The present situation with Syria is just another in a long list of regional wars and civil wars in which the US has taken an interest. Should we mind our own business?
No. The instinct to intervene between aggressors and victims is in the DNA of human society. Such empathy is fundamental to morality, justice, and civilization. We turn our backs on injustice anywhere at our own peril.
However no individual nation has the right to police the world, and when anyone does assume that kind of role even for the best of reasons the ends still don’t justify the means. The rule of law is fundamental to a civilized response to injustice. The US has a poor record on abiding by the rule of law in international relations. Instead of spreading peace and democracy, US intervention has often spread violence and corruption. At the same time that some are motivated to intervene out of a sense of justice and compassion, others are motivated by opportunities for personal, political, or corporate gain. And war is definitely a huge cash cow for the media so they’re all up in bed with the corporate war profiteers.
There is an even more basic set of laws than those established by governments: things like the law of cause and effect, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, for example. Laws of complex adaptive systems and the principle of uncertainty for example. US foreign policy has a history of creating horrible blow-back and runaway escalations of violence which (coincidentally?) serve to reinforce the power and profits of the military-industrial-financial complex.
My friend Natural Lefty puts it all in a nutshell: “the issue is how to support the virtuous, secular and democratic groundswell within places such as Syria, without engaging in culturally arrogant social engineering or supporting people with the wrong priorities.”
What can we learn from the historical record and empirical evidence concerning international interventions?
Many of the negative consequences of interventions can be anticipated and thus can hardly be called unintentional. We must maximize the peace utility of our interventions by minimizing conflicts of interest and rejecting means that undermine our ends.
I’m neither a hawk, an isolationist, nor a pacifist. I would prefer a greater level of international law and international law enforcement in the service of peace and justice. Hawks, isolationists, and pacifists are all about the same in terms of their constructive utility, i.e., very little.
The rule of law, human rights, due process, proportionality, transparency, exhausting less violent means before escalating to more violent ones, etc. are all well established principles. I won’t go over that ground here. The US abides by none of those principles anyway. I only want to make a point about utility and dis-utility.
There might be more peace utility in having “Made in USA” labels on lots of items delivered to refugee camps than in similar labels found on tear gas canisters and bomb fragments. In the long run there might be more peace utility in dollars invested in the former than in the latter, too, regardless of the labels. Governments that consider military action and citizens who consider enlisting in the military to defend people in other countries should also consider the relative utility of development over destruction. In recent decades the neoliberal domination and profiteering of big aid and development programs has given them a very bad smell, but there are many NGOs that still do legitimate international aid and human-scale development work in conflict countries.
In any case, no one should ever be allowed to deliver weapons of any kind to any party in a zone of active violent conflict. This principle should supersede all political and military alliances, contracts, etc.
The only exception to this is that duly constituted international authorities such the United Nations should be permitted to send armed forces into such locations for the purpose of protecting all parties from each other–i.e. real peace-keeping. Such forces would maintain direct and exclusive control of their own weaponry at all times.
I realize that the logistics for such intervention would be massive and the rules of engagement would be complex. Such forces and their international hosts would require far more investment than we have ever devoted to such a purpose (though less than we’ve spent on other kinds of intervention). But failing to do what is right and effective is no excuse for doing anything that is wrong and ineffective.
A straw-man argument against this is that the perfect is the enemy of the good. We don’t have adequately prepared and managed international peace-keeping forces so we must do the next best thing, whatever that may be, which usually turns out to be throwing gasoline (or weaponry) on the fire. Unintended consequences be damned. And that is the argument that generally prevails because most humans have plenty of empathy, but we are too stupid for peace and democracy. If we were smarter, we would be waging world peace through sustainable development and economic justice on a scale that really worked.
Responsibility To Protect (Wikipedia)
The responsibility to protect (R2P or RtoP) is a United Nations initiative established in 2005. It consists of an emerging norm, or set of principles, based on the idea that sovereignty is not a right, but a responsibility. R2P focuses on preventing and halting four crimes: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, which it places under the generic umbrella term of Mass Atrocity Crimes. The Responsibility to Protect has three “pillars”.
- A state has a responsibility to protect its population from mass atrocities;
- The international community has a responsibility to assist the state to fulfill its primary responsibility;
- If the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities and peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene through coercive measures such as economic sanctions. Military intervention is considered the last resort.
In the international community R2P is a norm, not a law, however it is grounded in international law. R2P provides a framework for using tools that already exist, i.e. mediation, early warning mechanisms, economic sanctioning, and chapter VII powers, to prevent mass atrocities. Civil society organizations, States, regional organizations, and international institutions all have a role to play in the R2P process. The authority to employ the last resort and intervene militarily rests solely with United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly.
This doctrine needs to evolve from simply being a voluntary “norm” into a binding covenant among all UN members. The biggest obstacles will be autocratic rogue states like the US.
I think all these “free trade” agreements the US gets up to are largely a tactic to head off the development of good magna-carta-style international law and preempt it with corrupt-cronyism-style (a la East India Company) international law. Nature (and power) abhors a vacuum. If the UN doesn’t get off its ass it will soon find itself in the dustbin of history. The UN or some upgrade of it has to demonstrate something functional with some teeth before citizens will push politicians in that direction. It will probably require a bunch of countries to impose economic and legal sanctions on the US and perhaps a few other too-big-to-prosecute international warmongers before we will sign on.
The Pillars of Peace is the latest ground breaking research from the Institute for Economics and Peace. The Pillars of Peace Report provides a new conceptual framework for understanding and describing the factors that are associated with peaceful societies. The research is based on an analysis of over 4,000 data sets, surveys and indices; it is the first empirical framework that aims to measure positive peace.
- Peaceful Revolution: How We can Create the Future Needed for Humanity’s Survival by Paul K. Chappell (planetizen1network.wordpress.com)
- America: A Modern-Day Sparta (philosophers-stone.co.uk)