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Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Interventionism, Non-interventionism, and Syria

On the 7th of April, 2017 (less than a month ago), President Donald Trump authorised the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles (from the Mediterranean Sea) into Syria. These missiles were aimed at the Shayrat Airbase; which is controlled by the Syrian government. The strike was an immediate retaliation for the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack; which had occurred three days before - on the 4th of April. (It is far from conclusive that Assad actually carried out a chemical attack.”

This, fairly predictably, started a recurring debate about the rights and wrongs of intervening in the affairs of foreign countries. Many/most Americans think it's best not to interfere. Neocons, on the other hand, believe that we should intervene left, right and center. (See my 'Against FrontPage's Neocon Interventionism' @ SydneyTrads.) I personally would class the position of non-interventionism as a happy medium between interventionism and isolationism; though I may be wrong. In any case, as we shall see, it all depends on definitions, history and the facts on the ground.

American non-interventionism dates back to the 18th century. So does interventionism. Nonetheless, it seems, in retrospect, that interventionism has been the default mode of American governments; whereas non-interventionism has been the default mode of the American people. But this is tricky. Most Americans, for example, were in favour of the initial military actions in Iraq in 2003. Though, almost immediately after that, most Americans were against further foreign interventions.

This issue isn't an easy case of either/or.


Here's a simple account of non-interventionism offered by Henry Hodges in 1915. He said that non-interventionism is against the "interference by a state or states in the external affairs of another state without its consent, or in its internal affairs with or without its consent".

Non-interventionism doesn't of course mean that our leaders should forgo diplomacy with other countries. Unlike isolationism, neither does it mean that no foreign wars can be fought either.

A broad statement of the theory called “political realism” also puts the non-interventionist position in that it stresses the “national interest” and downplays the moral condemnations, etc. of foreign regimes which result in military interventions. According to political realism, the main two issues are national security and, ultimately, survival. That means that nations need to be prepared for possible conflict in the sense of having the military means to deter all aggressors.

On the other hand, it's been said that the Bush Doctrine promoted unilateral foreign interventions. That doctrine was purportedly based on neoconservatism and what it called “democratic peace theory”. That theory justified and even encouraged military action against non-democracies. This would clearly fit the bill in the case of Iraq in 2003; as well as Syria today.

What the American People Think

What is the position of the American people, rather than of its political leaders?

According to the Pew Research Center (in a poll conducted in December 2013 (as cited in the Washington Examiner), 52% of those who responded said that the United States "should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own." However, that percentage was radically different only ten years before - just before the Iraq War in 2003! (Again, according to the statistics of Pew.)

There was another poll (by POLITICO) in July 2014. This was said to be a poll of “battleground voters” in the United States. This poll found that

"77 percent in favor of full withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2016; only 15 percent and 17 percent interested in more involvement in Syria and Ukraine, respectively; and 67 percent agreeing with the statement that, 'U.S. military actions should be limited to direct threats to our national security.'"

Despite these results, it surely could never be said that the same non-interventionist logic (if that's what it is) can be equally applied to Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria in 2017. It all depends.

Historical Non-Interventionism

Britain's Robert Walpole – the first Whig Prime Minister - had the following to say (in 1723) on the matter of non-interventionism:

"My politics are to keep free from all engagements as long as we possibly can."

The clause “as long as we possibly can” is admittedly a little vague. Though, in politics, it's been argued that we can't - or even that we shouldn't! - be anything else but vague when it comes to matters of war. After all, to take one example, non-interventionism doesn't mean no interventions ever. And even isolationism has never meant (in practice) complete isolation. What's more, those who can be called neocon interventionists (to take one example) don't want to intervene in every single place where there are “innocents dying” or a lack of democracy. Thus Realpolitik (as almost always) is a reality of politics.

In any case, 18th century Americans picked up on Walpole's position.

Nonetheless, during the American Revolution, the Second Continental Congress debated about forming an alliance with France. In so doing it rejected non-interventionism. Still, an alliance with France during the American Revolution isn't on par with, say, military interventions in Syria; or even, formerly, interventions in Iraq. Despite that, American non-interventionism trumped interventionism when George Washington declared neutrality during the Britain versus France war of 1792. Washington had the complete support of his cabinet and the 1779 treaty with France was annulled.

Consequently, the continuing case for non-interventionism was put by Washington, in his Farewell Address of 1796. He said:

The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.”

Now if that's true of Europe, how much truer must it be of Syria? This isn't to say that everything that Washington said is perfectly applicable to the case of Syria; though it is to say that American non-interventionism (along with the reasons for that position) dates back to the late 18th century.

If we now take a long jump to the first half of the 20th century, we can see that there was still a strong non-interventionist strain running through America's politics. Thus the United States had a non-interventionist policy in the case of both World Wars; as well as in, for example, the Spanish Civil War. Of course the U.S. did eventually intervene in both world wars; though only when there was a direct threat to – or an attack upon - the U.S. itself. All this begs the question as to whether, at these times, the United States would have militarily intervened in these disputes/wars if American itself wasn't under threat. (The direct threat to the United States was much less clear in the case of World War One than it was in the case of World War Two.)

The UN and Interventionism

Perhaps it's slightly ironic (at least for sections of the Right) that non-interventionism - when such a thing was embodied in the United Nations - once became part of international law. It was then argued (not just by those in - and sympathetic to - the U.N) that non-interventionism was responsible for post-World War Two peace. Peace? That depends on where and when. In Europe, sure. Elsewhere, that wasn't the case.

It's also ironic that the United Nations and many “humanitarians” reversed this position at the end of the Cold War. It was then that such institutions and people began calling for interventions in foreign affairs. Before long, they were calling for interventions left, right and center. This is the period in which the notion of a “responsibility to protect” came into being. (Years later, it was much stressed by Tony Blair and the neocons.)

To put their position basically, if a foreign state abuses its people (or doesn't “protect” them), then the United States and other Western countries have both a moral and political duty to help them. This is the terrible reality we must face because there must be dozens of foreign states which fulfil the humanitarian's criteria. Can we intervene in all these states? Of course not. Therefore should we only intervene when the situation is truly genocidal? Alternatively, perhaps we should only intervene with there's a domestic reason to do so. Altruism, in other words, has and never will rule okay.

All the above bore the fruit of interventions in Iraq in 1991 and in Somalia from 1992 to 1995. Later NATO interventions occurred in Kosovo in 1999 and in Libya in 2011. However, after Black Hawk Down (in Somalia), the United States refused to intervene in Haiti and Rwanda. Though, as just stated, it did intervene in other countries later.


There are of course alternatives to the interventionism-versus-noninterventionism binary opposition (or bifurcation). One alternative is the isolationism-versus-interventionism opposition instead. Or, alternatively, isolationism-versus-non-interventionism.

In any case, many of those whom cite these opposing positions have quoted George Washington's well-known Farewell Address as a rationale for their positions. Which basically means that it's all pretty complicated.

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