“Mind Your Own Business!”- The Evolution of Interventionist Foreign Policy


“Intervention only works when the people concerned seem to be keen for peace”

-Nelson Mandela

The 20th of March this year will mark the ten-year anniversary of the decision by the Bush administration-led US government to invade Iraq in order to remove Saddam Hussein and investigate claims of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in the country. The legality and validity of the invasion has proven to be a contentious issue which is disputed by academics and politicians to this day.

Coinciding with this anniversary, which has renewed the debate over the role of the international community in a country’s domestic policy, newly-appointed US Secretary of State John Kerry began his first official state tour of the Middle East. The short time over which his visit has occurred so far has proven to be eventful; already, he has acted as a mitigator for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s controversial remarks in the UN General Assembly that Zionism “is a crime against humanity”, and has called on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi to put in place financial reforms to speed up the recovery of Egypt’s ailing economy. Kerry’s nomination was a quick and easy process. His wealth of experience in foreign policy as a US Senator was recognised by Congressmen of both parties. More significantly, though, his foreign policy record is marked by predominantly interventionist stances. Kerry raised no objection to the Senate’s unanimous passage of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which made regime change in Iraq official U.S. policy. After 9/11, he controversially voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq. He also stood up as one of the first advocates for an intervention in the Libyan Civil War of 2011 (which received no Congressional authorization).

What is clear, then, is that John Kerry is certainly an interventionist. But that is by no means rare in terms of US foreign policy, nor is this an unusual ideology for any US politician to adopt. But why is it that interventionist policies play such a key role in modern politics, particularly where the Western powers are concerned?

Before the Second World War, the USA’s foreign policy role was just a fraction of what it is today. Indeed, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had initially intended to avoid involvement in the Second World War; some have even gone as far as to say that US foreign policy up to this point had been isolationist. However, this all changed when, in 1941, the US naval base at Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, was attacked by the Imperial Japanese Navy. Just a few days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the USA. Suddenly, America was a key actor in a war it had tried to stay out of, and from then on became the most important actor in global foreign policy as we know it.

Since the Second World War, interventionist policy in the US has steadily and vastly expanded, from the Vietnam War to the invasion of Iraq. There are now US troops deployed in countries across the world, from Afghanistan to Belgium, Qatar to South Korea. It is therefore understandable that foreign policy dominates the President’s role. But there remains an on-going debate; is interventionist foreign policy dominated by domestic interests or by humanitarian interests?

Let’s take the topical example of the Iraq invasion as a case in point. The hotly contested issue over the motives behind the invasion is whether it stemmed from a Western desire to bring democracy to Iraq, an autocratic state with an abusive human rights record, or from an imperative to secure world oil supplies, which is ultimately self-interested. Indeed, Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, commented in his memoir: “it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil”. This may well be true. Iraq holds the world’s second largest proven oil reserves, and it was considered by many that access to this oil was under threat during Saddam’s rule. It is important to remember here that access to oil plays a key role in national security; not only from an economical perspective, but also considering that modern warfare depends almost entirely on an army’s access to oil. It was therefore in the US’s interests to ensure that any obstacles to these vast resources- i.e. Saddam Hussein himself- were effectively removed.

But then we have the argument that intervionist foreign policy is motivated by a more humanitarian approach. In essence, democracies such as the US, who hail themselves as being the land of the free, feel they have a responsibilty to bring democracy to other countries: in this case, dictatorships where many citizens lived in contant oppression. Since such democracies go to extensive measures to ensure that their own citizens live in a society where their rights and liberties are upheld and where officials are both freely elected and can be held accountable for their actions, why should this ethos not, principally, apply to other citizens, merely because they live in different geographical territories? In this respect, interventionist policy stems from a sense of loyalty and moral responsibility; to ensure that all persons, regardless of where they are born, can enjoy the same rights and freedoms as us.

But regardless of whether we deem the motives behind interventionist foreign policies to be virtuous, and by extension, whether such policies are justified in pursuing their ends, interventionism is here to stay. In such a politically integrated community as we live in today, owed in part to the work of supranational organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union, busying ourselves in the domestic policy of our neighbours has never been so commonplace. And whether John Kerry’s interventionist approach produces tangible results in the Middle East, that remains to be seen.


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