Military Interventions: Progressive vs. Imperialist
By Stephen Gowans
Wars have almost always been highly devastating affairs, with dire consequences in ruined and destroyed lives, as well as in the destruction of economies, farms, factories, housing and public infrastructure. While it cannot be said that all people at all times have considered wars to be best avoided, it is safe to say that the humanitarian case against war is overwhelming.
This essay is concerned, not with war in general, but with military interventions. To be sure, military interventions are often inseparable from wars, since they are often the causes of them. But not always. Some occur in the context of wars that are already underway. And some happen without provoking major resistance.
Today, on the left—and even the right—there are many activists who are committed to an anti-war position, but who are more properly said to oppose military intervention. Opposition to war implies, not only opposition to one country initiating a war against another (aggression), but also to using military means to repel an attack (self-defence.) Yet it is highly unlikely that people who say they are against war mean that they are against self-defence. It is more likely that they mean that a military response to a conflict must only occur for valid reasons, and that self-defence is the only valid one.
However, those who have adopted an anti-war position often stress other reasons for opposing military interventions. These include the ideas that:
• Democracy is senior to other considerations and that people should be allowed to resolve internal conflicts free from the meddling of outside forces.
• Institutions and ideologies cannot be successfully imposed on other people and interventions that seek to do so (e.g., bring democracy to another country) are bound to fail.
• International law is a legitimate basis for determining the validity of military interventions and countries ought to abide by it.
In this essay, the arguments will be made that: none of these principles are grounds to oppose military intervention; one of them is empirically insupportable as an absolute statement; the idea that military force ought to be used only in self-defence is indefensible; and that had these principles been adopted as inviolable, a number of interventions that are now widely regarded as progressive and desirable would never have occurred. A case will be made, instead, that some military interventions are valid and that validity depends on whose interests the intervention serves and whether the long-run effects are progressive. By these criteria, NATO interventions in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are not valid, while France’s intervention on the side of the United States in the American Revolution and the Union government’s intervention in the states of the Confederacy in the American Civil War were valid. Also valid were the interventions of the Comintern on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1938), the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) interventions in Korea (1950) and Tibet (1959), Cuba’s intervention in Angola (1975), and the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan (1979).
Full essay in PDF format: Military Interventions Progressive vs Imperialist