Okay, so no one is actually arguing against preventing genocide. But both Matt Yglesias and Ambassador At Large argue that the Very Serious People who tend to equate preventing genocide with armed intervention are missing the boat. Matt complains that
But then whenever anyone suggests that the U.S. commit itself to following international law and not using non-defensive military force absent a UN Security Council authorization, people show up insisting that we need to maintain the right to unilateral non-defensive war in order to stop genocide. Then whenever humanitarian emergencies break out, we do nothing to stop them. But the larger cause of unilateral militarism lives to fight another day. Or something.
– snip –
Conflict resolution, conflict prevention, and peace enforcement when/if an agreement is in place is where the action is at.
With all due respect to Matt, I think this is slightly confused. Or, to be more precise, it’s something of a non sequitur. Matt is exactly right that conflict resolution, conflict prevention and peace enforcement are where the action is at. But that hardly entails that it’s somehow wrong to insist on a right to unilateral non-defensive war to prevent genocide. Matt seems to be conflating the justification of unilateral military action with the decision about whether (and how) one ought to intervene in any particular humanitarian crisis. Or, to be more technical, Matt’s objection appears to misunderstand that armed humanitarian intervention is an imperfect duty.
The case for armed humanitarian intervention is complicated, but at bottom it boils down to understanding what it is that sovereignty does and does not entail. Michael Walzer, however, offers a compelling take on the relationship between sovereignty and armed intervention. Walzer’s notion of sovereignty is robust: As long as there is a certain sort of “fit” between a government and its citizens, the state is legitimate and its government must be allowed to govern free from outside interference. But, Walzer says, a government that engages in the wholesale slaughter of large chunks of its citizenry is one that loses its sovereignty. Such “states” have effectively reverted to a Hobbesian state of nature. When sovereignty vanishes, so too does the right of non-intervention. Legitimate states are now morally permitted to step across territorial borders, stop the slaughter, and create space for the beleagured residents to establish a legitimate sovereign state.
Of course, determining exactly when a state has lost its sovereignty is a notoriously tricky matter, and it’s one that is very much prone to abuse. Putting international laws in place (and agreeing to abide by those laws) should help to cut down on potential abuse. Except, of course, when it doesn’t (see Iraq and the recent Georgia/Russia unpleasantness). Moreover, those same international laws can easily be used by self-interested parties to prevent intervention is cases where it is clearly merited (see China in Sudan or China and Russia in Kosovo). I’m as big a fan of cosmopolitanism as the next guy, but we can’t let our love for a cosmopolitan ideal blind us to the rather dismal humanitarian record of existent international organizations. When the Security Council begins looking to Samuel Beckett for behavioral clues, someone else will have to step up to the plate. That’s why those who argue for a right to “unilateral non-defensive war in order to stop genocide” are not wrong to do so.
Nor is that belief actually inconsistent with never actually sanctioning any intervention. As Walzer also says, in practice, it’s wrong to intervene (even to stop genocide) if your intervention is unlikely to make things any better. So if I am making decisions for, I dunno, Lichtenstein, I might well hold that my nation has a right to intervene militarily in order to prevent genocide but also hold that there are no actual situations in which my intervening will make things better. Obviously that’s not a particularly good parallel for the U.S., but the point remains: one can think that the U.S. has a right to intervene unilaterally while also thinking that there are few (if any) cases in which the U.S. ought to intervene.
That’s because armed humanitarian intervention is an imperfect duty. A perfect duty is one that takes the form, “One must always (or never) perform action A in circumstance C.” Imperfect duties take the form “One must sometimes and to some extent perform action A in circumstance C.” Charity is a good example of an imperfect duty; I need not hand out money to every person who asks me for it, but I should give some money to some people sometimes. When, where and how much depend upon my own particular circumstances.
Armed humanitarian intervention is like that. We probably ought to intervene in some cases. But there is rather a lot of room to disagree about (a) what constitutes the right sort of case for intervening, (b) whether this is such a case, (c) whether we are actually capable of intervening successfully, and (d) if so, whether now is the right time for us to be discharging our duty to intervene.
It’d be wrong to dismiss the claim that we have a duty to (sometimes) engage in armed humanitarian intervention on the grounds that either we don’t discharge it very often or (as Ambassador At Large argues) because it’s really hard to do. Neither is a particularly good reason for thinking that we ought simply to stop talking about AHI.
Of course, simply talking about AHI is also not a particularly good substitute for actually, like, doing things to prevent situations where AHI is needed in the first place. On that point, I’m in total agreement.