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17 Rules for Foreign Interventions

After trillions of dollars spent, thousands of dead and wounded, and the creation of myriad new terrorist enemies, Washington could learn a few lessons when considering future interventions.

[1]1. Do not attempt to establish multi-ethnic democracies in nations with no traditions of limited government. Each faction believes that “an alien master is worst of all” and dreads the certain prospect of total subordination to the election victors. Do not foster electoral ceremonies where freedom from fear and the rule of law are absent: they beget, at best, the democratic centralism of Lenin. Never propagate civil wars: the revenge killings last for a hundred years.

2. Remember that, as George Kennan said, the worst of rulers knows things about his country that foreigners do not. Respect the beliefs of simple folk, however misguided: rapid dislocations produce horrors directed at the harbingers of modernity. Remember the dangers of government by military, theocratic, and academic castes, who live in self-created welfare states and do not share the economic experiences of the general population.

3. Do not resist secessionist movements. They allow smaller groups to be satisfied with their governments. Be mindful of the happy fates of the parties to the “velvet divorce” in Czechoslovakia, of the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. Be mindful of the costs of our Civil War, and of the waving of the bloody shirt that ensued, and be hesitant in guaranteeing perversely drawn frontiers, like those in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and Africa. Be suspicious of excessively large states whose tribal divisions and lack of transportation facilities render them ungovernable by any ruler, e.g., the Congo, Angola, Nigeria.

4. Do not denigrate religious and non-economic values. Without these norms, the survival of morality and social peace becomes a function of the business cycle. Remember that the traditional division of labor between the sexes makes sense in hunter-gatherer, agricultural, and manufacturing economies. Remember also that all occupying armies swiftly earn resentment, as they appropriate or bid up the cost of goods and women. Respect the lessons of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the European religious wars that had killed off a third of the continent’s population. It bought relative peace for 150 years.

5. Remember that wars waged without UN Security Council support must be paid for without the help of other nations. Listen to allies, even if they appear to be weak. France and Britain produced the postwar Schuman Plan and Brussels Pact. America, on its own, has generated grandiose fiascos—the European Army and Multilateral Nuclear Force. Accept the “five policemen”— the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China—as the basis of international order. Foster cooperation between them, or at least respect for their separate spheres of influence.

6. Remember that wars cannot be won on the cheap, without infantry. Refugee flows inevitably accompany war, and avoidance of them is a vital national interest. Forswear inciting war fever; do not forget Jacob Burckhardt’s maxim that “when vote-catching starts on the street and calls for war, everyone feels ashamed and does likewise so as at all costs not to be thought cowardly.”

7. Detest and abhor proportional representation in elections, allocating seats to large and small parties on the basis of their percentage of the national vote. This is what gave us Weimar, the Third and Fourth Republics, and the present Israeli Knesset. (See a good explanation of the system [2].)

8. Do not discourage or be shocked by limitation of the franchise, including literacy tests and property qualifications. Such rules played a useful part in Anglo-American history. Foster indirect elections, as in parliamentary elections and the original American constitution. They allow the character of officials to be assessed by those who know something about them. Even nominated parliaments have their uses; witness the barons at Runnymede. If asked for political models, commend the German Basic Law, not the U.S. or South African Constitutions.

9. Foster local rather than central government. (Of course, as a “foreign-affairs expert,” you are so grandiose or lighter than air that you may not live in a locality or participate in its government.) Be aware of the destructive aspects of nationalism—the 20th-century disease—and of its survival in the United States, Israel, and elsewhere.

10. Draw foreign-affairs officials from those versed in history and literature: the study of how human beings have behaved in fact. Banish game theorists, micro-economists, public-choice theorists, moral philosophers, and “just war” theorists; little good can come of their presence. Remember that international understanding in its literal sense is impossible without the intensive study of languages. Do not auction or indulge nepotism in the distribution of diplomatic posts; it demoralizes bureaucracies, and local knowledge cannot be replaced by fly-in experts, however brilliant.

11. Remember that economic sanctions are not measures short of war but, as Herbert Hoover and others reminded us, measures of total war. Sanctions foster government control and rationing, do not injure the military, and victimize merchants and intellectuals. Avoid the creation of “hermit kingdoms”; maintain channels of academic, economic, and press communication, and do not neglect the importance of translations of foreign publications.

12. Respect public opinion rather than polls; nurture intelligent discussion. Beware of governments, domestic or foreign, that centralize control over culture, morals, or education. Foster the development of foreign correspondents, and recruit young “stringers” and part-time academics to replace the loss of serious journalists. Remember the harm that an unchecked gutter press did to the politics of France and Central Europe, and do not accept present American law as the last word on that subject.

