Stubborn resistance

The latest edition of the journal Ethics and International Affairs contains a number of interesting articles on international law and the ethics of war. Several of them are worth commenting on, but I want to focus on a piece by Alex Bellamy, Director of the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at The University of Queensland, Australia. Bellamy is the author of quite a good introductory book on just war theory. As his job title would suggest, he’s something of an R2P advocate, and in his latest article he tackles the idea that during civil wars outside parties should support the state against insurgents. This idea rests on the principle that the state will probably win, and so it’s best to help it win as quickly as possible, so reducing overall bloodshed. The fact that Bellamy considers it necessary to address the idea is almost certainly a product of the situation in Syria, where government troops are the on verge on launching a final offensive to clear the country of rebel forces. The final triumph of the ‘Assad regime’ now seems so certain that even as hawkish a commentator as Max Boot has said that it would be best at this point if everybody helped Assad so as the get the war over and done with. Bellamy doesn’t like this. He calls it the ‘fatalist approach’ and in his article, entitled ‘Ending Atrocity Crimes: the False Promise of Fatalism’, he urges the likes of Boot to reconsider.

Now, I’m all for people taking on Max Boot, and would normally side with anybody who wants to do such a thing, but in this case, Boot is closer to the truth than Bellamy. For all his aggressiveness, Boot’s ultimately about the forceful pursuit of the national interest, not grandiose ideas of human rights or the international order. Liberal interventionists like Bellamy, by contrast, are all about the latter. And that’s where they go badly wrong.

In his article, Bellamy admits that the idea of helping states to defeat insurgents is not without merit, even in cases where the states in question are guilty of serious crimes. He points out that ‘when states prevail quickly over their domestic opponents, they tend to kill fewer civilians’. Wars in which the rebels prevail and which end in regime change tend, by contrast, to be very prolonged and involve much more death and destruction. Also, peace is normally more long lasting when one side or other wins decisively.

Despite this, Bellamy argues that helping states defeat their rebel enemies is a bad idea. He provides three reasons, which he calls ‘recurrence, precedence, and rights’. First (‘recurrence’), if states learn that they can employ atrocities against their citizens and get away with it, they will do so again and again. As he says, ‘Vladimir Putin came to power by employing indiscriminate violence against Chechnya to good effect in the Second Chechen War, and went on to support similar tactics in Syria.’ Second (‘precedence’), if states see that the international community turns a blind eye to criminal activity by other states, and even helps those states achieve victory, they will draw the conclusion that they can behave badly too. Again, he cites ‘the aforementioned adoption by Syrian government forces of tactics perfected by Russia during the Second Chechen War.’ And third (‘rights’), ‘Privileging order by standing aside as grave violations of rights are committed is patently inconsistent not only with the obligations of international human rights and  humanitarian law but also with the principles and purposes of the United Nations itself’. Ignoring such violations in order to bring wars to a quick end would do ‘great harm to the legitimacy of both the international legal order itself … and the compact between states and peoples.’

Bellamy remarks that his approach is a rule-consequentialist one, that is to say that he is arguing about what would be the best rule rather than what is best in any single instance. The fact that in some individual cases supporting a repressive government would bring a war to an end and so reduce suffering is not reason enough to create a rule that one should always do such a thing. If this was done all the time the negative consequences would outweigh the positive ones. One must, therefore, accept the additional suffering in this one case in order to support the rule which does the most good when applied repeatedly.

I have no problem with rule consequentialist arguments and have often used them myself. But they are very dependent upon judgements of future consequences which one cannot actually know. In this specific case, I think that Bellamy’s judgement is rather coloured by inaccurate assessments of how actions in one instance impact upon actions in another. His arguments concerning recurrence and precedence, for instance, draw on the Chechen example and claim that failure to confront Russia in Chechnya led to Russia, and Syria, committing atrocities during the Syrian civil war. But the link between Russian tactics in Chechnya and the methods used in Syria is decidedly tenuous. As I’ve said before, the tactics and level of force employed by the Russians and Syrians are not very obviously different from those employed by the United States and its various allies in places such as Fallujah, Mosul, and Raqqa. And that is for the very good reason that if you’re going to expel a heavily armed and determined enemy from a city, then you don’t have many options other than to act in that way. In short, it’s got nothing to do with recurrence or precedence.

