Soldiers Without Borders: A Modest Proposal

images-1My daughter, Elizabeth Robinson, is studying International Relations at Tufts and will spend this fall with an NGO (“non-governmental organization”) in Jordan working on refugee issues. (Yes, I’m very pleased.) The other day she said to me, “Couldn’t someone hire a private army to rescue those Nigerian girls?”

Recently here I proposed a “League of Democracies” to legitimately bypass a deadlocked UN on difficult world problems. images-2But I’ve also often envisioned an international NGO that could execute missions requiring armed force, funded by some billionaire(s) or by donations, much like Doctors Without Borders.

This might sound like a comic book idea – an independent international crime-fighting organization a la The Avengers or Mission Impossible. It might indeed target some gangsters and criminals, but would mainly focus on higher-order problems. While sometimes, nations can and do step up to the plate militarily, as France has creditably done in Mali and Central African Republic, that doesn’t always happen. images-3It may be politically difficult, and legal niceties can get in the way. One wishes for a private organization that can just do it.

It’s actually not without precedent. A 2004 Equatorial Guinea coup attempt by mercenaries was privately funded. Unfortunately, it was busted and the principals (including Mark Thatcher, Margaret’s son) jailed. I say “unfortunately” because Equatorial Guinea’s dictatorship is one of the world’s vilest. The backers of that effort hoped to recoup their investment somehow through oil concessions; but there’s no reason why similar missions couldn’t have the kinds of disinterested motives that guide numerous conventional NGOs – again like Docs Without Borders.

Such a military organization need not cost a vast amount of money. As my wife chimed in to the conversation, much could be achieved using drones. images-4And in many situations a relatively small professional and technologically equipped armed force (akin to our “Seal Team 6” commandos) could be effective against larger but comparatively less organized or competent ones (like Nigeria’s Boko Haram). A lot of rotten dictatorships could be knocked over without too much actual firepower.

Admittedly, this proposal raises some tricky issues that would need to be carefully thought out. The advantage of an NGO model here is that, without accountability to national governments with all their political and legal constraints, etc., it would have far greater freedom of action. But on the other hand, choosing missions would be very fraught, and no doubt often vehemently criticized from some political quarters. And as we’ve seen too often, military interventions can be messy, with unintended consequences. Pacifists would condemn any use of force; some would say the whole thing would grossly violate international law, calling it a rogue army pursuing “vigilante justice.”

Maybe so, were there an operative system of international justice, akin to national ones. But there isn’t. The International Criminal Court lacks enforcement means and is handicapped by the same political constraints as the UN (hence no action on the crimes of the century thus far in Syria). Concepts of international law and national sovereignty should not be countenanced to shield atrocities. The UN itself has codified a “Responsibility to Protect” where a national government cannot handle, or is causing, a humanitarian threat. While it may seem disturbing in a philanthropic context to go in with soldiers, not doctors, sometimes only guns can stop bad people using guns.

And in a world where true rogue armies do operate – like, again, Boko Haram, or Joseph Kony’s “Lord’s Resistance Army” in Uganda, of child soldiers brutally dragooned – not to mention national armies that are tools of dictators, perpetrating horrors like Syria’s – I’d welcome an NGO force run by the kinds of people who run Doctors Without Borders or the International Rescue Committee. A respected governing board of “the great and the good” would be important, to maintain serious moral purpose and guard against crackpots and hot-heads. images-5Yet I’d hope it would not flinch from doing gutsy things. Such an army might effectively combat some of the world’s bad ones, in ways the “international community” seems unable to get its act together to do; and I’d be willing to take our chances that its noble intentions would result in more good than harm.

It’s often said that America can’t be the world’s policeman. And it’s at least true that America cannot answer every moral call. We need a “Soldiers Without Borders.” How about another go at Equatorial Guinea?




15 Responses to “Soldiers Without Borders: A Modest Proposal”

  1. Jorg Lueke Says:

    This makes a couple of assumptions:
    1. Violence solves problems
    2. The people in charge of THIS army know what’s best for the people where they are intervening
    3. Acting outside of the UN is wise

    On the third point, once you start a good and moral NGO able to use force there’s going to very little incentive for Russian, Chinese, and other world citizen billionaires from forming their own NGOs. A rogue Dalai Lama advocating for the disintegration of China, we’ve got a warlord, errr NGO for what.

    Let the world be and focus on what can be done by each individual.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    I actually think I addressed your points in what I wrote. 1) “Violence solves problems” — to say it NEVER does is way too simplistic and naive. There are some bad actors in the world who need to be shot.
    2) By this precept, no one would ever do anything anywhere. 3) The UN is useless in any situation where veto-holding nations are concerned.
    “Rogue Dalai Lama” ? — You picked quite a bad example. I’d be very glad if the whole world were run by such a model of rational good-will.
    “Let the world be” — sorry, not good enough in a world with so many terrible things.

  3. Jorg Lueke Says:

    You are OK in a world in which a Chinese billionaire funds and armed NGO to “Free Tibet” by hunting down and killing the Dalai Lama and his followers because the UN just can’t quite do a good enough job?

    The rest of argument is the typical authoritarian mantra. Bad things are happening and must be stopped. I know what’s bad and it will be stopped even if people who disagree must die. I am right and they must be dead. That is how the world the run and likely will be but it hasn’t seemed to work just yet has it?

