Round One - April 6, 2000
Does humanitarian intervention have a future?
Yes, under certain circumstances: if the atrocity is overwhelming in scope, is seemingly preventable without causing an intervening army to be embroiled in a messy, civil conflict (especially under crowded, urban conditions), and is tied to some defensible motive of strategy or national interest. I admit, these are onerous conditions, but I don't think there would be public support otherwise. Somalia proved that moral reasons by themselves are enough to get troops dispatched to a place, but the moment they start taking casualties, some kind of self-interested motive must be succinctly conveyed to the public or else support will evaporate. Haiti did not test that truth. Bosnia and Kosovo hopefully won't.
In Nigeria at the moment, there is chronic ethnic violence tied to democratization that has unleashed not only personal freedoms but also destructive group freedoms. Were that violence to spin out of control, how would the U.S. intervene to stop grave human-rights abuses in a highly complex and urbanized society of more than 100 million people? I don't know. The same holds true in Indonesia, where democratization in June, 1999, led to killings in East Timor in September, 1999. The very democratizations we champion may create more human-rights catastrophes that, because of their very complexity, will be hard to stop, unless we plan to occupy many places.
However, as should be obvious, my definition of what constitutes acceptable conditions for intervention is far too narrow, given the kinds of emergencies we are likely to face. So what is the answer? I believe that the only solution is for the U.S. to take the lead in organizing a true global constabulary force that would be an outgrowth of NATO rather than the United Nations, and would be credible because the member countries would for cultural and historical reasons implicitly trust each other sufficiently to share sensitive intelligence data. A global constabulary force composed of the Western powers and, perhaps, Japan, South Korea, and so on -- pick your own countries -- would, of course, not solve the problem of all humanitarian catastrophes: since interventions do not end the moment atrocities stop, it would still constitute a big and risky step to send in troops. Nevertheless, the existence of such a force would certainly widen the scope for interventions in places where an overarching national interest could not be proved -- like Rwanda. (I think a case could have been made that there was an overarching and naked national interest for early intervention in Bosnia, had the Bush and Clinton Administrations had the intellectual discipline to make it.)
A global constabulary force for humanitarian interventions would serve America's self-interest for the following reason that I believe has gone unnoticed. The problem with proving "national interest" or "self-interest" is that by the time you have proved it, it is often too late to act without suffering severe loss of life. This is a variation of the old argument -- true, as it happens -- that you must act with 20 percent of the evidence because by the time there is, say, 40 percent, then it is already too late to do anything. Therefore, if we only intervened after a national interest was more-or-less proven, then we would almost never intervene -- and then, here or there, a great threat would arise because of our general unwillingness ever to display our power, forcing us at great cost to finally prove how strong we really are. The Japanese conquered China's Shantung Peninsula in 1919, but we did nothing because a national interest could not be proven. We still did nothing in 1932, when they invaded Manchuria, again because the national-interest argument was still tenuous. But had we had the leeway to intervene in those "humanitarian" emergencies, perhaps we would not have had to fight World War Two in the Pacific. Power is not power unless it is periodically and lethally used as a demonstration not just of the power itself, but of the will to use it.
Therefore, a global constabulary force that would act for humanitarian reasons in places where a self-interest for the U.S. could not be proven would, in fact, contribute to America's self-interest by making less likely the growth of a larger and rising adversary. It would also allow us to project our power more cheaply through an organization consisting of allies whom we implicitly trust.
What are lessons from the record of the Clinton Administration?
We may be entering a new world of geo-economics amid globalization, but foreign policies are ultimately judged by how leaders handle old-fashioned crises. Clinton in his first-term dealings with the Balkans and Iraq showed he simply did not relish the projection of power -- a mistake. Clinton was not a realist: he needed to idealize a region and its history in order to take action. He had to believe that the Balkans had a history of good ethnic relations, that Haiti had a democratic tradition, etc., before he could act. But a President must act with no illusions about the character of the local people he is trying to help. It is only in the grimmest human landscapes, after all, that intervention is required in the first place. A President must act out of necessity (strategic and moral), not out of sympathy. Foreign policy is not a branch of Holocaust studies. Nevertheless, we can learn from the history of World War Two -- specifically, from the unimpeded rise of Nazi Germany and fascist Japan -- to forge new institutions that can deal with similar threats. For what is characterized as "humanitarian" this year may be "strategic" the next.
New! Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- April 14, 2000
Join the debate in a special conference of Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.
All material copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.