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The morning-after principle

June 11, 2014 12:23 IST

Humanitarian intervention has little meaning unless the international community is willing to engage in the aftermath, says Shyam Saran.

When the Cold War ended in 1990, the West declared victory and set out to remake the world in its own image. The political principle of democracy and the economic principle of unfettered free market became the twin pillars on which the brave new world would be built. In this world, which brooked no uncertainties, any outliers had to be brought in line -- preferably by choice, but sometimes by compulsion.

The "magic of the marketplace" became enshrined in what came to be known as the Washington Consensus. This simplistic orthodoxy ignored the inconvenient recent historical experience that pointed to significant departures from the norm now being propagated as universal -- and immutable. The miracle economies of East Asia were built through a mix of political authoritarianism and regulated markets markedly different from the Western norm, China being the latest and most successful example.

Before the decade of the 1990s, India was a good example of representative democracy coexisting with anaemic growth. The imposition of unfettered free-market principles in several of the newly liberated East European economies led to the stripping of valuable assets and the birth of a new class of robber barons whose activities made democracy a fragile exercise beset by repeated setbacks.

When some East Asian economies were hit by economic crisis in 1997, the mindless imposition of the Washington Consensus remedies impoverished already weakened economies. It made recovery much more painful and delayed than it might otherwise have been.

The infamous photograph of a vanquished Indonesian President Suharto signing up to structural reforms mandated by the International Monetary Fund, even as the IMF chief hovered triumphantly by his side, demonstrated the arrogant power of the new orthodoxy. It did not matter what the ailment was; the remedy was always the same, the snake oil prescribed by the IMF doctor who had imbibed the lessons prescribed by the Washington Consensus.

We have witnessed a similar orthodoxy at work in the political arena: whatever the nature of the crisis afflicting a country, the answer could only be regime change and the ushering in of representative democracy. The complex social and cultural fabric of a country, its historical experience and contemporary aspirations were rarely taken into account. The principle of the "responsibility to protect" -- or R2P, as it has come to be known -- became a licence to intervene in countries, taking advantage of any internal dissidence or disaffection without regard to the more nuanced complexities inherent in such situations.

There appeared to be a naive belief that the mere removal of a tyrannical regime or a corrupt dictator would prove sufficient to curb political unrest, and that the embrace of the mechanics of democracy would set the stage for restoring stability. A further embrace of free market would then deliver prosperity and a virtuous circle would commence.

The global financial and economic crisis has, of course, led to the demise of the Washington Consensus. This orthodoxy ignored an important but simple principle, which is what I call the "morning-after" principle. It refers to the need to reflect on the likely consequences before imposing the so-called free-market principles on immature economies or the militarily intervening to remove inconvenient governments or political leaders using the R2P argument.

In most cases, the post-intervention situation has been rendered much worse, the violence more lethal, and the suffering of the people who were supposed to be protected much more severe than before. Iraq is an earlier instance; Libya and Syria are the more recent ones.

A similar story is playing itself out in Ukraine. In each case, no careful thought was given to the possible consequences of the intervention. There was no stomach thereafter to remain engaged politically and, more importantly, to extend sufficient and sustained economic support to give an incoming order a fighting chance to become viable.

In the case of Ukraine, while the forces of dissidence were encouraged and egged on by the US and some European countries, little thought was given to how the situation would need to be handled in case it escalated. The consequences are there for all to see. The morning after has proved to be a worsening nightmare for those who reserve the right to intervene but refuse to take responsibility for the aftermath.

India has often been criticised for avoiding to take a stand on these issues and even siding with China and Russia, two countries that have opposed Western intervention to depose tyrants who bully their citizens. In fact, although India accepts the R2P principle, it insists that external armed intervention for that purpose should be the last resort rather than the first, and that political and diplomatic measures must remain the patient -- and often painstaking -- instruments of choice for the international community.

The success of armed intervention, if that becomes unavoidable, would be greatly enhanced if it had a broad international consensus behind it. Unilateralism is seldom effective in our world, where political as well as economic power is becoming increasingly diffused. It must also be ensured that the international community -- particularly its most powerful members -- is willing to remain engaged in the aftermath of the intervention and make available the resources required to sustain reconstruction and recovery.

In the case of Afghanistan, we have witnessed the inordinate emphasis on military support, even as the declared commitments to the country's economic and social development have not been fully delivered on. Today, as the US and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, the persistent lack of support for building the country's economy, educating its children and delivering basic health services to its people has created yet another failed instance of international humanitarian intervention. India's engagement with Afghanistan, on the other hand, has at least remained focused on the welfare of the people of that country.

The case for humanitarian intervention and the criteria that should be followed to justify it need careful review. The "morning-after" principle should be a key component in any list of criteria on the basis of which international consensus is sought.

If this principle had been used to assess the likely efficacy of Western intervention in Ukraine, perhaps US diplomat Victoria Nuland would have been less inclined to recommend a four-letter act by her colleague, the resident US ambassador in Kiev, against more cautious European allies, as she is reported to have done in a tapped telephonic conversation that has now been made public.

A little reflection on possible consequences may have avoided what has become a particularly nasty and prolonged hangover for the West in the morning after.

Image: Military personnel, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk outside the territory of a Ukrainian military unit in the village of Perevalnoye outside Simferopol March 3, 2014. Photograph: Baz Ratner/Reuters.

Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary, is currently chairman of the National Security Advisory Board and of RIS, and a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Shyam Saran