Intelligence Squared head-to head debate – ‘Let the bad guys be: David Aaronovitch and Rory Stewart on the perils of foreign intervention’, Cadogan Hall, London, 3rd March 2011.

So, we are now involved in an intervention in Libya. When this debate took place this outcome was by no means a full gone conclusion. Indeed, the perceived mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan did much to set the context for this debate and inform the rather sceptical posture of the audience towards foreign intervention. Given the developments since, it goes without saying that this debate was timely and relevant. Moreover, the two key points of contention in this debate help to bring to the fore two simple but very important issues relating to foreign intervention. The first is the idea that ought implies can and the second is the question of what exactly we mean by ‘intervention’.

The first sentence of Rory Stewart’s first contribution seemed to be designed to engineer this debate as a contest between morality and reality. According to Stewart, “the central question that we are facing… is not so much the question of what should we do, but what can we do.” Though he conceded that intervention may sometimes be morally and strategically necessary, the recently elected Tory MP also warned that “the awful lesson of the last decade is that we don’t know very much about these countries, we can’t do very much in these countries and we are not very welcome in a lot of these countries.”

David Aaronovitch’s first contribution focussed on Tony Blair’s Chicago speech of 1999, in which the then Prime Minister made a strong moral case for liberal interventionism. After outlining the seven key points of Blair’s speech, Aaronovitch declared that “the circumstances described by Tony Blair in the Chicago speech of 1999 still pertain, and the case for intelligent intervention still remains.” Aaronovitch’s explicit endorsement of “intelligent” intervention is symptomatic of the problems associated with framing this as a morality vs. reality debate. So keen was he to gesture to the ‘practical’ concerns of the opposing side that he chose to add a word that would have otherwise been superfluous. Under what circumstances would that case for stupid or idiotic intervention be persuasive, one wonders?

In his second contribution, Stewart offered a rebuttal of David’s Blair inspired argument. “Essentially the problem about the Chicago speech of 1999 is it leads to Iraq in 2003… not, perhaps, in terms of some ineluctable philosophical process but because of the kinds of instincts and intuitions which Blair and, I think, David share.” If pushed, according to Stewart, every one of Blair’s seven points exhibits a lack of understanding of the difficulties of the world. For example, the second point of Blair’s speech (probably the most important) refers to the fact that we may have a moral obligation to intervene in another country, but gives absolutely no detail about the nature of this obligation. Stewart honed in on the central issue at play here: “Ought implies can; you do not have a moral obligation to do what you cannot do.” This somewhat elementary statement is of supreme importance in any debate about the legitimacy of foreign intervention. And it has ramifications for our moral obligations that I don’t believe either speaker fully acknowledged.

To see that ought implies can is to see that morality and reality are not distinct. Stewart appeared to move in the direction of acknowledging this when he said: “We need to discover how to be pragmatically moral, how to be passionately moderate, how to combine our moral instincts with our interests, and be realistic about what we can or can’t do.” Leaving aside the (non)sense in the phrase “passionately moderate”, Stewart correctly asserts that any minimally plausible morality must accommodate fundamental facts about the world. If ought implies can, then can informs ought. This crucial insight has some striking further implications.

If ought implies can and can informs ought, then the fact that a lack of practical knowledge is impeding us from discharging what may be a very strong moral duty is a significant moral issue. We ought to do everything we can to obtain this knowledge. Presuming the facts involved are knowable, we have a strong moral obligation to find out what we can do so that we can get on with doing what we ought to do. We currently know far too little about what we can do. If we believe it is morally good for governments to be responsive to the will of their people, or for governments not to discriminate or oppress a section of their population, we should have a response when these things do not occur. Rory’s argument implied that because we don’t know what we can do our moral obligations to people in other nations are therefore indeterminate or less stringent. This is surely not the case. It simply means that we better find out what we can do – and fast. It means that we cannot just complain about how much we don’t know. It means that we have a pretty strong moral duty to find out what we can do to help other countries. This is a duty that is far too rarely recognised, and even less frequently discharged.

It wasn’t until about half-way through the debate that the troublesome question of what exactly we mean by ‘intervention’ came up. It was a rather frustrated Rory who first introduced it:

“I think, without being boring about it, we need to define our terms. ‘Intervention’ means something very, very clear: it comes from the Latin word meaning ‘coming between’. When we talk about a military intervention in the modern context we are talking about putting troops on the ground. We are not talking about imposing sanctions, we are not even talking about no-fly zones…”

Not surprisingly, David disagreed. For him, intervention simply means “acting against or without the agreement of sovereign governments.” This frustrated Rory even more:

“This is gonna not be much of a debate if intervention means any form of foreign policy conducted against any unfriendly regime anywhere in the world… Unless we keep this definition tight, so that intervention means what I thought it meant until I turned up tonight, in other words what we did in Bosnia, what we did in Kosovo, what we did in Sierra Leone, what we did in Iraq, what we did in Afghanistan, we’re gonna be having a debate about whether or not we should have a foreign policy.”

This semantic disagreement was at once tiresome and amusing, but it was also crucial to the debate. I think that David’s definition, although quite loose, was closer to the mark. It is surely an example of foreign intervention to impose a no-fly zone on a country, and although I accept that putting troops on the ground may be a more significant form of intervention, it is certainly not the only form. Rory’s stricter definition of intervention reflects, I think, a particularly keen awareness of the increased likelihood of death and injury to our troops if we put them on the ground. It reflects an acknowledgement that we owe more to our own citizens – particularly those citizens who put themselves in harms way on behalf of our nation – that we do to outsiders. This touches upon one of the core tensions at the heart of debates about foreign intervention: nationalism vs. cosmopolitanism.

We now generally accept that there are very important things called human rights that are possessed by all persons simply because there are persons, and which must be respected universally. However, we all generally still accept that the world is made up of communities called nations that are entitled to organise and dictate their own affairs, and that the members of nations owe each other more than they owe to outsiders. Both of these beliefs may very well be true, but the are not necessarily and straightforwrdly compatible. The tension between nationalism and cosmopolitanism was never mentioned in the debate but did a lot to inform it. In a similar way, this tension inconspicuously informs many other thorny contemporary issues: from votes for prisoners to immigration law, from the human rights of paedophiles to the accusation of western imperialism. First recognising that there is such a tension, then making efforts to reconcile it would, I think, help us to think a lot more clearly about foreign intervention – and many other issues.


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