Should the US intervene in Venezuela?

With the ongoing troubles in Venezuela some commentators ask for a humanitarian intervention, by the US. Intervention by other countries, for example Brasil, seem to be out of the question. And of course the US has long regarded Central and South America their backyard, going back to the Monroe doctrine. What would be a liberal perspective on this? Basically, there are three answers.

Most people who call themselves liberal in the US have a favourable attitude towards humanitarian intervention. Or used to have this over the past decades (until it went wrong -at least in their view- in Iraq and Afghanistan). Their motives differ, but they would probably argue that there is a moral duty to intervene on behalf of the suffering majority. This moral duty, however defined in detail, is seen to exist when grave abuse of human rights take place in failed state situations, people’s lives are under threat, when a danger of genocide exists. The intervention may take place unauthorized (without United Nations Security Council mandate), or authorized. Dangers of intervention are recognized by liberals, as for example the potential for abuse by the intervening state is ever present. Liberals are less concerned about the duty of the governments of intervening countries towards their own citizens.

Classical liberals start by pointing out there is never a moral duty to intervene, because, as Adam Smith wrote, for humans there is only the duty to mind the happiness of their relatives, friends, country. This is not to say there is never a right to intervention in the classical liberal view. For sure, this right should be exercised in very rare circumstances, as international relations is more about preserving order than about achieving justice for all, and more about the importance of sovereignty for individual liberty than about obligations or rights following from a shared humanity. Yet prudent leaders do have some room for manoeuvre in international politics, according to classical liberals. However, intervention can only take place if they are able to explain to their voters and countrymen how the intervention would promote natural liberty. Foreign intervention is often counterproductive, and only an option when international disorder is seriously under threat. However, most often, the benefits of nonintervention outweigh the costs of attempting a universal protection of even a limited set of rights. Interventions start with the best intentions, but will often have unforeseen, negative consequences, which only in rare cases will be justified.

Libertarians normally have the most straightforward position: the anarcho-capitalists will not allow their private armies to conduct foreign adventures, while most minarchists (Rand excepted) are of the same opinion in case of (partly) publicly funded armies. So for them it is easy, no troops to Caracas.

How about the classical liberal and social liberal (as I continue to call them) position towards Venezuela? First of all: there is no question the situation is bad for large groups of Venezuelans. Maduro is a rotten and corrupt leader, standing on the shoulders of his socialist fairy tale teller predecessor – who was by the way democratically elected by those same Venezuelans, in very large numbers. Closing borders is the common instrument of autocratic leaders without any societal support. Inflation is high, the oil sector is in peril, basic medical services are beyond the reach of millions. There is a contending president, Guaidó, yet he appears to lack the support of the army and other crucial actors. The Catholic church refuses to take a position, for example.

Yet the costs of an intervention are high and the outcome uncertain. The military part might not be so easy, and will cost lives and lead to tremendous economic damage, both in Venezuela and the US. Guaidó, who now seems the reasonable alternative, is basically a young and unproven guy, without any track record. No certainty exists that he will lead the country in the good direction, even if he wants too. To reconstruct the country will almost certainly demand billions of dollars, which will not be easily recouped once the oil sector is on its feet again (remember that argument from the start of the intervention in Iraq?). It will take years before US troops on the ground can return home.

Needless to say this analysis is incomplete and lacks sufficient detail for any policy decision. Still, all in all, I would advise against intervention. Despite the bad situation, the proposed cure seems worse, not least from the perspective of the intervening country.

RCH: 10 key World War I events in October

I’ve been busy in real life, so my weekend column over at RealClearHistory is a bit lightweight, but I thought some good stuff came out of it. I can definitely build off of it in future columns. An excerpt:

4. Battle of Fort Dipitie (1915). In October of 1915 the United States had managed to keep out of the tragic events going on in Europe, but Washington had still managed to find military action in its backyard, as troops had been sent to Haiti at the behest of the island nation’s dictator, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. The Battle of Fort Dipitie was a relatively minor affair, with only one Marine being wounded and fewer than 100 people dying altogether, but the entire occupation of Haiti by the U.S. military was frowned upon by most of the American public. The occupation of Haiti inspired decorated Marine General Smedley Butler to write his classic 1935 book War is a Racket.

Please, read the rest.

Joaquim Nabuco, a Brazilian visionary in Washington

During most of the 19th century Brazil and the United States showed little mutual interest. Brazilian foreign policy was initially directed to Europe (mainly England) and then to border problems in South America (particularly with Argentina and Paraguay). Meanwhile, the US was concerned about its expansion to the west and its internal tensions between north and south. With little convergence in these priorities, the two countries basically ignored each other.

However, this picture began to change at the end of the century, especially because Brazilian coffee found in the USA an excellent consumer market. The definitive change occurred in the first decade of the 20th century, when Barão do Rio Branco, Brazil’s foreign minister for 10 years (1902-1912) decided that the country should privilege relations with the US in its foreign policy. The Baron understood that after Africa and Asia, South America (especially the unprotected Amazon) would be the target of European imperialism. Without an army and a navy that could deal with Europeans, Brazil needed US protection.

Fortuitously, this was also the period in which Theodore Roosevelt gave his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt had already made clear his intention to keep Europeans away from the American continent, particularly in his intervention to build the Panama Canal. An unwritten alliance was formed between the two countries: the convergence of interests caused Brazil and the United States to experience an unprecedented approach in history. To consolidate the new paradigm of foreign policy the Baron elevated the Brazilian diplomatic representation in Washington to the level of embassy. In the diplomatic gesture of the time this was a clear indication of the preference that the country gave to the USA. The Baron chose Joaquim Nabuco to be Brazil’s first ambassador to Washington.

Nabuco is a well-known personage to the scholars of Brazilian history. When he became ambassador to Washington he was already famous for his struggle against slavery in Brazil and for his work as a historian. Like the Baron, Nabuco believed that Brazil would be the target of European imperialism, and that it needed US help to protect itself. Unlike the Baron, however, Nabuco saw an opportunity at the time to do something more: to turn America into a zone of peace, a continent with international relations essentially different from those of Europe.

The Baron saw international relations only as a zero-sum game. He also did diplomacy thinking in terms of a balance of power. Nabuco was not unaware of these aspects, but he believed that through regular international conferences and open trade, America could avoid the wars that were so characteristic of Europe. But for that the US leadership was essential, and should be supported by all. The Baron sought the US punctually: he wanted the protection of a stronger country while Brazil was not able to protect itself. Nabuco wanted a permanent alliance. In his foreign policy the Baron was a kind of conservative: changes do not occur easily. The story simply repeats itself. The 20th century would simply repeat the 19th. Nabuco believed that change is possible. He believed in universal principles linked to classical liberalism.

Nabuco passed away in 1910, only five years after assuming the position of ambassador. Perhaps if he had been more successful in his foreign policy we would have had a very different twentieth century. The United States would not have become involved in Europe, as it did in World War I. America would be a continent of peace, contrasting with the Old World. America would lead by example, not intervention. And many problems we face today, the fruits of American interventionism, would be avoided.