The Crisis of Imagination in International Relations

The Crisis of Imagination in International Relations

The Crisis of Imagination in International Relations

The world should often “do something” about a crisis—but we must stop defaulting to military intervention.

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The western third of Hispaniola is the most mountainous region of the Caribbean. It rises to nearly 8,800 feet and undulates between altitudes before descending into blindingly white beaches that roll into the sparkling blue sea. The territory is lush but cultivated, its tree cover compromised by a growing population that relies on subsistence farming for most of its food. In summer, tornadoes break on the hills, and torrential rains soak the valleys below. For those who visit, the views are stunning, the people warm, and the history fascinating, but it can be difficult to wade through the morass of contemporary politics.

This is Haiti. Nestled between Cuba and the Dominican Republic, Haiti’s reputation for poverty and chaos precedes it. In the international press, the country essentially has a surname—”Haiti” is almost always followed by the phrase “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” There are about 12 million residents in Haiti trying to live amid internal state collapse and external interference. The latest nadir began in 2021 after President Jovenel Moise was assassinated while in bed with his wife. Killings and kidnappings have spiked as gang warfare and armed vigilante groups have taken over neighborhoods. Elections first scheduled for 2019 and then postponed to November 2021 because of violence were never held. The terms of the last 10 elected senators expired in January 2023, which means there are now no duly elected officials running the country. In April 2023, the country sponsored a resolution at the United Nations Human Rights Council calling for “coordinated and targeted international action” and inviting the international community to intervene in its own affairs. But given that UN security forces introduced cholera to the country after the 2010 earthquake, the call has been met with wariness. Everyone knows that someone should “do something,” but no one seems to know what.

This is typical of the crisis of imagination in international relations. The words “do something” are invoked repeatedly, but the nature of the “something” is rarely defined. And when faced with threats to human life, the tendency is to invoke military intervention. But soldiers are trained to fight, and when placed among civilians, reports of all kinds of abuses arise with alarming regularity. Haiti has been the site of these interventions enough times that the promise that the US military “will fix things” is almost laughable. The United States invaded in 1914 to protect its national’s business interests, draining the national bank after the president executed his predecessor and citizens rose in revolt. In 1994, the US invaded Haiti again under Operation Uphold Democracy to remove an authoritarian leader once again. The appalling record of both these invasions has not stopped the unelected Haitian government from calling for more military intervention on the island. Haiti has more than a century of evidence that an idea of “do something” that begins and ends with militarism will not work.

Yet military interventionism remains the primary model for international action. Even in colloquial conversation, when we say, “do something,” we often unthinkingly direct our appeal to the nations with the largest militaries in the world, reinforcing the idea that the only “something” worth doing in the international sphere is to send more soldiers. In situations like Haiti’s—a compound crisis of historical injustices, environmental crises, and national disasters overseen by a hollowed-out state during a time of international upheaval—deploying troops is the kind of knee-jerk reaction that makes everything much worse.

Military intervention is lazy international relations. Its proponents ask superficial questions about the crises at hand and respond with what is often the only tool that has guaranteed funding and ideological support. This preference for militarism reflects the fact that politicians treat the military as superior to other state structures. The idea that the military is beyond civilian scrutiny is pervasive. The crisis of imagination begins in countries that always have money for war and guns but never any for schools and hospitals, and it ends in a global politics where leaders are always ready to reach for soldiers.

A polycrisis like Haiti’s requires a level of nuance that militaries are simply not equipped to deal with. The crisis is generational and therefore in-and-out interventions will not do, and the odds that anything less than a decade of engagement will be required are negligible. It is a crisis rooted in history that requires in-depth knowledge of the nation and its place in the world. The crisis requires environmental and social interventions—and not just the neoliberal belief that the market, if created, will provide material wealth that will magically redistribute itself throughout the society. It demands a level of humanism that cannot be found at the end of a gun. To address the issues facing Haiti would require a commitment to walk a long, demanding path with a traumatized people and fly in the face of the logics of statehood and white saviorism, let alone international relations, that we take for granted today. Military intervention cannot do that.

Yet we should “do something.” And in a world of 8 billion people, it is likely that someone out there knows what that “something” is, but we are primed to listen for voices in a military register. Radical alternatives to policing and force when dealing with gangs and civil war around the world have yielded positive results that are worth engaging with. Cure Violence in Chicago treats gang violence as a public health crisis, and its interventions have helped reduce gang violence in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago by up to 63 percent. Peace committees led by mothers in South Sudan are leading community-level dialogues to dissuade their children, and particularly their sons, from violence. Can ideas like this, rooted in humanist approaches to understanding what makes communities break, inspire a different approach to the polycrisis in Haiti? What would a solution look like in a world primed to listen to other voices? If we can fight to defund the police, we should also push to demilitarize international relations.

To “do something” in Haiti and be effective would require us to picture a radically different world. We would have to, for example, reimagine the primacy of the state to get away from the pattern of appointing unpopular puppet presidents. Haiti currently has no functional government: Could supporting sub-national community mechanisms like the community-level dialogues of South Sudan take some vigilante groups away from the front line of violence? Could treating the gang violence as part of a broader public health crisis instead of heightened crime offer new entry points for dealing with them?

Different responses to the invitation to “do something” lie on the other side of major transformations in domestic and international politics. These changes would have to start as far back as changing what we teach about governments and politics at schools and universities. It is not small or easy work, and these are unashamedly utopian appeals. But utopias can be road maps, guiding history away from destruction. Given that in Haiti just about every other conceivable military approach has been tried, don’t we owe it to ourselves to try?

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