Monday, June 11, 2012

On Values

Late last week the WaPo ran a series of opinions regarding U.S. intervention in Syria. The battle lines were as well drawn as they are on the blogosphere and Twitter. I don't intend to rehash the specifics of Syria this morning and instead want to dial in on the last paragraph of Anne-Marie Slaughter's contribution.

She begins her conclusion with the statement: "President Obama believes in sovereignty as responsibility." I can't disagree with the sentiment, but this sentence fills me with an unnamed dread. As she discussed in the previous paragraph, this position has been accepted by the UN as an emerging international norm. There seems to be a lot of variance around the terms included in "responsibility", especially with regard to war crimes and civil wars. That's not to say the United States isn't sure about those definitions, but certain other countries are allowing broad definitions based on their own self-interest and in order to maintain maneuver space in case they run into the same problems later. Therefore, as sovereignty as responsibility is technically codified as an international value it is nearly impossible to determine when that responsibility is violated based on the many possible interpretations of definition.

This discussion leads to Slaughter's second sentence of that paragraph: "Standing up for that principle will result in a world that will be more stable, prosperous and consistent with universal values - the values Americans know as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  There are two problems with this statement. First is that standing up for the principle of sovereignty as responsibility means that those with more liberal interpretations of responsibility are in conflict with those who have more archaic (by Western standards) views on responsibility or view each contentious situation through the lens of their own self-interest beyond the responsibility issues at hand. This conflict can be seen in any location where sovereigns have abjured or violated their responsibilities: Syria, China, Pakistan, Burma, Mali, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, North Korea, Venezuela, Iran, just to name a few. Standing up for the principle of responsibility means standing against other powers who view responsibility differently. This is not a path to stability or prosperity, it is a path to political, economic, or military conflict. Syria is the cause du jour, but how many violations of the American sense of responsibility to we ignore out of our own interests? Some of the places I mentioned are allies or partners of ours because of some other strategic interest. Universally standing for this principle may be the right thing to do morally, but disabuse yourself of the notion that it leads to more stability or that liberal-minded nations even have the power to affect change.

The second problem with this statement is obvious if you read the words. Standing up for responsibility, according to Slaughter, will result in a world consistent with universal values. Which universal values? Why American values! A professional of Dr. Slaughter's caliber must know that defining universal values is nearly impossible. She must also know that American values are not universal. And yet American values are the values she suggests we act to preserve in the name of universality. As a great power, the United States is prone to act as other great powers have in promoting its own values globally. But do not believe for a second that our values are universal. We may think other countries are wrong or even evil for what they do to their people, but that is through our lens, by our measures.

This is not to excuse atrocities which are universally wrong. And I believe that what is happening in Syria should be considered wrong universally. But we are not yet at a point in human existence where this is the case and we need to recognize that. Not excuse regimes who have different values from our own, but recognize when this occurs. And recognize that often the United States does excuse regimes violating their responsibilities because it benefits our other interests, much as China and Russia do. How would we react if these two stalwarts of obstinacy decided to take Saudi Arabia to task for its treatment of women? Are their liberties not impeded?

Values are important to every nation. Some values are universal, but that list may extend only to sovereignty and life. And even these are negotiable depending upon with whom you are talking. Outside of the most egregious cases, most violations of universal values occur in the margins where values can be contested and especially where they intersect or diverge from interests. I'm also wary of a world where nations go to war to uphold their values beyond their borders. Such a world is fraught with nationalistic militarism more reminiscent of the early 20th Century instead of the 21st. I'm also wary of a world that except in the most exceptional cases uses war - the purposive taking of life - in order to protect life. There is a contradiction in the American use of lethal force to promote our values for human life and I'm not sure that parts of the world understand that. The potential for even greater suffering contrary to universal values is not only significant, it is likely. I am with Dr. Slaughter in her disgust for the Syrian regime for what they are doing to their own people. I agree that they have violated their responsibilities as leaders. But I hesitate to support the use of American military force to wage war in an action that is likely to result in the deaths of more civilians than the regime's current actions. Values are an American interest, but are they worth war without overwhelming support from the rest of the globe? I don't think so. Values are a great reason to flex the United States' ample diplomatic and economic capabilities as this approach is more in line with our values.


  1. Jason,

    Excellent post, and I wanted to add two small points that complement your analysis.

    First, one doesn't have to work very hard to find breaches of Slaughter's "responsibility" formulation in the United States, especially if we use the words of the Declaration of Indepedence as a definition for responsibility (as she does). I'm aware that it isn't possible for the US to be completely consistent, but when I read formulations like that, I wonder if the author knows the amount of suffering happening in the United States, right now. (And my argument would be that we have a lot more influence over what happens here than we do elsewhere.)