13. Remember that there is more to law than constitutional law, lest law schools become “schools for misrule.” [3] Avoid the exportation of “rights talk,” and the exportation of such manifestations of it as class actions and international criminal courts. Remember that the U.S. Constitution has a pardoning power for a reason. Recall that the central functions of courts are the prevention of arbitrary imprisonment and the maintenance of predictability in private relations.

14. Do not let devotion to free markets cause you to forget about class envy. As Bertrand de Jouvenal wrote, “the wealth of merchants is resented more than the pomp of rulers.” Do not indulge the illusion that economics trumps injuries to self-esteem in the relations of nations.

15. Foster open societies, but not equal ones. 

16. Heed Kennan’s call for gardeners rather than physicists in foreign relations. Focus foreign aid on land titling, justice systems, swift creditors’ remedies, public-health services, language education, and agricultural research.

17.  Lower trade barriers and help create the basis for a stable currency. As John Paton Davies wrote in Foreign and Other Affairs [4], [w]ith these, the underdeveloped countries can begin to pay their own way, moving at their own pace and in their own fashion—a wholesome thing for them, and a wholesome thing for us.”

George Liebmann is a Baltimore lawyer and senior academic visitor at Wolfson College, Cambridge. He is the author of The Common Law Tradition: A Collective Portrait of Five Legal Scholars. [5]

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "17 Rules for Foreign Interventions"

#1 Comment By PAXNOW On April 17, 2017 @ 1:42 am

Do not go to war without Congressional approval.

#2 Comment By Marr D. On April 17, 2017 @ 6:00 am

Some interesting ideas. But it is not explained how these ideas follow from recent American experience. The piece overall is long and unfocused.

#3 Comment By Zoka On April 17, 2017 @ 6:27 am

Do Not Invade
Never!

#4 Comment By Uncle Billy On April 17, 2017 @ 7:49 am

Yes, wars cannot be won on the cheap, with air power alone. You cannot control ground from the air. You must send in the infantry, which means you are going to take losses. Killed, maimed, wounded.

Our political leaders are addicted to bombing. They want to bomb someone, anyone. It gives them the opportunity to pretend that they are ‘doing something.”

#5 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 17, 2017 @ 9:08 am

George Liebmann makes the timely point (#6) that “Refugee flows inevitably accompany war, and avoidance of them is a vital national interest.”

Yes, “a vital national interest”!

But sadly, in his 16 other “rules for foreign intervention,” Mr. Liebmann makes no mention of the US national interest.

In establishing rules for foreign interventions — to paraphrase a quote about “winning” wrongly attributed to Vince Lombardi (UCLA football coach Red Sanders actually said it) — “The US national interest isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

#6 Comment By SteveM On April 17, 2017 @ 10:41 am

If the arrogant and stupid Elites in Washington DC followed the wise advice of George Washington in his Farewell Address, Mr. Liebman’s 17 Rule for Foreign Engagement would be moot. E.g.:

Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all.

In the execution of such a plan, nothing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave.

So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter without adequate inducement or justification.

As avenues to foreign influence in innumerable ways, such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the public councils. Such an attachment of a small or weak towards a great and powerful nation dooms the former to be the satellite of the latter.

The Washington Nitwits should have to read the foreign policy elements of Washington’s Farewell Address every morning when they come into work.

BTW, and I also thought that Trump, Mattis, McMaster et al. took oaths to uphold the Constitution.

#7 Comment By Kirt Higdon On April 17, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

One rule for foreign intervention – Just Say No!!!

#8 Comment By James Drouin On April 17, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

One rule, ONE rule, supercedes all others:

Is intervention in the direct national interests of the US?

#9 Comment By Forbe On April 17, 2017 @ 12:19 pm

This article is a bit rambling and incoherent to be honest.

The proportional representation remark particularly undermines your credibility. Other countries with PR systems are Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Austria, New Zealand, basically all the world’s most stable, prosperous and democratic nations. You’ll need to provide a bit more analysis (the linked article most certainly does not) to make a credible point here. Other factors maybe more significant on causing the disfunction of those governments? I can think of several with Russia!

Furthermore, the non-PR countries that are most important to most of us, the UK and USA have serious problems with their de-facto two-party systems. Including some of those you give as being somehow caused by a PR system: candidates beholden to the party, an entrenched elite, barrier to new ideas, etc. Now we have Trump in the US as a result of the American people’s desire for someone who isn’t a representative of either party and a government in the UK with 37% of the vote and a parliamentary majority (63% of the electorate disenfranchised and frustrated there).

