Why Are World Leaders Oblivious To The Effects Of Interventionism?

The American magazine Foreign Affairs launches in cooperation with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy the 2016 Student Essay Competition. The deadline for this competition is October 15th, more information can be found on their website.


It is debatable if the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre in New York was really the starting point of a new historical era. We can say nonetheless that the following years redrew maps and alliances, and ultimately created a different discourse about military intervention. The willingness to militarily intervene has different roots that will be analysed. Simultaneously, the effects of the use of bombs, drones or regime change beg the question why world leaders seem oblivious to its effect.

Intervenionism as a political consensus

After the United States had invaded Iraq in 2003 and George W. Bush, who in 2000 had campaigned on a platform of a humble foreign policy, was re-elected in 2004, the American political landscape seemed upside down. The Democratic Party, known for its willingness to intervene in foreign nations, was now aligned with the GOP, the party of Robert Taft who did not even wanted the United States to join NATO.

Non-interventionism got a new face, as in a 2008 primary debate former New York mayor Rudy Guliani and a Congressman from Texas by the name of Ron Paul got into a heated debate on the 9/11 attacks. Ron Paul suggested that officials should “listen to what terrorists are saying”, that perpetual warfare in Middle Eastern countries were to blame for the hatred directed towards the US, and famously mentioned the CIA-defined concept of “blowback”. Blowback describes the unintended consequences of a covert operation which result in acts of political violence by civilians. Ron Paul was booed in 2008, shamed by his fellow party candidates and did not achieve to the get the party’s nomination neither in that year, nor in 2012.

The concept of interventionism is political mainstream in the US and Europe. Flirtatious tendencies towards the anti-war movement are temporary and depend on either fear or the perceived need for ‘humanitarian aid’ of the general public. While the 2003 Iraq invasion was highly contested and both the American and the European public seemed fed up with interventionism, the Libya intervention and the current bombings in Iraq and Syria seem to pass unmarked.


/ Russia and China are no exception to this trend

Let’s not pretend that the blockade that both Russia and China constitute in the UN Security Council says anything about the willingness of both of these nations to intervene. Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and influence in East Ukraine speak words for its part, and its past does so as well.

As for China, consulting companies are already advocating to pay close attention to defence spending, that eventually might turn into less of a ‘defence’. The People’s Republic will soon have to deal with Islamic militancy from Kazakhstan, tribal insurgencies on the China-Pakistan corridor, ethnic insurgencies in Myanmar and piracy from Malaysia. Some of these have already caused repeated acts of terrorism on the Chinese mainland.

The anti-war movement and non-interventionists are not one of a kind

Non-interventionism is a belief based on principle, an anti-war movement is merely pragmatic. Contesting an intervention because one is of the belief that it only nourishes special interests or that it entails committing acts of cruelty towards the local population is not a principled stance. Protesting the Iraq War doesn’t mean being anti-war, it’s picking and choosing the wars one approves. This is why it does not seem contradictory to the American Left to be anti-war but also in support of Barack Obama.

Non-interventionism in contrary is opposed to militaristic pragmatism, since it is rooted in philosophical and moral background that has different origins:

/ The Washington Doctrine of Unstable Alliances

Unlike what the name of this doctrine might suggest, its origin is jeffersonian. Thomas Jefferson advocated a liquidity in the concept of external military alliances: these should be created and broken up depending on the needs of the United States, should never imply entangling alliances and should most and foremost favour peace and free trade. The former US president drew this conclusion after observing the ongoing war between the United Kingdom and France, the ‘tyrant of the sea’ versus the ‘tyrant of the land’ as he called it.


Jefferson’s view on military alliances was a major contribution to the US constitution, especially to the demand for a declaration of war for all instances of military intervention.

Today, these views, though represented in the political landscape, are not mainstream. These include the libertarian movements with candidates such as Gary Johnson and far-left figures such as Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein.

/ European non-interventionism

The period of Enlightenment-style scepticism towards war is long gone in Europe. Instead, non-interventionism has been replaced as a key characteristic of the far-left and has therefore been marginalised. It is popular belief in Europe that there certainly are just wars, and that each situation has to be analysed individually.

The repeated acts of terrorism in Europe, that continue to haunt the continent for years now, have created a post-9/11-like reactionary relationship to military intervention. After the attack on the Stade de France in Paris, the political response in France was to increasingly involve itself in airstrikes against the Islamic State, which completes the vicious circle of the blowback effect:

Interventionism creates instability

There are prominent examples of blowback that are documented as such. Amongst those we find the Iranian coup d’état of 1953 and the installing of the Shah which led to the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the creation of Hamas through the opposition to the PLO in Palestine, the Mujahideen insurgents created as an opposition to the pro-Soviet Afghan government which lead the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979, which consequently lead to the United States supporting insurgents against the USSR who then turned out to use the financial support to join al-Qaeda years later. The list could go on about the arming of Syrian rebel groups in the Syrian Civil War since 2011 which led to the rise of the terrorist group Islamic State, the US fighting the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and so on.

A U.S. Army Private First Class with 782nd Alpha Company pulls perimeter security while other soldiers from his company deliver school supplies and conduct counterinsurgency operations, March 31, 2010, Morgan Kacha village, Southern Afghanistan. School supplies were handed out by ANA soldiers, while troop leaders talked with the village elders. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Kenny Holston)

History shows that interventionism creates instability that is in neither countries’ nor group’s interest, yet it remains a continuous political solution to militarily intervene in foreign nations, to the degree that major politicians accuse non-interventionists to be ‘terrorist-sympathisers’. Parts of this is due to the fact that there is a fundamental misunderstanding between non-interventionism and isolationism. Isolationism cuts off all diplomatic and trade relations between countries, while non-interventionism fundamentally relies on trade relations to preserve peaceful coexistence.

Paying attention

Bombing Middle Eastern countries and thereby destroying infrastructure including roads and schools creates a generation without a future that turns out to be radicalised even easier than the previous one. World leaders need to pay closer attention to the fact that geopolitics is not identical to that of the 19th century: alliances are not transparent and shift radically from one day to another. What began with the Cold War is today a world of uncertainty in which military action has far more drastic consequences than ever before.

This is an issue than world leaders need to pay closer attention to, so that they learn humbleness before temperament, reflection before action and peace before war.

Pictures are Creative Commons.

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About Bill Wirtz

My name is Bill, I'm from Luxembourg and I write about the virtues of a free society. I favour individual and economic freedom and I believe in the capabilities people can develop when they have to take their own responsibilities.

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