[That was the motion last night in a debate at the Cambridge Union. I was speaking in support of it. Each speaker had approximately 10 minutes. The occasion was most enjoyable and the hospitality splendid. In the event, the motion was defeated by a ratio of approximately 2 to 1. I give below the text of what I said in arguing for it. The paragraph numbers are for my own benefit and were not spoken.]
1.1 The motion before you is not the one you may think is before you.
1.2 This house believes in the spread of Western liberal democracy, by force where necessary.
1.3 It may not be the motion you think, because you may understand it as meaning that this house should favour the widespread and/or reckless attempt to impose liberal democracy by force, without regard to the conditions prevailing in the countries in which it is to be imposed.
1.4 Not so. The proposition has a main clause, stating support for the spread of Western liberal democracy, and this is followed by a qualifying phrase specifying the use of force in some circumstances but (by implication) not in others.
2.1 Here's an analogy. This house believes one should take a daily walk, if necessary in the rain.
2.2 That doesn't call for walking in the rain as often as possible, walking in the rain when you don't have to, walking in the rain regardless.
2.3 Or... This house believes in the maintenance of peaceful civic order, if necessary by deploying the police.
2.4 That, in turn, is not a call for heavy-handed policing, much less for a police state; it is merely an acceptance that there are circumstances in which some policing may be necessary to maintain civil peace. It doesn't call for policing where policing is unnecessary.
3.1 Accordingly, in order to persuade you to support the motion, I need to persuade you of two things.
3.2 First, that we should be in favour of the spread of Western liberal democracy.
3.3 And second, that where necessary to achieve this, we should support the use of force.
3.4 Note that, with respect to the second point, everything hinges on the interpretation of 'where necessary'. I ask you to postpone judgement on what that means.
4.1 To persuade you, first, that we should support the spread of Western liberal democracy, I begin by asking: how could we not?
4.2 That is: not favour a polity in which (cutting a long story short) government is by consent of the governed; in which those who govern are chosen through freely contested elections; in which fundamental human rights are by and large respected and protected; in which there is freedom of speech and opinion; and so on?
4.3 Are we to say instead, 'No, actually, we prefer tyranny, military dictatorship, totalitarian single-party rule – with fewer restraints on power, the punishing of dissent, freedom for the state to engage in arbitrary arrest, the "disappearing" of dissidents and what have you'?
4.4 I put it to you that there's no contest.
5.1 And I interject at this point, so as to clear away an irrelevance, that to favour a liberal-democratic polity over these grim alternatives is to favour Western liberal democracy only in the sense that this liberal democracy is a form of governance now common in Western countries.
5.2 However, the proper designation is not 'Western liberal democracy' but 'liberal democracy' tout court, 'liberal democracy' without the geographical qualifier.
5.3 The central principles underlying this form of polity are universal ones, codified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
5.4 Similarly, the benefits of liberal democracy are universal. Pretty well everywhere that it is absent there are people yearning for it and fighting for it.
6.1 I repeat, therefore: how could we not support the spread of liberal democracy?
6.2 The suggestion might be offered: we don't support its spread, not because we prefer one or other variant of political tyranny, but because we favour something better than liberal democracy – be it socialist democracy, or radical democracy, or whatever.
6.3 My response to that is: for the alternative polity suggested to be in fact better than liberal democracy, it would have (at least) to incorporate standard liberal and democratic principles, procedures and mechanisms; and so it would remain, itself, a form of liberal democracy.
7.1 So much in support of the motion's main clause. I turn now to the qualifying conditional – 'where necessary, by force'.
7.2 The whole issue turns on the meaning of necessity here, on what kind of necessity we're talking about. What could 'where necessary' mean?
7.3 I contend that only one meaning is plausible.
7.4 For 'necessary' is both a context-dependent and a purpose-dependent term.
7.5 Is it necessary to have a ladder? Well, if we're going to scale that wall, yes. If we're going to carry on sitting around in the sun, no.
7.6 Is it necessary to obtain explosives? If we're going to blow a hole through the wall, so as (say) to help the people in danger on the other side, yes. If, on the other hand, the wall is part of a building housing the offices of Amnesty International, and we want access so as to rob the organization, then no. The explosives are unnecessary; indeed their use for this purpose would be morally wrong; it would be despicable of us to rob Amnesty International.
8.1 On the basis of these examples, I distinguish what I shall call functional necessity from moral necessity. If the purpose is to scale the wall, the ladder may be necessary; if the purpose is to blast a hole through the wall, the explosives may be necessary. But such means, though functionally necessary (when they are) for securing some given aim or objective, are not morally necessary if the aim in question is morally wrong, if it cannot be compellingly justified.
8.2 And I contend that this – moral necessity – is the only credible sense in which the motion before the house can be interpreted. Believing in the spread of liberal democracy 'by force where necessary' has to mean by force when force is morally justified, morally legitimate.
8.3 Because, just as hardly anybody (save for absolute pacifists) believes that the use of force is never justified, nobody at all believes that the use of force is always justified.
8.4 Consequently, those who think that the use of force in trying to spread liberal democracy will sometimes be justified, won't believe that force is necessary, in a moral sense, in all circumstances.
8.5 I urge upon you, therefore, that what the motion is most sensibly interpreted as meaning is: this house believes in the spread of liberal democracy, by force where force is justified. And these qualifying conditional words about force are practically tautological. If you support the main clause, you can hardly fail to support the motion as a whole.
9.1 The use of force in the hope of securing the spread of liberal democracy will often – even mostly – not be justified. I don't have time to spell out the reasons it won't be when it isn't, but these are a few of them.
9.2 The principles of national sovereignty and the right of peoples to self-determination rule out the imposition of liberal democracy by force, even could that be brought off.
9.3 To put the underlying assumption here in other terms, the nation or people concerned must be willing to take the democracy upon themselves; this can't legitimately be forced on them.
9.4 There are limits to the principle of sovereignty, though not everybody agrees where precisely these lie. But if a state massacres its own people, commits genocide, or crimes against humanity on a vast scale, brings about or presides over a humanitarian crisis – that sort of thing – then there's an old doctrine of humanitarian intervention, according to which the barrier of sovereignty may be overridden.
9.5 Even then, there are further moral requirements for external intervention. The force used must be 'proportional'; the intervening power must have a good prospect of success, not make the situation worse; it must act with the 'right intention'. I can't go into these points further.
9.6 Suffice to say that unless you believe that respect for state sovereignty must be absolute – in face of whatever horrors – there will be some circumstances in which you regard forceful intervention as morally justified. In other circumstances not, but in some circumstances, yes.
9.7 Whatever the 'yes-circumstances' happen to be in your eyes, you have your own way of applying the condition 'by force where necessary'.
10.1 Now take one further step: the intervening power or powers cannot effectively save the country they intervene in from further horrors, from dislocation, social collapse, civil war, without taking steps to establish a successor polity. For the reasons I've already given, they should opt for helping to build some form of liberal democracy if they can.
10.2 What could be the objection unless tyranny is to be preferred?
10.3 You surely cannot fail to support the motion.