#10 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 17, 2017 @ 1:52 pm

Yeah, no war without, at a minimum, a UNSC resolution or a clear case for self defense. As for the rest of it, sounds like substituting one set of pet peeves for another. If a foreign country wants proportional rep, franchise for all, centralization as opposed to local control, direct as opposed to indirect democracy, etc., that is its business, not ours. Similarly, it is not our job to worry about “creditor’s remedies,” and “land titling” in other countries.

#11 Comment By Reid E. Pagliaccio On April 17, 2017 @ 4:29 pm

Rule 1 and only: Find out what Israel wants–rapidly–and be sure to do that.

#12 Comment By Chris in Appalachia On April 17, 2017 @ 5:49 pm

“Do not attempt to establish multi-ethnic democracies, Do not resist secessionist movements,
Do not denigrate religious and non-economic values.”

Now if we could only apply these to our own nation we might be better off.

#13 Comment By Mia On April 17, 2017 @ 7:13 pm

There are times when we should intervene, and US interest can be stretched into rationalizations of bad behavior. The Opium trade to China certainly was in Britain’s interests, now wasn’t it?

These seventeen points are interesting, but maybe it would be helpful to understand them better if you did a series of one point with its own blogpost to teach us budding foreign policy experts what you mean by them.

One thing I know from my reading of history is that the US and UK seemed to be particularly good at sending the biggest jerks around to be diplomats. If only we could cure our people of being so attracted to brashness, bluster and crude name-calling, and worse, then things might go better….

#14 Comment By 2017 Gazetteer On April 18, 2017 @ 2:40 am

“Remember the dangers of government by military, theocratic, and academic castes, who live in self-created welfare states and do not share the economic experiences of the general population.”

Hits a little too close to home …

#15 Comment By Procopius On April 18, 2017 @ 7:15 am

I consider myself at least left-leaning, sometimes calling myself a social democrat (i.e., Bernie Sanders supporter), other times saying I’m a Revolutionary Socialist, and still other times saying I’m a Rooseveltian New Deal Democrat. I’m often surprised at how often I find material in The American Conservative that I’m in total agreement with. This article is one of them, although I have qualms about point #10.

Commenter Kurt Gayle says, “The US national interest isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Yes, but too often the people in charge do not understand what the US national interest is. In fact the reason we lost in Vietnam is because our control of that country was NOT a vital US national interest, while expelling the colonialists and reuniting their independent country was a vital national interest for the Vietnamese. Both North and South, which was an artificial division created by John Foster Dulles and supposed to be ended by an election. Then there’s Iraq and Syria, NOT vital US interests.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 18, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

” Both North and South, which was an artificial division created by John Foster Dulles and supposed to be ended by an election.’

I had vowed to avoid commenting for a while. I didn’t last long. The above comments concerning Vietnam are complete nonsense. The US did not create the divisions. The issues concerning Vietnam’s battle for communist rule or democratic is rooted in the French occupation. Furthermore, millions of South Vietnamese gave their lives in that struggle before and after the the US entered into the matter.

Finally, the myth that the US lost the Vietnam conflict is convenient popular but wholly false as is the understanding about Vietnamese geographical divisions.

The South Vietnamese lost their struggle because they could not withstand the invasion by North Vietnam supported by China and the Soviet Union. Lacking any outside support, they collapsed.

The US military departed the country in 1973 as per our treaty agreement. It is unfortunate that North Vietnam violated the treaty that they would resolve the matter peaceably.

#17 Comment By Michael Kenny On April 18, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

Inherent in Mr Liebmann’s ideas is the proposition that the US can, and should, impose a uniform, and essentially American, system of government on the rest of the world. Moreover, by referring to “perversely drawn frontiers, like those in …, the former Soviet Union” and calling for respect for, inter alia, Russia’s sphere of influence, Me Leibmann is setting up the US as a mere enforcer of Vladimir Putin’s will.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 18, 2017 @ 12:16 pm

“17. Lower trade barriers and help create the basis for a stable currency. As John Paton Davies wrote in Foreign and Other Affairs, “[w]ith these, the underdeveloped countries can begin to pay their own way, moving at their own pace and in their own fashion—a wholesome thing for them, and a wholesome thing for us.”

Here’s a better idea. Stop demanding they become part of the global economic trade system that is currently sitting on one of the most damaging models in history created by bankers in South America no less that encourage over leveraging.

