In light of current discussions regarding ‘liberal’ intervention in Libya, I thought I might post an essay on this topic that I originally published in July 2009 in The Toronto Star…
In his May speech to Canadian troops in Kandahar, Prime Minister Stephen Harper reflected on our military’s impact on Afghanistan.
“Before you came here,” Harper said, “the Taliban ran Afghanistan like a medieval gulag.” Yet, during our seven years of involvement in the country, “the foundations of democracy have been laid; basic human rights and freedoms are being restored; private enterprise is growing; millions of children are going to school; basic medical care has improved; and the infrastructure of a viable economy is emerging.”
Now it was up to Afghanistan to take advantage of the opportunity given to it by Canadians. To quote the Prime Minister’s speech again: “Our mission is to leave Afghanistan to its people, as a viable country, a more peaceful country, a country in control of its own destiny.”
This is, in essence, the refrain of nation builders everywhere. If only the locals could appreciate our example as (in Harper’s words) a “civilized” country, then they too might enjoy the stability and prosperity that we enjoy.
Not a terrible slogan for a foreign military occupation. The only problem is that there is nothing new about this purportedly liberal strain of thought. And when we begin to examine those places in history where it has been invoked before, we suddenly realize that it is utterly hollow. Liberal interventionism is a contradiction in terms. No nation has ever succeeded in building (or rebuilding) another.
Before we hit the history books in search of the liberal intervention that “went right,” we may want to consider for a moment the logic that necessarily underpins this idea. Liberal intervention is almost always predicated upon knowledge – or rather, the absence of it. “We” who see fit to intervene have knowledge that “they,” the locals, lack. And this lack of knowledge has led the locals into their current miserable predicament, whether of political instability, social unrest or economic destitution.
Here we begin to bump up against one of the many problems of the interventionist idea. First, this logic would seem to suggest there is one road to “proper” political, social and economic development, namely, ours. Second, it suggests that any nation, regardless of its circumstances, could be coaxed down this road to “proper” development.
Both of these assumptions are problematic in the extreme. Even if we were to assume that there exists a “model” for democracy that could and should be universally applied, every path to this democracy has had its own twists and turns, whether in the English, the French, the American, or indeed the Canadian historical experience.
There never existed a mastermind sitting behind a democracy machine. There have been ideals and benchmarks to be sure, whether Rousseau’s social contract or Paine’s common sense, but these were never a guarantee of success. Democratic development has always been an accidental process. One need only look at the Terror in France to see the consequences of attempts to impose freedom.
Even if we accept that our political systems are worthy of emulation – despite the countless shortcomings and injustices that persist within them – we would be hard-pressed to explain their emergence to others, let alone set forth a blueprint for their recreation in Afghanistan.
The beauty of our democracies is that they were not the product of a foreign cookie cutter, but rather of decades, indeed centuries of struggle among ourselves. How would we even begin to replicate this process in a context foreign to us when the complexities of the process still elude us as historians, economists and political scientists?
The idea of nation building is, thus, pure hubris on a whole range of levels. Does this then mean that we abandon our efforts to promote development elsewhere in the world? That we throw up our hands and declare defeat in the face of complex historical processes that we grasp only imperfectly?
No, not at all. But it does mean that we should lay down our arms and withdraw from military engagements predicated so heavily on this interventionist idea. Surely the most important lesson we can draw from the monstrous military history of the 20th century, with so many millions of lives lost to ideas, liberal or otherwise, is that no apparently good idea ever justified the taking of a single human life.