Africa: When Non-Intervention Becomes a Dogma


Sometimes the only thing worse than foreign intervention is non-intervention.

It takes no special powers to discern that external intervention is officially in bad odor.

To hear a wing of the foreign policy commentariat talk about it, nothing could be more damaging to the health and long-term stability of (developing) countries undergoing various forms of political distress.

The argument advanced against external intervention basically boils down to two key ideas.

The legal one is simple enough and goes as follows: intervention is an unwarranted intrusion in the private business of a sovereign state, a direct attack on the idea that a state has paramount control over what goes on inside its borders.

The second idea, the political one, is that appeals for intervention are difficult to justify, being typically directed to the same powerful countries whose earlier intrusion contributed directly to putting the affected countries in their current situation. From this perspective, a call for intervention is tantamount to inviting an entity to put out a fire they were largely responsible for starting in the first place.

Thus, from assorted coup leaders across the West African Sahel to gang leaders in Haiti, where daily life has taken a decidedly dystopian turn, there appears to be a consensus that the last thing such countries need is the involvement of powerful foreign forces, especially Western governments.

How cogent is the case for non-intervention, and is intervention really that difficult to justify given the material conditions in a place like Haiti?

From a certain perspective, nothing could be more logical than asking countries whose previous interventions seem to have brought only sorrow, tears, and not a little amount of blood to keep to themselves. Not only must this history of violence be admitted, the deep resentment that it continues to stoke, especially among members of the intelligentsia, needs to be acknowledged.

Nonetheless, we must ask whether it is reasonable or even morally defensible in the long run to continue to rigidly hold on to such a position.

The first problem with a dogmatic insistence on non-intervention is its syllogism as follows: because previous interventions were bad, all future interventions must be equally bad and hence must be avoided at all costs. Apart from totalizing all interventions, this position leaves little wiggle room for cases where foreign intervention most probably prevented an objectively bad situation from getting worse. For instance, would Rwanda be what it is today–what is it exactly? –without foreign intervention? Worse still, the insistence takes foreign intervention, good or bad, as the totality of the history of any named country, neglecting the local conditions and complex interplay of socioeconomic forces working independently of external actors.

Furthermore, non-intervention is more often than not a gospel of power, meaning that, in many cases, those insisting on non-intervention tend to be those whose social advantage is directly threatened by intervention. Either that, or they exist at a safe remove from the scene of the unfolding horror.

Consider the situation in Haiti for instance. It stands to reason that gang leader Jimmy ‘Barbecue’ Cherizier (oddly enough a “revolutionary” in some people’s book) would take a hard stance against foreign intervention, a position he happens to share with development experts outside the country who suffer no penalty for holding such an uncomplicated view of things. One finds it difficult to imagine that ordinary Haitians caught in the crossfire of unrelenting gang violence are not at least conflicted about the appropriateness of foreign intervention. Would they really mind an end to the violence, so long as it abrogates gang rule and puts an end to their seemingly endless misery?

Relatedly, the realization that those who campaign vigorously against foreign intervention are otherwise favorably disposed to intervention from a specific cohort of countries is enough to fuel suspicion that non-intervention is least concerned with political independence. In Africa for example, one cannot fail to notice that the clamor against intervention has been loudest among leaders of countries who have then gone ahead to ingratiate themselves with Russia and China. Burkinabe and Malian hostility towards Paris does not seem to extend to Moscow. One is left wondering whether the problem is foreign intervention per se, or concern at being held politically accountable.