Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

The intervention dilemma

‘We know why we were left to die. Because there are no resources in Rwanda. Only Rwandans.’

The speaker was a Rwandan politician we visited in 2006. A progressive approach to humanitarian intervention must begin with the desire to prove her wrong. If the left’s ideals of equality are to mean anything at all then a Labour government’s future foreign policy must be guided by the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘mere’ Rwandan, Darfuri, Rohingya or Kurd. But if the ideal is simple, the realisation is anything but.

The resistance to making these aspirations manifest in humanitarian intervention tends to come not just from pacifists, isolationist or even foreign policy ‘realists’, but from those craving ‘consistency’ to the exclusion of every other consideration. Their argument runs that we shouldn’t prevent imminent atrocities in Libya on the grounds that we failed to save lives in, say, Chechnya, North Korea or Zimbabwe. But for those on the left who navigate the difficult territory between moral imperatives and political practicality, the question of when, how and with what legitimacy to take action to protect populations under threat is among the most painful of dilemmas.

The interventionists in the Labour party are not alone, of course, in this terrain – as the prime minister’s attitude to Libya and Syria has shown – nor have they conclusively won the internal argument. Indeed, Labour’s current line on arming Syria’s rebels has eerie echoes of the Labour opposition’s doubts over whether to lift the 1990s arms embargo on the Bosnians. The inadequacy of that British response, as Robin Cook later regretted, was ‘not a failure for which we can pass the parcel of blame between the political parties; we all have a share in the responsibility’, and provided much of the inspiration for Labour’s interventions from Sierra Leone to Kosovo, as well as Tony Blair’s Chicago speech.

One military intervention continues to haunt Labour’s position on these issues: 10 years of bitter division over Iraq are still playing themselves out at the very highest levels of the party. Meanwhile, the disappointments of the British campaign in Afghanistan also cast a long shadow. But while those debates will not and should not go away, the strategic context for the next Labour government is significantly different to that wrestled with by the last one.

First, since the end of the cold war, the principal question for Labour prime ministers facing decisions about intervention was how to influence, support, embolden or restrain the United States. Whether cajoling Bill Clinton on Kosovo or navigating an Iraq-fixated George W Bush, the central United States leadership role was taken as read. Under Barack Obama, by contrast, the US has sought to wind down its troop presence in the Middle East, place more of the burden in cases like Libya and Mali on European allies, and rebalance its military posture towards Asia. With cuts to the US defence budget already under way, a new president is unlikely to reverse this position quickly, leaving a Labour government in 2015 facing difficult choices: if we have to take on greater responsibility for humanitarian interventions ourselves, is the funding going to come from elsewhere in the defence budget, a reallocation from ‘softer’ development concerns, or from domestic spending?

Questions of how to secure legitimacy for even modest humanitarian protection efforts are also becoming more fraught. While Russia and China have thrown up obstacles in the past, their acquiescence to the Libya operation on ‘responsibility to protect’ grounds was a matter of regret for both countries, and has subsequently made them even more implacable opponents of even the most limited forms of action on Syria. A rules-based international order is clearly a progressive goal but it is a strange progressive project which would leave the lives of Syrians, like Darfuris before them, in the gift of regimes whose alliances with authoritarian governments are a matter of identification with their behaviour as much as alignment with their interests.

In Kosovo the Labour government was prepared to act over Russia’s objections. But if this was defensible on the basis that there was strong multilateral consensus in Europe, other regional analogies are less clear. What constitutes legitimacy in a part of the world where the regional body in question – the Arab League – is itself composed of autocracies? Does our reliance on such entities for legitimising intervention tie our hands if one of the Gulf monarchies itself becomes the focus of concern (such as Bahrain)? Have we done enough to win the argument for the responsibility to protect among the rising democratic global powers, such as India and Brazil? And are we in practice providing backing to one side in a larger sectarian and strategic battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran?

The question of which groups to support among the endangered populations has likewise become ever more complex. Opposition movements are often guilty of their own crimes, though the presence of foreign jihadis in Bosnia or the Rwandan Patriotic Front’s own brutality were not reasons simply to allow mass atrocities to proceed. But the growth of transnational jihadism and the rise of Islamist political forces across the Middle East presents a different set of challenges – are we in danger of providing support to precisely the movements that are the greatest threat to a progressive future in the region, and even to security in the UK? Or will we refuse to involve ourselves in conflicts that attract extremists as part of the opposition – even if the Islamists are the only groups with the military strength and popular support to bring down brutal regimes?

People with shared values will legitimately weigh the importance of each of these questions differently and come to different probability assessments on the risks associated with the spread of variables. So we can understand why Labour’s current line on Syria is so hesitant, even though we disagree with it; it reflects the fact that our options now range from terrible to awful.

Yet while the endgame of the civil war there may well have been reached by 2015, the convulsions of the Arab Spring of which it is a part will still be unfolding. As we have seen in Syria, an unwillingness to take unpleasant decisions in the early stages can often make for an even worse set of options later on and the moral responsibility for the consequences of inaction cannot be readily suspended. Determining a principled set of answers to the progressive dilemmas around intervention is therefore an urgent project for Labour in opposition, not one that can be delayed until after an election two years from now.

Questions to discuss:

1)    What opportunity-cost should Labour be prepared to pay in terms of other forms of public spending to ensure that Britain is fully capable of undertaking humanitarian interventions?
2)    How important is UN authorisation to whether an intervention is progressive in intent and execution? What alternative forms of legitimisation would we consider acceptable?
3)    Is it progressive to support opposition movements in tyrannies if they are contaminated by torture, extremism, or links to terrorism elsewhere?  


Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF. He tweets @ajwsmall


Read the other ‘progressive dilemmas’ here

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Kirsty McNeill and Andrew Small

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a consultant advising international progressive organisations on strategy. She tweets @KirstyJMcNeill. Andrew Small is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He tweets @ajwsmall


  • It is interesting that the examples of ‘possible’ intervention are generally without contention. I suspect the arguments would be very different if genuine need determined the priority.
    I feel Palestine, brutally occupied for over 60 years and losing for territory to Israeli settlers every day, has desperately needed help from the West for decades but has been ignored. If the number of refugees is a consideration, Palestine again is top of the list with near six million – many second generation – denied the Right to Return under International Law.
    Sadly, Tony Blair didn’t little to help in his ‘peace-maker’ capacity.

  • This is an important debate. Labour needs to come to terms with Britain’s role in the world. Britain (and Labour) ought to stand up for the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, perhaps most importantly Article 3 ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.’ These rights ought to trump the rights of dictators and their allies. These rights ought to move British people, their government, and yes, the Labour Party to seek ways of defending human beings when they are being needlessly slaughtered. There is no simple way of doing this. The way forward is not easy. Action can and often does have negative consequences. But inaction is not a morally neutral stance, for this country and for Labour. Inaction has consequences too, as we discovered when we (the UK, EU, West and Nato) collectively failed to prevent the massacre of Bosnia’s Muslims, or when we failed abysmally to protect the Tutsis in Rwanda. Or in Darfur, where the US even declared a genocide yet failed to act (despite being signatory to the Genocide Convention).

    I’ve written about these issues relating to Libya, Syria and Iraq –

    My most recent article followed a visit to Iraqi Kurdistan, where I saw first hand, the human consequences of inaction – at Domiz refugee camp, near the Syrian border –

Sign up to our daily roundup email