From Myanmar to Afghanistan: are we seeing the end of western interventions?

Today, we hear nothing of liberal interventionist ideas

epa09144582 Demonstrators carry placards and flash the three-finger salute during an anti-military coup protest in Mandalay, Myanmar, 19 April 2021. Myanmar's new government of national unity formed by leaders of anti-coup protesters and ethnic minority leaders called on its Southeast Asian neighbors to give them a seat in the upcoming summit in Indonesia on 24 April, instead of the junta that seized power on 01 February.  EPA/STRINGER
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A coup is launched against a democracy barely 10 years old. The brutal military junta that takes over murders hundreds of its citizens. It even stoops to shooting children; a baby loses an eye as a result. The country is near united in opposition to the new regime, as shown by the mass civil disobedience that is crippling the economy. There is no ambiguity: the cause of righteousness is clearly on one side.

In the days of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, even of David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy, the call might have gone out for the West to act – to send in external armed forces to rescue the country from dictatorship and build a new liberal democracy.

Yet when the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) meets in Jakarta this Saturday to discuss the situation in Myanmar, the junta leader Min Aung Hlaing will be in attendance and the talk will be of sanctions and dialogue. The acting foreign minister of the shadow government formed to represent the overthrown parliament has asked the international community for “co-ordinated political, financial and security measures” to support his country’s people, but for nothing more visceral.

Despite many warnings that Myanmar is on the brink of a Syria-style civil war, the former American ambassador to Naypyidaw, Derek Mitchell, said in an interview with Bloomberg this week that "there's little more that the West can do".

Mr Mitchell, now president of the National Democratic Institute, may well be right. The fact that almost no one appears to be suggesting the use of external force, however, makes one ask: has the doctrine of liberal interventionism been so thoroughly discredited that it is not just dead, but has gone extinct?

The worry is that western exceptionalism is alive and all too well

Liberal interventionists were in the ascendance around the turn of the millennium. Britain’s military expedition in 2000 helped bring a close to Sierra Leone’s civil war, while then UK prime minister Tony Blair’s role in Nato’s air campaign in support of Kosovo the previous year was so well received locally that “Tonibler” became a popular name for young boys born in the soon-to-be-independent state.

With their neo-conservative allies in the George W Bush administration, liberal interventionists backed regime-change wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003, convinced that they not only had the right to overthrow governments they deemed barbaric and illegitimate, but that they had a moral duty to export democracy and western values, even at the barrel of a gun.

Today, we hear nothing of such liberal interventionist ideas. Even the related notion of the “Responsibility to Protect” adopted by the UN in 2005, under which the Security Council could authorise force to prevent atrocities and protect civilians, has virtually disappeared from regular parlance. (This has been raised in the context of Myanmar, but China and Russia would almost certainly veto any military proposals.)

Other powers are more than willing to insert themselves in other countries – most obviously Turkey, Russia and Iran in Syria – but their interventions have clearly been in pursuit of their own interests, not idealistic (if wrong-headed) goals.

There are also still plenty of liberal hawks. From the Biden administration to Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, there is no shortage of leaders who warn of a “polarisation between authoritarian regimes and autocracies, and the liberal democracies that we love”, as Mr Morrison put it last week. UK parliamentarians speak darkly of the “dangers” they believe are posed by Russia and China. The black-and-white mindset which views western-style liberal democracy as the only legitimate form of governance remains untroubled by nuance, history, or knowledge of – let alone respect for – local cultures.

But moving from the observation that different countries have different value-systems to saying that they must, by necessity, clash, or making clear that the US will defend treaty allies in the Asia-Pacific, falls far short of arguing for liberal interventionism.

From the vantage point of 2021, it is easy to see why very few prominent proponents are left for this once-fashionable doctrine. The catastrophes wreaked by regime-change interventions on Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan – the last described so eloquently by Sulaiman Hakemy and Hussein Ibish in these pages recently – cannot be painted as exceptions to the rule. Empirically, they are the rule.

But it took a while for the facts to dim the reckless warmongering of liberal interventionists and the neo-conservatives who sought ends so similar as to make no difference between them. In his book After the Neocons, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama describes a lecture given by the late US columnist Charles Krauthammer at the American Enterprise Institute in 2004, entitled American Realism: An American Foreign Policy for a Unipolar World. Mr Fukuyama wrote that the war in Iraq was "treated … as a virtually unqualified success".

“I could not understand why everyone around me was applauding enthusiastically, given that the United States had found no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, was bogged down in a vicious insurgency, and had almost totally isolated itself from the rest of the world by following the unipolar strategy advocated by Krauthammer.”

Seven years later, Britain’s Mr Cameron and France’s Mr Sarkozy appeared to have learned very little when they cheered Nato’s ousting of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. I warned in these pages at the time that “although the gamble appears to have paid off, it was, like similar ventures in the past, one taken hastily, instinctively (on the basis that ‘something must be done’), with no serious thought for what happened afterwards nor even the vaguest notion of how long it would last”. Now, sadly, we do know what happened afterwards.

Perhaps it has taken the forthcoming allied withdrawal from Afghanistan, where the US military spent not far short of $1 trillion and lost 2,448 military personnel, and where up to 40,000 civilians have died, with precious little gained, to have provided the writing on the headstone for liberal interventionism.

I would hope that this misguided doctrine might rest undisturbed and unconsulted for decades to come. The worry is that the western exceptionalism that underpinned it is alive and all too well. There are many, armed with the unwarranted moral superiority they award themselves, who are itching for conflict as much as the unlamented liberal interventionists. These nostalgists for a US-led unipolar world may in future prove just as deluded – and just as dangerous.

Sholto Byrnes is an East Asian affairs columnist for The National