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Should the U.S. Support the UN's Responsibility to Protect Doctrine?

Discussants: Stewart M. Patrick, James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program, and Steven Groves, Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow, Heritage Foundation
Updated: May 27, 2008


The initial refusal of the military regime in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) to accept large-scale international aid in response to a devastating cyclone has spurred new interest in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. That doctrine was incorporated into an outcome document at the 2005 UN summit, where the United States joined 150 other states in calling for the consideration of collective UN Security Council action should national authorities fail “to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” There is a debate within policy circles whether the situation in Myanmar qualifies. The Bush administration has faced calls from some human rights groups to invoke the doctrine and intervene in Sudan’s Darfur region, where the administration says genocide has occurred.

Stewart M. Patrick, CFR senior fellow and director of its program on international institutions and governance, debates Steven Groves, the Bernard and Barbara Lomas fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, about whether the United States should support R2P.

StewartMPatrickMost Recent

May 23, 2008

Stewart Patrick

Steven, I argue that the U.S. has a deep moral and material interest in helping prevent and stop genocide and crimes against humanity. You respond that we cannot act as the world’s policeman, in an endless and fruitless quest to eliminate man’s inhumanity to man. Can these divergent worldviews be reconciled?

Only if we seek a practical middle ground between launching a naïve global crusade and ignoring the suffering of strangers from the comfort of our gated community.  Clearly, we cannot intervene everywhere.  But this is no excuse for never intervening anywhere. Our actions should be guided by a few sensible principles:

  1. Set the bar high. Military intervention for humanitarian protection purposes should be limited to the most egregious cases, used as a last resort and consistent with other U.S. interests and the R2P’s "precautionary principles."
  2. Open the toolbox. Military force is not the only way to change incentives of bad actors. We need to hone a wider array of policy instruments, from diplomatic mediation to arms embargoes, financial sanctions, suspension of foreign aid, indictment of war criminals, and preventive military deployments (etc.).
  3. Don’t go it alone. When armed force is required, prudence dictates acting with partners to maximize perceived legitimacy and share military burdens. In order of preference, we should enlist the imprimatur of the UN Security Council, regional organizations, and ad hoc coalitions—while building the capacities of responsible regional actors to take the lead in implementing R2P in their own neighborhoods.
  4. Be prepared to own the aftermath. "Impartial" armed intervention is a delusion. Implementing R2P involves not only delivering life-saving aid but taking sides. It also implies a "responsibility to rebuild" once shooting stops.
  5. Be honest. Domestic support for military action can be sustained only if presidents speak frankly from the outset about costs and risks, explain the mission clearly, and prepare the American people for sacrifice. From Somalia to Iraq, such candor has been conspicuously absent in Washington.

Let’s take a real world example. In Darfur, the United States has found Sudan culpable of “genocide,” expanded sanctions against Khartoum, and supported multilateral peace operations. And yet killing continues, albeit at lower levels. What more can be done? Priority U.S. goals should include working with UN member states to: impose a “no-fly” zone over Darfur; bring UNAMID up to full strength and bolstering its combat, command, communications, and logistical capabilities; appoint a single international mediator empowered by the Security Council; and link peace and reconstruction in Darfur to Sudan’s Comprehensive Peace Agreement. 

None of these steps would infringe on U.S. sovereignty or involve the insertion of U.S. GIs into Sudan. Each would raise prospects for the protection of innocent civilians.

StevenGrovesMay 22, 2008

Steven Groves

The fact that the president signs and two-thirds of the Senate ratifies a treaty does not, to me, necessarily mean that the treaty is “consistent with the Constitution and based on U.S. interests.” To assume otherwise is to believe in the infallibility of the president and 66 senators. There exist ratified treaties that, upon reflection, are not in America’s best interests. Indeed there are several treaties—some boasting worldwide approval—currently pending before the president and/or the Senate that do not serve our best interests: the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, for example.

A “UN Convention on the Responsibility to Protect,” like the innocuously named treaties noted above, would cede a crucial part of America’s sovereignty to the international community. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe that an Obama, Clinton, or McCain administration would oppose such a treaty (as your first post duly noted).

Risking American lives only in situations where America’s national security is at stake is neither absolutist nor appealing; it is prudent. What is appealing is the misguided hope that America can serve as the “world’s policeman” at every turn to stop competing populations from ripping each other apart, as was the case in Rwanda when the Hutus butchered hundreds of thousands of Tutsis in 1994. What would the average American have said if U.S. forces had intervened in Rwanda and suffered casualties? Probably the same thing they said only a year earlier when they saw the bodies of American soldiers being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu: “What are we doing there?!?” 

