The ideology of imperialist war has become almost indistinguishable from the rhetoric of human rights in recent decades. James Foley reviews a new study of liberal interventionism by Philip Cunliffe.
Five years after the massacres in Rwanda, Kofi Annan asked a question that condensed a generation of received moral wisdom: “If in those dark days and hours leading up to the genocide, a coalition of states had been prepared to act in defense of the Tutsi population, but did not receive prompt Council authorization, should such a coalition have stood aside and allowed the horror to unfold?” Annan may have been cautious about some extensions of military action. Still, his implication was unmistakable: under certain exceptions, wars that override national sovereignty and even international law may be licensed under the higher cause of human dignity.
Quickly, rule-bending rationales dreamt up for “exceptions” emerged as norms. Absolutely everything, to coin a phrase, was Rwandaized. All the complexities of post-colonial politics were reimagined according to the West’s duty to act and to protect. Humanitarian pieties became standard grounds for military action, surpassing twentieth century rationales like national self-interest, the proletarian cause and even religion. In the process, as Perry Anderson observed, “human rights became the global trampoline for vaulting over the barriers of national sovereignty, in the name of a better future.”
Philip Cunliffe’s excellent Cosmopolitan Dystopia suggests that the future has arrived, with unimaginably bleak consequences. The book invites a deeper critique of the geopolitical regime implied in and accelerated by humanitarian theories. It daringly examines the complicity of liberal cosmopolitan moralising – even its pacifist versions – in the collapse of political order that followed from Western interventions. Perhaps most daringly of all, it presents a refreshingly persuasive defence of the thoroughly unfashionable concept of sovereignty.
Elements of this narrative may seem uncontroversial. Few now deny that Iraq, at least, was an apocalyptic failure. Indeed, two successive American Presidents, Obama and Trump, ran against their party establishments by brandishing their anti-war credentials. The consensus, on the surface, appeared to shift away from neoconservative ideas of imposing capitalist liberal freedoms by force towards a new realism and even isolationism.
Yet the appearance of consensus on Iraq can distract from unresolved problems of state power. Anti-war slogans such as “no blood for oil”, for all their mobilising power, implied the possibility of the good war, fought for the right, i.e. humanitarian, reasons. Indeed, discourses of opportunity cost were central to the mainstream case against the invasion. George Clooney, the highest profile celebrity critic of the invasion, suggested that America should instead turn its interventionist attentions to Darfur. The intention was thus to purify American power, to make the state a “force for good” in the world, to make America morally great again, doubtless by replacing a Republican president with a Democrat.
Naturally there is a real sense in which Iraq was about oil, and not about ridding the world of chemical weapons, or, for that matter, liberating the Iraqi people. However, Cunliffe persuasively argues that Iraq was inconceivable without humanitarian ideology. “The fact remains that the invasion would never have happened,” he argues, “had not the humanitarian suspicion of centralised state power and jurisdictional limits not been normalised by the globalisation of human rights ideology, and had the precedent not been established that humanitarian protection could be invoked to trump the rights of state sovereignty”. To simply blame the war’s disastrous consequences on oil companies, Israeli meddling or American unilateralism misses that the true disaster was the collapse in political order occasioned by the violation of national sovereignty, a notion actively encouraged by humanitarian ideology.
The persistence of beliefs that violations of sovereignty could be legitimate (even if not in Iraq) would license new disasters. In 2011, a clique of foreign policy intellectuals, led by humanitarian hawks like Hillary Clinton and Samantha Power, convinced Obama, despite his election on an anti-war ticket, of invading the ruthless but largely inconsequential Libyan state. The grounds, as ever, were respect for universal values; the result, tragically, has been the triumph of murderous fanaticism. Libya has oil – perhaps, cynics add, America’s interest is no coincidence – but there was no Dick Cheney-Halliburton connection here, no ‘follow the money’ scenario. Libya was an invasion by a liberal administration, fostered by liberal preoccupations (even the SNP broke from its normal anti-war policy to support the invasion). It was no less apocalyptic for it.
How, then, did the cause of human dignity become so embroiled with imperial force? For fretful Cold War liberals, the concept of human rights was to replace grandiose ideologies of progress that, they thought, inevitably ended in murderous state violence. It was meant to put an end to all prospects of dystopia, by putting firm limits on political vision and “putting the human first”, alleviating suffering and focusing on the responsibility to protect. This is one of the irony’s in Cunliffe’s title. The uncritical authority given to military humanitarianism leaves a legacy of broken states and murderous factions – epitomised by ISIS – with consequences equally as nightmarish as your average Soviet republic. “Evidently even anti-utopian, cosmopolitan ideals can just as easily succumb to the intoxication of military power and crusading zeal to improve the world,” he argues.
The academic and activist left, Cunliffe asserts, has also been complicit. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, they resigned from the politics of state power (and, relatedly, social class) and re-emerged as human rights activists and civil society movements, claiming to have surpassed the disastrous power temptations of nation states. Learning the lessons of Soviet failures, they would change the world without taking power. Cosmopolitanism became their guiding vision, the morally redeeming side of the left’s capitulation to the onward march of global capitalism. Ulrich Beck spoke for a generation of left-leaning social scientists when he heralded “a politics of post-nationalism” in which “the cosmopolitan project contradicts and replaces the nation-state project.” This new regime rendered the left powerless in traditional areas of citizenship and workplace power but compensated them with a new role as moral guardians of universal humanitarian ideals.
However, as Cunliffe observes, even if they were indifferent to political power, political power was not indifferent to them. Post-sovereignty moralising was quickly absorbed into the foreign policy establishment. It helped to solve the basic riddle of post-Cold War geopolitics, namely, absent the Soviet threat, how to reconcile persistent interference in the affairs of other nations with some semblance of international order. Globalising the problem of human rights proved persistently useful in this regard, just as “democracy” had proved a useful rallying call for Western power in the Cold War.
