The missing military dimension in the left’s debate on intervention

By Jenny Steel

One aspect of the debate on what might constitute an “ethical” military intervention often seems to take a back seat. This is the question of what General Sir Rupert Smith calls, in his book of the same name, “the utility of force.” As shown in many conflicts over the last seventy or so years, although a state or organisation may have superior force at its disposal, the characteristics of contemporary armed conflict make it very difficult to apply this force in such a way that it achieves the desired result.

There are examples of where intervention is widely perceived to have saved lives (Sierra Leone) or a lack of it has arguably allowed a genocide to unfold (Rwanda). Whilst the ethics surrounding acting or not acting and the scope of the interveners’ goals are always questionable, understanding from a military perspective what force could actually be expected to achieve — its utility — in any given set of circumstances would surely contribute to better preparedness and decision-making in the moment.

In addition, the ability to explain decision-making on military intervention in terms of the utility of employing force in specific situations. As well as the language of ethics, this could go some way to improving Labour’s reputation among the swathe of the population who serve, or whose lives are intimately involved with those who serve in the armed forces, and want to deliver results without being deployed counter-productively. It is important for them to know that the party appreciates what they can do, and understands how and when to deploy them.

In the contemporary world, it should not be expected that a military intervention will in itself result in the resolution of a conflict. In the days of what Smith calls “interstate industrial warfare” it was possible to settle a conflict through a military confrontation that would result in the opponent’s capacity to impose their will being neutralised. Political objectives could then be enforced either by annexing the opponent’s territory, or chasing the army back over their own borders, having been forced to surrender their purpose. However, in today’s world, the first of these objectives is not a legitimate aim, and the second is irrelevant when opponents do not have borders.

The desired result of contemporary military intervention, as Smith observes, is broadly speaking to bring about a set of conditions in which a government can function and basic human rights are upheld, whilst a resolution to the underlying conflict is sought by other means. In this case, the conflict is not actually resolved, and there can be no resolution (nor, to some extent, withdrawal) until the opposing parties change their minds.

Besides, any group that seeks determinedly to oppose intervening actors who vastly outclass them in terms of military might is logically required to fall back upon tactics that work for weaker parties. These consist of wearing down the intervening force, or their population, through diffuse attacks on the tactical level over a prolonged period of time, where the weapons used may be items available to all — knives and cars, for example — and could at their most basic consist simply of the human body. Meanwhile, they present no physical or technological target for the intervening force to strike that would allow them to achieve a strategic effect, or at least no targets that they are actually prepared to strike from an ethical perspective. This is achieved by the opponent embedding themselves in the civilian population, with or without its consent. Safe from attack, as long as their will to fight remains strong, they can wait for a withdrawal whilst the nominally stronger party’s political masters and populations tire.

Where this is the case, how is it possible for an intervening side to achieve its aim when doing so would be to destroy the very people on whose behalf the intervention was presumed to be engaged? If the civilian population cannot help but form an integral part of a conflict, does this mean that military intervention in the context of an ethical policy is out of the question in practical terms, even if human rights are being abused beyond all toleration?

On a practical level, the difficulties encountered by many recent military interventions simply mean that those intervening have allowed themselves to be drawn in to fighting the battle on the opponents’ terms, playing to their strengths and the interveners’ weaknesses. It is important to think creatively about how we can change this situation now, and avoid it happening in the future, so that international law is not left toothless.

Within the important debate about the ethics of intervention, it cannot be forgotten that force indisputably does have utility when it is properly used, and sometimes it is the only thing that does. Yet satisfying oneself with calling military intervention “the last resort” implies the mistaken impression that the deployment of the armed forces will result in the achievement of the policy aim whatever the circumstances and no matter how much time has elapsed, which may not be the case. The realities of contemporary armed conflict also mean that there is more than ever a basis to promote and progress non-military forms of conflict prevention and resolution activity on a pragmatic basis as well as an ethical or ideological one.

Labour has established a shadow minister for peace and disarmament, who, in government, will be tasked with proactively seeking to improve new systems and norms of behaviour relating to conflict across the board. Carrying out this mission effectively, alongside other visible efforts to address grievances, reform unfair global systems, improve mechanisms for international cooperation, and enforce transparency relating to national economic interests overseas, should deliver the additional advantage of improving the context in which any military actions in which Britain does find itself involved take place by bolstering their coherence and legitimacy — a requirement which is particularly vital when the opponent is an ideology.

Jenny Steel is a member of the Fabian International Policy Group