Report on “Narratives of Intervention” mini-conference held at the University of Surrey

6 Aug

“Narratives of Intervention: Perspectives from North and South.”

“Being at the receiving end, I can only write poetry” – survey respondent, Pakistan.

It matters what stories we tell. They reveal how we order our thinking. We use them to justify our actions, and also to make sense of the actions of others and how they affect us. In the study of international intervention, both the narratives of justification – the stories told by outsiders – and the narratives of experience – the stories of those “on the receiving end” – help us to understand what is really going on when outsiders step in with the intention of changing the course of events in someone else’s domain. But very often the narrative acquires a life of its own and helps to obscure the deeper reality of both the motivations and the consequences of international intervention.

Dismantling the often simplistic narratives of intervention was the task attempted by participants in a recent mini-conference at the University of Surrey, held as part of a three-year series funded by the ESRC, entitled “Understanding the Matrix of International Intervention: Theory and Practice in North and South”. The “Matrix” in question involves the two dimensions of Theory versus Practice and North versus South, and in the context of exploring the “narratives” of intervention, the narrative of justification could be seen as the theory, with the narrative of experience as the practical reality; the perspective of – mainly northern – interveners can be contrasted with that of the – mainly southern – targets of intervention.

Thus, while the conference heard[i] about “the gendered attempt by Western interveners to win hearts and minds in Afghanistan” it was argued this depends on a narrative that “dehumanises and desexualises women”. In Pakistan, perspectives on drone strikes vary enormously depending on geography, social status, political affiliation, and many other factors; accordingly we need to be wary of simple narratives that lead us into premature judgments about both the short- and the long-term consequences of such strikes. Whatever story is told in public, African hostility to the International Criminal Court may be driven as much by self-preserving elite agendas as by an ideological claim that Africa is being singled out unfairly by the Court. International NGOs, for long the beneficiaries – and to a considerable extent the purveyors – of an alternative narrative about intervention, “are taken with a pinch of salt these days”; their very power has generated a counter-narrative.

Contemporary attempts to rationalise outside intervention undertaken to provide human protection demonstrate a “nominal cosmopolitan solidarity” that sits uneasily alongside “a fragile consensus about how such solidarity should be expressed in practice”. The narrative of “the responsibility to protect” may in some cases reflect a genuine humanitarian commitment but in others is nothing more than an assertion of the right to intervene in one’s own sphere of interest (and to deny others the right to do so). Such justifications have perhaps more in common with earlier narratives of “chivalry” or “fraternal assistance” than we may feel comfortable admitting. However much interveners would like to claim normative power to justify their actions, older forms resting on coercion are hard to dislodge. And, disturbingly, individual acts of illegal violence are justified in ways that reflect a distorted aesthetic as much as a disregard for international law.

The subjective identity of the intervener frames the terms of the intervention. Thus the narrative of intervention in the so-called “post-socialist” space is shaped by the legacy of “East-West” conflict. “Balkanism” is the sister of “Orientalism”; the “postcolonial” can turn out to be just as colonial as the colonial – even more so. The narrative of bringing democracy can be a fig leaf for abusing human rights; the narrative of security aid can amount to invisible military intervention. Narratives that are comforting to the intervener – of humanitarianism, of gender equality, of help and empowerment by means of transitional justice – may reflect a “narcissistic solidarity” where we are obsessed with our own emotions and less discerning of what this means for the objects of our concern; we may be witnessing a more “ironic” humanitarianism that appeals to the “knowing subject” that has to get something back for itself from the engagement. Fundamental issues such as inequality in the relationship between intervener and intervened upon, the simplistic desire for one-size-fits-all solutions, and a lack of formal accountability for acts of intervention, all contribute to making intervention inherently problematic.

The digital era – and with it the “fetishisation of digital technology” – permits new forms of intervention that carry their own risks. The evidence used to justify intervention – of different kinds – is less about texture and detail and more about aggregated “big data”; the danger is that we come to see the world not in colour but in black and white. “The fervour of our hash tags” can generate interventionist campaigns, e.g. on Twitter, that lose by their failure to acknowledge complexity what they gain in speed and global reach. The “strategic setback” of Iraq and Afghanistan with its resulting “terrestrial stress” – the difficulty of being on the ground in insecure environments – has led to a greater reliance on remoteness. Algorithms are used to predict behaviour and presence is no longer considered necessary. However this new potential for “remote sensing” ironically means we cease to try to make sense of things in the way we used to; satellite imagery through the long lens replaces – but is no substitute for – a deep understanding of politics, emotion, and behaviour. “Smart technology draws North and South together, but blurs the difference between them”. The much-touted desire for “precision” may lead us to deceive ourselves that our interventions are more precise than they actually are – a fiction our narrative almost religiously supports. Thus the perceived successes of drone warfare become “an increasingly dominant part of our strategic thought”, but this may say as much about our desires as about the efficacy of the capability. Even humanitarian assistance risks becoming dehumanised by the new “digitalised security/development nexus”.

The narrative of intervention itself becomes “a means of strategic warfare”. “Narrating the mission” becomes an integral part of delivering the mission, not only by winning “hearts and minds” locally but also by making things seem clean and simple to domestic political audiences – who are treated as much as “consumers on an emotional level” as political and electoral stakeholders. Even when intervention no longer appears such a wise option and by hanging on they risk doing more harm than good, outsiders find it difficult to beat an “ethical retreat”.

The stories we tell do indeed matter – perhaps we should pay them more attention.

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