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.

5 thoughts on “Collier and the libertarians, a conversation

  1. “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?” -Blattman

    What about Bosnia and Kosovo? Both of those were important to the P5.

    It doesn’t follow that because UN peacekeeping in Chechnya and ICC indictments of former Bush Administration officials aren’t going to happen these kinds of interventions are therefore wrong elsewhere.

    Would that international law applied equally to all states in practice, but we do not live in that world yet (knowing many international lawyers, I can assure you such a world is the stuff of their fondest dreams), and getting there will be slow going and require a measure of unfairness.

    So be it. We must all work within reality’s confines while seeking to change them.

  2. I agree those are perfect examples: it was unilateral action, not the UN that was able to make headway. In Bosnia he UN did nothing but talk itself in circles and impose one sided arms embargoes that made the situation worse. In Kosovo NATO, not the UN, imposed a bombing campaign. Russia opposed a hearty peacekeeping force–because it was in their backyard. But Russia’s veto in peacekeeping operations of the UN didn’t preclude NATO from acting unilaterally (call it plurilaterally if you like, but it wasn’t with UN permission). We learned from Bosnia that we can’t wait for the UN, and in Kosovo that bombing won’t work alone, you need peacekeepers on the ground. That makes for a sad story, because the UN is the only credible source of peacekeepers.

  3. “Collier’s correct that Western intervention on its worst day couldn’t be nearly so bad as colonialism on its best.”

    Really? I’m not so sure. The mining, corruption and rape accusations against MONUC troops in the DRC vs some of the more benevolent interventions of colonial administrators is not such an easy comparison.

  4. The intervention in Kosovo may have been by NATO, but the international administration and peacekeeping (broadly defined) were run by UNMIK and the OSCE. True about Bosnia being a UN shitshow, but the UN was still more involved there –period– than in a lot of other places. That was my point.