Collier and the libertarians, a conversation

In the midst of my podcast binge (it was a long drive to and from Ottawa) I listened to the libertarian EconTalk interview Paul Collier on his new book, Wars, Guns and Votes.

I have yet to find time to blog my own impressions of the book (which I like) but I highly recommend the podcast for the crib notes. Collier makes a good case (notably, how a facade of democracy has made the world less, not more safe) and host Russ Roberts asks all the right, hard questions.

One of Collier’s more controversial stances is his case for international intervention in the Congos and Zimbabwes of the world. Roberts pushes him hardest on this point. I’m a huge supporter of peacekeeping operations, and even run to the hawkish side when it comes to intervening sooner. But here Collier’s case felt disappointing.

Collier’s basic argument: UN-mandated forces could operate efficiently and effectively, most of all because they are policed by Western powers and their publics. Both Roberts and I are less sanguine.

My concerns are twofold. First, the UN only actively polices and peacekeeps in the political backwaters of no interest to the Security Council Five. Why do we think the ICC has yet to indict outside of central Africa?

Second, Collier argues that joint intervention by advanced democracies will avoid the excesses and exploitation of empire. Here I and Roberts both balk.

Collier’s correct that Western intervention on its worst day couldn’t be nearly so bad as colonialism on its best. But Roberts is worried that criminals and opportunists will still find room to pervert the cause. I agree. I also doubt the basic premise: that Western powers and publics are capable (or even interested in) acting in the public interest.

The dominant school of thought in Western foreign policy (French, American or English) remains realism: the exercise of national power in national self-interest. With a book on international oil politics fresh in my mind, plus one on the perils of even our more limited recent interventions, I lean to the side of caution.

The burden of proof still lies on the side of the liberal interventionists, and (in my mind) that case has yet to be convincingly made.