  4. rationaloptimist Says:

    If China wanted to kill the Dalai Lama, I suspect they wouldn’t need a billionaire-funded NGO. There’s a reason why they don’t do it, and it has to do with the world being a different and better place than it was in centuries past. That doesn’t happen by itself; it happens because of people making efforts — yes, well-intentioned efforts. True, good intentions can be the path to hell. But a world where nobody is willing to take action on good intentions — which seems to be the world you’d prefer — would surely be on a path to hell.
    A privately funded army taking out Equatorial Guinea’s blood-soaked dictator would be a GOOD THING. YOUR pacifist scruples BE DAMNED.

  5. Jorg Lueke Says:

    No one has killed more dictators since World War 2 than the United States. That worked out really well in every instance right and been such a permanent solution?

    I’ve never stated that an individual should take no action. Nor do I oppose force in cases of self defense. What I do oppose is the grandiose authoritarian idea that I or anyone else know what’s best for others let alone the whole world. Each person should try their best to love themselves, their families, and then their neighbors and those they cross paths with in their daily lives. That will make a true difference.

    Creating private armies funded by well intentioned billionaires seems like something that’s been done since societies moved from tribalism. Once there is a force aimed at the “good” direction soon there’s a force directed in the “bad” direction.

  6. rationaloptimist Says:

    Unfortunately forces directed in “bad” directions have been ubiquitous. As I’ve said, I would trust the kind of people who run organizations like Doctors Without Borders & International Rescue Committee to bring that same commitment to human betterment. Your objections are just nihilistic cartoon statements that don’t face up to genuine evils in the world. I mention again Equatorial Guinea. Or maybe you have no idea at all about such horrors. Why don’t you spend an hour reading about it and then come back and tell me that a commando raid to eliminate that dictator would be a bad thing?

  7. Jorg Lueke Says:

    Loving yourself, your family, and neighbors is now cartoonish nihilism? Perhaps an hour with a book would give you a more nuanced approach? I forgot, I am childish and naive, if I were just better informed I would surely agree with you or perhaps I am just stupid; again you are a classic authoritarian and I prefer individualism.

    Back to your idea of creating an organization that can take forceful action without the oversight of the UN or any nation state. Firstly, this circumnavigation of existing controls assumes a knowledge of the consequences greater than that of all the diplomats and skilled persons working on these issues each day. Maybe the UN is just corrupt, it allows intervention in cases like Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq but not in others due to some conflicts of interest. I surely do not know. However creating an independent army just doesn’t seem like the best answer. The unintended consequences seem quote dangerous. Sure you trust your committee but once others see that here’s a freelance army elements you may not trust as much will make a push for control.

    No, give me a free society where individuals strive to be their best, a society that defends itself yes, but not one that decides what is right and wrong for everyone else. Killing a killer tends to lead to more death and the next killer rising to the top. I would say lets open our doors unequivocally to all refugees from tyrants and violence but lets not try to become the jury and policemen of the world.

  8. rationaloptimist Says:

    I have greater moral ambition. But since you call me a “classic authoritarian” it is obvious you don’t understand where I’m coming from.

  9. Mark V Says:

    Your daughter’s work in Jordan should prove highly educational. I heard a European diplomat say on BBC radio that Obama backed away from the “red line” rhetoric and agreed to dismantling of chemical weapons due to the refugee camps. The camps were known to be highly successful recruiting grounds for anti-regime fighters (Islamist and otherwise), and the large Zaatari camp near the border was an especially easy target for chemical attack. The international community, presumably even the Russians, could not entertain the possibility of a genocide on that scale.

    These comments seemed to make sense, but it was almost as though the speaker had let them slip. We so seldom hear the subplot behind the simplistic headlines.

    I’m suspicious of private armies. Ferdinand Marcos comes to mind, not to mention that charlatan T. E. Lawrence. We’ll save outsourcing to well-connected contractors for some other day.

  10. rationaloptimist Says:

    Marcos had control of a national army. Lawrence did not have a “private army” either, but helped recruit one to mount a revolt against an oppressive colonial regime. What’s wrong with that?

  11. Mark V Says:

    Upon further investigation, I must cede the high ground to you on Marcos. He may have operated the military “as if” it was a private army after martial law was declared, but that’s not the same thing. If he and his father were provincial bullies, they were bullies with law degrees and seats in the national legislature.

    Lawrence remains a controversial figure. He was insubordinate, constructed lies whenever it suited his purposes, accepted credit for taking Aqaba (expedition led by Bedouin Auda abu Tayi), and tried to do the same in Damascus. Dispatches repeatedly report that “Lawrence has gone off” on some unknown adventure. Some of the murky details are traced in David Fromkin’s A Peace To End All Peace, 1989. Any international force would need to stay on mission, without private agendas, without tests of asceticism, without one eye on future dramatization.

  12. rationaloptimist Says:

    That’s why I stipulated a governing board of wise men.

  13. derrickcruise Says:

    Reblogged this on Derrick Cruise.

  14. Lee Says:

    Having armies controlled by democracies sucks! In fact, democracy is the worst way to make these huge decisions… excepting all the others that have been tried from time to time.

  15. rationaloptimist Says:

    Thanks, Winston

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