February 21, 2008

R2P, Post-colonialism, and the Incoherence of Western Liberals

We here are Abu Muqawama had grown used to unintelligible metaphors being the only notable contribution of New York Times columnists toward foreign policy debates. But things have been looking up since Roger Cohen arrived via the NYT-owned International Herald Tribune.

At a deeper level, the story of little Kosovo is the story of changing notions of sovereignty and international law.

After the above-mentioned genocides, one perpetrated by the late Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, both revealing a U.N. Security Council too divided to stop mass slaughter, NATO circumvented the council in 1999. It waged war for the first time to prevent Milosevic doing his worst again in Kosovo.

The war, in the words of Thomas Weiss, a political scientist at the City University of New York, ”had legitimacy even if its legality was questioned.” This legitimacy stemmed from an evolving consensus that, as Tony Blair once put it, ”acts of genocide can never be a purely internal matter.”

Sovereignty, after Bosnia, after Rwanda, in a globalized world, was more than authority over territory and people. It was also responsibility.


In 2005, the World Summit adopted the ”responsibility to protect,” known by that acronym. R2P formalized the notion that when a state proves unable or unwilling to protect its people, and crimes against humanity are perpetrated, the international community has an obligation to intervene — if necessary, and as a last resort, with military force.

Member states declared that, with Security Council approval, they were prepared "to take collective action in a timely and decisive manner" when "national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

Here's the only problem with that. Popular opinion in the West -- especially Western Europe -- has basically maneuvered itself into a grand contradiction. On the one hand, R2P is a lovely policy on which Western liberals can surely agree. The sovereignty of nation-states isn't the only right that matters -- so too do the rights of individuals. Great. But once you sign up for R2P, have you seriously thought about the means necessary to reach the ends? Do you understand the full significance of this?

What Abu Muqawama is getting at here is that force -- or the credible threat of force -- is the only thing that's really going to protect individuals in a place like Kosovo or Rwanda when things get ugly. (And because of the way the Security Council works, where countries like China and Russia will veto any action that sets a precedent for intervening within another state's borders, that force will likely not be sanctioned by the UN. Remember Kosovo?) And yet the post-colonial resistance to any kind of military intervention by the people with the means to intervene -- basically, NATO -- is so strong it precludes intervention in some cases.

Every country has its own regulatory norms that develop over time: the respective historical experiences of Germany and Great Britain, for example, make those countries a little more squeamish about foreign military intervention than the United States. We understand that. But if you're not willing to intervene with force or at least the credible threat of force, then you're kidding yourself when you sign up for R2P. You can't have it both ways. Either slink off back to SOAS with your dog-earned copy of The Wretched of the Earth and today's Independent or sack up and admit that R2P means investing in a capable expeditionary military force, the political will to use it, and some acetaminophen to get you over your post-colonial hangover.