Robert Skidelsky and Michael Ignatieff debate whether military intervention over Kosovo is justifiedby Michael Ignatieff / June 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
3rd May 1999
I have been instinctively against Nato’s bombing of Serbia from the day it started on 24th March. I was-I dare say like you and many others-incredulous that Nato seemed to have no military strategy except to bomb Serbia to smithereens. I could not believe that bombing a defenceless country was the right way to wage “holy war.” But above all I was alarmed by the thought that a new doctrine of international relations was being forged which would make the world a much more dangerous place.
This is what I want to discuss. Given that Nato’s values are superior to Milosevic’s values, is it right or prudent to try to force our values on him? Until recently, most of us have signed up to quite a different doctrine of international relations. The UN was founded on the principle of national sovereignty. States could and should be sanctioned for acts of aggression against other states, but within their borders they were free (with one large caveat) to do what they liked. You might say that this was a pretty minimal basis for a world order. But the UN was founded on prudential, not ethical, rules, and it was a great advance to get states to sign up to them.
Now to the caveat. Chapter seven of the UN Charter says that states can be sanctioned for actions which are a “threat to peace.” This allows the UN to take into account the spillover effects of domestic policies-if, for example, they produce floods of refugees or destabilise other states. But human rights abuse per se is not a ground for intervention (Pinochet’s Chile was never sanctioned). This is for the good reason that there is no international agreement on the standards to be upheld and the means to uphold them.
The old imperialism had its own way of overcoming this problem. Advanced states conquered “barbarous” ones and imposed “civilised standards” on them. But as even Churchill conceded, this process had become “contrary to the ethics of the 20th century.” Not, apparently, to the ethics of Tony Blair. In his Chicago speech on 22nd April he advanced what he called “The Doctrine of International Community.” Globalisation, he said, means: “We cannot turn our backs on the violation of human rights in other countries if we want to be secure.” This fact required an “important qualification” to the principle…