The West must reassess its record on foreign intervention

U.N. Envoy for Libya Ghassan Salame, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and Germany's Foreign Minister Heiko Maas attend a news conference after the Libya summit in Berlin, Germany, January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/Pool
Editor's note:

With the United States in withdrawal, the West needs to reexamine its history of foreign interventions in order to better address complex problems that arise on its borders, argues Constanze Stelzenmüller. This article originally appeared in the Financial Times.

An international conference hosted by Germany on Sunday secured a promise from several outside powers to stop interfering in the armed conflict in Libya. It also provided a sobering glimpse of the future of conflict diplomacy in the 21st century.

The two main actors vying for control of the country — the head of the U.N.-backed government, Fayez al-Sarraj, and the rebel general Khalifa Haftar — were present but not at the table. (Still, they agreed to staff ceasefire talks.) The key signatories were Algeria, Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Russia, whose supplies of arms and mercenaries have fanned the conflict into a conflagration. China, another co-signer, has long-term oil industry and infrastructure investments to protect.

And what of the U.S. and Europe, who are at least partly to blame for Libya’s current turmoil, after an American-led intervention in 2011 to stop Muammer Gaddafi from butchering his own people went badly awry. Washington, which sent Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the conference in Berlin, has been giving mixed messages, with U.S. President Donald Trump wrongfooting his security establishment by taking a call from General Haftar in the middle of an attack on Tripoli. The Pentagon is mulling drastic troop drawdowns in Africa.

The Europeans, for their part, have significant concerns: maintaining access to Libyan oil and Mediterranean gas, preventing the destabilisation of north Africa and the Sahel region, and stopping a new influx of refugees. Yet they have operated at cross-purposes, with Italy endorsing Sarraj, and France backing General Haftar. And, without robust American support, it is hard to imagine the Europeans enforcing the arms embargo or the disarming of militias, much less deploying troops to watch over a ceasefire.

The heady western confidence of the post-cold war era seems far away. Then U.S. President George H. W. Bush proclaimed a “new world order” of liberal democratic universalism. And, in 1999, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair passionately defended a broad doctrine of “humanitarian intervention”.

The record of military intervention by the West since then is uneven at best. On the positive side, the West stopped Bosnian Serbs and their sponsors in Belgrade from committing atrocities in Kosovo in 1999. Two of the six states of the former Yugoslavia are now in the EU; three are in NATO. A U.S.-led force chased the Taliban from Afghanistan after they had given sanctuary and support to al-Qaida. Libyans who had lived in terror of Gaddafi were glad to be rid of him.

But the past 30 years also saw a string of moral, diplomatic and military failures. The West failed to prevent genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia. In 2003, a U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq on spurious grounds. And western governments have stood powerless in the face of horrific wars in Africa, Syria, and Yemen, and did nothing to stop the slaughter of Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Today, even the success of NATO’s legitimate interventions — in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Libya — is at risk from ethnic conflict, state failure and foreign interference.

Liberal interventionism was based on three assumptions: the U.S.’s status as guarantor of world order; Europe’s position at the Americans’ side; and the lack of any serious challenger to western dominance. Now, the U.S. is in withdrawal, Europe is divided and authoritarian powers are on the march.

Yet retreat is not an option for Europe, with its porous borders and dependence on the mobility of goods and people. Problems have a habit of finding their way to the continent sooner or later. So it has no choice but to deal with them where they originate. Libya is only the start.