I have argued previously on this blog that the morally correct action for the international community, in response to the recent crackdown on Gay Rights in Russia, is to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year. I still hold to this, indeed I see no contradiction between my stance on Sochi and my stance on Syria, where I have argued for a non-interventionist approach. There is a world of difference between nations choosing to boycott a sporting and recreational entertainment event, and choosing to inflict death and destruction on another nation. It is this point, the different effects and consequences of foreign policy and how they affect its implementation that I wish to explore in this post.
Boycotting Sochi might have mild diplomatic repercussions, but it is unlikely that the fallout from nations not participating in a sporting event will be significant. Even if he is extremely sensitive to himself or Russia being made to look bad on the world stage, Vladimir Putin is unlikely to start a game of diplomatic tit-for-tat over Sochi. On the other hand, a military intervention in Syria, which is thankfully starting to look less likely, would have dire diplomatic consequences. Given Russia and Iran’s outright support of the Assad regime, and Russia and China’s strong objections to Western military interventions, to over-ride their wishes, along with the UN, would be a disaster in foreign policy, inflicting huge damage on relations between the interventionist countries (i.e. America, Britain and France) and the rest of the world. Leaving aside the fact that even if there were no diplomatic consequences, intervention through high explosive violence in Syria is morally unjustifiable, it is clear that with Sochi and Syria, the very different backlash in both cases means that each must be treated differently.
While this does not leave much room for absolute moral principles or an absolutely consistent approach to different situations like those in Syria and Russia, it is the only approach that can realistically be taken. Adopting a completely consistent line on foreign policy leads to chaos. If we say that situations like Syria are abhorrent and must be dealt with by military force, than its not just Syria that American should be pointing its cruise missiles at. The Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Libya (again), North and South Sudan, North Korea, Bahrain, Iran and even China and Russia all have similar internal situations which satisfy the same moral criteria as Syria. In each of these countries there is violence, usually government sponsored or enabled, being directed against particular groups or many groups of people, based on ethnic, religious or political affiliations. Obviously intervening in all these countries would be an act of insanity, and yet the principals being touted as justifying intervention in Syria also demand similar intervention in these other nations too.
Even more importantly, intervention in these countries carries the risk of massive and uncontrolled diplomatic and military fallout. For instance, if Western forces decided to intervene in South Sudan, who do they assist? The South Sudanese who have only just shaken off rule by the North, or the tribes in the border area who are fighting the two governments and in some cases may be receiving assistance from them? There are no answers in a situation like this, only death and mayhem. Even more horrifying is the thought of Western intervention against somewhere like North Korea. In this case there would not just be diplomatic consequences; North Korea’s enormous armed forces and nuclear arsenal mean that there would be immediate and fatal consequences for a very large number of people in South Korea and beyond.
Simply put it is a truly reprehensible act for any national government to endanger its own citizens (let alone the citizens of other countries) for the sake of soothing an uneasy conscience. To use the most obvious example, if America was to intervene in Syria directly, the potential backlash by the Syrian government against American bases in the middle east, and the potential for terrorists gaining a presence in a subsequently destabilised Syria and attacking American targets represent true “moral hazard”. America’s potential involvement in Syria puts its citizens, both military and civilian alike in danger. This is an unacceptable risk to take for the sake of any principle. The American government’s first duty, like all national governments, is to its own people. To endanger their lives through reckless foreign escapades like Syria, even for the most impeccable humanitarian reasons, is a violation of this duty.
This is my argument at its simplest. The diplomatic, political and military hazards of any foreign policy effort must be weighed up, and their cost to the nation assessed. If these costs are too high, the true moral imperative is for governments to stay out and protect their own citizens. Hence, while boycotting Sochi is a relatively risk free exercise and an good opportunity to avoid tarnishing the west’s most dearly held values, in Syria the risks are simply too high. In a general sense, Sochi is a low risk endeavour, while Syria and other situations like it are just too risky. To avoid these risks, it is necessary to sacrifice consistency in foreign policy. In the end, foreign policy is all about taking calculated risks, and so it is filled with contradictions. The only principle that cannot be contradicted is that of protecting your own citizens.