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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UN peacekeeper in Haiti, 2009. / © Tommy Trenchard / Demotix / CorbisShould the UN establish a doctrine that to prevent mass atrocities an outside state has the right to use unilateral force? This would unravel the legal order that was built in 1945, and that is a dangerous game; no doubt the doctrine would quickly be abused. We should stick to the UN’s original principles, keeping in mind that if ever another Hitler arises and no agreement can be found in the Security Council, someone will act nevertheless.

But we need to be careful. Saddam Hussein, awful as he was, was no Hitler. Bashar al-Assad isn’t, either. In Syria today, there are victims on both sides, although there are obviously more victims of the regime than there are of the opposition groups.

What if the UN Charter had been respected and there had been no Iraq War? The war ended an abominable regime, but look at the condition of Iraq today. What if the UN hadn’t intervened in Libya in 2011? Muammar al-Gaddafi’s regime was already a spent force, and the intervention unleashed a chain of violence. In time, biology would have taken care of both Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi.

When to Go In

Syria’s civil war has produced 2.5 million refugees and at least one hundred thousand deaths. How could this humanitarian disaster have been prevented?

Much more coordinated political pressure should have been brought to bear after the conflict began but before the demonstrators began calling for Bashar al-Assad’s departure. More should have been done to convince Assad to open up, as other dictators have done. But this would have required concerted political pressure from the international community, and frustratingly, when there’s no real violence, there is very little appetite for engaging at that early stage, when things can be fixed by lighter means.

Today, because so much blood has been spilled and there is deep hatred and fear on both sides, a negotiated solution is much harder to find. Assad is in a stronger position now than he was in 2012. Unless overwhelming force is used, as it was in Iraq, he won’t be removed. And if overwhelming force were used — which it won’t be, because there’s no support for it — it would be a leap into the unknown.

The least bad outcome at this stage is a negotiated settlement for a decentralized Syria. Assad, though stronger than the opposition, cannot regain control over the whole country, and the opposition cannot unseat him. Even if more weapons were given to the opposition, it would just prolong the fighting and raise the stakes. No sane person, and certainly not the Russians or the Iranians, wants a complete collapse of the regime.

If the international community commits to charting a course, it has to be Syrian-informed, but not Syrian-negotiated. Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the envoy of the UN secretary-general, or his successor needs to have the full support of the Security Council to consult quietly with the parties and shape a path to de-escalation and peace. That requires agreement among Russia, the US, and the other Western powers. This approach would allow the regime and the opposition to negotiate with the Security Council, which is easier than negotiating with each other. But this assumes an improvement in relations between the US and Russia, which is not as likely as it would have been a year ago.

A Defining Moment

Over the last two decades, the US and the UN have tested different types of engagement — from the purely diplomatic, as in Syria, where we have tried to give a nudge to the situation and have so far failed, to full military involvement. In between, there has been a range of integrated UN missions, which include both a military component and a development and humanitarian component. The lighter the footprint, the less leverage you have, but the heavier the footprint, the greater the commitment and risk.

We should tailor our ambitions to the long-term commitment we know we are prepared to make. Difficult situations require persistent and lasting efforts, yet too often we over-promise and under-deliver. 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.

We not only have limited political will, we also have limited knowledge, and we should be honest about this. We should not aim to re-engineer societies that we do not fully understand; there is a moral hazard in attempting to fundamentally alter the future of a society we do not know, while not having to suffer the consequences if we get it wrong. It’s like creating an earthquake that reshuffles and disorganizes everything.

The implication of this new pragmatism, based on a realistic assessment of our political will as well as our real capacities, would be a more focused and more limited agenda of international activism. The blunt instrument of force should not be excluded, but it should always be a last resort, because the chain reaction that it triggers will often surprise us. Limited goals, focused on ending deadly conflict and enabling distressed people to build peace on their own terms, have a better chance of gaining international legitimacy, building domestic support, and ultimately making a lasting difference for the people we want to help, and for the world we want to stabilize. If we do not want to fail, we may have to redefine what we call success.

Jean-Marie Guéhenno is the director of Columbia’s Center for International Conflict Resolution. He is a former French diplomat and was the United Nations undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations from 2000 to 2008.

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