Quite a few Americans, on the left and on the right, oppose US entanglements in other countries unless we have been attacked. For the most part I would agree, but I have to ask if it’s ever permissible to enter another country and enforce our moral code when the opposing country’s conduct is so egregious and their citizens are so victimized that we feel it is the only right thing to do?
In his writing, John Stuart Mill pointed out that the British, for at least a half-century, “have spent annual sums equal to the revenue of a small kingdom in blockading the Africa coast, for a cause in which we not only had no interest, but which was contrary to our pecuniary interest.” He was here, of course, talking about Great Britain’s efforts to abolish the slave trade around the world. Interestingly enough, Mill pointed out that the moral crusade was economically harmful to the British. Most of us would agree that despite that, it was worthwhile.
In 1849, the British entered Brazilian waters and destroyed Brazilian ships that had been used in the slave trade. The Ottoman Empire resisted attempts to pressure it to ban the African slave trade, and when it finally was banned, the British had to threaten that they would start boarding Ottoman ships in the Mediterranean if the Empire didn’t better police the ban. America was responsible for the destruction of the slave trade in the Philippines and the Netherlands was responsible for its end in Indonesia. In Central Asia, the Russians were the cause of its demise, as were the French in their West African colonies and in the Caribbean, and Germans in their East African colonies.
Outside of the Western world, the fight to abolish the slave trade endured for over a century, often at great cost to the countries that insisted upon its end. Reports from government officials as they tried to convince leaders of slave nations that the concept of slavery itself was immoral, always seemed to include a defense from the offending country regarding their customs and an explanation that their customs, as well as their people, differed from those in the Western world.
In 1841, the British representative consul to Zanzibar, Atkins Hamerton, attempted to convince the ruler of that country to end the slave trade. The response he received was that if he were to do so, his subjects would not remain loyal and would appoint another ruler who would allow the trade to continue. He reminded Hamerton that “Arabs were not ‘like the English and other European people who were always reading and writing’ and were unable to understand the anti-slavery viewpoint.” He also pointed out that one of his most important responsibilities was to protect and guarantee for his people their “dearest interest” – the slave trade.
Throughout this century-long struggle, the British patrolled the waters off of Africa in an attempt to halt the trade there. They would would seize and destroy slave ships, pay to resettle rescued slaves, and risk international relationships with countries that didn’t agree with them. The cost was high, but the moral mission was seen as a greater good.
I ask again, is it ever permissible to use military resources and personnel in order to “enforce” freedom, and a better way of life for others?
Much of the history is taken from Thomas Sowell’s book, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, pp. 111-132.