Legitimacy and Sustainability


Becks at Unfogged reads Heads in the Sand and asks questions:

So I've been reading Heads In The Sand by one Matthew Yglesias (in stores now!) and a lot of the book is about the liberal case for intervention in places like Bosnia, which got me thinking: why hasn't the case been made for the UN invading Myanmar? If there's one place where I think people would be greeting us with cheers and flowers in the street as liberators, that would be it. It might not be genocide, per se, but the evil going on there rises to that level.

Realistically, you're not going to see a forceful U.N. intervention in Burma because no country capable of mounting such an operation (basically the U.S. and maybe Britain and France) would want to mount one, while Russia and China (and probably even post-colonial democracies like India) would be opposed to anyone mounting one, and democratic countries would be secretly glad that Russia and China would block a move like this because they could blame inaction on Russia and China (or, like Fred Hiatt, toss blame vaguely in the direction of "the U.N.") for a domestic audience even though they wouldn't want to step in themselves.

That said, if you could sort of bracket the logistics/will/capabilities issues, with any proposed humanitarian military intervention I've come to think that we need to think seriously about two issues legitimacy and sustainability. We really might be greeted by the Burmese as liberators. But then again, many Iraqis actually did greet us as liberators. The trouble is what happens the day after you're greeted as a liberator. An occupying foreign power is naturally going to come to be viewed with suspicion by the occupied. This is in many ways an intrinsic problem, but it can be ameliorated a lot by legitimacy -- especially the kind of legitimacy you get from the U.N. where precisely because the UNSC decision-making process is cumbersome you can be ensured that a UNSC authorization reflects a broad international consensus about the need to do something or other rather than the narrow national interest of the lead country.

The other thing is sustainability. The international system needs to have some kind of recognized rules of the road. "The United States topples foreign regimes when we decide their government is bad" isn't a reasonable proposal for us to ask people in Beijing, Moscow, New Delhi, Teheran, Brasilia, or anywhere else to live by. By "any large country topples any foreign regime when it decides their government is bad" is a terrible rule that would lead to a lot of destructive conflict of various sorts. At the end of the day, great power conflict -- even if it "only" takes the form of cold war-style standoffs -- will do immense humanitarian damage to the world and avoiding it should be a very high priority. Does that mean we should do nothing? No, it doesn't, it means American officials (and, indeed, civil society figures) should keep pushing the international community to move to a world where something like the Responsibility to Protect has some force in the real world. But it has to be done in a reasonable consensual way that tries to stitch together America and its traditional allies with new emerging powers in various regions. Otherwise, even if some good is done in a particular case, you're going to be on an unsustainable path of conflict.

[NB: if you have any questions or devastating rebuttals to HITS please email me and I'll respond on the blog]

Photo by Flickr user racoles used under a Creative Commons license

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Matthew Yglesias is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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