Define Intervention

In the wake of ill-fated military engagements around the globe, how should the international community approach new geopolitical crises? A SIPA professor and diplomat speaks his piece.

by Jean-Marie Guéhenno Published Spring 2014
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© Dylan Martinez / EPA / Corbis

With US and NATO operations in Afghanistan slowly coming to an unsettling end, and the gap between rhetoric and action in Syria as wide as ever, the Western public has had enough of foreign interventions. The first decade of the twenty-first century may appear in hindsight as a peak of international activism that is unlikely to be matched. And yet there has been no precipitous decline in UN peacekeeping, as there was in the second half of the 1990s after the disasters of Rwanda, Somalia, and Yugoslavia. The international community may doubt the effectiveness of interventions, but is nonintervention an option? To many it seems callous, and it may well be strategically unwise.

Responsibility to Protect

“We are prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council ... should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

These words, unanimously adopted at the 2005 United Nations World Summit, ring hollow today. The principle they describe, called the “responsibility to protect,” or “R2P,” emerged from the failures of governments to safeguard their own populations in such places as Rwanda and Bosnia, and spelled out the responsibility of the international community to step in when sovereign governments do not. Although the UN statement is qualified by a reference to the Security Council, whose authorization conditions any use of force, the declaration’s strong language gave hope that the council would feel obliged to act when the situation warranted. It has not acted. The divisions among the council’s permanent members run deep, especially as an increasingly assertive Russia annexes Crimea with one hand and bolsters the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria with the other.

But the political divisions of the international community are not the only, and maybe not even the foremost, impediment to international action. General skepticism about intervention has been growing since the end of the George W. Bush administration. The time is gone when the international community, pushed by liberal interventionists, would be ready to endorse a responsibility to protect.

These qualms have been borne out not only by the combined experience of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, but by a decade and a half of UN peacekeeping, which has reached unprecedented levels — there are more than one hundred thousand uniformed and civilian personnel stationed around the world. Much of the doubt stems from a simple question: do we know what we are doing? A decade ago, the Bush administration was intent on transforming the Middle East into a zone of peace and liberal democracy. This strategy now looks naive. Removing dictators, as in Iraq or Libya, is clearly not enough to ensure that a peaceful and harmonious society will emerge afterward; the most difficult phase, of course, is the one that follows an overthrow. Some countries have failed to recognize the vast regional implications of interventions: Iraq is now closer politically to Iran than to the United States, and the whole Sahel region of Africa, stretching from east to west across the northern part of the continent, has been destabilized by the flow of weapons from Libya.

Blessed Are the Peacekeepers?

The UN’s record is better than that of the US, but only by a little. Some countries in which peacekeeping forces were deployed in the last twenty-five years have stabilized over time. Namibia, Mozambique, Cambodia, and El Salvador are undoubtedly in better shape than they were before the UN interventions. Nepal has made a transition from a very nasty conflict, thanks in part to the UN’s mission there between 2007 and 2011, though the country remains fragile. Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Timor-Leste have made genuine, although not irreversible, progress. Even the Balkans, with the help of NATO and the European Union, have entered a more peaceful phase of their history.

Nothing is worse than creating high expectations, only to pull away when our goals prove too hard to reach. Better to commit less but stay on course.

But what about the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which after a decade and a half of UN engagement remains precarious, with extremely weak state structures? What about South Sudan whose creation was supported by the United Nations but is now on the brink of civil war? The state-building enterprise, which has led to increasingly ambitious and comprehensive mandates for the United Nations, has proved more complicated and costly than many had anticipated.

Acting Alone

If intervention seems desperately needed and consensus cannot be found in the Security Council, should an outside state take unilateral action? The charter of the United Nations is clear: states may use force in only two cases. First, if a state is attacked, it can respond with force, though it needs to inform the Security Council. Second, the Security Council itself can make the decision to use force — barring a veto from one of the five permanent members. Force may not be used in any other situation.

Of course, many countries have gotten around this. They can ignore the UN, or they can enlist puppet states for help. That’s what’s worrying about Ukraine. So long as Russia continues to say Viktor Yanukovych is the legitimate leader of Ukraine, it has a way to use force without demonstrating the need for self-defense. The prescriptions of the UN Charter have been flouted in the past, and they will be in the future.

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