The Politics of Anti-Intervention

Against the Current, No. 60, January/February 1996

Darrel Moellendorf

THERE IS A long and largely admirable tradition of socialist opposition to war. But what might be called “a post-war consensus” among socialists has of late begun to unravel. Signs of fraying were evident during the Gulf War as several longtime socialists supported U.S. intervention. Since then, spectacles of starvation in Somalia, ethnic warfare in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and dictatorship in Haiti have left socialists divided about U.S. and UN intervention.

Such divisions are not altogether surprising, for the world in which we now live is importantly different than the one which produced the post-war consensus against U.S. intervention. It is not that we have entered into some post-imperialist stage of capitalism. The capacity of the North to rob the South has on the contrary increased tremendously. IMF and World Bank Structural Adjustment programs are resulting in chilling human misery and environmental degradation. In addition, free-trade policies are producing a global downward leveling of wages, work conditions, and living conditions.

There are, however, two differences from the earlier period. First, there is greater political instability which is generating massive human misery. This has two causes. One is the collapse of the geo-political modus vivendi between the U.S. and USSR in which each party disciplined its allies. The other is the economics of debt repayment and free trade.

The second difference from the earlier period is the changed ideological justification for U.S. interventions. Anti-communism has been replaced by the maintenance of the New World Order, with its attendant ideology of democracy and human rights. Order is now so important because the order of debt repayment and free trade is so much to the advantage of those making capital investments.

What are the principles upon which socialists oppose interventions and how has the changed world affected their application? Although I won’t argue in any detail here, I think that there are two main principles that should be the foundation of a socialist anti-interventionist stance. 1) The intervention is contrary to the best regime or balance of class forces which is possible under the circumstances. 2) The intervention serves to make more palatable future unjust interventions.

I want to make four brief points about these principles. First, I see these as following from an internationalist outlook. It is of concern to us what goes on in other states. We see ourselves as under a duty to try to advance the causes of justice, democracy, and socialism in other states. Second, the first of these principles takes priority over the second. We are not interested in sacrificing the interests of the oppressed in some country at the altar of concern for some hypothetical future intervention. Third, using the first principle as the main basis of our opposition to any particular intervention requires evidence specific to that intervention. Finally, since it is hard to predict outcomes in advance, employing principle one prior to an intervention will also require taking into consideration the historical record of imperialism in the region.

In applying the principles to interventions in the New World Order it’s reasonable to predict that the above principles will more often than not decide against U.S. and UN interventions. The Gulf War is a good example. Life for the typical resident of Kuwait was not appreciably improved by the outcome of the U.S. war. I’m not here considering the way the war was prosecuted, which of course results in other criticisms as well. In addition, the United States was clearly seeking to secure the order in the region from which it derived benefit.

Nonetheless, exceptions may arise. The economics of debt repayment and free trade can be very disruptive. They create the environment in which a variety of social pathologies may spawn. Nationalisms, fundamentalisms, and brutal dictatorships may be perceived to be a threat to the stability that capitalism, like all modes of production, prefers.

Respect for human rights and parliamentary democracies within limits can be seen to be in the interests of capitalism, even in Third World countries. The limits are pretty obvious. Human rights and democracy cannot become a breeding ground for anti-capitalist theories and organizations. Thus, policy makers must balance the order producing virtues of respect for human rights and democracy against the disorder of giving comfort to communists. Capitalism can sometimes afford to tilt the balance in favor of parliamentary democracy and human rights in those situations where the threat of the left is diminished either because it has been smashed, lost credibility, or defanged by complacent reformism.

The intervention in Haiti seems to me to be an example of such an exception. Given Washington’s historical record, one might have reasonably opposed the intervention in advance. But after the re-establishment of some degree of the rule of law, it would have been wrong to call for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, the likely outcome of which would have been re;newed terror.

ATC 60, January-February 1996