Jens Meierhenrich is Associate Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has taught at Harvard University, and has written books about democracy and genocide. He’s also worked at the International Criminal Court. After reading the discussions on the Hub, he has replied to you all.
Dear members of the Burnet News Club,
Let me start off by saying that it has been a pleasure to receive so many thoughtful comments and questions from you. The humanitarian crisis in Syria will continue to be a concern for the international community for years to come. It is therefore important for all of us to gain as much knowledge as we can about short-term and long-term causes of violence and suffering. Judging by your keen participation, it looks like you are well on your way. But I would encourage you to dig deeper, to bring even more of your intellectual energy to bear on the questions that the conflict poses. After all, ideas can solve conflicts.
If you enjoy thinking deep thoughts about the very thorny challenges facing our twenty-first century world, including large-scale violence, I may even see you at the LSE one day. Our Latin motto is rerum cognoscere causas—“to know the causes of things.” Knowing the causes of things, in Syria and elsewhere, is an indispensable first step on any road to finding solutions. For if we misdiagnose the causes of violence and suffering, we may prescribe the wrong cures, thereby potentially making matters worse.
In what follows, I’ll highlight a few of the many perceptive responses I received. But please rest assured: I have read and thought about all of your submissions. Just because I didn’t single you out does not mean that I didn’t think your contribution worthwhile.
When a country is a democracy, does it immediately mean they should support other countries also being a democracy?
– SlamDunkDiscloser, Grace Academy Coventry
This is a very good question indeed, policy makers have been debating it for decades. When Bill Clinton was U.S. President between 1993 and 2001, for example, his administration was convinced that the promotion of democracy abroad would lead to a more peaceful international system.
The idea dates back to a German thinker, Immanuel Kant, who lived in the eighteenth century. Drawing on Kant, Clinton (and also many scholars) believed that democracies do not fight one another. They therefore reasoned as follows: If we help other countries become democracies, there will be more democracies in the world. It follows, or so they thought, that the likelihood of international conflict will gradually be reduced.
Unfortunately, things have proved to be more complicated. It turns out that stable democracies are peaceful with one another, but the process of building democracy—democratization—is often associated with violence. This is because the process tends to create winners and losers. Those who fear they might become losers sometimes mobilize violence to stop change from happening.
Academics have shown there are dangers associated with building a democracy in another country. Therefore, democratic countries should not always support the promotion of democracy abroad. However, it is important not to be dogmatic. Different situations require different solutions. Sometimes democracy can be an ill, other times a cure.
I think that NOBODY should get involved in another country’s war .It might make things worse for the country that interferes with the problems that is nothing , ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with you. That’s just being silly…..
Tabby cat 0.5, Crampton Primary School
Why can’t we just leave the people of Syria to sort things out for themselves?
Priceless Bunny | Elaine Primary School
I think other countries should and shouldn’t get themselves into other country’s problems. I think they should because they might find a solution to it and end the problem. I also think they shouldn’t because they might be making the problem more of a problem and they think they are helping but they are just making it worse. Consider it like if a friend fell down and their friend was trying to help them up, they could just drop them and they would be more hurt.
Once, Bangladesh and Pakistan were one country but then Bangladesh wanted freedom and to be their own country so they started a war. Then India stepped in the war and helped Bangladesh and they won the war. Now Bangladesh is its own country. This is a good example of a country helping another country because India helped Bangladesh like a friend would help another friend.
Ice-cream loving raven, Ravenscroft Primary School
Dear Tabby cat 0.5, Priceless Bunny, and Ice-cream loving raven,
I certainly appreciate the sentiment. And you are absolutely right: sometimes international involvement in another country’s war can make matters worse. We have learned this, especially here in the UK. When the government of Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq the suffering in that country was, in almost all respects, made significantly worse. And yet, I wonder whether you can think of instances in history when lives were saved and suffering reduced as a result of foreign intervention? I encourage you to look up what happened when Vietnam invaded Cambodia to stop genocide there, or when NATO intervened in Kosovo.
Closer to home, think of what would have happened if the United States had not joined Britain, France, and the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany in World War II. The case is slightly different because Nazi Germany had declared war on the U.S. on December 11, 1941. This means that World War II was not “another country’s war,” to use your formulation. But I think the underlying principle holds nonetheless.
There are times when it would arguably be immoral for countries to stand by when another country is engulfed in a conflict. But, to be sure, this does not mean that military intervention is what is required. Getting involved can mean all kinds of things. The only thing I would counsel against is indifference.
