Briefly Noted

| January 2013
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Can Intervention Work?, Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus (New York: W. W. Norton, 2011), 236 pp., $23.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.

As part of Amnesty International’s Global Ethics Series, Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus have provided a pair of thoughtfully conceived essays that seek to explain what makes interventions work and what makes them fail. Eschewing prevalent considerations of abstract moral rights or duties to intervene, the authors instead focus on whether and how one should intervene in a particular country at a particular time. Characterizing their approaches as “passionate moderation” and “principled incrementalism,” respectively, Stewart and Knaus reject paradigms of “heroic international planners” and “heroic international leaders,” who reside within both “the planning school” and “the liberal imperialist school.” Because intervention is intrinsically unpredictable and uncertain, not even carefully tuned formulas, fixed theories, and doctrines can guarantee success.

Through a focus on narrative—on the history of events, decisions, and individuals—and informed by their respective on-the-ground experiences in the military, in international and national nongovernmental organizations, and in the Iraqi provincial government, the authors explain the limits of Western institutions (ranging from the United Nations to nongovernmental organizations and the U.S. military, some of which lack not only legitimacy and local support but also knowledge of crucial local and regional factors), and demonstrate how intervention is an art rather than a science.  Stewart focuses exclusively on Afghanistan, warning against the overwhelming pressures of overextension; Knaus focuses largely on Bosnia, explaining how international institutions misinterpreted an intervention that nevertheless worked. Echoed throughout each of these case studies is the assertion that local and regional factors tend to be the most important determinants of success, both for the intervention and for the interveners themselves. The causes of a crisis are not, as is commonly assumed, the result of structural flaws or ungoverned space, but are instead specific to a particular place and time.

To their credit, the authors acknowledge the limitations of their conclusions. Stewart and Knaus convincingly demonstrate that their titular question is a complex one, and that a thorough effort to grapple with it must be nuanced and context-specific. Given the uniqueness of every crisis situation, the experience garnered in one place is not necessarily useful elsewhere. Still, the authors argue that interveners must carefully distinguish between factors they can control, the dangers they can avoid, and the dangers they can neither control nor avoid; courage, thought, and preplanning are relevant but are not enough on their own. Interveners must proceed carefully and invest heavily in finding out more about the specific context in which they operate—especially after the intervention—and must define concrete goals. Equally important, the international community must be much more humble about what it can accomplish in terms of state-building abroad and abandon the notion that “failure is not an option.”


Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, Steve Coll (New York: Penguin Press, 2012), 704 pp., $36 cloth.

In this voluminous and exhaustive book, Steve Coll—a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a staff writer for The New Yorker—examines the global reach and influence of ExxonMobil, the most profitable corporation headquartered in the United States. Coll shows how ExxonMobil operates as a uniquely powerful private geopolitical actor, leveraging its vast influence over Washington, D.C. (for instance, former ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond was close friends with Vice President Dick Cheney, who formulated the Bush administration’s energy policy with ExxonMobil’s interests in mind), and marshaling its resources to prevent government interference when U.S. strategic interests seem inimical to the corporation’s. “Raymond aligned ExxonMobil with America,” observes Coll, “but he was not always in sync; he was akin to the President of France or the Chancellor of Germany. He did not manage the corporation as a subordinate instrument of American foreign policy; his was a private empire.” Because ExxonMobil invests in energy reserves abroad that may take decades to exhaust, its time horizon is far greater than the average U.S. presidential administration’s. Whereas U.S. foreign policy toward a state may undergo numerous shifts in a short period of time, ExxonMobil’s interests remain constant: to encourage stability in countries where it does business in order to realize its investments.

The idea of “empire” is not employed by Coll in a metaphorical sense. The culture of ExxonMobil is hierarchical, insular, and haughty. Its competitors—such other energy giants as Chevron, ConocoPhillips, and BP—view it with a mix of respect and resentment. A year after Exxon merged with Mobil in 1999, the company’s revenue was already greater than the GDP of Norway; if its revenue were converted to GDP, it would have then ranked as the world’s twenty-first-largest economy.

With energy investments in more than a dozen countries, it is, in its own way, a global power. Like any global power, however, ExxonMobil must work closely with authoritarian governments—especially since the greatest untapped energy reserves now lie in the developing world. But unlike the United States, which sometimes incorporates concerns about human rights and democratization into a realpolitik-oriented foreign policy, ExxonMobil can generally focus on profit—and stability—alone. For example, the Arun gas fields of Indonesia, one of the most prodigious and profitable of all of ExxonMobil’s holdings, are located in Banda Aceh province, which until 2005 was embroiled in an armed separatist rebellion against the Indonesian government. The Indonesian army conducted a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in the province, and was accused of mass torture and the killing of Acehnese civilians. As part of their contract with the Indonesian government, ExxonMobil paid the military to protect its gas fields from rebel attacks, and there is evidence that the torture and murder of suspected rebels occurred on ExxonMobil property. In effect, ExxonMobil helped underwrite Indonesia’s counterinsurgency.

Methodical in approach and clinical in style, Private Empire brilliantly documents the reign of the world’s most powerful private corporation.






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Category: Briefly Noted, Issue 26.4

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