Moreover, as I’ve also said before, the elevation of ‘rights’ over peace is contradictory because by extending war and increasing the level of violence one inevitably undermines people’s rights, in particular the right to life. It’s also wrong to claim, as Bellamy does, that it’s a mistake to prioritize order over rights, for the simple reason that order is an essential precondition of rights. Bellamy ends his article by saying that we ‘need a politics of stubborn resistance.’ I find this phrase rather scary. In the case of Syria, what could this mean but war and yet more war? After all, if we aren’t going to let Assad win, there’s only two alternatives: war without end; or a war to overthrow the government (which only be achieved at a massive cost in human life). It’s hard to see how either option would enhance Syrians’ rights.

In any case, I think that Bellamy is tilting at windmills, in that I don’t think that there are many people who are saying that it should be a general rule that in civil wars one should always support the state. After all, if it’s a war which the state is losing, the logic of ending it quickly would dictate supporting the rebels. Perhaps a better rule might be to support whichever side is most likely to win in order to enable it do so as rapidly as possible. But that also wouldn’t be a very good rule, as it’s not that easy to predict who’s going to win and people are going to get it repeatedly wrong and end up supporting the weaker side, so making things worse. For instance, based on my memories on what was being said at the time along the lines of ‘Assad is doomed’, I’m reasonably confident that when the Americans decided to get involved in the Syrian civil war on the side of the rebels they were pretty confident that they were backing a winner. Instead, they backed a bunch of losers, and so prolonged the war and increased the suffering of the Syrian people.

Studies have shown very clearly that, absent foreign intervention, civil wars generally finish fairly rapidly. Foreign intervention is strongly correlated with longer wars and increased suffering. If I may turn Bellamy’s rule consequentialist logic against him, then it is clear that if one is looking for the rule which over time does the least harm, then it isn’t one which says intervene on behalf of the state in civil wars, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf of the rebels, nor is it one which says intervene on behalf the side most likely to win. Rather, it’s one which says ‘Don’t intervene at all!’ For sure, that would require us to refrain from intervening in the few instances when intervention might do some good, but it would also force us to refrain in the far more numerous instances when it would do harm. Overall, the world would be much better off as a result. The dogmatic pursuit of human rights may make people feel virtuous, but in the end morality has to rest on practical realities, and those dictate that the strategy of ‘stubborn resistance’ is deeply counterproductive.

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16 thoughts on “Stubborn resistance”

  1. What Bellamy also negates is the fact that prior to Russian intervention in the Syrian war, it was already a conflict that arguably had been enflamed by Saudi and Turkish intervention, fanned enthusiastically by the US, France and UK. It is not as easy to find conflicts that have developed purely locally, without outside influence. Yet I doubt if it is really that difficult to assess the human cost of intervention versus the human cost of non-intervention. The case of Libya is pretty clear; so is Iraq. One takes a few human rights with the cost of thousands of lives, versus the cost of hundreds of thousands and the loss of quality of life of millions. This does not make Russia look so bad; it rather makes the USA look devastatingly destructive.

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    1. a conflict that arguably had been enflamed by Saudi and Turkish intervention
      Ok, I’ll leave out the enthusiastic 66+ multinational force or their respective “national fanning bases”. Forget the precise number.

      But would you be so kind, Josh, to walk me back to the earliest stages of Saudi & Turkish intervention? You may know something I am not aware of.

      Their Motivation?: Arab Spring delight? In both Turkey and Saudi Arabia? They interfered based on humanitarian concerns, realizing matters might be getting far worse then in the famous night around Tahrir Square? What were their respective interests in bringing Assad down? how was that interest different then the standard “Assad must go” in the West? There should be one, no? The interests of those two ME forces were exactly the same as in “the West”? They were kind of luring the multinational force into the conflict?

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  2. I didn’t quite get which rule he actualluly proposes instead. Back the side which didn’tbcommit HR violations? There is obviously no such side in almost any given conflict, especially if we limit the list to sides that have at least some chance to win.

    I also wonder what he thinks about Russian intervention in Crimea. Preventing a civil war altogether is the ultimate application of R2P, isn’t it?

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    1. Aule, whom didn’t you not quite understand? Paul Robinson or Alex Bellamy? Paul’s reference to Bellamy does look quite interesting. Not least in relation to his earlier article here: “Double standards and the Rules-based order”

      I guess my more privately selective first choice would be this chapter from his recommendation:
      Chapter 4: From Holy War to Enlightenment

      Can’t help, but it triggers a speech at Regensburg in 2006 by the then German pope. ,,,

      http://www.catholic-ew.org.uk/Home/News/2006/Full-Text-of-the-Pope-Benedict-XVI-s-Regensburg-Lecture

      ******
      On the other hand, if I had all the time in the world, I might want to start with his book on Kosova/o? Maybe before that I may well have reduced war to “war drums” or conflicting “propaganda”. Doing my very, very best to look the other way.

      https://www.palgrave.com/de/book/9780333992609

      *****
      Begging your pardon, by the way. In hindsight my response felt a bit over the top.

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  3. “And third (‘rights’), ‘Privileging order by standing aside as grave violations of rights are committed is patently inconsistent not only with the obligations of international human rights and humanitarian law but also with the principles and purposes of the United Nations itself’. Ignoring such violations in order to bring wars to a quick end would do ‘great harm to the legitimacy of both the international legal order itself … and the compact between states and peoples.’”