Or take the tragic situation in Darfur, where civil war has raged between Arabs and non-Arabs for years. Wouldn’t a U.S. intervention compel the anti-war American Left to denounce the administration? “Sudan never attacked us! Sudan had nothing to do with 9/11! War is not the answer!” Etc. Besides, congressional Democrats are so averse to “getting into the middle of a civil war” that an intervention into Sudan is at present unthinkable.

For those reasons I must disagree with you that we need “new international rules” to define proper and improper military interventions.  Such rules generally constrain American prerogatives and leave us open to unfair criticism (i.e. then-UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s denunciation of theIraqwar as “illegal” under the UN Charter). Rather, the U.S. should continue to assert that it needs no authorization from the United Nations to use its military as it sees fit to protect the American people.

StewartMPatrickMay 21, 2008

Stewart M. Patrick

Steven, your great riposte highlights a couple of fundamental points that divide us. One is its slippery slope argument that “today’s discretionary ‘norms’ often become tomorrow’s compulsory multilateral treaty obligations.” While the R2P could eventually become codified as treaty law, it would bind the United States only if the President and two-thirds of the Senate supported its ratification as the law of the land. So you can rest assured that any decision to use military force will remain consistent with the U.S. Constitution and “based on U.S. interests.”

But what are those interests? Or as you ask, “under what circumstances should American lives be put at risk?” Your absolutist position—put soldiers in harm’s way only where there is an immediate threat to U.S. security—is superficially appealing but morally untenable. It suggests the United States was correct to do nothing to halt genocidal slaughter in Rwanda and misguided to act through NATO to halt ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. 

Moreover, your bright line between a foreign policy guided by “national security interests” and one based on “national values” often blurs in practice. Although so-called realists are fond of this hoary distinction, major U.S. decisions regarding the use of force (or anything else) invariably include an admixture of both considerations. 

This is certainly true for R2P, part of a larger debate over contingent sovereignty in the post-Cold War World. What we’ve learned since 9/11 is that governments that fail to meet their fundamental obligations can pose threats not only to their citizens but also to international peace and security. The “spillover” effects of poorly governed (and “ungoverned”) countries range from transnational terrorism (as with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan) to regional instability (as in central Africa after the Rwandan genocide). So the stakes are typically material as well as normative.

What we need are new international rules governing when military intervention is legitimate. The R2P doctrine envisions force only as a last resort, when “diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means” have been exhausted. Any such decision should be undertaken only after a sober consideration of the perceived stakes, expected costs and benefits, probability of success, and likely aftermath (as I outlined as a State Department official). Given the realities of power and differing strategic contexts, the doctrine’s application will inevitably be selective.

But military force must remain on the table when the international community faces criminal regimes with callous disregard for human life. In 1878 Bismarck dismissed the fate of the Balkans as not worth the bones of a single “Pomeranian grenadier.” In 1994 the international community made a similar calculus in Rwanda, helping to consign 800,000 human beings to an early death.

StevenGrovesMay 20, 2008

Steven Groves

Stewart, in my opening post I reconciled myself only to the fact that the United States (not me, personally) has agreed in principle to support the R2P doctrine. It did so—for good or for ill—by assenting to the language in the 2005 Outcome Document. That being said, I am heartened to know that you agree with me that the R2P doctrine imposes no legal obligation upon the United States.

No, I have not abandoned the view expressed in my paper that the U.S. should be very wary of the further legitimization of R2P since today’s discretionary “norms” often become tomorrow’s compulsory multilateral treaty obligations. The wider acceptance that R2P finds within the “international community” the more likely that we will one day be confronted with a “UN Convention on the Responsibility to Protect.”

Nor have I abandoned the principle that the decision to use military force—a decision integral to our national sovereignty—must be based on U.S. interests as understood by the American people, the president, and the Congress. The interests of the international community, based upon its own priorities, must not be our guide on such crucial matters.

While I agree with you that the latest ASEAN initiative is a welcome development, I am less certain about the feasibility of using the U.S. military to “force” humanitarian aid into Burma, which brings us to the central issue of our debate: Under what circumstances should American men and women be placed in harm’s way? One way of thinking instructs that only when there is a national security interest at stake (Afghanistan, Iraq) should America risk its blood and treasure. Your line of reasoning holds that American lives may be put at risk in cases where “national values” are at stake.

Despite the fact that your position may have bipartisan support among this year’s crop of presidential candidates, the theory itself has not stood up well in actual practice. Only “national values” were certainly at stake, for example, when the U.S. agreed to send military forces into Somalia [in 1992] to oversee the delivery of humanitarian aid to the starving Somali people. The deaths of 19 American soldiers, however, resulted in a swift withdrawal of U.S. forces, despite our national values.

