Rational Security

Would Captain Kirk Intervene in Syria?

What 'Star Trek' teaches us about international relations.


From the early stirrings of modern international law in the mid-1700s, there has been a norm of military non-intervention in others’ affairs — a kind of real-world version of Star Trek’s Prime Directive — but it has been routinely violated. Beginning with Emerich de Vattel’s Law of Nations (1758), continuing with John Stuart Mill’s "A Few Words About Non-Intervention" (1859), and on to John Vincent’s Non-Intervention and International Order (1974), a steady stream of philosophers, scholars, and statesmen have affirmed the right of nations to determine their own fates without foreign militaries coming in to settle their hash. Still, this great weight of logical argument has been overturned again and again by nations keen to intervene and spread their influence, control natural resources, or, possibly more nobly, to "improve" other peoples’ lives. As the late Hedley Bull observed back in the 1980s: "[T]he gap between the rule of non-intervention and the facts of intervention [is] now so vast that the former has become a mockery."

In the decades since Professor Bull made his assessment, the United States has been one of the world’s leading practitioners of intervention, often prompted by a growing willingness to use force to spread democracy. Even before George W. Bush’s military misadventures in the Middle East, Bill Clinton had ratcheted up an aid mission in Somalia into an effort to tip the scales in an ongoing civil war, an intervention that ended badly on the chaotic streets of Mogadishu in 1993. The next year he ordered an invasion of Haiti — a threat that was good enough on its own to send dictator Raoul Cedras running. Clinton also intervened twice in the Balkans, largely on humanitarian grounds — both times only with air power, even in that pre-drone era. When it came to Rwanda, though, where nearly a million innocents were hacked to death in a few months, Clinton demurred — an inaction that he notes in his memoirs is "his greatest regret."

Barack Obama has taken up the cudgels of intervention as well, but with much more subtlety than his immediate predecessors. In Libya, for example, he both cultivated allied participation and limited the American role to combat support. Same with Mali. Even his drone attacks on the sovereign territory of other nations have come at a slow pace — only a few dozen have been launched this year — and with much stealth. Now he calls for the removal of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but he has so far limited the notion of intervening to stepped-up support for "good rebels." This is something like the position Ronald Reagan took with regard to arming the Afghan mujahideen in the 1980s — but that action is more properly labeled a "counter-intervention," as there were over 100,000 Russian soldiers occupying Afghanistan at the time. Obama’s biggest test will come over Iran, where he could argue that self-defense compels intervention to prevent nuclear weapons proliferation.

The United States has hardly been alone in "making a mockery" of the norm on non-intervention. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union provided considerable support for wars of national liberation — often with the assistance of Cuban soldiers, who punched way above their weight on the world stage. These were the sorts of wars that, ironically, the Russians are now opposing by helping to prop up Assad in Syria. After the collapse of the USSR, Russian troops intervened in several of its successor states also, in the so-called "near abroad." But Moscow has seemingly tempered its appetite for intervention and now serves as a leading voice in the United Nations, along with China, against such ventures — though, assistance to Bashar aside, Russian forces also remain in Abkhazia against the wishes of the Georgian government.

All these actions should prompt us to ask whether the principle of non-intervention should simply be jettisoned. When one looks back at American history, though, there may be at least some support for non-intervention. Yes, Americans must acknowledge that independence from Britain was won in part because of French military intervention. But it was Britain’s decision not to intervene in the Civil War — a choice London made after many stern Russian warnings to stay out of the conflict — that contributed mightily to the Union prevailing. To these events one must add the clear preference of the founding fathers to avoid wars overseas. Indeed, in the wake of the Revolutionary War, and for some time after, the "standing army" was kept under 1,000 soldiers, most of whom patrolled the frontiers. Foreign intervention was something in which the Founders had little interest.

These sentiments were profoundly felt among the body politic, and American intervention came in World War I only after German U-boats began to wage a particularly savage form of unrestricted submarine warfare. In World War II, the United States stayed out until directly attacked at Pearl Harbor; even then, after the day of infamy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt could get a declaration of war only against Japan. War with Germany had to wait the few days it took for Hitler to declare war on the United States.

The American ethos of non-intervention began to erode during the Cold War, when decisions were all too often taken to intervene in nations where the Russo-American rivalry was being played out. But after the collapse of communism, and even now in these times when there seems little that can stand in the way of American interventionism, cautionary voices are still heard. Ron Paul may have received far too few votes to make a difference in American presidential politics, but his message of non-intervention still resonates deeply throughout the land.

So maybe it’s a good idea to hold on to the non-intervention principle. After the debacles American foreign policy has suffered over the past decade, the notion of non-intervention offers important ethical and intellectual handholds for those who would urge caution upon their political and military leaders. The principle also keeps pace with the sense of the vast majority of other nations — who prefer non-intervention — which will help to shore up the kind of unity that will prove crucial if progress, prosperity, and peace are to have a chance in the future. Such unity will also be much needed on those (hopefully rare) occasions when intervention is appropriate — as in keeping another Rwanda-like genocide from ever occurring.

In the world of Star Trek, the Prime Directive served as a check, but not an unthinking ban, on intervention. And so there were many interventions and counter-interventions. My favorite was in the original series, the episode "A Private Little War," when Captain Kirk ordered Scottie to make some flintlock muskets for the bow-hunting hill people of a planet where he had once tarried because the Klingons were arming the other side with these relatively advanced weapons. Kirk intervened, but only after much soul-searching, and in a proportionate way that established a balance of power and at least kept the Prime Directive in mind.

Would that all interventions in our world were undertaken as thoughtfully.        

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