered on that day. US Vice President Dick Cheney
and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, recognised from the
beginning that the 'war against terrorism' was an opportunity
to restore what America had lost in Vietnam. As Maureen Dowd noted
in the New York Times:
The administration isn't targeting Iraq because of 9/11. It's
exploiting 9/11 to target Iraq. This new fight isn't logical it's
cultural. It is the latest chapter in the culture wars, the conservative
dream of restoring America's sense of Manifest Destiny& Extirpating
Saddam is about proving how tough we are to a world that thinks
we got soft when that last helicopter left the roof of the American
embassy in Saigon in 1975.
This confidence was most manifest in Tony Blair's triumphant speech
to the Labour Party conference in October 2001:
The starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant, those
living in want and squalor from the deserts of Northern Africa
to the slums of Gaza, to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan: they
too are our cause. This is a moment to seize. The kaleidoscope
has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle
again. Before they do, let us re-order this world around us&'
While the US and British establishments talked a good 'war against
terrorism', they found it much more difficult to fight one. The
war in Afghanistan illustrated the problem. Because the 'war against
terrorism' was driven largely by a desire to reap domestic rewards
through a show of strength there was a lack of political and military
strategy on the ground. The aims of the war were not clear, and
like the Kosovo war, appeared to shift with every new media deadline.
Initially the aim was to capture bin Laden, then to remove the
Taliban regime, but despite the fire power, the daisy-cutters
and the clusterbombs there was little sense of achievement.
It soon appeared that 9/11 had not established a new paradigm
for the projection of power. There was no problem in bringing
US firepower to bear, but the 'war against terrorism' in Afghanistan
provided little new context of meaning or purpose. The conflict
was shaped by the doctrine of humanitarian intervention, with
the dropping of food parcels along with missiles and an emphasis
on the humanitarian and human rights cause. Again, the critics
argued that a humanitarian war could not be fought from 35,000
feet and the sight of the most powerful military power on earth
carpet bombing one of the poorest did little to reassert a sense
of moral mission.
The biggest problem was that the war in Afghanistan was not framed
in a context that linked it with any positive vision of the future.
The 'war against terrorism', like 'humanitarian intervention',
was a policing operation, not the beginning of a revived sense
of purpose. The artificial nature of the project and the lack
of commitment it could inspire meant that rather than asserting
its power the US risked further being discredited. The use of
local Afghan warlords to hunt down bin Laden in the mountains
of Tora Bora, widely blamed for allowing him to escape, was a
humiliating failure for the US. The lack of willingness to commit
US troops in a situation where casualties were feared possible
undermined the projection of US power and the US success in imposing
In the aftermath of Tora Bora, the US government was even keener
to shift the emphasis to Iraq and 'wipe the slate clean'. There
has been little focus on post-war Afghanistan and the Western-sponsored
Karzai government has been hamstrung by the US lack of willingness
to enforce his rule outside of the capital Kabul. Policy reports
contrast the 'light footprint' of international control in the
state in comparison to the resources put into the more high-profile
protectorates of Bosnia and Kosovo. The victory/defeat for
the US in Afghanistan appears emblematic of the failure of the
'war against terrorism'. Every attempt to use the international
sphere to regain a sense of domestic mission seemed only to make
the problems worse. In this sense, it would appear that whatever
happens over Iraq, the US government is unlikely to reap any long-term
It appears that the American establishment can not even convince
itself of a sense of Manifest Destiny, let alone the rest of the
world. As London Times columnist Mick Hume asserts 'the
fall-out from the Culture Wars is not only felt on campuses and
in high cultural circles. The calling into question of America's
traditional values has a corrosive effect on every institution
including the US military.' Rick Perlstein notes that the
opposition to the war is not coming mainly from the public but
the establishment itself:
&the foreign policy establishment seems distinctly uneasy
about war in Iraq. The military establishment is not necessarily
any more enthusiastic; Gen. Anthony Zinni, President Bush's own
sometime Mideast envoy, has spoken repeatedly against invasion
and in favour of containment. The Central Intelligence Agency
has let its coolness to the invasion idea become known.