Moreover, the forcible delivery of humanitarian aid into Burma will resemble in no way the situation in Somalia, where U.S. forces faced the equivalent of armed street gangs possessing no heavy weapons.  Burma’s military, on the other hand, is over 500,000 strong and has been armed well by China. They are not likely to sit idly by as U.S. Marines (and French commandos, you say?) make beach landings and helicopter airdrops.

StewartMPatrickMay 19, 2008

Stewart M. Patrick

Steven, your opening post suggests you’ve reconciled yourself to the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) doctrine, provided it’s conceived as a moral rather than legal obligation and applicable to real-world situations.  That’s basically my position. But it’s a far cry from your recent Heritage paper blasting R2P as illegitimate norm-creation by unaccountable civil society actors that threatens to cripple U.S. freedom of action and embroil America in unnecessary conflicts. Have you abandoned that view?

Many conservatives seem to understand that some crimes are so monstrous they shouldn’t be tolerated, and that R2P leaves the U.S. unconstrained. That’s why the Bush administration in September 2005 joined other UN members in embracing this new norm of contingent sovereignty: When states commit or fail to prevent atrocities that shock the conscience of mankind, the obligation to protect human life transfers to the international community.

This isn’t just [Democratic Illinois Senator] Barack Obama’s and [Democratic New York Senator] Hillary Clinton’s view. It’s [Republican] John McCain’s. In 2004 the Arizona senator told a Council audience that “murder in Kosovo and genocide in Rwanda demanded intervention.” While “America’s vital national interests” were not at stake in either place, “Our national values were.” If elected, McCain promises to use “all elements of American power to stop the outrageous acts of human destruction” in Darfur. Call it “heroic conservatism” or “Wilsonian internationalism,” but confronting evil enjoys bipartisan support.

Do you still believe that R2P “would effectively cede U.S. national sovereignty and decision-making power over key components of national security and foreign policy and subject them to the whims of the international community”?

This seems overwrought. As a permanent Security Council member, the U.S. is not legally obligated to respond anywhere and can veto any enforcement action. That’s why even [then U.S. ambassador to the UN] John Bolton (presumably a high bar) believed R2P had sufficient safeguards.

To be sure, its real-world application implies difficult judgment calls about the proper threshold. Let’s take Burma, which originated in a natural disaster but quickly became a man-made one. By choosing rigid control over prompt aid delivery, the junta knowingly condemned tens—perhaps hundreds—of thousands, to death. Both the French and British governments suggest this is a “crime against humanity,” a view I endorse. Raising the prospect of Security Council action is the right thing to do, and it has usefully pressured the junta to open modestly to aid delivery.  But if the latest ASEAN initiative fails, the U.S., France, and UK should assemble a like-minded “coalition of the willing,” prepared as a last resort to intervene without Burma’s consent to deliver life-saving aid.

StevenGrovesMay 19, 2008

Steven Groves

For better or worse, the short answer to the question “Should the U.S. Support the UN Responsibility to Protect Doctrine?” is that the U.S. has already pledged to support the broad outlines of that doctrine. In 2005 the U.S.—along with the rest of the international community—agreed to the final text of the World Summit Outcome Document, in which paragraphs 138-140 contemplate collective action against any nation that fails to protect its population from “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Since 2005 the U.S., as a member of the U.N. Security Council, has consented at least once to the use of “responsibility to protect” language in a Security Council resolution. So it is clear that the U.S. has agreed in principle to “support” the responsibility to protect (R2P) doctrine, at least as it is delineated in the Outcome Document.

What is also clear, however, is that the U.S. is not legally required to intervene in Burma, Sudan, or anywhere else for that matter. The Outcome Document is not a treaty and carries with it no binding obligation upon the international community to act. Moreover, during the negotiation of the Outcome Document U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton announced that the U.S. commitment made therein was “not of a legal character” and that no nation may be said to have an obligation to intervene in another nation under any circumstances.

Putting aside the question of the nature of the obligation, the true difficulty lies in the application of the R2P doctrine to real world scenarios. Take the current crisis in Burma, for example. First, does R2P apply under these circumstances? While the behavior of Burma’s military junta is deplorable and merits worldwide condemnation, the actions (or lack of action, more accurately) of the junta do not amount to genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or crimes against humanity, at least under the generally accepted definitions of those atrocities. Then again, at what point does the junta’s intransigence create a death toll among the innocent Burmese population so high that it amounts to a “crime against humanity”? Who is to judge when that macabre calculus is reached?

The answers to those questions remain elusive. The U.S. should therefore not worry about supporting R2P, but should rather focus its efforts on persuading China to pressure the junta to allow international aid to flow freely into Burma.

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