With the death toll rising in Syria, the Kofi-Annan peace plan facing break-down, there is a new urgency in the Syria debate. And rightly so. Not at all surprising, Henry Kissinger came out against intervention in an op-ed that quickly became the centre-piece of the renewed debate (and got him an endorsement on TNI's Robert W. Merry). Full disclosure here: I am not Kissinger's greatest fan. He embodies the sort of realpolitik that I despise. And as a historian I would like to call attention to his often ill-fated advice: it was Kissinger who in 1989 counselled George H. W. Bush to accept a permanent East-West division of Europe in order to get other concessions from the Soviet Union (whatever those would have been). Which is why I think it fair to spend some of my (and your) precious time on the Syrian conundrum and on Henry Kissinger's piece.
Kissinger traces the origin of the current international order to the peace of Westphalia and to that extent he states something rather obvious. But there are three things that struck me as odd about that line of argument. The first is that I find it awkward to suggest that the treaty of Westphalia established the only model of a working international order. It is true that ever since the Westphalian peace whatever happened in any given country was being treated as a domestic affair. But it is also true that this understanding has led to numerous atrocities, genocide and war. The fact that such tragedies could go by without interference might even have contributed to even larger wars at a later point in history. Suggesting that the Westphalian order is the only order that preserves as much peace as possible is a bit of a stretch.
My second objection to invoking the order of Westphalia as the only norm is that Kissinger does not seem to be aware of the changes in policy (not necessarily politics) over the past two decades. Argues Kissinger:
“The diplomacy generated by the Arab Spring replaces Westphalian principles of equilibrium with a generalized doctrine of humanitarian intervention. In this context, civil conflicts are viewed internationally through prisms of democratic or sectarian concerns.”
This is with absolute certainty the most awkward way in which one could possibly describe the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). There is of course no doctrine of humanitarian intervention. What there is is a new understanding of sovereignty that was first established as a norm (and not a doctrine) in a resolution by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2005. Six years before the Arab Spring set off in earnest. Kissinger seems to have missed that entirely and now babbles about a doctrine, when in fact what we have had for a couple of years now is a new norm that is slowly taking root.
He is right that the conduct of a government now does matter; he is wrong is asserting that civil conflicts are now perceived “through prisms of democratic or sectarian concerns”. That is simply factually incorrect. After all, no one is advocating to intervene in China or Azerbaijan, even though these countries are not democracies and sectarian allegiances could not matter less in both. There is a concern for the most basic human rights and only a serious violation of the most basic human rights can trigger a military intervention, justified by the R2P. Kissinger seems to be afraid of a norm that centres on what a states does and provides and not on what he controls. Given Kissinger's legacy that is by no means surprising. What is surprising is his insufficient grasp of the change.
Finally, Kissinger argues that the Westphalian order never fully took root in the Middle East, because there were only three states with what he calls a historical basis: Egypt, Iran and Turkey. This strikes me as equally odd. Now generally speaking, most historians will raise objections to the idea that there are somehow 'natural' states and the order established in Westphalia recognised numerous states that long have ceased to exist. But be that as it may, even if it is true that the Westphalian order never really applied to the Middle East, why then should we care to apply it now, as Kissinger so clearly argues for?
And with a final note of disbelief. Argues Kissinger: “Does America consider itself obliged to support every popular uprising against any non-democractic government (…)?” Well, no. Firstly, as said previously, this only demonstrates a lack of understanding on what the R2P is. Its certainly not designed (though I might wish for it) as an instrument for democracy promotion. The question Kissinger tries asking is this: “Does America consider itself obliged to intervene in any conflict in which a governmental or non-governmental actor is committing mass-atrocities?” Because, contrary to what Kissinger believes, the R2P also was not designed as an instrument of regime change. It clearly stipulates a duty to assist for the international community, when a state actor fails in providing security. Which is why, for instance, American forces are in Central Africa helping root out the LRA. But it is true that when a state actor is responsible for the atrocities, the R2P might provide an impetus for regime change, after all nothing helped the Libyan people more than ousting Qadhafi. But the general point is this: Even if one cannot help in all cases, that does not mean one should not help help in any case.
Kissinger's main argument against intervention is that it might undermine international order. This, however, strikes me as disingenuous, not only for the fact that his understanding of both the international order today and its historic origins are problematic. The United States intervened in Panama in 1989 without a mandate by the UN Security Council, NATO did so in Kosovo in 1999. Even if, as Kissinger argues, the current debate centres unduly on humanitarian intervention, this did not start with the Arab Spring. The world has seen humanitarian interventions without UNSC mandates for years, why a Syria intervention—and whether the UNSC says no is so far a reasonable assumption, but no more than that, an assumption—would mark a significant departure from the previous international order remains an open question, Kissinger does not even try to answer.
But the question that Kissinger remarkably fails to ask is this: Why is the international order that he thinks is the Westphalian order worth preserving? Why is it, to put it differently, good? Since most wars of the previous two decades were not inter-state wars, but civil wars of asymmetric nature, the changing nature of warfare already implies that something is afoot. During the past two decades the most appalling atrocities were committed in places like the DRC, Rwanda and by al-Qaeda in Iraq. So if nation states no longer fight wars and the nature of warfare changes, why should the international order—which, argues Kissinger, was established to avoid inter-state wars—not change with it? On a more abstract level, Kissinger's whole understanding of history is problematic. For he assumes that in order to preserve peace, changes in international order have to be avoided. A historian's take would be markedly different. Change is always indispensable in order to preserve what is worth preserving. Put differently: The real question is what do we want to preserve: the Westphalian order or peace? The latter would mandate change.
So far, as the reader will have noted, I have not said a single word on Syria. That is not to say that I am for or against intervention. But I have been going on with Kissinger for a while and so will get back to Syria tomorrow. Suffice it to say, Kissinger was also wrong on Libya.