Worse than doing nothing?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 November, 2004, 12:00am

A common thread links Fallujah, Abidjan, Africa's Great Lakes and Darfur. In the first two cities there is foreign participation in essentially civil wars. In the rest, there are calls for deeper foreign involvement on humanitarian grounds. But do outsiders do more harm than good?

In every case the situation is confused. In Iraq, the Shia majority may not support the rebels in Fallujah but resent how a foreign military is acting within Iraq. In Ivory Coast, a former colonial power's interests sit uneasily with UN participation in peacekeeping. In Darfur, drought is exacerbating the land feud between farmers and herders, and are as much about ethnic divides as the politics of Khartoum. Similarly, in the Great Lakes region the contest for land interacts with tribal divides.

In every case, the assumption is that outside forces can impose their version of peace on warring factions. And in each case, the United Nations or a major power is arrogating the right and duty to intervene.

One could argue that the number of so-called 'failed states' in Africa is such that some outside order is needed to end internal chaos.

But few make this argument, even fewer suggest that there is a way of creating a kind of international imperialism under UN auspices. What we have is ad hoc interventions which may bring short-term results in an enforced peace or victory for one side or another but do nothing to resolve underlying conflicts or strengthen the fabric of states. Indeed, they prevent the forceful resolution of conflict.

It is curious how developed countries seem so eager to intervene to prevent Africans killing each other when not so many years ago Europeans were killing each other in greater numbers and would have been appalled by the notion that outsiders should dictate to them whether or not to go to war.

The fact is that large areas of the world are still in a process of adjustment left by the collapse not just of the British, French and Soviet empires but earlier ones too - those of the Ottomans and Hapsburgs. The nation state - very much a creation of 19th century Europe - may be a poor model. But it is the only one we have and the one on which the UN is based.

The UN can help regulate state relations. But has it more business interfering in Abidjan any more than in other areas of seemingly ceaseless conflict such as in Myanmar?

God help it if it is sucked into the Iraq quagmire.

One should not forget that the UN, the west and most Asian nations condemned Vietnam for invading Cambodia and overthrowing the Pol Pot regime, arguably the most murderous since Hitler. That may have been a correct attitude as far as inter-state relations, but not from a humanitarian viewpoint. The primacy of the nation state requires that Cambodians can massacre each other, that states can go to war as surely as Germany and France went to war three times in 70 years, and the US invaded Afghanistan. The roads to foreign/UN intervention in Iraq, Ivory Coast, Rwanda and Sudan are paved with good intentions. But they may lead at best to failure and at worst to deepening and globalisation of local conflicts which should be resolved locally, whether or not by force.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator