Friday, March 25, 2011

Overriding International Non-Interference

Imagine that a person, Agent A1, known that neighbor N1 is brutally abusing his children. However, A1 does nothing about this. She may cast disapproving glances in the direction of their home, avoid contact with members of the household, and speak in tones of condemnation when talking about them, but she takes no action.

Later, she learns that neighbor N2 is brutally abusing his children. N2 owns property that A1 would like to own. By taking action against N2, this property might become available. She decides to take action against N2. In justifying her actions, she says that she is motivated by concern for the children.

Now, Agent A2 speaks up. She asserts, quite sensibly, that A1 is not motivated by compassion. If A1 were compassionate, she would have interfered with N1’s brutal abuse of his children as well. A1 is actually motivated by a desire for the property that this interference might force N2 to sell. Because of this, A2 condemns A1.

However, A2 does not condemn A1 for failure to interfere in the first instance. A2 instead protests that A1 should never have interfered even in the household of N2. N2 should be permitted to continue to brutalize his children, even killing and maiming many of them, without any type of community involvement at all.

I'm looking for a hero in this story.

I’m not finding one.

This characterizes some of the current debate on the situation in Libya – the decision to hinder Muammar Gaddafi’s ability to brutalize citizens who are supporting a change to a more democratic form of government.

Some people argue that the United States is not motivated out of compassion. There are people in the world who are suffering greater brutality than in Libya where the administration does almost nothing. But Libya has oil. So, the United States must be more concerned with supplies of oil than the wellbeing of civilians.

Yet, these protesters argue that the Obama Administration ought to do nothing. They argue for the international equivalent of a principle that says that the head of a household shall be left alone to brutalize his children in whatever manner suits his tastes and interests, and that the rest of the community must not get interfere.

At this point, I want to add one more character to this story. A1 shares her home with A3. A3 holds that members if the household ought to do nothing unless it can be demonstrated that a “household interest” is at stake. In other words, before A3 will allow A1 to act, A3 must be convinced that the action will profit the household in some way. If A1’s actions do not advance a “household interest”, then it is to be condemned.

Because of this, if A1 had taken action against N1's abuse, A3 would have been on him in an instant, rallying other members of the household to strip A1 of any type of ability to act, taking that decision-making power for themselves.

So, while it is true that the difference between N1 and N2 is that the household will not profit from interference in the first case but might profit in the second, there is a powerful force in this country that says that this is how it should be. They will not permit any type of action without being shown that a “national interest” is at stake. Taking action (particularly with an election coming up) in the international equivalent of N1 would mean that A3 wins the next election.

Ah, but A2-type thinkers are incapable of thinking in such complexities. They like a world of black and white – one in which taking action against the brutalization of children in another household is condemned in all circumstances.

I hold that, while we certainly require a presumption of international non-interference (in the same way we have a presumption against interference in the way parents raise their children), there are cases in which there is evidence to overcome this presumption. I condemn A2-type thinkers (pacifist Democratics and isolationist Republicans) for their utter lack of compassion and their blind obedience to rules. At the same time, I condemn A3-type thinkers (most Republicans as well as many independents and Democrats) for their utter lack of concern and compassion – people whose attitudes, if applied to individuals instead of countries would clearly create a community of alternating violence and indifference.

There is a reason for applying these principles of households to nations.

That is how peaceful communities are formed.


NeilE said...

Agent A1 marches into N2's house with her sons and they physically throw him out. She takes a look around the house - it's a mess - but it's the garden that she's really interested in. According to the geological maps at the town hall, it's the perfect spot to dig a well, and, as her well is drying up, access to a new well cold save her a fortune in water charges over the next twenty years.

"Right," she says to N2's family, "he's gone. You don't have to be afraid any more."

The family is a bit shell shocked. Mother looks worried. Where's the food going to come from? Is she going to have to find a job? Is A1 going to mistreat them, too? The oldest son look angry. His father was his role model and now he feels threatened because he was expecting to inherit the house when his Dad died. Now he's got A1 trying to tell him how to live, telling him that he's not going to be the head of the family and that he's going to have to be nice to his brothers and sisters. The middle son looks like he doesn't care who's in charge, but the youngest son is positively beaming now that he's not going to be on the receiving end of his Dad's anger. The oldest sister is worried. She's been thoroughly cowed over the years, forced to cook and clean with her mother and not allowed to go out. She's barely literate and is terrified of having to go out and work for a living. The younger two are a bit nervous, but also a bit excited.

A1 decides to pick the most compliant son to run the house, so the youngest brother ends up in charge. To bolster the new regime, she billets her two oldest sons in their household, and then she heads home full of the joys of success and looking forward to a water supply that will be assured for years to come.

The next morning she gets up and heads out the door to see an engineer about digging the new well. When she gets to her car she's horrified to see that all four of her tires have been slashed. It's gonna cost her $800 to have them replaced, but she's got some cash set aside so she can afford it - just. She thinks to herself, 'the well is worth it'. She calls a tow truck to take her car away and gets a cab to the engineer's office.

The next night her tires are all slashed again.

NeilE said...

In the morning, the engineer turns up with a load of machinery to start digging the well. All day there's a thump, thump, thump booming round the neighborhood as the machinery drills the pilot hole to get an idea of how much the aquifer will yield. At the end of the day water gushes out and the engineer tells A1 that there's enough water there to last for decades.

That night N2's oldest daughter tells A1 they've run out of food and asks her for some money.

'Can't some of you get jobs,' says A1.

'We're trying,' says the daughter, 'but we have no qualifications and times are hard. It may take a long time to find a job and, even then, it won't pay enough to feed the whole family. We will need several such jobs before the whole family can support itself.'

A1 sighs, then hands over enough money to feed a family of six for a week. She thinks about the mounting expenses and grumbles, this well better be worth it.

The next day the engineer returns with his crew to dig the main hole, but there's a problem. They fired up the machines and started drilling, but all the engines died after a couple of minutes. The spark plugs are all seriously fouled. It looks like someone put sugar in all the gas tanks and now it's going to take a couple of days to strip them all down and clean them. And A1 is going to get the bill.

That night one of her sons in N2's house gets up in the night to use the bathroom.

The next morning A1's son is found lying on the bathroom floor by one of the girls. There's a baseball bat sitting in a pool of blood on the floor. A1 calls an ambulance to take her son to hospital, and then calls the police. The hospital says that her son will live, but he has several fractures to his skull and will be in hospital for at least two weeks. The police question N2's sons, but they all deny the attack and the handle of the bat has been wiped - there are no prints - so unless someone confesses there's nothing they can do about the attack. When the police leave N2's eldest son gives A1 a sly look of victory.

That night A1 sits down with a stiff drink and thinks about what a cluster-fuck this act of charity has turned out to be. She thought the family would be delighted to be rid of their father, but instead they're vandalizing things, putting her kids in hospital, and avoiding the problem of supporting themselves in the modern world by begging from her while claiming to be institutionally disempowered.

And she asks herself, is that well really worth it?

The day the US and UK invaded Iraq, I said, 'they'll win the war and lose the peace.'

Wars are won with weapons against obvious enemies, and the Iraqi army didn't stand a chance against the US. Felt good kicking Saddam's ass, didn't it?

But peace is achieved by changing the culture of a nation, and that's a battle the West can't win unless the Iraqi's themselves decide they want to change.

Throwing an abusive parent in jail is easy; 'fixing' his abused family is a very expensive and very long-term project.

Yes, it's worth it, but you have to be prepared to commit to years of hard work, set backs and outright failures - and that's assuming you know what you're doing in the first place. If, on the other hand, you expected to breeze in, right all wrongs overnight, and save some money on your utility bills, then you're cruising for a bruising.

Bradley said...

Our household is located in a community that has no government. To establish one would be to create a household from which no one could escape.

The community has not chosen to approve a full scale intervention that would replace the patriarch because they don't trust our patriarch and are concerned that it might hurt too many children. We don't want a full scale intervention because it would risk hurting too many members of our household. Instead we opt for a half measure that might protect some of the children and might or might not result in the patriarch loosing his position of leadership.

Wouldn't it be better for the community to find other homes for the children who wanted to leave their houses? Wouldn't it enhance our standing in the community more if we were to do more of this?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your stories point to the fact that, even when interfering with the affairs of a household, there are complex questions to be asked and room for error.

However, we do not jump from this fact straight to the conclusion that we ought to do nothing, because doing nothing also comes with its own set of risks and uncertainties.

There is, in the real world, a genuine fear in some communities in challenging local teenage gangs because of the possibility of retaliatory violence. Yet, not doing risks allowing the the gangs to rule the neighborhood.

In fact, we would generally ignore those who would argue that, because of the uncertainties and complexities involved in interfering with a household, that we should take no action against the parental abuse of children. Similarly, the undercertainties and complexities of international relations do not justify a policy of permitting the abuse of citizens by governments.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Our household is located in a community that has no government. To establish one would be to create a household from which no one could escape.

To establish no government is also to establish a household from which no one could escape - one that has no government.

We are stuck on this planet together. None of us can escape.

So, how are we going to live together in peace?