Basel I and II remain key models for international monetary systems and largely responsible for the 2007/2008 crisis peak.

No. We need to reassess the foreign banking policies of of our foreign neighbors as opposed to embracing them. It might be a good idea to examine the consequences of the same — and its not pretty.

It’s not pretty in Japan, Europe, or Latin America. Based on that we should have never have signed on. The continued move by financial systems away from grounded realities is going to result in further economic erosion which only the wealthy survive and then proceed to continue designing systems that benefit and protect themselves.

The US states should rarely go to war – period. There are rare instances in which limitted intervention for humanitarian reasons (very strict conditions applied) and other than that should we go to war, it should be complete and massive so as to obtain our objectives. Without care of choosing sides. And before that a serious accounting of our costs to advantages should be discussed in full. Including manpower — must reconsider a draft.

#19 Comment By EarlyBird On April 18, 2017 @ 1:33 pm

This: “10. Draw foreign-affairs officials from those versed in history and literature: the study of how human beings have behaved in fact.”

What is so striking about Kennan, our most important diplomat and foreign policy expert who is lauded throughout this piece, is that his education was in Russian history, literature and language. He was not an expert on economics, nor was he otherwise the kind of technocrat that the State Department has relied on for generations now. This deep knowledge of the Russian people was what gave him an often weird prescience about the moves the Soviets would make.

#20 Comment By Chris Chuba On April 18, 2017 @ 1:44 pm

For those who accuse the author of being long and unfocused, he is trying to cram a lot into into a small space. I was impressed when I saw him on Tucker Carlson and he was able to select ONE of his 17 and IMO he selected the best one.

2. Remember that, as George Kennan said, the worst of rulers knows things about his country that foreigners do not.

He said that Saddam knew that the Sunnis depended on him, that Assad knows that the religious minorities depend on him, and that Gaddafi knew that Libya was a group of tribes rather than a central state. Each governed accordingly and in each case, the west tried to impose a one size fits all model that destroyed their countries.

This is not the same as saying that these are good and virtuous men, only that they understood the dynamics of their countries better than the troublemakers in the U.S.

Please do not pretend that Syria fell apart because Assad was a tyrant. Assad has been relentlessly attacked by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the UAE, the U.S. Israel, Iraq’s AQI (1M refugees plus), and a host of foreign fighters. He does have support from Iran and Russia but even with that, he would not have survived without the support of 65%+ of Syria’s population (and the Kurdish 10% are not trying to overthrow him).

Had we left poor Syria alone and not crippled them with cruel sanctions, their civil war would have ended years ago.

#21 Comment By Ed On April 18, 2017 @ 4:33 pm

Detest and abhor proportional representation in elections, allocating seats to large and small parties on the basis of their percentage of the national vote. This is what gave us Weimar, the Third and Fourth Republics, and the present Israeli Knesset.

That’s because even very tiny parties were allowed seats. A 5% hurdle for getting seats in the legislature is a remedy for that. So is including a mix of district “first past the post” representatives in with the party slates elected at large on a proportional basis of the total national vote.

Make those changes and a legislature largely based on proportional representation could be successful — possibly more successful than our own system. Such a system could encourage more representation of moderates or centrists than the current US Congress allows.

#22 Comment By Kurt Gayle On April 19, 2017 @ 10:21 am

@ Procopius: I couldn’t agree with you more: “…Too often the people in charge do not understand what the US national interest is. In fact the reason we lost in Vietnam is because our control of that country was NOT a vital US national interest, while expelling the colonialists and reuniting their independent country was a vital national interest for the Vietnamese. Both North and South, which was an artificial division created by John Foster Dulles and supposed to be ended by an election. Then there’s Iraq and Syria, NOT vital US interests.”

#23 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 19, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

Chris Chuba:

“For those who accuse the author of being long and unfocused, he is trying to cram a lot into into a small space.”

Whose fault is that? There really only need to be three criteria…is the proposed military intervention moral? is it legal? and does it serve the interests of the USA?

“I was impressed when I saw him on Tucker Carlson and he was able to select ONE of his 17 and IMO he selected the best one.

2. Remember that, as George Kennan said, the worst of rulers knows things about his country that foreigners do not.”

Meh, that is part of the reason why interventions often end badly, and, as such, it is more of a rationale behind the rule than it is a “rule” itself. If we restricted our interventions to situations where there was a moral, legal and instrumental basis for them, we would not need to “remember” this or any other factor, sub factor, or set of factors.