International intervention in a country’s affairs almost always ends in conquest or civil war. Cheering-crowd, flower-strewn-street outcomes are not guaranteed after a powerful nation extends a “helping hand” to a more vulnerable, troubled neighbour.
Intervention usually provokes blood-letting. Intrusion of the imperial, boots-on-the-ground kind often begins a process that ends disastrously when subjugated peoples become powerful enough to send conquerors home.
It’s just over 70 years since one of the bloodiest examples. Over 1m people were killed and many millions displaced when, after 300 years, Britain quit India leaving that subcontinent in chaos and its diverse peoples at daggers drawn.
The Bosnian War is a recent example of the savagery that can fill the vacuum left when a country collapses. Persistent violence in Afghanistan, Lybia, Ukraine, Crimea, and Iraq are legacies of foreign interventions. We are about to mark the centenary of our own post-colonial civil war, another bloody legacy of foreign intervention.
The 1972 response by Chinese premier Zhou Enlai when asked about the impact of the 1968 riots in France — “it’s too early to say” — seems an apt reaction to China’s unstoppable conquest by chequebook. History will eventually come to a view about this bloodless but absolute conquest. Ironically but thankfully, a century ago one of the most disastrous interventions — the Treaty of Versailles that imposed impossible conditions on Germany — eventually but tortuously led to one of the most positive. The Marshall Plan rebuilt Europe after WWII and made the stability we enjoy today possible.
These issues are in play in Venezuela.
They are complicated by ideology, a divided society, great oil wealth, and a regime that rejects suggestions that it secured power through a rigged election
People of a particular bent advance that argument, despite a Latin American Council of Electoral Experts (CEELA) report concluding the election reflected “peacefully and without problems, the will of Venezuelan citizens”.
The hardship in Venezuela is a consequence of America’s economic sanctions and falling oil prices. Domestic policies and hyperinflation contribute too. Despite that, an estimated three million people marched in support of President Nicolás Maduro last Wednesday outnumbering dramatically the million who marched to support Juan Guaidó, the man who would replace Maduro. The situation is fraught and it is hard to see a peaceful resolution if conflicting external forces continue to pursue an agenda more focused on $300bn in oil reserves, rather than the wellbeing of Venezuelans.
All of these interventions have a common theme — a more powerful country forcefully ordering the affairs of a less powerful one. That lesson has relevance today in the debate about the Brexit backstop. The indifference of Brexiteers to the consequences of their ambitions and, most of all, our history show that any concession will, sooner or later, end badly for us. British politics does not have the credibility to make a deal other than a black-or-white backstop a plausible alternative for a weaker neighbour. Be it “out, out, out” or “never, never, never” this is a moment to hold the line.