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The End of Intervention?

June 20, 2008


In a recent post, I focused on a column by Roger Cohen [Turning the World Upside Down]. In that post, I quoted Cohen on the subject of international security. He wrote about the future security landscape: “Less obvious is how the United States, which underwrites global security at vast expense, begins to share this burden, so that the new multi-polarity of wealth is reflected in a multipolarity of security commitments.” I noted that a “tour d’horizon of countries into which wealth is flowing, however, doesn’t exactly inspire one with confidence that they are willing or prepared to assume the responsibilities of keeping the global order moving forward. As the torch of influence passes to a new group, the old elite must help tutor the new elite about their global obligations.”  Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright argues in an op-ed piece that the failure of the international community to forcibly intervene to save lives in Myanmar following the deadly cyclone that slammed into its shores sounds a death knell for intervention [“The End of Intervention,” New York Times, 11 June 2008].

“The Burmese government’s criminally neglectful response to last month’s cyclone, and the world’s response to that response, illustrate three grim realities today: totalitarian governments are alive and well; their neighbors are reluctant to pressure them to change; and the notion of national sovereignty as sacred is gaining ground, helped in no small part by the disastrous results of the American invasion of Iraq. Indeed, many of the world’s necessary interventions in the decade before the invasion — in places like Haiti and the Balkans — would seem impossible in today’s climate.”

In “today’s climate,” I would probably agree with Albright. The Americans are bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and simply are incapable of taking on a new intervention and, as I noted above, the rest of the world is simply ill-prepared to act without the U.S. Nevertheless, I’m not so sure that I agree that we should write the eulogy for all future interventions just quite yet. The world is in a time of transition and, until the new order is fully established and newly influential countries become comfortable with the roles they must assume, it remains too early to make declarative statements about the future. Albright continues making her case:

“The first and most obvious reality is the survival of totalitarian government in an age of global communications and democratic progress. