CFR Report on Responsibility to Protect and Humanitarian Intervention

President Obama’s Nobel Prize speech yesterday made reference to the moral authority, under the ethics of the just war, for armed humanitarian intervention in some situations.  It is a topic that has been debated and discussed as a matter of international law for, well, a long time, but which gained particular urgency following on Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo in the 1990s.  It continues to be debated and argued as a matter of law, morality, and policy.  The Council on Foreign Relations has just issued a new report, Intervention to Stop Genocide and Mass Atrocities, authored by Columbia law professor and former Bush administration official Matthew Waxman, looking for ways to move the discussion forward.  It is a terrific report, coherently organized and thought-out as to substance, I strongly recommend it to anyone thinking through mass atrocities and “R2P.”

Professor Waxman’s report starts from the premise that the US favors robust practical measures to stop and prevent genocide and mass atrocities.  He then turns to the legal regimes in international law and asks what prevents robust responses from taking place:

A[n] important part of this debate concerns the international legal system governing the use of force in situations of actual or potential atrocities. In this Council Special Report, Matthew C. Waxman asks whether this legal regime is effective in preventing and stopping such crimes. The report notes that international legal practices constrain swift action and require extensive consultation, especially in the United Nations Security Council, before particular steps can be taken. Waxman, though, argues that the system has certain benefits: it can confer legitimacy and help actors coordinate both military and nonmilitary efforts to prevent or stop atrocities. He also contends that different arrangements of the kind some have proposed would be unlikely to prove more effective.

He therefore opposes wholesale reforms but recommends more modest steps the United States could take to improve the current legal regime. These measures include expressing strong but nuanced support for the responsibility to protect and working with other permanent members of the UN Security Council to discourage the use of vetoes in clear cases of mass atrocities. But the report also argues that the United States must be prepared to act alone or with others in urgent cases without Security Council approval.

I would add three comments of my own – my own views and not attributable in any way to Professor Waxman.  First, R2P gets harder and harder to pull off in a genuinely multipolar world; a multipolar world, as the ever-astute David Rieff has noted, is a competitive, not cooperative, one.  In the jockeying for position around many things ranging from commercial advantage to energy to markets to regional security to lots more besides, many more actors can find many more reasons, and many more reasons not obviously related to the atrocities at hand and many reasons not even of any obvious importance, for preventing R2P from taking place.

The intervention that did take place – Kosovo – depended, not upon the United Nations or the collective security of international organizations, but upon the rough and ready security hegemony of the United States.  This was one of the crucial tenets of President Obama’s Nobel speech – an acknowledgment of the US as the provider since WWII of the basics of global security as a global public good.  The interventions that did not take place, Rwanda and Bosnia (at least not until late in the day), did not because they depended upon the collective security mechanisms of the UN.  The US acts (as President Obama recognized), not merely as the biggest player (still) in the international system of law and organizations, but as a parallel player, acting from outside the structure of liberal internationalism, in effect offering an extra-UN-system guarantee to the system.  That’s one reason why the UN has not simply imploded as a system of collective security; words are there, but security is underwritten by an actor outside of the system and its ineradicable collective action failures.

Second, despite the admirable activities of legal academics and policy experts to try to put flesh on the bones of R2P, it seems to me that the concept has been in retreat.  At the broadest level, this is on account of the rise of multipolarity – or at least its perception – and the resurgence of the “electoral authoritarians,” particularly Putin’s Russia, which saw Kosovo as something of a watershed, and all in the wrong direction.  After all, the Kosovo war was not put to the Security Council by the NATO coalition, for the reason that Russia, and perhaps China, would have vetoed it.  And, on the other hand, R2P has already been invoked by Russia as a ground for its adventures in Georgia; in bad faith, of course, but even bad faith invocations can undermine the concept in real life.

This palpable dislike of R2P found expression in the language of the 2005 Final Outcome Document of the UN General Assembly reform conference in 2005 – under the ever-malign influence of the General Assembly, the final language mentioned R2P, but cabined it under the authorization of the Security Council.  Under the terms of the 2005 document, the Kosovo war would have had to go to the Security Council, with predictable results.  Note, too, that this runs directly against President Obama’s assertion yesterday that there would be times when the US, sometimes alone and sometimes with friends, would act – outside of the UN system.

Third, as a general observation, many of these exercises in idealism depend, not upon international law and institutions, no matter what the rhetoric, but upon the United States, and the “extra-system” provision of certain global public goods that it proffers.  The concept of enlightened self-interest, as President Obama also explicitly noted in his Nobel address, does not lead the United States to do everything that humanitarians (or even it) might wish it would do, but leads it to act motivated at least by certain values and ideals, and put blood and treasure behind them, in ways that the virtuous-but-weak peoples of the world will surely miss should the United States embrace decline.  The grand irony?  What we are pleased to call the “universal” regime of human rights shelters, not in international law and institutions, but instead in a US security guarantee that is yet capacious enough not to mind if one insists on calling it ‘liberal internationalism’.

(That’s me talking, however, not Matthew Waxman.)

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