Burma and the Liberal Hawks

Matt has an interesting post on the questions that Burma raises for liberal internationalism of the sort he advances in Heads in the Sand:

Realistically, you're not going to see a forceful U.N. intervention in Burma because no country capable of mounting such an operation (basically the U.S. and maybe Britain and France) would want to mount one, while Russia and China (and probably even post-colonial democracies like India) would be opposed to anyone mounting one, and democratic countries would be secretly glad that Russia and China would block a move like this because they could blame inaction on Russia and China ... for a domestic audience even though they wouldn't want to step in themselves.

That said, if you could sort of bracket the logistics/will/capabilities issues, with any proposed humanitarian military intervention I've come to think that we need to think seriously about two issues - legitimacy and sustainability. We really might be greeted by the Burmese as liberators ... The trouble is what happens the day after you're greeted as a liberator. An occupying foreign power is naturally going to come to be viewed with suspicion by the occupied. This is in many ways an intrinsic problem, but it can be ameliorated a lot by legitimacy -- especially the kind of legitimacy you get from the U.N. where precisely because the UNSC decision-making process is cumbersome you can be ensured that a UNSC authorization reflects a broad international consensus ...

The other thing is sustainability. The international system needs to have some kind of recognized rules of the road. "The United States topples foreign regimes when we decide their government is bad" isn't a reasonable proposal for us to ask people in Beijing, Moscow, New Delhi, Teheran, Brasilia, or anywhere else to live by. By "any large country topples any foreign regime when it decides their government is bad" is a terrible rule that would lead to a lot of destructive conflict of various sorts. At the end of the day, great power conflict -- even if it "only" takes the form of cold war-style standoffs -- will do immense humanitarian damage to the world and avoiding it should be a very high priority. Does that mean we should do nothing? No, it doesn't, it means American officials (and, indeed, civil society figures) should keep pushing the international community to move to a world where something like the Responsibility to Protect has some force in the real world. But it has to be done in a reasonable consensual way that tries to stitch together America and its traditional allies with new emerging powers in various regions ...

I think this argument captures what I take to be the central difficulty with Matt's thesis: Namely, the extent to which it's offering a long-term agenda as a response to a question - how, when where and why the U.S. and our allies should intervene abroad - that tends to manifest itself as a series of discrete and very immediate challenges. It's all very well to say that the United States should be trying to build a world order in which great powers like Russia and China are willing to sign on whatever sort of Burmese intervention might theoretically be sanctioned under the "Responsibility to Protect" umbrella, but even if you're optimistic that such a world order is attainable - which Matt is, and I'm not - it's still far enough off that we can expect many more Burma-style (or Darfur-style, or Kosovo-style, or Rwanda-style) quandaries in the meantime. And answering the "what is to be done?" question that invariably accompanies these crises by saying that "American officials ...should keep pushing the international community to move to a world where something like the Responsibility to Protect has some force in the real world" amounts to answering it by saying "in the short term, nothing."

Now, that may be the right answer, but it's an answer that's more likely to appeal to realists and non-interventionists of the left and right than to the liberal internationalists to whom Matt's addressing himself. Basically, it amounts to telling people who are ideologically invested in the idea of interventions to halt wars, genocides, famines and so forth that they need to accept today's famine, and tomorrow's genocide, and the day after that's bloody civil war ... and someday, if the U.S. plays its cards right and invests heavily enough in a multilateral framework for international relations, the other great powers will come around to "rules of the road" under which it's plausible to imagine the UN conducting humanitarian interventions inside the borders of its more misgoverned member states. And while the Iraq invasion has made this Yglesian, "choose the UN, and patience" approach to world affairs much more appealing to the liberal-internationalist set than it was in, say, 1999 or 2002, as time goes by and more Burmese-style crises pass without an international response, I expect that most liberal hawks will default back toward the more aggressive and UN-skeptical approach to the world's troubles that at present is defended primarily by neoconservatives.

This is a long way of saying what I was trying to get at, clumsily, in my conversation with Matt about his book - namely, that he's trying carve out a "liberal internationalist" middle ground between the sort of liberal hawkery that helped give us the Iraq War and the non-interventionist (or pacifist) left, but that in practice (at least when the U.S. isn't just coming off a disastrous overseas intervention) this middle ground tends to get very narrow very fast: From JFK down to Bill Clinton and the liberals who agitated for the invasion of Iraq, it's hard to find all that many prominent liberal internationalists (at least within the Democratic Party) who resisted the temptation, when it presented itself, to choose interventionist ends even when the multilateral means that liberal internationalism is theoretically committed to weren't available.