Western foreign policy has, for ages, tended toward imperialism. The exceptionalist and nationalist tendencies of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War, with notable examples including military intervention in Vietnam and Latin America (e.g. the virtual destruction of El Salvador in the Reagan years), have not been forgotten, under the Clinton, Bush, or Obama administrations. I doubt they will be forgotten under a Trump administration either. The two core ideas in modern international relations dialogue — idealism and realism — are both imperialist, and ignore the reality that the pursuit of economic and political interests internationally brings about massive human cost, as well as cost to international stability.
Idealism began by telling us that the pursuit of democracy, human rights, and justice was paramount. Today’s idealism tells us that when a foreign leader engages in human rights violations, you intervene immediately — and the people who do the intervening tend to be NATO countries, led by the U.S., the UK, and France. But they don’t do it for idealistic reasons. Idealism simply serves as further justification for the military action often carried out, which changes global power structures in various manners, effectively seeking to establish a hegemony based on concepts of “Western exceptionalism,” or something to that effect.
Realism is even more dangerous. The notion that the pursuit of “democracy” was why the U.S. invaded Iraq is illusory. The first claim was the presence of “weapons of mass destruction.” The reality: the dictator of Iraq was a threat to American interests abroad. They began with sanctions, which caused hundreds of thousands of children to die, and many more adults. Then, military intervention of what was probably the weakest country in the region further weakened and virtually destroyed it. That was bound to happen. The political instability that followed should have been predicted: the sanctions had already destroyed most of the country. The war was worse, of course, and led to the current state of affairs.
Similarly, realist motivations — possibly oil, or, more likely, the misguided quest for “international stability,” led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — led to the intervention in Libya. What did that cause? Substantial economic and political instability — Libya is currently engaged in civil war between its elected parliament and a militia coalition, while facing substantial threat from terrorist groups. Even the U.S. doesn’t benefit — this realism is misguided, and potentially destructive.
Military intervention is also influenced by what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.” Corporations in many countries — especially in the West — use government spending to push their own interests. The Defense industry, for a long period, was fueled and strengthened by military intervention. To quote Professor Noam Chomsky:
“Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex is not quite what is generally interpreted. In part, yes, it’s military. But a main function of the military, or the National Institutes of Health, or the rest of the federal system, is to provide some device to socialize costs, get the public to pay the costs, to take the risks. Ultimately, if anything comes out, you put it into private pockets. And, again, this has to be done in a way that protects state power and private power from the domestic enemy. You have to say it’s to defend ourselves against Grenada or Russia or Guatemala or somebody. If you get people frightened enough, they won’t notice that their taxes are going into creating the profits of IBM and Merck twenty years from now. Why not tell them the truth? Because then they might not make these decisions.
You might argue that these were good decisions, like it’s nice to have computers. But that’s not really the point. The point is, who should make those decisions? Suppose you would ask people in the 1950s. Suppose there was some pretense among the educated classes or the power system, some belief that we ought to have something like a democracy. So then you would ask people, you would try to get an informed public to decide, do you want computers twenty-five years from now, or do you want health services now and schools today and jobs today and a livable environment for your children? What’s your choice?”
At the point at which some random corporation gets to control and dictate global power structures (and not just domestic ones), the world becomes more dangerous.
I’m not a pacifist. There are obviously cases where intervention is justified — against multiple major terrorist groups, or to prevent genocide. The U.S. should have, without a doubt, intervened in Rwanda to prevent the Rwandan genocide, or reduce its effects. Similarly, India did the right thing in 1971 when it acted to prevent the Bangladeshi genocide. But at the point at which a country engages in intervention to fulfill its own political and economic interests, with substantial human cost and no humanitarian benefit, there is no justifying the destruction caused without going down to the level of sheer intellectual dishonesty.
We need to be prepared to check the abuse of international power, and to exercise restraint when it comes to military intervention.