Tuesday, September 16, 2014
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The Intervention Dilemma

CAMBRIDGE – When should states intervene militarily to stop atrocities in other countries? The question is an old and well-traveled one. Indeed, it is now visiting Syria.

In 1904, US President Theodore Roosevelt argued that, “there are occasional crimes committed on so vast a scale and of such peculiar horror” that we should intervene by force of arms. A century earlier, in 1821, as Europeans and Americans debated whether to intervene in Greece’s struggle for independence, President John Quincy Adams warned his fellow Americans about “going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

More recently, after a genocide that cost nearly 800,000 lives in Rwanda in 1994, and the slaughter of Bosnian men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, many people vowed that such atrocities should never again be allowed to occur. When Slobodan Milošević engaged in large-scale ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999, the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution recognizing the humanitarian catastrophe, but could not agree on a second resolution to intervene, given the threat of a Russian veto. Instead, NATO countries bombed Serbia in an effort that many observers regarded as legitimate but not legal.

In the aftermath, then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan created an international commission to recommend ways that humanitarian intervention could be reconciled with Article 2.7 of the UN Charter, which upholds member states’ domestic jurisdiction. The commission concluded that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens, and should be helped to do so by peaceful means, but that if a state disregarded that responsibility by attacking its own citizens, the international community could consider armed intervention.

The idea of a “responsibility to protect” (R2P) was adopted unanimously at the UN’s World Summit in 2005, but subsequent events showed that not all member states interpreted the resolution the same way. Russia has consistently argued that only Security Council resolutions, not General Assembly resolutions, are binding international law. Meanwhile, Russia has vetoed a Security Council resolution on Syria, and, somewhat ironically, Annan has been called back and enlisted in a so-far futile effort to stop the carnage there.

Until last year, many observers regarded R2P as at best a pious hope or a noble failure. But in 2011, as Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi prepared to exterminate his opponents in Benghazi, the Security Council invoked R2P as the basis for a resolution authorizing NATO to use armed force in Libya. In the United States, President Barack Obama was careful to wait for resolutions by the Arab League and the Security Council, thereby avoiding the costs to American soft power that George W. Bush’s administration suffered when it intervened in Iraq in 2003. But Russia, China, and other countries felt that NATO exploited the resolution to engineer regime change, rather merely protecting citizens in Libya.

In fact, R2P is more about struggles over political legitimacy and soft power than it is about hard international law. Some Western lawyers argue that it entails the responsibility to combat genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes under the various conventions of international humanitarian law. But Russia, China, and others are reluctant to provide a legal or political basis for actions such as what occurred in Libya.

There are other reasons why R2P has not been a success in the Syrian case. Drawn from traditional “just war” theory, R2P rests not only on right intentions, but also on the existence of a reasonable prospect of success. Many observers highlight the important physical and military differences between Libya and Syria that would make Syrian no-fly zones or no-drive zones problematic. Some Syrians who oppose President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, pointing to Baghdad in 2005, argue that the one thing worse than a cruel dictator is a sectarian civil war.

Such factors are symptomatic of larger problems with humanitarian interventions. For starters, motives are often mixed (Roosevelt, after all, was referring to Cuba). Moreover, we live in a world of diverse cultures, and we know very little about social engineering and how to build nations. When we cannot be sure how to improve the world, prudence becomes an important virtue, and hubristic visions can pose a grave danger. Foreign policy, like medicine, must be guided by the principle, “First, do no harm.”

Prudence does not mean that nothing can be done in Syria. Other governments can continue to try to convince Russia that its interests are better served by getting rid of the current regime than by permitting the continued radicalization of his opponents. Tougher sanctions can continue to delegitimize the regime, and Turkey might be persuaded to take stronger steps against its neighbor.

Moreover, prudence does not mean that humanitarian interventions will always fail. In some cases, even if motives are mixed, the prospects of success are reasonable, and the misery of a population can be relieved at modest expense. Military interventions in Sierra Leone, Liberia, East Timor, and Bosnia did not solve all problems, but they did improve the lives of the people there. Other interventions – for example, in Somalia – did not.

