Book-Blogging: The White Man’s Burden – Chapter Nine

This is part of my effort to write my way through a number of development-focused books, starting with The White Man’s Burden. Previous chapters: onetwothreefourfivesixseven, eight

Taking the age of colonialism to the age of invasion, Easterly looks to the recent past to understand if Western military intervention has led to boom or bust by analyzing countries caught up in the Cold War.

Here’s the thing: analyzing America’s Cold War interventions in terms of the countries invaded isn’t a particularly difficult thing to do – it’s easy to see that almost everything about them is negative. To back up perception with data:

“Statistically, the cold war countries in table 8 have far worse institutional outcomes than other developing countries on all six dimensions that World Bank researchers measured in 2004: democracy, political stability, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law, and corruption”

(The countries, if you’re interested, are present-day Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Guatemala, Korea, Iran, Liberia, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola).

Again, we’re stuck with corrupted data – these countries aren’t random (whether the reason was defensible or not, there was a reason the United States became involved with them), but the conclusion can still be broadly drawn: none of the listed countries turned out great (with the possible exception of South Korea, though that needs to be weighed against the famines and general craziness of its northern cousin).

As an aside: in his sardonic way, Easterly also grades the interventions in terms of a silver lining for America (to use Ethiopia as an example: “Live Aid concert to help Ethiopia in 1985 gave valuable experience to Live 8 musicians to help Africa twenty years later”). I thought this was cutting and sad-funny.

The next section of the book focuses on the case studies of Nicaragua and Angola. In Nicaragua, the United States backed the right-wing Contras (whom President Reagan called “the moral equal of our Founding Fathers” as word leaked of significant human rights abuses) over the Communist Sandinistas by providing arms and training. The stated goal of this was to protect America, ostensibly from the possibility of one or more Communist countries in Central America serving as a satellite or weapons cache of the Soviet Union; in the overheated rhetoric of the Cold War this seemed to convince enough Americans. History hasn’t judged the American intervention a success, though; economic growth has been stagnant and the political system is a mess in Nicaragua. To be fair, this may have been the case without American intervention – it could even be worse, really – but the balance of the evidence seems to show that intervening was a mistake paid for in local lives.

Angola is a fascinating case of colonization leading to long-term instability and chaos. In short: Portugal colonized the area, putting Portuguese in positions of government and economic power; native Angolans started a guerilla war for independence in 1961, and were granted it in 1975 in a very haphazard faction as the Portuguese fled. Without authority and worried about the future, the white business leaders fled, leaving both the civil service and the economy in tatters. After independence, the multiple Angolan rebel groups could not get along – partly because the Soviet Union, United States, and Portugal each backed a different group – and Angola was stuck in civil war for the next twenty-seven years.

Each of these case studies typifies the (possibly inevitable) errors that Western and Soviet incursion into local military affairs led to: an increase in arms and bloodshed; prolonging the conflict; propping up a less-than-satisfactory leadership group post-conflict. I want to make a comparison to America’s past conflicts, but it’s difficult to do: without French involvement in the Revolutionary War (spurned by its self-interest), the colonists could very well have lost; with British involvement in the Civil War (for selfish, cotton-importing reasons) the North could very easily have let the South secede. Comparisons are messy. What’s less messy is that a decisive victory is better than a muddy, brokered peace, all things considered:

 “…peace usually succeeds war because of a decisive victory by one side, not because of negotiated settlements by outsiders. The intuition is simple: military victors are likely to form a more stable government, whereas a coalition of recent antagonists imposed by outside planners is like to be unstable…There can be awful military victors as well as good ones, but local actors are statistically more likely to find peace on their own.”

If we’re comparing instances where America did get militarily involved, does it makes sense to also look to examples of instances where America didn’t get militarily involved? Were the outcomes better? Counterfactuals are especially difficult (we don’t know what today would be like with intervention, of course), but my intuition is that Western intervention in Rwanda and Sudan could have stanched the atrocious genocides (a tautology, to be sure) that occurred. More recently, it’s possible that American intervention in Syria could shorten the conflict and oust Bashir Al-Assad there. All of these examples are too recent to judge – and genocides are probably different than “typical” conflicts from a moral and tactical standpoint – but it seems to me that it’s a discussion worth having. Again: it’s messy, and there’s almost certainly no one answer.

So where does that leave us? Foreign incursion into local conflicts – especially for selfish reasons – appears to be a net negative, though an argument can be made that in certain instances intervention could be justified. Not exactly clear-cut, but then again nuanced situations rarely are.

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