Should governments send weapons or troops to conflicts in other countries? Professor James Pattison compares the ethics of supplying arms with militarily intervention.
Western states are less likely to wage major wars in the future. This is for (at least) four reasons. First, despite ongoing conflicts, the world is generally more peaceful. Second, the US’s and UK’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan severely diminished public appetite for large-scale war or humanitarian intervention. The opposition to intervention in Syria indicates the public opinion constraints on Western leaders. Third, the financial crisis and neo-liberal austerity measures have cut military expenditure, reducing Western powers’ ability to undertake large-scale military operations abroad. Fourth, securing international support for wars and interventions is more difficult, notably from the UN Security Council – often an important factor in their legitimacy and effectiveness.
Moreover, BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – are rising in global influence, with the power of the US and Europe declining relatively. The BRICS are much more non-interventionist and often define foreign policy agendas in opposition to Western interventionism. It won’t be so easy to intervene on a whim.
Western powers will, however, still attempt to secure foreign policy goals by other means. As the West seems less likely to engage in major wars and interventions in the future, should it fill this void by supplying arms, or should it retain the capacity to intervene, for example by pooling resources between states? Would it have been better to respond to the mass atrocities and civil war in Syria by arming the Free Syrian Army or intervene militarily?
I focus here on three potential principled arguments in favour of supplying arms. First, the fact that sending arms is cheaper and doesn’t risk one’s soldiers returning in body bags provides some, small reason to prefer arming rebels. Suppose France could address a brutal regime in Guinea engaged in mass atrocities in two ways. It could intervene militarily, risking the lives of soldiers at great expense. This would be more effective at tackling the mass atrocities. Or it could supply military hardware to rebels, more cheaply and without risking French soldiers. This would probably tackle the mass atrocities, but not as quickly. In the meantime, more innocents in Guinea would die. It seems in this case that France should favour its citizens’ interests. Providing weapons to rebel groups may be morally justifiable in transferring risks to non-citizens – i.e. rebels – by letting them carry the burdens of fighting.
Yet this provides only a minor reason to favour arming rebels. This is because, although states should give greater weight to the interests of their citizens, they still need to consider other individuals. They cannot permissibly give much greater weight to their own citizens’ interests.
A second potential argument in favour of arming rebels focuses on consent. Rebels consent to fight in their own defence, whereas humanitarian interventions involve the coercion of those fighting, since, it is claimed, soldiers sign-up only for national defence.
Is this argument plausible? Of course, rebel forces may be made up of conscripts as well as volunteers. Some involve coercion (e.g. rebels in Liberia and LRA in Uganda), while others (anti-apartheid rebels in South Africa) engaged voluntarily. Yet conscription is very costly for rebels in terms of policing, attrition, desertion and the alienation of civilians. But the same is true of humanitarian interventions. When signing-up, soldiers can expect that their state will engage in humanitarian interventions, not simply wars of self-defence. As such, humanitarian interventions do not necessarily involve the use of conscripts; rather, they often use volunteer soldiers. There does not seem to be grounds here, then, for a general presumption for arming rebels.
Third, it might be thought that arming rebels is preferable to intervening directly because rebels are potential beneficiaries of the action, for instance, from the overthrow of their repressive government. By arming rebels, rather than intervening, states transfer risks to those who may benefit. Yet the rebels do not bear individual responsibility for the conflict, so it is unacceptable to impose significant costs on the rebels who ‘benefit’.
Furthermore, rebels who ‘benefit’ might continue to be significantly disadvantaged, perhaps by being under an authoritarian leader. Their situation may improve, but only from a very low level. Troops from nations such as the US, UK and France may be far better-off. Thus, it may seem fairer that others should bear the costs of tackling that situation. What matters here is how we conceive the ‘benefit’ – we need to look at the bigger picture (i.e. how the rebels fare in the global system more broadly) rather than whether they are benefitted by a single act (i.e. arms transfers).
The upshot is this: the principled reasons for preferring arming rebels to direct military intervention are either unlikely to apply or are not very weighty. More important is the likely efficacy of supplying arms to rebel groups, in terms of helping them to achieve just goals, such as tackling the conflict or removing an oppressive regime. Also crucial is whether there are likely to be negative effects of arming the rebels in terms of harms to innocents, such as from rogue rebels who target civilians, escalation of the conflict and the diffusion of arms.
It seems that the efficacy of supplying arms is generally very questionable, in large part because any arms supplied are likely to be matched by arms supplied to the state opposing the rebels. Moreover, the likely negative effects (in terms of harms to innocents) will be more pronounced than those of direct military intervention. These effects will often be worse because intervening forces can exert greater control over the military forces that they deploy than over the arms they supply. By contrast, supplying arms to rebel groups puts undue hope on the prospect of rebels fighting justly and destroying the weapons at the end of the conflict.
Ultimately, providing arms to rebel groups is even more dangerous than engaging in direct military intervention and offers potentially fewer countervailing benefits. Rather, states should use alternative, more peaceful means, such as naming and shaming, arms embargoes and targeted financial sanctions. But if there is still, on occasion, a choice between undertaking direct military intervention and arming rebels, direct military intervention seems likely to be the better option.
- A longer version of this blog is published at http://stockholmcentre.org/should-we-send-weapons-or-troops-the-ethics-of-supplying-arms-vs-military-intervention/.