(Extended) Protectivism

I read recently a '85 book of Richard E. Simpkin in which he (among many other mil topics) coined continental Europe's then-new stance as "protectivist".

He defined protectivism as
a policy in which resort to armed force is rejected as an active instrument of policy but accepted as a means of protecting a country's existing territory and territorial waters against armed force.

He made it quite clear that he considered this as an advance of civilization and I agree with him (mostly).

Protectivism is an interesting attitude (non-threatening, but ready to defend), but his definition lacks the elements of breaking a naval blockade and collective (alliance) defence. Such an extended protectivism fits perfectly to the 40's Charter of the United Nations.

It's regrettable that many European governments were seduced to use their military power for more purposes than the mentioned ones. It involved us into other nation's businesses and problems without noticeable long-term benefits.

Continental Europe did a step back on the civilisation ladder.

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The two probably most serious modern examples for a critique of the (extended) protectivism might be the Kosovo War and the 1991 Gulf War ("Desert Storm").

Let me describe my position by a discussion of these examples:

(1) Kosovo Air War

I was actually pro-war at that time, a stance which I gave up after the sheer incompetence of NATO Air War Strategy at that time became obvious.

The horror stories about Serb behaviour in Kosovo were in great part propaganda, often misleading or outright lies. The principal Albanian guerilla force, UCK, was already recognized as a terrorist organization in Germany at that time.
There was a war going on, and this guerilla war was probably going on because the Albanians knew that there was a threshold for NATO intervention that they needed to achieve in order to "win". They basically provoked atrocities in order to gain decisive NATO support. The prospect of intervention actually increased the probability of atrocities.
The UN had not legalised an attack on Yugoslavia, and the West had its troubles to bridge its hypocrisy (the German constitutional court bended the law in my opinion when it denied that the Kosovo Air War was a war of aggression).

What would have been different without the air war, with a strict (extended) protectivist policy?

Yugoslavia would likely have experienced a protracted guerrilla and terror war in Kosovo. That might have become normal messy or extra messy, we don't know. Kosovo would still be part of Yugoslavia, we wouldn't have been stuck with thousands of troops in there for a decade and we would have had one example of strategic/operational air war incompetence, airborne sensor unreliability and battle damage assessment problems less.

(2) Desert Storm

Saddam Hussein didn't want to invade Saudi-Arabia, his troops didn't kill Kuwaiti babies and many other horror stores were mere propaganda lies as well.
His invasion of Kuwait a.k.a. alleged "19th province of Iraq" was a simple grab for Kuwaiti oil.
This means that the world was able to ruin his entire plan with a 100% oil embargo till he showed readiness to withdraw (less maybe one of two disputed islands). A ten year arms embargo would have turned his military into a huge museum of obsolete and ill-maintained hardware.

An alliance between Arab nations (most notably Egypt) in combination with the threat of Turkey and Iran in his back would have sufficed to keep him away from Saudi oil fields (by force or by deterrence) even if there was no Saudi-U.S. alliance (which would allow even a protectivist policy to defend Saudi-Arabia). The Iraqi army didn't exactly excel in desert and mobile warfare anyway.

We would have suffered from an oil price spike in the early 1990's instead of in the mid 00's. We might have our crude oil addiction under control by now.

The strengthened ties among Arabs would certainly have irritated Israel and thus its lobby, though.

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These two scenarios were mere scenarios, of course. No-one knows what exactly would have happened. This lack of knowledge is neither to the advantage of the hawkish position nor to the advantage of the dovish position.

I for one are quite confident that a protectivist policy suffices for national security. I'm equally confident that it would have kept us out of many messes (Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Kosovo) and ridiculous missions for show (OEF-HOA, UNIFIL) we've stumbled into with more aggressive policies.

The problem of genocides and other intolerable offences remains. Genocides as in Biafra and Rwanda should probably constitute an exception to the rule of protectivism. The primary problem with this exception is that it's prone to be mis-used as in the Kosovo example. There's no substitute for a thorough observation of our governments, thorough fact-checking and persistent forceful demands for actual (not just imagined) evidence.

The scrutiny of a criminal legal action should be applied to all supposed "evidence". We shall never again misunderstand PowerPoint presentations, the word of our leaders, slowed-down videotapes or videotapes and aerial photography that are in dire need of context & verification for real evidence.

In short: We should have learned to not be fooled again by warmongering officials and we should have learned that going to war is very messy and a promising idea almost only for (collective) self-defence.

P.S.: Before someone offers the "Pacifism would not have stopped Hitler" line of argumentation: Don't blame a principle that wasn't applied for actual poor foreign policy. Extended protectivism could have stopped Hitler cold in 1938 by a simple French-British-Czechoslovak alliance.


  1. there were many factors that led Saddam to invade Kuwait most notably Iraq could not repay about $80 billion that had been borrowed to finance the war with Iran.

    While, arguably, this war was in Kuwaiti and Saudi interests, Kuwait decided to not forgive Iraq’s $65 billion debt, thus providing economic and emotional justification for an Iraqi attack.

    Also during a meeting between Saddam and the US Ambassador in Iraq, Glaspie, the Iraqi President stated that he will not use force against Kuwait, as well as that he wants better relations with Washington. In response, Glaspie stated that the USA had “no opinion” on disputes between Arab nations. The Iraqis misunderstood this quiet stance as a sign that the Americans would not oppose an invasion of Kuwait.

