Book Review: Perilous Interventions

Book Review: Perilous Interventions

Hardeep Singh Puri’s conclusions suggest that careful planning can help international actors avoid disastrous unintended, but not entirely unpredictable consequences. This is a valuable guidance for not only policymakers but business leaders and investors as well.

Outside of the P5, the 15 seats on the UN Security Council rotate for two-year staggered terms. India, with the world’s second largest population, ended its most recent rotation in 2013, its seventh since 1950. During this time, India’s delegation was led by Hardeep Singh Puri. His new critique of the United Nations Security Council delivers insight into many of the global challenges the international community is confronted with today.

As Ambassador Puri reports, the Arab Spring of 2011 brought hope to the many on the Council. However, the months to follow would see the start of the Syrian civil war, the overthrow of Gaddafi, and the destabilization of Yemen. Each of these situations forms core chapters of Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos, his engaging memoir of the 2011 to 2013 period during which India sat on the Security Council. Chapters on Crimea and Sri Lanka are also included, as well as two conceptually focused ones on the migration crisis and the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. Introductory chapters on the troubled consequences of interventions in recent decades and an overview of the Arab Spring round out the book’s contents.

The general message of the book is clear: interventions are hard work, they often have significant unintended consequences, and most of the time the global community seem to get stuck in interventions where it should stay out (and stays out of situations it should enter). For Ambassador Puri, two questions follow, each of which is laid out early in the book: Why do countries seem to pursue policies counter to their interests? Why do countries, not just rich one, interfere in the affairs of other regimes?

The need for many of these interventions can be attributed to good intentions. While states clearly abuse conventions of international law, one need not assume nefarious motives to explain the occurrence of perilous interventions. He suggests that in some ways, our best motives can lead us astray. For example, three pillars support the responsibility to protect that is at the core of collective international security. First, states have a duty to protect populations from horrors of the 20th century like genocide, war crimes, and ethnic cleansing. Second, states are responsible for giving others assistance for building capacity to support economic and social development. Finally, when harms occur, states are obliged to swift and timely action. The desire for quick action is often a particular problem – actions that proceed a careful framework can often lead to unintended consequences. At other times, action is fettered by carefully crafted triggers, which can initiate action only when a specific state of affairs is achieved. Unfortunately, these triggers seem to be pulled without comprehensive and judicious analysis of their consequences.

While the reader never gets an entirely satisfactory answer to the questions set forth at the outset, they do get some insight into where plans can go astray. The long chapters on the Arab Spring and the collapse of the Gaddafi regime are particularly rich. The other, shorter chapters also each show how interventions are often very different, and they all point to several lessons.

History is often less of a guide than the reader might think. Although there are often superficial similarities between present and past events, historical parallels can obscure unique and important issues that must be handled with care. When speed of action is prioritized, scenario planning is cut short and secondary or tertiary effects are not considered. The events have unintended consequences, and without careful contingency planning, events can easily get out of hand.

The upshot seems to be guidance towards a cautious approach that seeks a pause in action to think through unintended consequences. This guidance is for members of the UN Security Council, but given the start of 2017, it doesn’t look like many global actors are taking these lessons seriously. For example, the current US administration’s policy on Syria or North Korea is less than obvious, suggesting to some that current action and rhetoric is not part of a part of a larger strategy. For Ambassador Puri the risk is that interventions such as these will lead to perilous interventions.

Although the exact context may be different, the lessons for political actors work just as well for investors and business leaders. The last six months have given good reason for investors to update their contingency plans, but they should be updated to consider secondary or tertiary effects. Hasty market entries or retreats, product roll outs or portfolio pruning can all fall prey to the consequences associated with perilous interventions.  Many of these risks can be mitigated in the same way. If he were addressing this audience, the Ambassador might well conclude by guiding readers to slow down, scenario plan, act carefully and have a contingency plans in place.

Categories: Insights

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