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Intervention or not-intervention: What is the real dichotomy?

April 5, 2011

By Fiorenzo Conte

A comment by Ricardo to a previous post raised some excellent points. I will try to go through to some of his questions.

  1. 1. Was there ever an “era of the unaccountable sovereign state? I think the first part of the question is whether there was ever an era of sovereign states. During the Cold War US and URSS were propping up dictators across the world on the basis of their strategic interests. These interests diminished with the end of the Cold War. Hence those countries considered less important from a geopolitical point of view were partially “ignored” by the big powers. So from this perspective the end of the Cold War increased the number of sovereign states. As for the concept of accountability, I think we need to ask: accountable to whom? States’ accountability vis-à-vis external powers probably faded but never disappeared after the Cold War. In contrast, their accountability vis-à-vis their citizens could have been increased, at least in theory, given that multiparty democracy became the new buzzword.

  1. 2. A better dichotomy that comes to my mind is “will the outcomes of intervention be beneficial or not? (both nationally and internationally)” or, more radically, “is there a side whose victory I am interested in”? If one wants to establish whether or not the intervention is beneficial one needs to have a clear goal in mind. So for example, the question would be: will the intervention be beneficial for human rights, for international security etc? I think that if taken from this perspective the dichotomy peace vs. human rights proposed by the Spiegel is not in opposition with the one you propose. More controversial is in my view the goals pursued by each country. So are the western countries truly interested in whether the intervention is conducive to human rights or there are other hidden goals ? Mahmood Mamdani has a brilliant article about the hidden benefits that such intervention is accruing to rich countries. Freezing Gheddafi’s assets is tantamount to an interest-free loan for western countries. In his words:

“Libyan assets are mainly in the US and Europe, and they amount to hundreds of billions of dollars: the US Treasury froze $30bn of liquid assets, and US banks $18bn. What is to happen to interest on these assets? The absence of any specific arrangement assets are turned into a booty, an interest-free loan, in this instance, to US Treasury and US banks.”

So from this perspective the dilemma facing rich countries would be: “do the economic and political benefits of the intervention outnumber its costs?” And if we stretch it further, the goal would be to create an economic dependency in the post-war period( the issue of sovereignty again). In the words of Mamdani

“The objective is to destroy physical assets with minimum cost in human lives. The cost to the people of Libya will be of another type. The more physical assets are destroyed, the less sovereign will be the next government in Libya.”

  1. 3. weapons are not controlled by most people, they are controlled by specialized bureaucracies (the armed forces)”… (to complicate things even more) And the most technologically advanced weapons are not controlled by citizens of that hypothetical country but by the industrially advanced capitalist countries. Following this line of thought one would conclude that as elections are contested by domestic political actors, the ultimate referee of the situation are those western countries which dispose of the best military equipment. This is true in Libya ( the post by Jessica makes clear that there is no Libya ownership in the post-war process) but also in Ivory Coast where the situation is ultimately being resolved by an armed confrontation.



One Comment leave one →
  1. Jessica Nabongo permalink
    April 10, 2011 1:03 pm

    sidenote: I love Mamdani. I never thought about the interest on those frozen assets. Wow.

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