My Other Websites
Paul Collier: The Bottom Billion
Paul Collier: The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (2007, Oxford University Press; paperback, 2008, Oxford University Press)
There's a new book on world poverty by Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (2007, Oxford University Press). The New York Times tapped imperialism advocate Niall Ferguson to review it. He finds it vastly superior to other recent books in the field, notably Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty and William Easterly's The White Man's Burden, probably because Collier's less prone to blame the Third World's problems on western imperialism. However, Collier does put a lot of the blame on war, but in terms Ferguson can get behind. The following quote from Ferguson is worth pondering:
There's no doubt that civil wars are vastly destructive of any countries unfortunate enough to suffer them. But the notion that the solution is foreign intervention is dubious. There are two big reasons for this. The first is how extremely difficult it is to convince a polarized nation that the intervention is benign -- that the occupiers are neutral in regard to conflicting forces, that they are committed to greater welfare of the nation, and that they will work toward an endstate that includes going home. How many interventions actually meet those criteria? I'm not sure I can think of any. US foreign policy is dictated by a doctrine of self-interest that only becomes humanitarian in the fevered minds of its advocates. This is not just policy; it derives from the US political system, which conceives of government as serving a democratically-determined set of private interests. Moreover, most interactions between Americans and foreign countries are in the private sector, which doesn't even give lip service to public interests. And it's precisely these private interests, mostly in pursuit of extracting maximum profits, which call on the US for support. (Of course, it's not all private sector; there are also bureaucratic interests driving US foreign policy, mostly DOD and CIA.) To break out of this cycle would require a massive conscious effort -- specifically to use government power to counter rather than enforce destructive private initiatives.
The other big problem is that intervention brings its own problems and piles them on top of what was already going wrong there. This is all the more so in the case of a heavy military footprint such as the US is most prone to using. At worst this leads to nonsense about having to destroy villages to save them, but the more basic point is that by intervening you're disrupting and trampling on a nation in ways that are bound to offend and incite one group or another -- even if not by design, by accident. The other aspect of this is that intervening forces are almost necessarily less effective than local forces -- the barriers of language, culture, and intelligence are so severe that armed forces as disciplined and technically savvy as the US are unable to stabilize or even operate effectively in nations as weak and inept as Iraq and Afghanistan.
I suppose it's possible to conceive of some sort of international peacekeeping force that could be constructively applied in certain circumstances -- e.g., in the context of an agreed-upon ceasefire, as an agreed-upon token of mutual assurance. But the idea that you can impose a benign occupation appears to be fantasy, even when it doesn't harbor hidden agendas. The best the international community can do would be to provide support to local groups willing to settle their differences.
On the other hand, the one thing we should insist on is that foreign powers stop working to make civil conflicts worse by supporting some side against others. A large percentage of civil conflicts in recent times have been sponsored by foreign interests -- most often by the US, who wound up invading Iraq and Afghanistan only after decades of interference and subversion (and for that matter decades of failure).