    […]
    […]

    […]

    That Bellamy fellow deserves to be spit right into his shameless liberast eyes by anyone who meets him, because international law treats insurgencies and civil wars in the internal affairs falling within the domestic jurisdiction of the State concerned and it is up to municipal law enforcement to deal with it. Mutineers, rebels, insurgents are lawbreakers. They are, literally, outlaws. Dear professor calls to support heinous criminals in the name of “international human rights and humanitarian law”. There is no such thing as “right to rebel” anywhere – otherwise the American Civil War would, probably, end differently.

    There is no question about aiding or not aiding one of the sides during the insurgency – the government being internationally recognized actor is the only one deserving any kind of support from the international law POV. Those “specialists on ethics” instead suggest to wipe your arse with these principle and laws in order to “defend” them. And these does no cancel the fact, that in any (ANY) civil war there is always international factor and support lent based not on some lofty ideals, but by the state interest.

    “Studies have shown very clearly that, absent foreign intervention, civil wars generally finish fairly rapidly.”

    Which happens really, really rarely and only in the “unimportant” countries.

    Oh, and btw. If the fine gents in Idlib are “rebels”, then, by Allah, Force-spirit of the fucking Han Solo himself drove all those planes into their targets on 9\11. I mean, that’s what the “rebels” do, right?

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  4. When we have the destruction of Yemen by Saudi Arabia /USA /uk /uae

    The whole R2P doctrine was just a ruse for the neo/liberals and neo conservatives to promote wars of aggression under a human rights mask.

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    1. I fully agree. There is a crusading impulse in the West, particularly in the Anglo part of it, a desire to impose values at the point of a sword, Lee-Enfield or a tomahawk missile.

      Also who do you choose to protect, there seems to be a hierarchy of victims where some minority groups are deserving of protection, others of pity and those at the bottom of contempt

      You might have thought that the failure in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya etc may have made some western politicians realise that 9 times out of ten intervention only does harm to the locals. But heck few westerners are harmed, with casualties confined to military families who are almost a caste apart, and the smug so and so in Hampstead or San Francisco can feel virtuous

      Eventually the westerners will come up against somebody who can fight back, such as Russia or China, or even Iran. The silly western fools seem incapable of imagining what a full scale war against a military peer would be like. I hope that we never find out

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  5. Funny how these virtue signalling liberal interventionists are never in a hurry to enlist (or have their kids enlist) to go fight these wars they favor. If you aren’t willing to put some skin in the game then you are nothing more than a contemptible hypocrite. How many more innocent civilians need to be slaughtered just to stroke the egos of these sick individuals?

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  6. To judge from the chapter titles of the book that Paul Robinson linked to, Alex Bellamy is a historian so he should know that in 1648, the warring European powers at the time, tired of fighting endless religious wars that had devastated continental Europe, agreed to include and respect the principle of national sovereignty, by which nations would respect national borders and not interfere in the domestic affairs of states within those borders.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westphalian_sovereignty

    The solution to Bellamy’s dilemma is now easy: respect the sovereignty of the Syrian government over Syrian territory and do not intervene unless the Syrian government, with the approval of the Syrian people, asks for intervention.

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    1. “… [The] warring European powers at the time, tired of fighting endless religious wars that had devastated continental Europe, agreed to include and respect the principle of national sovereignty …”

      I should have said: “… agreed in the peace treaties that made up the Peace of Westphalia to include and respect the principle …” and so on.

      That’s what happens to me when I post too early when chopping and changing information, trying to be concise!

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    2. Hello, Jen! Nice to see you hear!

      Unfortunately, I have do disagree with you, seeing as (the history of the) international relations is my bread and butter. The Westphalian peace had nothing in its many points about the principle of the national sovereignty. It’s a myth, very popular in the West, that has little in the way of the factology. Look, even PediWikian article you linked says it:

      “However, recent scholarship has argued that the Westphalian treaties actually had little to do with the principles with which they are often associated: sovereignty, non-intervention, and the legal equality of states. For example, Osiander writes that “[t]he treaties confirm neither [France’s or Sweden’s] ‘sovereignty’ nor anybody else’s; least of all do they contain anything about sovereignty as a principle.””