    Second, I think that Dr. Slaughter would agree that one of the most important values is life. I'm not generally a person who believes in universal values, but I think life is pretty important. So far, so good. But when you introduce force to a situation, you are going to end up with fewer lives. If it's universal it has to apply universally. Killing Asad and his henchmen means fewer lives, so we've violated that universal.

    I think this line of thinking falls quickly into absurdity--we'll use force to save lives overall. It's my opinion that the experience of the last 10 years points to that not being true.

    Anyway, I'll stop here so my superficial understanding of philosophy isn't further exposed.

  2. Jason - you're on a roll with one interesting, nuanced post after another. That said, I have real issues with this one. I'm not going to try to defend Dr. Slaughter's arguments, but rather to clarify a couple of points on R2P.

    First, R2P is indeed an emerging norm, but the differences are not about the definition of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, each of which is well-defined in international law (both treaty and practice). Have a look at the ICC statute for the definitions.

    The differences emerge over a) whether the crimes are occurring, b) who's committing them, and c) what constitutes the appropriate action to fulfill the 'responsibility to protect'. Since R2P was first laid out by the ICISS, it's substance has been systematically watered down at the UN to shift the emphasis away from military action. Just as with the genocide convention, states differ over the appropriate response. As such, R2P is a norm that has shifted the debate about intervention past the ahistorical argument that state sovereignty is absolute, but has certainly not ended the argument about when, where, and how the international community should respond. Today, Russia would argue it's upholding it's R2P by supporting the Annan peace plan for Syria and trying to bring Iran into the contact group.

    Second, your discussion of universal values ignores fact that while the interpretation, content, and jurisdiction of a lot of human rights law remains contentious, the importance of R2P and a couple of ICJ decisions is that they carve out certain behavior as being exceptional and beyond the pale. As bad as run of the mill human rights violations can be, mass or systematic attacks against civilians are now in a different category - one for which military intervention is normatively accepted as possibly legitimate response. Whether you agree or not, the same cannot be said of other categories of abuses. Having seen the impact of atrocities up close, I'd say it should be obvious why that is.

    It's worth mentioning that ICISS explicitly sought out to crystallize a global consensus. That consensus may have shifted in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, but it's not accurate to say that R2P (then or now) is a reflection of American values. Frankly, the U.S. was late to the game on R2P - Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and several other small powers were the early champions.

    Third, your assertion that going to war to uphold values is a 20th century phenomenon is mistaken. Military campaigns waged to protect minorities go back as far as Thirty Years War, and certainly became particularly prominent in the 19th century. And in any case, although one can find examples of both, war was more typically waged in the 20th century for narrowly conceived national interests rather than for 'values'.

  3. Your caution about the utility of military intervention to protect life is absolutely accurate: there are many cases where it doesn't meet the basic Just War criteria because the human costs of intervening will outweigh those of the atrocities.

    However, rampant humanitarian interventionism has not been a problem since the Thirty Years War (and even that example is arguable). Nor is it likely to be: your perspective is clouded by your experience with neo-cons and Iraq. Take even a slightly longer view of atrocity prevention/response, and a very different picture emerges - one of reluctance or even in some cases obstructionism. Often it clothed in the mistaken (or deliberately disingenuous) belief that diplomacy and economic sanctions can halt atrocities. On that point, the 1996 Report of the International Commission on the Balkans has it right:

    "Diplomacy not backed by power is tantamount to hollow gesturing. It is the punch of power that lends conviction to the suasion of diplomats. Where it is lacking, the well-meaning are left to the mercy of the reckless, and brute force rather than reason sustained by might determines the outcome of conflict."

    On the other hand, the international system that the U.S. leads (for it's own benefit, not out of charity, mind you) has been discredited as much by its unwillingness/inability to prevent atrocities as by allegedly illegal/illegitimate wars (see the Balkans report, among many, many others. Or go read the diplomatic cables from the U.S. missions in India back to Washington during the East Pakistan crisis in the 1970s). Legitimacy affects the costs of maintaining the international system, and refusing to use force to prevent atrocities has in the past only eroded that legitimacy.

    You say you're concerned about the impact of humanitarian intervention on global stability. That's an argument that's been made for as long as this discussion has been going on, and frankly makes no sense. Nations planning to go to war in pursuit of their narrow national interests have never needed R2P in the past, and R2P is unlikely to significantly alter calculations in those cases in the future. At most, R2P may facilitate international collective action in cases where a different normative environment would hinder it.

    Moreover, the impact of unchecked atrocities on global stability can be considerable, if sometimes indirectly. As many others have pointed out, there are costs to inaction as well as action. Both can only be estimated, and neither are attractive, but let's not pretend that doing nothing means we've entirely avoided those costs.

