Paul Collier Critique: Military Intervention

21 05 2012


Within his book, The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier discusses the issues that surround the bottom sixth of the world’s population. Along with this, Collier attempts to provide potential solutions that could alleviate the plight of the “poorest people… [a plight] that is growing inexorably worse”[1]. One such solution that Collier presents is military intervention, in those poorer states that are failing. Although he goes into detail about the pro’s and cons of restoring order, maintaining post conflict peace and protecting states from coups, he makes little effort to justify the “clear cut case for international interventionism: expelling an aggressor”[2]. For indeed, far from being a clear cut justification to utilise a nations armed forces, the last 100 years has shown that military intervention to expel an aggressor group is wrought with problems, especially if one invades without international support. This article, thus, attempts to show that far from clear cut, the only time that military intervention to expel an aggressor is justifiable is when mandated by the international community, and conducted by a coalition of willing partners. Although in doing so it would be easy to degenerate this article into a lengthy diatribe against the moral wrongs of ‘policing the international community’ the article will instead stick to three major issues that the invading state will incur to some extent if it decides to take on aggressor nations unilaterally. These problems being: the reduction in international, diplomatic, support for your state and the destabilization within the entire region that the conflict originates from. From this, the clear conclusion that will be drawn is that military intervention to expel aggressors is acceptable only when conducted multilaterally, where the possibility for these negative reactions to your states use of force is largely mitigated.

When one looks at the diplomatic preamble that preceded American intervention in Iraq in 2003, George W. Bush appears to indicate their actions will have wide ranging, positive security benefits for their international colleagues: “The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this threat. But we will do everything to defeat it.”[3] Although he is correct in mentioning later in his speech that the US can rely on a coalition of willing partners in the impending violence[4], the fact that they went into war without UN Security Council clearance resulted in a largely negative response around the world. The rationale for this apparent turn around in global public opinion towards the United States, who after 9/11 had experienced great outpourings of empathy from most of the global community, appears to be most succinctly worded by Nelson Mandela, who wrote: “Because what [America] is saying is that if you are afraid of a veto in the Security Council, you can go outside and take action and violate the sovereignty of other countries. That is the message they are sending to the world. That must be condemned in the strongest terms.”[5] The clear message from this piece was that unilateral intervention (for although the United States called upon other nations to support their war effort, for a large part their forces were tokens, and had little direct affect on the overall war effort) was doomed to diplomatic failure. This can be largely explained by the fact that states operating in an anarchic system, who will be inherently suspicious of competitors actions, will not be able to tolerate a state that has the capabilities and willingness to forgo any international body, and law, that it itself created. With this in mind it becomes clear that unilateral intervention is doomed to breed negative, and even hostile responses from the international community. Although nations such as the United States do not require military assistance when conducting these types of strike operations, breeding a culture of inherent distrust towards the United States will do nothing but weaken future, peaceful, US-led initiatives in the global community. For this reason, clearly unilateral intervention provides little benefit, unless mandated and authorised by the international community.

Throughout history, many interventions have been conducted in order to maintain stability within the region that they are being conducted. Indeed, this was no different for the War in Iraq, where George W. Bush alluded to the threat of a Weapon of Mass Destruction (WMD) wielding Saddam, and the trouble that posed for the global community. However, this has largely not been the case when looking at the aftermath of most major unilateral interventions. Indeed, despite taking command of major military operations in Vietnam for the better part of 15 years, with the stated aims of containing, if not eliminating the Communist threat arising within the nation, the United States failed. Although this is not due to the policy of interventionism, the United States intervention, in hindsight made the entire region less stable, and more likely to fall to Communism. For indeed, despite being a member of an expansionist ideology, Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Communist party in Vietnam was passionately anti-Chinese, and insular thinking[6]. Thus in the wake of the US withdrawal from Vietnam, when a hostile China was threatening Vietnam from the North, Ho Chi Minh began spreading Vietnamese influence throughout South East Asia, not as a means of expanding Communism, but in order to prop up and ensure Vietnams survival in the face of a growing Chinese threat. Although this is not to say that military interventionism bred the hostility that caused the Sino-Vietnamese war, the weakening of Vietnams military capabilities did provide an opening for the Chinese to apply pressure on Vietnam, which in turn increased the likelihood, and eventually caused Vietnams direct intervention and subversive action along the Indochina Peninsula, which resulted in the manifestation of Communist governments all along the peninsula, the outcome that the United States was so passionately fighting against. A similar trend is being played out in the contemporary world, indeed with ethnic violence still sporadically erupting in Iraq, Iran is using the instability caused by the weak interim government, to strengthen its hold over the country that had for decades provided a counter balance against its own growth and power.[7] And with the potential of Iran’s nuclear weapon now dominating the thinking of much of the global community, the instability in the region that allowed for Iran to adopt its Nuclear weapons program unmolested was caused largely by America’s unilateral intervention in Iraq. Although it would be easy to suggest that even a multi-lateral intervention in either of the case studies mentioned would have provided a similar result, given the shared burden of the military campaign, and the feeling among the general population that the war is legal provides a sturdiness to the campaign that would provide the necessary impetus to have ensured that the defeated nation was rebuilt to acceptably strong and stable conditions. In contrast, unilateral operations are often conducted at the whim of one presidency, and completed by the next, who more often then not is concluding them in order to overcome domestic political pressure. As a result, the argument that unilateral intervention is justifiable, and useful due to the stability it creates is untenable due to the fact that it creates major instability and usually creates conditions for larger conflicts, due to the hastiness with which the campaign is wrapped up.

Clearly, a larger investigation is necessary to definitively prove the case that unilateral military intervention, without the consent of the international community, is entirely unacceptable. However, with the words provided, this article should have helped add to the international condemnation of the growing trend for larger powers to indiscriminately intervene in regional conflicts, and sovereign states. The reasoning, that this article has provided; that intervening in other nations in contravention, or without international recognition will retard larger diplomatic initiatives, and that without the longterm political willpower to stay in the nation being intervened in, will only lead to greater regional instability, stands in contrast to most of the major critics of the policy. For indeed, while Mandela and others have critiqued the U.S. intervention in Iraq on philosophical and legal grounds, this has had a rather insignificant impact on Western, and in particular, U.S. policy. However, moving the debate towards providing practical explanations for why unilateral, unendorsed, military intervention is unsuitable as a tool in international politics should hopefully see the elimination of this growing, useless, costly and bloody, policy.

 Ryan Bartlett

[1]Collier, Paul. The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are failing and What Can Be Done about It. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Bush, George W. Full text: Bush’s Speech: A transcript of George Bush’s ultimatum speech from the Cross Hall in the White House. The Guardian, 2003. Web.

[4] Ibid.

[5]Ali, Amir. “Nelson Mandela: The U.S.A. Is a Threat to World Peace.” The Article Collection of M. Amir Ali, Ph.D. Web. 28 Apr. 2012. <>.

[6] Karnow, Stanley. Vietnam: A History. Penguin. P. 153. 1983. Print: “You fools! Don’t you realize what it means if the Chinese remain? Don’t you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”

[7] Jakes, Lara. Boston News: Iranian influence seeping into Iraq. Boston Times, November 7, 2011. Web.