Image of the Oxford Union chamber
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Union debates Harvard on interventionism for international justice

On May 27th, the Oxford Union hosted a special joint debate with the Harvard Political Union on interventionism, with the motion titled “This House Would Fight for Democracy, Individual Liberty, and the Rule of Law Abroad”.

The debate focused on UK and US interventionism in the name of international law and liberty. Harvard spoke for the proposition, while Oxford spoke for the opposition. 

Harvard student Maya Bodnick argued that democracy is under attack globally as exemplified by authoritarianism in China, the Philippines, Russia, and Turkey. Bodnick argued that this reached its apex through the Russia-Ukraine war, with the next threat being a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 

Union President Matthew Dick followed by Bodnick, arguing that military intervention is not the answer. Dick explained that when an outcome is against our own wishes and our response is annihilation, we should question our values. 

Afghan women’s rights activist Fawzia Koofi asserted that we must protect democracy, as “democracy is the only way forward to protect human rights”. Koofi described her own fight to negotiate these values with the Taliban in Afghanistan to no avail.

She also explained how women are still deprived of human rights and democracy is stifled. Koofi cited the Taliban’s violence towards Afghans who voted.

International relations professor Stephen Zunes attested that nonviolent alternatives can be more effective. Zunes noted that dictatorships are overthrown through military force less than 10% of time, and that nearly three quarters of authoritarian regimes that became democratic did so through strategic and nonviolent means. 

The former Estonian Minister for Foreign Affairs Urmas Reinsalu then argued that the West must intervene to end the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. He explained how the West’s sanctions on Russia are ineffective.

He cited how the Russian economy is projected to rise by approximately 0.3% in 2023 while Ukraine continues to debilitate from the war. 

Oxford student Sultan Khokhar debated in place of Pakistani politician Fawad Chaudhry. Khokhar reasoned that we should not force violence and domestic upheaval on countries that did not ask for it.

Instead, he argued, we should focus on domestic matters to promote internal stability.

Former US Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) John Bolton opened by citing the phrase, si vis pacem, para bellum, which means “if you want peace, prepare for war”. He asserted that to advance democracy, we must show totalitarian adversaries that breaching international law and liberty is not worth the cost through interventionism.

Bolton continued that “this resolution does not advocate war; it addresses the hard and persistent question of how to advance our values short of war”. He explained the consequences of isolationism and cited how in Venezuela, the West did not intervene, and its people “remain crushed politically and economically”.

Likewise, Bolton heralded NATO as “the most successful and sustained military alliance in global history” that has protected international law and liberty. 

Closing the debate, the first US Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith quipped that he had been an Oxford Union member since 1973 and that his speech was thus long overdue. He then argued that the test for military intervention appropriateness is effectiveness.

He pointed to how the West has unsuccessfully attempted to free Cuba from communism for approximately 65 years, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan cost trillions in U.S. dollars but did not produce democracies. 

The motion was defeated, with 150 people voting against it and 72 voting in favour.