The messy war in Afghanistan and the divisions within the US establishment
over Iraq illustrate the difficulties of policy-making in the
absence of a political or ideological framework. While there may
have been a consensus over taking some action against Iraq, there
was no coherent vision shaping US policy in the region and therefore
little long-term consideration given to the consequences of embarking
on military action. As the 'war on terror' continues, the lack
of any clear sense of the future has meant that political leaders
have inevitably lowered their aspirations. Compare, for example,
Blair's aspiration to seize the opportunity to 'reorder the world'
with his defensive justification for war on Iraq, voiced at Prime
Minister's questions in January 2003 that 'the threat is real,
and if we don't deal with it, our weakness will haunt future generations'.
The 'war against terror' had become more of a holding operation
than a noble mission.
Without a prior consensus on national purpose, or a strong 'idea
of the state' a sense of what society stands for foreign wars
can do little to rejuvenate a collective sense of national identity.
Rather, they have revealed increasing divisions within the British
and US establishments and highlighted that today even professional
soldiers are often reluctant to make sacrifices without a national
vision which they can find a collective meaning in. This 'postmodern'
malaise, the contrast between the vast material and military power
of the US and UK governments and their inability to internally
generate a strong sense of political legitimacy and a shared framework
of identity and meaning, was most apparent in the US government's
orders that US soldiers should not raise the Stars and Stripes
as they swept though Iraq and in the British government's
decision not to hold a 'Victory Parade' in the wake of the military
Far from providing a sense of purpose, lacking in the domestic
sphere, the 'war on terror' has heightened the domestic sense
of uncertainty. With US and British society regularly disrupted
by panics over the next potential terrorist 9/11 - which could
include anything from hijacked planes being flown into nuclear
plants to dirty bombs or releases of anthrax, botchulism, ricin,
smallpox and other potential deadly toxins -governments increasingly
appear unable to assert authority. Rather than creating a sense
of mission, the 'war on terror' has fed society-wide views of
vulnerability and powerlessness. It was this sense of vulnerability,
rather than opposition to the Iraq war itself, which led to the
Spanish Aznar government being defeated in the immediate aftermath
of the 3/11 train bombings in Madrid.
The inability to establish a political project which can cohere
society at home has meant that the projection of power abroad
can no longer be cast within a framework of national interest
with states setting a clear agenda. It seems that the 'war against
terror' has cast marginal fundamentalist terror groups in the
role of agenda-setters in the same way as 'humanitarian intervention'
gave an exaggerated importance to 'principled issue' NGOs. While
it may appear that nation states are losing their capacity to
assert their national interests and that non-state actors are
in the driving seat, this article suggests that the level of appearances
may well confuse cause with effect.
The 'war on terror' clearly highlights the problems of articulating
a national interest in international or domestic politics, even
for the most powerful state in the world. The projection of power
internationally by the United States and its allies appears to
have no more connection to 'narrowly defined' national interests
than the domestic exercise of power by leading Western governments.
At the empirical level, it would seem that the advocates of 'postmodern'
values and a new liberal internationalism have a valid point which
critics of Great Power interests behind international intervention
would be churlish to ignore.
This article has suggested, however, that the explanation for
this shift away from the articulation of national interests cannot
be found in the international sphere. Constructivist and liberal
commentators argue that nation states can no longer pursue national
interests because of the pressures of international civil society,
which has forced morality and cosmopolitan ethics on to the agenda
and in doing so has transformed the national identity of states.
However, rather than focusing analysis from the 'outside/in',
explaining Western government policy-making as a response to new
international pressures from non-state actors, it seems highly
likely that the projection of national interests in the international
sphere has been undermined by domestic rather than international
If international intervention is in part driven by attempts to
address the domestic political malaise, or Culture Wars in the
US, it would seem that it is important to analyse the international
from the 'inside/out'. Rather than international intervention
illustrating a shift away from national interests, it is suggested
here that the opposite relationship is in play. The international
sphere has become the testing ground through which new attempts
have been made to recreate a sense of a shared domestic political
project. In this sense the Culture Wars would appear to have played
an important role in shaping the projection of national power
abroad. While the liberal internationalists aspired to create
a new collective national identity based on cosmopolitan citizenship,
the US hawks have attempted to 'stomp on Saddam to exorcise the
spectres of Vietnam and Watergate' and restore a past sense of
traditional moral authority. Whether the leaders of the Western
world choose to wage war in favour of ethical relativism or against
it, the search for a domestic vision through international intervention
has consistently been a destabilising and destructive one.
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