      That’s true – anyone can check the treaties for themselves. Even without textual confirmation of such principle, the following history of Europe demonstrated that literally no one was willing to even briefly entertain such principle as national sovereignty. There are plenty of examples – either of Maidan-like Frondes or more clear cut example of proto-Maidan aka The Glorious Revolution (they even had proto-titushki this time!). While the France interfered in Britain’s inner affairs siding with the Jacobean cause, British explicitly supported with arms and ammo Comisard Huguenots in order to weaken France during the War for the Spanish succession. And how can one ignore such textbook examples as the now routine buying of votes at electoral Sejms in the PLC, so that their candidate will become (nearly powerless) a king of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, or the much lauded Swedish “Age of Liberty” which amounted to the French and British (and later – Russians) buying Riksdag’s deputies wholesale – entire parties of them.

      Oh, and how can one forget the dynastic principle, a slightly less pronounced but still relevant, when any given Great Power could (and would) intervene in any given succession crisis by the right of blood.

      No, the value of the Westphalian system of the international relations was different from pronouncing some unattainable “national sovereignty”. For the first time in history it fixed in the written form that only nation states could be treated as legitimate actors on the international stage. Period. Not your feudals (inner non-state actors) with too much power and free time (hello, Poland!) – they ought to be broken and brought to heel, made subordinate to the central power. Not the Catholic Church (global non-state actor) – the 30 Years War not only demonstrated that crushing the Protestants once and for all is impossible, but also highlighted inner Catholic disagreements. Only centralized soon to become absolutist state had the sovereignty within its borders. Granted, being the only legitimate actor on the international stage it was also only the state that could (and would) interfere in other states internal issues.

      People like Bellamy want the return of the Middle Ages, with the Church of Liberal Happylogy investing with power or anathemazing the potentates throughout the world, and they see themselves as the new clergy – sacrosanct, to be listened too and trusted beyond doubt and, most important of all, fat with privileges and undeserving money. Why not? PMCs are already looking too close for comfort like various Ordenstadts and the general level of the human view of the world takes increasingly Dark Ages undertones. I mean – the Flat Earth Society membership is still growing on the globe! 🙂

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      1. Hi Lyttenburgh,

        my view is broadly similiar to yours, but with some caveats.

        The Westphalian system established that each state had a right to defend itself. Wether it actually managed to do so, or even attempted to do so in the first place, was another question.
        However, attempts by states to defend, including against subversion, itself were never morally outrageous.
        An interesting thing about the, broadly speaking, westphalian system, was that it was fairly flexible in who was accorded what status, and gains in status where not always achieved through war though it was frequently the case.

        My own view of various frondes is a bit different. In a way, if you complain about frondes, you are weak and therefor unworthy of being heard. If you a powerful enough to squash such attempt, you are a power worthy of notice. It is certainly more honest then what goes on right now.

        This is a thing I dislike about Russias complains about Soros etc.
        They should instead mock them, for example by publishing the perhaps true story of a patriotic business oriented Russian liberal who simultaneously managed to get Soros money, CIA money, EU money and Saudi money, and managed to keep it by paying his far share of it to the local FSB department. Russia has world class scammers, these scammers should be encouraged to scam the hell out of the regime change organisations.

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      2. “The Westphalian system established that each state had a right to defend itself.”

        Well, first of all, it recognized the emergency of the modern (not yet nation) states in the first place, i.e. such objects of the international policy that have fixed borders and centralized government ruling over the populace within. Second – the idea of “nonresistance” by the state was nonexistent in that time. Of course any given state will defend itself one way or another – you didn’t need the Westphalian peace to understand that. Third – the Westphalian system normalized interstate war to ridiculously high level. The level of the general bellicosity was extreme – 2 peaceful years in XVII c. and 16 peaceful years in XVIII. Casus belli became trivialized – the “state interest” as expressed by the ruling monarch was the only thing needed.

        It’s wrong to talk about “state rights” when discussing the Westphalian system, because its chief proponents, enforcers and ideologue were not great on the concept of “rights” in the first place. Instead, they operated so-called “common principles”, upon which all royals could agree. These principles were bare-bones mechanistic ones, so that anyone could grasp their meaning and, more or less, agree to them. The bedrock of the Westphalian system was the idea of the “balance of powers”. After centuries long Habsburg-French dualism, there came more complex system with bigger number of “moving parts”. The search for the “balance” between them inevitable resulted in the construction of various short-lived alliances, coalitions and unions – and wars, waged in the name of restoring the balance.