Why do people not want get involved even though we are helping a country in a civil war?
Lil’dip, St Peter’s Primary School
It depends what you mean by “involved.” If you mean, “why do people not want the UK to intervene,” various answers come to mind: First, reasonable observers can disagree over whether a particular military intervention in Syria is appropriate or inappropriate. After all, French and American military involvement has not produced the hoped-for results.
What is more, the fragmentation and internal battles of the opposition make war planning very difficult. Although battle lines appear to be hardening, the underlying civil war has also been fuelled by very local conflicts and an enhanced military intervention will not necessarily settle these.
Third, reluctance in the UK to commit military forces can be traced to the last military imbroglio in the Middle East, in Iraq, from which this country (not to mention Iraq) is still reeling.
Do people not want to get involved because we might get bombed by terrorists if we do?
– Ary13, Grace Academy Coventry
That is certainly one of the considerations, but I think the memory of the UK’s last, very flawed intervention in the region weighs more heavily. But also don’t forget that mounting a military intervention in response to a very complicated conflict with a plethora of potential spoilers (that is, actors who might scuttle a peace settlement) is not easy. No one can be sure that a UK intervention, at this moment in time, would have the desired effects.
If we were in the situation of the Syrian rebels, could we rely on other countries to support us?
LittleEgg5119, Elaine Primary Academy
This is a fair question. I think you could. Ever since World War II, the degree of solidarity in the international community has increased. There is a greater concern for the well-being of distant strangers than there ever was before. You can rest assured that neither NATO, nor the EU, nor the UN, or other relevant international organizations would sit idly by if the UK were ever the site of violent strife comparable to that in Syria.
How will the election of Donald Trump affect the balance of the war?
Tiger’s Humour, Elaine Primary Academy
Dear Tiger’s Humour,
Your guess is (almost) as good as mine! Given how utterly unpredictable and undisciplined U.S. President Trump has been in his administration’s conduct of foreign policy, the new White House will likely make the conflict more intractable rather than less.
One of the worst things in times of conflict is uncertainty, especially the inability to know what a government wants. Such a situation makes almost all adversaries extremely nervous; and nervous adversaries tend to be fearful. This can create a so-called security dilemma, which means that a fearful adversary might act aggressively in order to prevent an attack on itself. Such a defensive posture, however, can be easily misread as an offensive one, with the result that a conflict spirals out of control.
Why are people not putting pressure on Russia?
– Deadanator123, Grace Academy Coventry
You are absolutely right to point out that Russia’s role in the Syria conflict is of utmost importance. Many members of the international community, individual or in concert, have been putting a great deal of pressure on Russia these last few years.
Unfortunately, Putin’s Russia is not quite as cooperative as many other countries would like it to be. As you may know from following the news, under Putin’s leadership, Russia has been pursuing a far more aggressive foreign policy than under his predecessors. It is for this reason that many observers are so concerned that U.S. President Trump has been cozying up to Putin.
If Britain and America do not intervene in the Syrian conflict, President Assad will continue killing innocent civilians and start gaining more and more power. Britain and America should help the civilians by giving them food and money in order to help them survive in Syria’s extreme conditions.
FreeSpeech – Michael Faraday
You may have a point, but, for reasons that I elaborated above, I am not sure what exactly a military intervention (if that is what you mean) would look like. Given the complexity of, and the many players involved in, the conflict in Syria, how can we be sure that it would have all the desired effects and no unintended consequences? But I am right with you regarding your plea for continued humanitarian assistance.
What would the cost of going to war be?
Miss Moustache’s Pugs, Elaine Primary Academy
Dear Miss Moustache,
You win the prize for the longest response. It is evident that you have thought long and hard about the conflict in Syria. It is also apparent that you are not entirely sure about what ought to be done in response to the violence and suffering in Syria. (I like the way you weighed arguments in favour and against UK intervention). Being unsure is not a bad thing! Quite the opposite: it prevents you from rushing to adopt a policy that may, in the long-run, turn out to be wrongheaded. Very smart people are unsure about how to solve the ongoing crisis in the region. The reason: It is a very, very complicated problem.
If president Assad continue to fight, nobody can stop him. Peace is the only thing that can stop him. Syria has the right to there own rights! :0
-Asylinknows, Michael Faraday
You make an important observation. In thinking about possible—and impossible—solutions to the conflict in Syria but also to conflicts elsewhere, it is essential that we try to understand why the various actors involved pursue the strategies they do.