Surrey, Bellamy and regime change as the new ‘obvious’

I’m currently on my way back from presenting a paper at the Centre for International Intervention at the University of Surrey. I should start by thanking the Centre for their invitation and their kind hospitality.

I presented some preliminary conclusions on the first of my research questions: how could Tony Blair in March 2002 call regime change in Iraq as ‘an obvious centre-left policy’ without reference to the UN and the fact that the use of force without a fresh UN mandate would be illegal?

The argument I presented, in a nutshell, is that Blair was wrong to describe such a policy as ‘obvious’ because it overlooked the importance of international law and organisation to the left; but that he has ultimately been successful, despite the disaster of Iraq, in shifting the Labour Party onto territory that now marginalises international law relative to a political and moral imperative to protect human rights.

To explain why a respect for the outcome of multilateral dialogue and international law was central to an old Labour policy I went back to World War I. The Party shared President Wilson’s hesitation about supporting that war, which was caused, from their perspectives, by the corrupt practices of unaccountable European elites. Both Labour and Wilson therefore could only support the war from a position that acknowledged a kind of detached neutrality. The war would not be a defence of empire or the balance of power; it would instead be fought to ‘make the world safe for democracy’.

Now I argued at this point that when Wilsonian republicans (in the Kantian/Madisonian sense) and British socialists talked about ‘making the world safe for democracy’ it was NOT a call to arms for the purpose of overthrowing undemocratic regimes. It was instead an understanding that balance of power politics tended to concentrate power in the hands of unaccountable executives with large standing armies and that these were pathways to dictatorship and threats to liberty. The long term defence of liberty and the promotion of democracy inside a state therefore meant changing the competitive nature of international politics through the promotion of international law and international organisation (see Dan Deudney’s Bounding Power for elaboration). There was, in short, no question of prioritising democracy promotion over international law. They were two sides of the same coin and had to be promoted together.

International law and organisation, therefore, not only offered an alternative to war (and avoiding war was more of a moral imperative than protecting human rights), it also offered a gradual, and therefore more sustainable, approach to promoting a liberty within states. It also provided a check against the imperialistic assumption that a state can decide by itself what is in the common interest of humanity. By insisting that ‘the common interest’ emerges from multilateral dialogue, and is articulated in international law, the left stays true to its anti-imperialist roots. This kind of thinking underpinned a commitment to the UN, which was, as Mark Phythian demonstrates, at the heart of Labour’s foreign policy throughout the Cold War.

I then went on to argue that Blair led a response to the UN’s failure to prevent massacres in the mid-1990s.  This insisted the political imperative to promote the national interest must fuse with the moral imperative to protect human rights (and vice-versa), and that this fusion was ultimately more important than the Party’s longstanding commitment to international law and organisation, which was marginalised if not necessarily ignored.

We see this in the reaction to the Sandline / Sierra Leone affair. Blair dismissed the ‘scandal’ by suggesting that the democratic ends could justify illegal means. We see it also in Kosovo, where the awkward corners on the legal piece of the centre-left jigsaw were trimmed to make it fit alongside the political and moral imperative to act (i.e. the war had ‘implicit’ legal authorisation). We see it in Iraq, where Blair’s advisers noted before Chirac threatened to veto the second resolution that they could go to war without explicit authorisation – ‘a la Kosovo’ (see my BJPIR article for elaboration). I conclude by noting that the PLP in fact adopted these arguments when they voted for war in Iraq in March 2003. Blair may have been wrong a year earlier to describe regime change without a UN mandate as ‘obvious’ to the centre-left, but ultimately he did persuade a large part of the centre-left (excluding the Lib Dems and 139 Labour MPs) to follow him into Iraq, even though the legal argument he relied on was, by the Attorney General’s own admission, not the safest one.

Now, Iraq was a political disaster for Blair and Ed Miliband admits the vote in March 2003 was a mistake. But that does not mean Blair failed in shifting the definition of what is ‘obvious’ when thinking about a centre-left foreign policy. The test cases, I suggested in my presentation, can be found in how the Labour Party and Lib Dems responded to the recent use of the ‘protection of civilians’ (POC) mandate in Ivory Coast and Libya as a cover for the pursuit of regime change. Alex Bellamy captures the issue in this piece on e-IR – thanks to Sir Mike Aaronson at Cii for alerting me to this. Going beyond the legal mandate in this way raises concerns about the legitimacy of an intervention, about liberal imperialism and, because it tests the patience of the BRICs in particular, about the sustainability of R2P. This is something that liberal internationalists across the centre-left should be sensitive to. But my research to date suggests that while there were some concerns expressed in Parliament about the pursuit of regime change under the cover of the POC mandate, the Labour Party (and of course the Lib Dems) were happy to go along with a policy that once again trimmed the awkward corners off the legal piece of the jigsaw in order to make it fit with the political and moral imperative to act.

In this sense, my conclusion that Blair was successful in helping to shift the centre-left away from its liberal internationalist position is sustained. Liberal interventionism rather than liberal internationalism now seems to be the new ‘obvious’.

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About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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