The community has not chosen to approve a full scale intervention that would replace the patriarch because they don't trust our patriarch and are concerned that it might hurt too many children. We don't want a full scale intervention because it would risk hurting too many members of our household. Instead we opt for a half measure that might protect some of the children and might or might not result in the patriarch loosing his position of leadership.


Wouldn't it be better for the community to find other homes for the children who wanted to leave their houses? Wouldn't it enhance our standing in the community more if we were to do more of this?

Would it?

Where would those homes be, and what of the people who already live there? Why move these people there and not some other?

Again, there are complexities with how to interfere when there is abuse in a household. Should we keep the family together and provide counceling? Should we remove the children and throw the parents in jail?

These are additional complexities and we cannot ignore them. However, the argument does not follow that, "These issues are complex; therefore, we ought to do nothing."

NeilE said...

Just to be clear, I’m all for improving the lives of people in misery. I’m also an atheist from birth and one of the huge problems I see when I look at the world is the complete absence of an alternative moral code to guide people when they give up their bibles, korans, and other religious rule books. That’s why I’m busy waiting for the next episode of Morality in the Real World ; )
On a personal note, I’ve tried to help three people with significant life problems over the last five years. What I found was that at first they became dependent on me, and when I didn’t accept that dependence they turned on me: their problems were my fault, not theirs. Consequently, I’ve spent the last year researching how people really work and everywhere I look I keep coming up against one damning fact: people don’t look hard enough. Psychology, politics, economics, philosophy…in all these ‘soft’ disciplines, people are making a handful of assumptions and immediately touting it as the solution regardless of evidence to the contrary. The US is just the latest in a long line of nations to invade Afghanistan. All of its predecessors were sucked in to decade long campaigns that got nowhere. Didn’t the Korean and Vietnamese wars each us anything?
Here in the West we’re at the tail end of a process that started 200-300 years ago: we call it The Enlightenment. Yet 60 years ago we were waging WWII and slaughtering millions, and only 25 years ago we were engaged in a cold war against the USSR. We Western nations haven’t really been that enlightened and peaceful until recently. Our (largely) peaceful state came after much bloodshed and a lot of soul searching.
Now we’re expecting repressive states governed by nobility, religion and/or military force methods from centuries ago to leapfrog into the modern age. While some of these countries have achieved up-to-date economies (thanks to their accidental wealth of petroleum), their political, psychological and social systems lag far behind and, thanks to their religious fervor, the current crop of social protests in North Africa are more likely to throw up religion-based governments than modern, peaceful democracies.
I’m not trying to make a case for doing nothing here. What I want is for the West to recognize that its goal is forwarded by changing minds, not governments, and that gun barrels are very poor instruments for enlightening people. By all means, provide aid when it’s needed, but the focus should be on social engineering rather than political, economic or military action.

Austin Nedved said...

It seems to me that we need a stronger justification to invade a foreign country than we do to call the police on our neighbors. We obviously would be justified in (violently) intervening if our neighbor was sexually abusing a child. But I don't think we would be justified in invading a country where the minimum age of marriage was ten, for example.

I'm really on the fence when it comes to these sort of situations. I'd say that the justness of our intervening in Libya is dependent on the actual number of people Gadhafi is going to murder. Did he happen to specify a number?

NeilE said...

I came to this by way of Luke M's post this morning:

The author is pointing out the need for social rather than political engineering. What we need to do is bring our advertising industry to bear on the problem. Those folks really know how to engineer what goes on in your head. Throw in some MTV and you'll have a middle eastern democratic consumer society in just a generation or two.

PS Apologies for recommending a site when the author feels the need to underline all his points as if we couldn't grasp them for ourselves :)

Annie said...

Maybe another choice would be sending N2 to parenting and anger management classes.

My problems with our actions in Libya are that we don't have a defined foreign policy, we don't have any end in mind and we really didn't try alternate solutions. And it doesn't seem even likely that killing Ghaddafi (which is against international law) will "solve" Libya's troubles. It's more likely that it will just open the door for another thug to take over.

I don't think we should have done nothing. I also don't think we should be doing nothing in many cases around the world. Maybe we could quit the intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, close half our overseas military bases, and spend the money on nation building and diplomacy instead of bombs.

Darksmiles said...

A1 is trying to get N2 to move. Obama and the neocons - my how I hate that I have to utter such a phrase - aren't trying to get Libyans to leave Libya. That is where the analogy breaks down.

Instead America will rule over Libya after this intervention, like it always does wherever it can. We have bases and territories and bought-and-paid friendly regimes all over the world.

If there's a choice between defending universal rights and exploiting people for one's own profit, I'll count on the U.S. to do the latter every time. And it's always been that way, going back to the founding fathers and their relations with neighboring colonies and tribes. Hell, it's been that way for every powerful entity ever.