The forced landing in Minsk of a Ryanair flight to Vilnius last month has prompted a predictable chorus of demands for yet more sanctions against the authoritarian regime of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. The ostensible aim of such sanctions is to punish Belarus for what the EU calls an “act of international piracy” but their underlying purpose is to further the Western project of regime change.
Already the United States and other countries have decided to sanction key members of the Belarusian government. The EU has banned flights to, from, and through Belarus and has said it will give the country three billion euros if it transitions to democracy. Commentators have called for Western governments to actively ally with Lukashenko’s domestic opponents, two of whom were arrested when the plane landed in Minsk.
Critics of this latest round of anti-Lukashenko sanctions point out that Western governments responded with far less outrage when, not so long ago, similar acts were committed by allied states, notably the forced landing in Austria of a plane suspected of having on board American whistle-blower, Edward Snowden, and the Ukrainian authorities’ forcing down of a Belarusian plane in order to arrest an “anti-Maidan” activist.
The critics also say sanctions don’t and won’t work. Lukashenko has been the object of successive waves of failed Western sanctions, most recently in response to his alleged rigging of the August 2020 presidential election in Belarus. Lukashenko’s response to the latest brouhaha has been to continue his crackdown on Belarusian oppositionists and to draw ever closer to China and Russia.
While these arguments are valid, the more fundamental point is that these Western actions constitute a flagrant violation of a vital, stabilizing principle of international relations: non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.
International law recognizes that states are sovereign both internally and externally. They have the right to determine their internal affairs without interference from other states, while relations between states are conducted by government representatives. All states accept the utility of this long-established precept, even those great powers who frequently and bare-facedly violate it.
The only legitimate legal interest any state may have concerning the Belarusian government’s action is whether or not it was a violation of the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation. President Lukashenko’s repressive domestic policies are undoubtedly a matter of concern, but they are not a mandate for international interference in Belarus’s internal politics.
Some people argue that states which violate human rights forfeit the right to expect non-interference in their internal affairs. Even more radical is the view that only states deemed “good” according to the norms of Western liberal democracy deserve to enjoy sovereign rights. This is the underpinning for the theory and practice of liberal interventionism — that is, the spread of Western values by coercion.
Yet the unintended consequences of this so-called humanitarian interventionism have been invariably disastrous. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria are only the most egregious examples of calamitous Western regime change operations.
Even that supposedly successful humanitarian intervention — NATO’s war against Serbia in 1999 — had its dark side. Attacks on the Albanian population in the Serbian province of Kosovo were the cause for intervention initially, but both Serbs and Albanians were guilty of committing atrocities. NATO’s bombing campaign forced Serbia out of Kosovo, along with 200,000 Serbian refugees. NATO’s action was not authorized by the U.N. and it soured Western relations with Serbia’s ally, Russia. Kosovo remains isolated internationally — its unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia is far from universally recognized. Indeed, its secession established a precedent that Russia was pleased to cite when Crimea seceded from Ukraine.
But should Western democracies stand idly by while other governments commit atrocities and monstrous dictators repress their own citizens? The answer is: Yes, if the mistrust, meddling, and international mayhem of a system without the presumption of sovereignty is to be avoided.
This does not preclude individual states or the international community at large from remonstrating in clear terms about human rights violations. Nor does it preclude citizen action across national borders to support oppressed individuals and groups.
No rule demands governments must maintain relations with states whose values and practices they detest although, in reality, disengagement is rarely if ever the progenitor of reform.
To paraphrase the sixth U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, even the most powerful of states should not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. Speaking 200 years ago, Adams noted that while America wished freedom and independence for all states, it was the power of its voice and its example that it contributed to the cause, not military force.
Proponents of liberal interventionism often dub such sentiments as isolationist yet it is well to remember that “sovereignty” is not a rigid construct. Rather, it is an organic development arising from inter-state relations that has helped to establish an international society of states with many common practices, institutions, and modes of behavior. Imperfect and unruly and violated though this international society may be, the alternative would be the fragmentation, disorder and incessant conflict of global anarchy.
History shows repeatedly that democracy promotion should not only begin at home, it should also stay at home. It was the economic and political success of liberal democratic capitalism that led to the collapse of communism. The decades of failed Western attempts at regime change in the USSR by supporting internal subversion and deploying external pressure merely served to prolong the life of the authoritarian Soviet system.
Western states’ support for rights groups and democracy activists in what they have dubbed the authoritarian bloc constitutes blatant interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. While it must be acknowledged that such meddling is rife in international politics, that does not make it any less reprehensible. Infringements of state sovereignty are invariably counterproductive, de-stabilize international relations and provoke further rounds of retaliation.
The lamented global decline of democracy can only be halted by the satisfactory resolution of citizens’ urgent domestic problems, not by the pursuit of ideologically driven adventures abroad. Western states should abandon as useless their self-righteous sanctions policies. Instead, they should set a pluralist example of how democracies show their strengths by listening to their own peoples’ needs at home and by engaging openly, transparently, and respectfully with states whose values differ from their own. Democratic values will prevail by good example, or not at all.