On matters of imperial power, there are already signs that unchecked moralising has led today’s leftists back to a pre-Iraq mode of thinking. This may seem like a paradoxical claim, since, post-Black Lives Matter, the surface appearance suggests penetrating scrutiny of the legacy of “Empire”, from Winston Churchill’s racism to Thomas Jefferson’s indecent relations with his female slaves. However, this iconoclasm has proved entirely compatible with permissiveness on questions of contemporary imperialism: the feminist hero worship of Hillary Clinton, perhaps the most hawkish presidential candidate in recent American history, is testament to the new ethical regime. (Given Kamala Harris’s background in the carceral state, the new hero worship is likely to become even more darkly ironic.)
Meanwhile, anyone attending liberal academic conferences is likely to encounter pious praise for the liberal virtues of the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires. Insofar as imperial power is accompanied by cosmopolitan framings, leftism has been almost entirely disarmed, suggesting that most failed to learn lessons from Iraq.
An underlying problem is that cosmopolitanism, the left’s preferred framing for its moral purpose, is not at all incompatible with imperial power. Indeed, in many ways it is synonymous with it. “Over the course of the twenty-first century there has been growing sympathy for imperialism among sections of the intelligentsia – and with good reason,” Unherd’s deputy editor Ed West rightly observes. “The values of the 21st century global elite align far closer with pre-modern imperial rulers than with the 19th and 20th century rulers of nation states…Empire has always been cosmopolitan.”
When Trump was elected in 2016, many wondered whether it would finally force a reckoning with the inherent brutality of American power. Here was a leader who seemed to epitomise all the violence and vulgarity that lurked beneath superficial diplomacy. Four years on, another interpretation suggests itself. Historically, anti-war Europeans would say they loved the American people but hated American power. Trump’s role was to reverse this discourse. Nowadays, liberal intellectuals are hostile to the American people – the yahoos who voted for an imbecile – and uncritically deferential to representatives of American power such as Robert Mueller, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and just about any deep state official who pens a critical comment on Trump. Even the Bush administration has been reclaimed from the condescension of posterity, largely because its elitist sensibilities intersect with the anti-populism that dominates liberal left commentary.
Cunliffe belongs to an idiosyncratic intellectual tradition. Central to his wider project – best displayed in his role co-hosting the (highly recommended) podcast, Aufhebunga Bunga – is an unabashed defence of the conceptual and political value of sovereignty. He has been a prominent left-wing supporter of Brexit, but also a critic of “Lexit”, insofar as the latter implies that leaving the European Union is a purely instrumental question, only worthwhile insofar as it leads to socialist economic policies. This misses the transformation in state power occasioned by EU membership, which empowers managerial bureaucracies in limiting the scope of working-class democratic potential, establishing a model of sovereignty where states are responsible for their people rather than answerable to them.
This book largely focuses on questions of military power, where the EU is a relatively marginal player. But dystopias come in many forms, and the lawless, gangster legacy of Western interventions in the Arab world has elective affinities with the more Huxleyian, highly regulated European cosmopolitan order. Cunliffe’s other new book, The New Twenty Years Crisis, acts as an accompanying piece and explores what he calls “EUtopia” in greater depth.
Nonetheless, Cosmopolitan Dystopia alone serves as a powerful rejoinder to the most deranged, conformist and morally permissive streaks of liberal “internationalism”. It demolishes the myopic but prevalent notion that Russia and China are “revisionist powers” intent on using force and subversion to reorder international politics in their image. Conspiratorial notions of Putin plots might be prevalent among the most expensively educated branches of Western society. This does not make them any less absurd.
If we do look for a revisionist challenge to the international status quo, what do we find? The aggressive use of force, external interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states, an ideology of systemic transformation, the establishment of new international institutions? We do not need to look far: it is obvious that the only contenders for such a role since the end of the Cold War are Western states, principally the US, the UK and France, with varying degrees of support from other Western states both within NATO (Italy, Germany) and outside it (e.g., Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Sweden). That Russian interventions should seem shocking, unprecedented and outrageous only speaks to the extent to which Western intervention has become so normalised and routine as to be utterly unremarkable.
Seemingly the greatest absurdity of “Russiagate” conspiracies is that they ignore just how regularly America directly intervenes to influence foreign elections (and, in the UK, openly intervened in two recent referendums) or otherwise engage in “regime change”. But perhaps this is no great irony. As Cunliffe’s book has amply demonstrated, decades of left-liberal philosophies have helped haul down barriers of national sovereignty in the name of American moral exceptionalism. It was, after all, the faultlessly liberal Madeleine Albright who said, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation.” Perhaps it was naïve to assume that anyone would learn very much from the dystopian experience of Iraq.
Overall, the book convincingly shows that ideas designed to defend the universal dignity of the individual against arbitrary power, political violence and national strife, have ended in their opposite. Activist moralising, in that process, was rather too easily instrumentalised for grand strategy. The chilling legacy of broken states that issued from cosmopolitan discourse should offer valuable strategic lessons to a left that is willing to listen. Since 2016, leftism has been far too easily embroiled in lamenting leaders like Trump whose originality consists in refusing to play the game of cloaking self-interest in liberal piety. A quick glance at the historical record shows that the superficially pious often commit the greatest crimes. With Biden now in power, backed by the worst of liberal imperialists, the left must make a searching moral inventory of the record of humanitarian intervention, and this book is a good place to start.
Cosmopolitan dystopia: International intervention and the failure of the West is published by Manchester University Press.