    With hindsight, Iraqi accusations of Kuwait were reasonable: Kuwait was stealing Iraqi oil and selling it at low prices, by pumping bellow the border from Iraqi soil. This surplus oil was keeping the oil price low and indeed causing damage to the Iraqi economy. However, the development was playing in hands of the regime in Baghdad, which was interested in obtaining better control over additional oil resources – as well as for the United States, who had been interested in obtaining the Saudi permission to base their troops in Saudi Arabia already since the times of the World War II.

  2. The tricky part about acting to prevent genocides is that by the time there is clear and unambigous evidence that it is going on, then it's usually already too late to do anything about it.

    Intelligence collection is a much too blunt instrument, prone to misunderstandings and cherrypicking. Furthermore I would argue that it is especially tricky to use so when dealing with those societies where genocide and genocidal cultures are most likely to emerge: Low-tech, low-educated and tightly controlled societies where the crucial "hum-int" is usually exeptionally hard and dangerous to get, especially in a timely manner. Hard to spot genocide from a satelite.

    Perhaps a better route would be to establish a deterrance as a complement to preventative action. If it can be made clear that the international community will punish severly any and all crimes against humanity then perhaps that would temper the entusiasm among the would-be antrocitists.

    The international court, and by extension international law, on steroids so to speak. It would have to be able to force co-operation in its investigations in some way, and make its findings publicly known for the entire world to see just what has been going on and who the perpetrators were, with mechanisms in place to isolate and punish the responsible parties.

    Of course this smacks of world government, is most likely utopian, is bound to make the great power(s) of the day crazy, and can really only be used against systematically unimportant and "unarmed" countries with no real friends.

    Potentially Serbia and Ruwanda fits the bill, while Turkey (Vs. Armenians after WW I), Soviet (Vs. Ukraine in 30'ies) does not. Neither does the indiscrimate allied bombings of Germany and Japan during the war (+ the following etnic cleansing of germans in neighbouring countries) even if that was a somewhat extreme environment.

    Somewhat off topic and perhaps out of line, but I sometimes wonder how the world would react if Israel took a leaf out of the old playbook and tried to solve its palestinian problem by deportation (or worse). Not saying it is likely but certainly something extreme people are thinking about, both in Israel and the US.

  3. Two comments:

    You might want to be a bit more gentle to UNIFIL: Nothing "bad" has happened, so you actually should be happy, right? And UNIFIL did more than you think, because it broke the blockade by Israel and restored the authority of Lebanon over its territory. This was a political mission, and from the distance it looks like it actually worked out well.

    Kosovo/Serbia air war: I did not like it, especially when the bridges were bombed (a truly strong symbol), but I have to admit that in the end it worked: Milosevic hat to go, freedom became possible, and since this month even Serbian citizens have no trouble to enter the EU anymore.
    And please do not forget about Srebrenica - or Sarajevo before.

  4. I knew about the ambassador anecdote, but it's not of relevance here because with extended protectivism Iraq would not have had to fear a Western invasion in response to an invasion of Kuwait.

    The policy failure was a Kuwaiti one; they did not ally in time and were unlike Sweden or Switzerland no well-established neutrals.

  5. "A ten year arms embargo would have turned his military into a huge museum of obsolete and ill-maintained hardware."

    An interesting military analysis relating to that scenario would be of Iraq's neighbour Iran, the west has imposed an over 30 year arms embargo and yet they are still flying their air force F-4's, F-5's and F-14's.

    Their navy also boosts 1960's and 1970's era British made frigates and Kilo submarines

  6. And I assert that the Iranian air force fits well into the category of "huge museum of obsolete and ill-maintained hardware".

    Iraq's air force inventory was technically 10-15 years behind Saudi-Arabia's in 1990 and that did extend to about 25 years with new Saudi imports of the 90's plus the Iraqi air fore lacked flying hours and spare parts for anything resembling combat readiness.

    Look at the F-14's. They're 30-35 years old now including 8 years of sparse wartime use. Iran keeps them in service, but that's a mere bluff.

  7. I'd probably have to agree with you there, and they're the F-14A Tomcats with the old TF30 engines which were at fault from the time of the Shah's air force (from delivery in 1976 until about 1979)

    Calling them ill maintained would be a little unfair considering they are still flying about 25 of them

    but yeah the Iraqi Air Force was a laugh in the 1990's, they still had some airworthy 'Foxbats' that used to simply outrun Phoenix and AMRAAM missiles instead of intercepting them which was pretty pointless!

  8. In Uk , many of us felt sick about the situation in Zimbabwe , as heartrending stories emerged of people gnawing twigs and eating sand . It seemed ridiculous for our army to be in Iraq when our Commonwealth buddies were starving under real tyranny . Although logically I knew many of the problems came from the drought and the IMF , and intervention risked setting Africa against us .
    Even more logically , I thought , it wouldnt help starving , ill people to have bullets and bombs to deal with .
    And without intervention , the situation is now coming right .
    But ... Rwanda ?

  9. The Rwanda genocide was an extremely intense and quick one. The country as land-locked with a single airport. A much more timely intervention would have been very difficult.

    Biafra was a much more simple case; a simple break of the weak naval blockade might have achieved much.