Ronan Marron is a 3rd year politics student. His primary academic interests are political violence and the history of political thought, but he spends a lot of his time drinking coffee while binging on historically inaccurate Netflix shows. He argues below that the historical examples of successful regime change were made possible by the recognition of the need to preserve the state, and that this logic remains true in modern-day Syria.
The western interventions of the last 15 years have been sold with the narrative of getting rid of the bad guy. The people we are supposed to be protecting from these villains are not only ourselves but those in the invaded countries themselves. Iraq was presented primarily as getting rid of Saddam’s (non-existent) weapons of mass destruction, but also because of the terrible way in which Saddam was treating Iraqis. The war is now widely considered to have been a bad idea. Yet it is the same narrative which prevailed in interventions in Libya and in Syria. Opposing the violent deposition of these tyrants is, in some circles, perceived to be a tacit endorsement of a leader butchering their own citizens.
This discussion that goes on in the media, in everyday conversation, and of course amongst our policy-makers, fails to recognise the inherent value on political stability. Of course, this is understandable – we live in the heartlands of political stability. Western Europe and the United States have not experienced true anarchy and civil conflict in a very long time; our cultural memories of violent episodes are deemed not to be the product of anarchy but, like the World Wars, a result of the failures of domestic politics. They were in large part considered to be a factor of hubris and tyranny – we almost universally agree that the Second World War was caused by a bad guy. Stability is taken for granted.
Given this it is natural that we don’t think that anything can be worse than living under systematically unjust and violent rule. Yet that is not something that we can take for granted. The Thirty Years War (1618-48) was, in terms of the proportion of population killed in the affected areas, was more destructive than World War One. Raging across continental Europe, violence already loosely regulated was let out of its box. A hugely diverse range of actors, as well as loosely controlled armed forces caused an unprecedented level of violence, while the contemporaneous English Civil War showed how the destructive potential of a vacuum of authority can rush in swiftly to replace order.
It is a simplification of the history and processes involved to say that the horror of these events was causally implicated in the development of the modern state. Yet it is definitely true that an awareness of the inherent benefits of stability coloured the thinking that brought us to a system of states in the Western/European realm. The state was consolidated and two realms created. In the internal, a place of peace with the benefits it can bring. Violence was externalised: it was something that took place between and largely not within states.
Internal stability is not everything. It does not say that the state is just, or that its people are allowed to prosper. In abstraction Hobbes’ Leviathan can be read as saying that there is barely a tyranny so bad that anarchy would be preferable. That is clearly not correct or particularly applicable given it is rarely a choice between pure anarchy and pure tyranny. Yet the lesson from this time and – the political thought it produced – must be that stability has a value that, while not absolute, must be factored into the calculations we make when trying to provide assistance to people.
The contemporary world doesn’t leave us in need of examples. We were told that getting rid of Gadhafi, and doing so fast, was imperative. Looking at the current state of Libya, I wonder whether that seems so unambiguously true. The West supported a broad array of tagged together anti-Gadhafi militants and in doing so facilitated regime destruction rather than regime change. The way Gadhafi died showed the lack of respect for the rule of law, the lack of centralised control within the opposition, and the lack of regulation of violence. In the final degree it showed that political stability – the ability to contain and monopolise violence – no longer existed. There are a number of countries that have under Bush and Obama been destabilised with military support or direct intervention. These interventions of various forms have been sold at least in part as rescue missions but we should ask: were we rescuing these people from the frying pan to put them into the fire?
The choice that seems to be presented is Country X + Tyrant vs Country X – (Tyrant + Liberal Democracy); form of government is presented as the sole variable alongside strength of state. Those who caution against military intervention aren’t necessarily the supporters of tyrants but are sometimes those who see the risks of the anarchy. This is a risk heightened by the fact that military intervention to destroy tyrannical regimes can often seem to have the unfortunate consequence of destroying the institution of the state alongside it.
This is particularly dangerous because there is no clearly established way to build a state and the stability associated with it. Often the assumption is, for example, that the Coalition was simply not willing to pour in sufficient resources to restore order to Iraq. There is an element of truth in this; if artificial or external state building is possible then it is definitely expensive. The deeper problem is that there is no knowledge of how it can be done. State building projects across the world of all kind have met with a multitude of different types of failure and very little success.
This context makes some claims seem misguided. There are those who believe that Assad must be defeated (and with him the remainder of the Syrian state swept away) before the process of rebuilding Syria can take place. This massively underestimates the difficulty of such a task in a situation where variant and often violent stake holders are either competing for power or pitting themselves against the very project of stabilisation at hand. In the long run it is probably easier to achieve justice within stability than try to construct justice and stability simultaneously.
If that reads as a support for Russia’s pro-Assad policy in Syria it should do so only with highly important qualifiers. The fact that restoring the Syrian state may be the first step to peace does not justify the means by which Assad has fought, or by which Russia has supported him. Bombing hospitals and using chemical weapons are not acceptable means to fight any wars. I also believe that the position Russia has adopted is because of geopolitical expedience rather than any notion of bettering the people of Syria.
The argument is about military intervention. It is important to deal with leaders internationally who systematically abuse the human rights of their citizens. Those are the figures who kill with impunity, who supress the press, and torture citizens and combatants alike. Yet if help is what must be offered then in offering it thought must be given to what is going to help people: balancing the short, medium and long terms. In the long term, stability can provide benefit and is hard to build once destroyed. Efforts are often better focused on using other means (including diplomacy, often between those who may not be natural allies) in order to facilitate regime change without military force destabilising the state. The preferable situation would be to leave a regime in power for a little longer rather than to destabilise the state.
It is easy to see an argument in favour of stability as collapsing into a simplistic defence of the state. The western ‘state’ is not the only institution that has the potential to provide the stability and this should be valued. From history it is clear that stability was not first achieved in the western state. In a world where the state is changing, it is true that alternatives need consideration. One of the failures of the doomed policy missions of state building is that they have attempted to build states in a liberal western image, although that is simply conjecture.
Yet the state is the only institution we have now that can provide stability. Hard as it is to build, it must be considered a valuable commodity where it exists. I am not uniformly against all military intervention, yet I am cautious of it. When sold as a rescue mission, thought must be given as to how much this will help people in the long run. This decision must include an appreciation – one which Hobbes and those who crafted the Peace of Westphalia after the 30 Years War understood but that now many of us have lost – that stability has a value that must be carefully weighed.