Humanitarian Intervention is a Kind of Cosmetic Treatment of Military Intervention in Post-colonial World

An Interview with Richard Falk at the 12th Rhodes Forum, September, 2014

My name is Richard Falk, I’ve been a professor of international law teaching at Princeton University for 40 years and then after that I’ve being associated with the University of California in Santa Barbara for the last 12 years. I’ve also during this last period served for 6 years as the UN Special Rapporteur for Palestine and that’s brought me into a lot of controversial territory in dealing with the Palestine – Israel conflict.

The subject of regime change has suddenly become very fashionable in discussions of this sort. It is also a confusing term because it’s usually used to suggest the change of a foreign government as a result of military intervention, but it also can mean the rising of a citizenry against the authoritarian or repressive government and its overthrow. So there’s regime change from above and from without and regime change from below and within. My own view is that the regime change from above, the sort of effort that the United States has made in Iraq since 2003, or Afghanistan, or Syria to some degree have not been successful. That kind of military intervention even against very unpleasant governments rarely succeeds. If it is coupled with occupation, it often leaves the country in chaos rather than produces a more desirable order. On the other hand regime change from below is the substance of self-determination and has often produced the liberation of people that were colonized or ruled in some hostile way. We have these experiences of mixed situations such as in the Ukraine recently where on the one side you had a movement of sorts from below, but it was also promoted from without and you had the effort of intervention to protect part of the society that didn’t really welcome the regime change. So it is a very complicated messy process, but I think the important insight is that regime change since the end of the World War II in 1945 has tended to be unsuccessful when it depends on military intervention and it is tended to make history when it’s been a matter of movements of people from below. So that military regime change fails, political regime change on behalf of people succeeds. A humanitarian intervention, of course, is a part of the way in which the governments do the military intervention, give it a good name.

Humanitarian intervention is a kind of cosmetic treatment of military intervention in post-colonial world where it is not acceptable to intervene for the sake of material interests or to conquer another territory. So you have to look at the specific facts. In some situations there is a potential humanitarian catastrophe that can be averted by military intervention. Many people feel that was true for Kosovo in 1999 when NATO intervened to prevent a feared repetition of the ethnic cleansing that have occurred in Bosnia. There was the sense that Milosevic was the kind of political leader that engaged in genocidal behaving and needed to be stopped from doing what he was doing. But in general humanitarian intervention is a form of regime change from above and even though it always is accompanied by humanitarian claims as the American intervention in Iraq in 2003 was justified. But the end result is at best chaos and at worst the return of a new authoritarian regime that is worse than what preceded it, which is the case for Egypt. Egypt under Mubarak was very authoritarian regime, it was overthrown by the people in an act of self-determination, but then a counterrevolution occurred and general Sisi who’s the new leader is more brutal, more authoritarian, than was the preceding regime. So it is a very tricky complicated subject on which no one who has clear answers should be trusted.

ISIS, as it more frequently called, is a horrible kind of political extremism that has emerged, but again a military solution of the sort that is being discussed is very unlikely to make the situation better, because one of the restraints on this kind of regime change is that the intervening side doesn’t want to risk losing the lives of its own people. So it tries to do everything from the air with airstrikes and drones and so on. That kills people including innocent people and it creates much ambiguity on the part of the population that is supposedly being liberated. They are being liberated but there are also being killed and wounded by a foreign power that is not altogether trusted. So it is very uncertain whether this kind of military approach to a humanitarian catastrophe is the correct way of proceeding.

Diplomacy needs to be tried and the way they’ve tried diplomacy in the context of ISIS is to resolve the Syrian civil war, because that would probably end the basis of ISIS’s operational freedom. And to end that you have to bring Iran into the process. That means you have to defy Israel and that means the United States has to depart from the way in which it has been doing half-hearted diplomacy relying on air strikes to achieve the results it wants in the region and bringing disaster to all sides through this process.

The issue of world order is very much at the top of the global policy agenda at this point. Many of the leaders in the world do conceive of world order as a matter of military control, military superiority and think of military power as the fundamental agent of historical change. We’ve confronted by the problems of climate change and nuclear weaponry which can’t be handled through the traditional forms of arranging the relationship between sovereign states. So we need the kind of world order that presupposes a political community that is global in scope.  That’s where the reliance on dialogue becomes important and a source of potential hope, because through dialogue we begin to understand others better and the world is no longer capable of being dominated by the West. It needs the participation of all important world religions, world cultures. This kind of civilizational dialogue is a step along the way toward global reconciliation, which is a precondition for the kind of political community that would allow the leaders of the world to pursue global interests and human interests as well as national interests. At the present time they only pursue national interests and that means you can’t solve global problems. We haven’t been able to get rid of nuclear weapons even though it is more than seventy years that they’ve existed and we haven’t made progress in dealing with climate change, because if you add up all the national interests you get a none result and not a positive result. You need to transcend these national interests and find a way to serve the human interests and global interests. That is the real challenge confronting humanity at this time in history.

I think the Rhodes Forum is a creative initiative that has the potentiality of contributing to the kind of atmosphere that will establish the kind of political community that we need to solve these global problems. Whether it’s the only one or the primary one is very hard to say, but what it is, is a move in the right direction, and people of goodwill should encourage it. My own experience of it is that it’s been a valuable way of trying to understand the major problems in the world and how people from different cultural backgrounds understand those problems.