        Directly leading from this was the principle of the convenance. As the power of any given state was seen from simplistic numerical lenses (population + territory) any change anywhere demanded a compensation to the neighbours, least the tightfisted state will be accused of upsetting the delicate European balance. E.g., when Austria got pwn by Prussia, it looked like a good idea to start a war with the Ottoman Turkey while allied with Russia – and deciding beforehand who gets what from the defeated enemy. But one things leads to another, Austria gets pwned some more, and compensation does not look, well, compensating all. Naturally, this leads to the only logical way to uphold the balance – partition Poland! But it’s time for Prussia to be concerned – they want a piece of the pie too, not because it lost some territory, but because others gained it.

        [I think that the principle of the convenance is alive and kicking in the West, only that their ideologues try to act like an offended innocence at the mentioning of it. It is okay to military occupy Iraq and Afghanistan, to obliterate Yugoslavia and Libya as the states and to stage colour revolutions that basically hand over large territories to them. But Heaven forbid for Russia to annex a part of the (snicker) sovereign country! Hungary, Poland and, probably, Romania, being Western proselytes, are less tight lipped when it comes for demanding fair “compensation”]

        The Quest for Balance accompanied the Westphalian system through all its existence and, arguably, had never been attained. First half (c. from mid 17 c. to c. 1720s) was too dynamic, when prospective great powers emerged, but the majority of them left that race for supremacy (compare Sweden and Netherlands at the beginning and at the end of that period). It was also the time of the French ascendancy and hegemony. The second part (from c. 1720s till 1789) was the time of great powers high stakes game and desperate attempts of France to cling to its hegemony. It was also the time of high Enlightenment that made the talk about various rights the mainstream – only not in the politics.

        Tl;dr – better not to use the Westphalian system as a way to justify modern trends in the international relations, or “digging” it for precedence. The worldview of the people back then and the modern people differs too much in this regard, especially about this funny thing like “rights”.

        “However, attempts by states to defend, including against subversion, itself were never morally outrageous.”

        Of course! The Monarch (by the Grace of God) could hang, whip and behead as much as he wanted – provided that the victims were commoner rebels. 😉 I mean, who now remembers how the Swedes put the people in Scania on the stakes? Nah, the common image of Sweden does not permit such (commonplace for the time) “barbarity”. Better to ascribe it to be inherently “eastern” 🙂

        “An interesting thing about the, broadly speaking, westphalian system, was that it was fairly flexible in who was accorded what status, and gains in status where not always achieved through war though it was frequently the case.”

        It was indeed flexible in the first half of its existence, where the great powers were all in “make or break it” mode. After that – a Pentarchy of France, Britain, Prussia, Austria and Russia. The French (naturelellment) considered themselves the most prominent and demanded it to be reflected in the diplomatic protocol. The status of the Great Power could be achieved solely through the successful war – preferably, with another great power. Non-military paths to the prominence (e.g. via economy) were the thing of the fast approaching future. But not yet here.

        “They should instead mock them, for example by publishing the perhaps true story of a patriotic business oriented Russian liberal who simultaneously managed to get Soros money, CIA money, EU money and Saudi money, and managed to keep it by paying his far share of it to the local FSB department. Russia has world class scammers, these scammers should be encouraged to scam the hell out of the regime change organisations.”

        🙂

        Also, some luminaries of the Russian non-systemic opposition began to call Navalny “modern Gapon”.

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  7. I am a pragmatic realist.

    What I find outright insane about Bellamys ideas is the following:

    For me, a major cause of why the USA will lose the Afghanistan war is its early decision to treat the Taleban as criminals, and not accord to them the status of enemy soldiers.

    This made it effectively impossible for them to actually bring the Taleban (who are basically the military force of the Pashtun tribes) to the negotiating table (one does not negotiate with criminals after all) and also to heel (why would they yield?), since there will always (unless the US goes genocide) Pashtuns in Afghanistan while there will not always be American in Afganistan.

    The Taleban were ready to surrender in 2003, but not unconditionally and not as criminals. The US wasted this opportunity. This idea was so fucking dumb, pardon my french, that it made the US lose to the Taleban. Now, these Geniuses wish to apply this idea to Russia and China. I am afraid that, if they claim power, it will take another 30 years war (perhaps just 30 minutes) to show them the error of their ways.

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  8. Better a good state than a bad state but better a bad state than no state at all. How many failures must R2P proponents have before they are disqualified from attempting R2P? NATO’s R2P efforts have caused more horrors than they have prevented.

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