I wanted to write something long and thoughtful here about the Euston Manifesto, but I keep running out of time, so perhaps it’s best just to go at it piecemeal when the mood strikes.
Today, Norm responds to the criticism that the Manifesto is crypto-imperialist and crypto-colonialist:
The support for the aforementioned interventions [i.e., in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq] by the people Wheatcroft is talking about was based on human rights and just war considerations, not on empire-building ones. Indeed, the very principles informing that support rule out support for imperialism, even a putatively ‘progressive’ imperialism. Self-determination and political independence for all peoples is one of the basic rights we Eustonians defend.
[. . .]
There’s a difference between an imperial project that seeks to build an empire ruled by a superpower, and an internationalist politics that regards human rights as universal and inviolable – and, beyond a certain threshold of human suffering, as rendering the claim to national sovereignty forfeit and justifying outside intervention.
I think a lot of the criticism (and defence) of the Euston Manifesto has been heated in an unproductive way, so I’ll try to stick to being heated in productive ways.
Whatever the merits of Wheatcroft’s argument, I think there is something to the worry that the Euston Manifesto, and the larger political movement it’s a part of (the so-called Decent left), plays unwittingly into an imperialist project. The movement would be stronger, and its defence of its core principles far more convincing, if it took more care to avoid that, or at least its appearance.
For now, just let me illustrate that with the Euston Manifesto’s position on humanitarian intervention:
Humanitarian intervention, when necessary, is not a matter of disregarding sovereignty, but of lodging this properly within the “common life” of all peoples. If in some minimal sense a state protects the common life of its people (if it does not torture, murder and slaughter its own civilians, and meets their most basic needs of life), then its sovereignty is to be respected. But if the state itself violates this common life in appalling ways, its claim to sovereignty is forfeited and there is a duty upon the international community of intervention and rescue. Once a threshold of inhumanity has been crossed, there is a “responsibility to protect”.
I think this is easily read as a very strong, or even absolute, claim about the necessity to intervene in such circumstances, but Norm later clarified the point that, on his understanding at least, this paragraph identifies only a prima facie duty to intervene.
Either way, two things seem to be missing here. First, it seems to me that the main theoretical challenge facing a proponent of military humanitarian intervention today is to specify restrictions on the parties who may legitimately intervene in such circumstances. The document vaguely gestures at the international community as the relevant actors, but in practice, of course, it’s rarely that simple. It’s typically powerful, and highly imperfect, actors with agendas of their own – agendas which may well conflict with the very goals set by the humanitarian intervention. This was the point of my repeatedly asking, back in the day, whether Iran would be justified in invading Iraq on a humanitarian pretext (the obvious answer being “no”). Failing to address this problem in any serious way really helps provide ideological window dressing to an imperialist project in retrospect (Iraq), and to God only knows what imperialist projects in prospect (Syria? Iran?).
The second (related) thing missing is some recognition that the view of humanitarian intervention set down here was very recently cynically misused by the U.S. to defend it’s imperialist project in Iraq. This does not mean that there is necessarily anything wrong with the principles articulated in the EM. But it seems to me that the practical problem currently facing any defender of these principles is to try to detach in some way what is valuable in the principles from their recent and very cynical abuse in the defence of an imperialist project. Failing to address this problem in any serious way really does contribute to the appearance that what is going on here is a sly defence of an imperialist project.
Now look. I accept that this is just a manifesto, that it doesn’t have time to spell out every little point, and that it was formulated very broadly at some points in an attempt to find common ground among very different views. But still. The bloody thing has room for a paragraph on open source software (which is great!!!), so it should damn well have made room for these points. At least, if I were interested in trying to reach out to the rest of the left in defence of this view of humanitarian intervention, I would be very anxious to a) demonstrate some recognition that the issue of intervention requires serious thought about interveners as well as intervenees, and b) distinguish myself very clearly from people who have given some of my views a very bad name. Cause there are lots of decent, well-intentioned people here on the left who get awfully jumpy now when we hear this stuff.
Now you could deny that the U.S. project in Iraq was an imperialist project. But you’d be wrong, and that would be another way you could be accused of supporting an imperialist project. At any rate, there’s more to be said on this point, particularly the way that the EM frames the occupation of Iraq. But I’m really tired now, and this post is sloppy enough as it is.
Howls of outrage (10)