Recent large-scale interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, though not primarily humanitarian, have eroded public support for military action. But we should recall Mark Twain’s story about his cat. After sitting on a hot stove, it would never sit on a hot stove again, but neither would it sit on a cold one.

Interventions will continue to occur, though they are now more likely to be shorter, involve smaller-scale forces, and rely on technologies that permit action at greater distance. In an age of cyber warfare and drones, the end of R2P or humanitarian intervention is hardly foretold.

Read more from our "Nye on Power" Focal Point.

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  1. CommentedMukesh Adenwala

    I don't think there can be a clear answers on the topic:
    One more dimension of this issue is this question: If my neighbor is psychologically tormenting his family members (though not physically not physically beating his spouse or children) whether I should intervene? If yes, when, and how?
    When North Korea or a warlord in African country, subjugates its population keeping them in perpetual deprivations, does it make a case for active intervention or not? Can there ever be clear answers to such questions?

  2. CommentedMariana Kalil

    I humbly offer a comment of mine over Brazil's stance on humanitarian interventions and its intentions to be increasingly recognized as a significant actor, which follows Dr. Nye's always rather contributing considerations.
    http://theworldoutline.com/2013/08/humanitarian-interventions-and-brazils-bid-for-a-unsc-permanent-seat/

  3. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    I truly do not have an answer to the main question, as on one hand it is very difficult to justify standing by while thousands of people die in different conflicts or from other causes, on the other hand even the recent experience with military interventions show that usually the state after those interventions became worse than it was before.
    Basically the question relates to the "firefighting", how to reduce the symptoms, but it does not deal with the main problem, the source.
    To use a different example when the Mexican Gulf oil leak happened huge efforts were invested to treat the problem on the surface and it is still dealt with as far as I know, but until the leak was stopped at the bottom of the Gulf there was no hope for any resolutions.
    All our present problem in the Middle East or any other region are the result of hatred, incitement, based on very deep cultural, racial or religious differences.
    We can fight or use diplomatic power as much as we want, but until we close the "tap", correct the source of the problem we will keep fighting a losing battle.
    And the only way of stopping the hatred, incitement, separation along the lines of any of our inherent differences is education.
    We need a completely new global education program for all of us, which instead of simply producing "good workers, and consumers" as it happens today, we should try to truly "educate", raise human beings instead of robots necessary for the consumer society.
    If this new education program concentrates on what connects us, how much we are interdependent, and how much we can achieve and benefit with mutual cooperation, then new generations and adults alike would be able to rise above their differences and start working as a global unit in that new mutual space we create.
    And then suddenly we will find we do not need to answer the main question of the article. And this could happen much sooner than we think.

      CommentedIan Arbuckle

      As always, I am positively impressed by your comment, but you write;

      "We can fight or use diplomatic power as much as we want, but until we close the "tap", correct the source of the problem we will keep fighting a losing battle."

      You put it as clearly as it can be put, but the other "tap" or source that has to be governed, and the one that is far trickier is the one of the greater outside political interests which "use" the same turmoil to further their interests and ends. Example: Syrian civil war ; Assad's thugs against local Saudi and Qatari backed thugs with Israel and US doing their part in the shadows and in a haze of half propaganda half truths all being milked by all sides. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, is certainly not concerned about saving lives of Syrian women and children as much as weakening Iran and destabilizing Hezbollah by insisting on regime change. She is perfectly aware that such a regime change would create a vacuum of power filled with sectarian extremism and vengeance, killing thousands more.

      If only nations with power gave a little more than lip service to the ideals of the UN rather than wearing the organization as a fig leaf for domination, interference, and regime change, the fundamental question of this article would certainly be easier to answer.

      In this complex interdependent world some conflicts are fueled and fired for completely spurious reasons. And if the intentions were honestly to preserve the lives of ordinary people other nations wouldn't keep throwing matches into tinderboxes.

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