    And BTW - none of this is to suggest that I think we should militarily intervene in Syria at this particular juncture. I'm just taking on your assertion that we shouldn't be willing to consider it.

  4. Keith, with respect, you need to think through those arguments more carefully. You wouldn't make them vis-a-vis police using deadly force to protect the lives of victims (or even enforce property rights by shooting at bank robbers).

    It is risible to argue for moral equivalency between armed actors in general and unarmed civilians, and grotesque to suggest that an armed combatant is morally equivalent to a child he or she is deliberately targeting.

    Finally, on the utility of force to halt atrocities - the evidence suggests that a) in most cases nothing else works, and b) that decisive armed intervention usually reduces the death toll by speeding the end of the conflict. That said, decisive intervention is not possibly in every case. It clearly would have been counter-productive to try to halt Russian atrocities in Chechnya in the 1990s. On the other hand, international intervention to halt the Rwandan genocide would most certainly not have resulted in 100,000s of dead.

    For examples of recent interventions that worked (e.g. clearly halted atrocities), see the Brits in Sierra Leone, the French in NE DRC, and the French in Cote d'Ivoire.

  5. MK, thanks for you thoughtful response. I should start by saying that I do not mean this to post to be an assault on R2P itself - rather the application of U.S. normative values upon the concept.

    That said, I disagree that the definitions are established. They still contain un-quantified measures such as large scale, widespread, and systemic. Norms emerge, but thresholds still do not exist. There are cases so exceptional as to not need definitions of course, but that doesn't much help us in relatively smaller cases.

    Also, I don't think that R2P is framed by American values. I'm saying that some Americans are using R2P to promote American values through intervention. As you point out, norms are being carved out and established, but we're not there yet. And the United States selectively chooses when to promote its values through force, often but not universally to our own detriment. I'm not opposed to the acceptance of universal values, but it's hard to determine what is a violation of those values and even harder to prove them, except for those beyond the pale scenarios. Until that gets sorted out, I suggest caution and consideration.

    To your third point, my point about the 20th Century was that values have the potential to become narrow national interests in turn becoming a potential driver of conflict, much as other narrow interests drove 20th Century powers to fight each other. It's a crude connection, but valid in my opinion. And my connection to the neo-cons and Iraq is aimed at those who promote intervention but are not assessing potential second/third order effects. Not the proclivity to act, but the shallowness of analysis. My comments regarding stability run in this same vein.

    I think that I probably agree with you more than this post suggests. My disappointment in the discourse is that pro-interventionists with Syria seem to focus exclusively upon the emotional impact of the real cost of these atrocities in human lives and stop their considerations there (I don't believe for a second that you fall in that category). And I haven't said we shouldn't consider military intervention, rather the criteria for doing so have not yet been met. The doctrine states that the starting point is the principle of non-intervention and that military intervention requires meeting six criteria: right authority, just cause, right intention, last resort, proportional means, and reasonable prospects. So far criteria statuses are: no, probably, absolutely, no, probably not, also probably not. If those nos and probably nots becomes yeses, then my opinion on the matter will likely change.

  6. Jason - thanks in turn for your reply. I think you're right - we probably agree on the majority of this stuff, and we absolutely agree on the shallowness of the analysis in most of the commentary, although I think that extends to both sides of the debate.

    I don't think defeating Assad's security forces is the major challenge*: rather, it is doing so in a way the relieves rather than exacerbates the perceived security dilemma between Sunnis and Alawites and Christians. The recent NYT article on splits within the Alawite community illustrate the dynamic very well. And of course, that security dilemma has to be addressed in both the short and the long term - not an easy prospect no matter who is doing the heavy lifting.

    Conversely, those opposing intervention dismiss rather than address the reality that whether they win or lose, Sunnis in Syria and Lebanon (and presumably other neighboring states) will keenly remember who helped and who did not, and that dynamic will have consequences down the road for regional stability and counter-terrorism, both of which we care about greatly.

    One last point: a huge problem with R2P is that if you intervene too early, it may appear like a costly venture without a clear benefit, and may not seem like the last resort. On the other hand, wait too long and you're left picking up the pieces (often literally) and a society even more deeply riven with wartime trauma, making long-term reconciliation and peace that much harder. It is a dilemma common to all preventive efforts (the dog that didn't bark) but it is especially acute with regard to military intervention to halt atrocities.

    All I can say is that I hope the President is getting good advice and good information.

    * Earlier this year ODNI Clapper testified before the Senate that the Assad regime had committed 80% of his forces to suppressing the rebellion. If that's the case, then the Syrian ground forces are not as formidable as the numbers on paper would suggest. I realize that tells us next to nothing about his air defense systems.


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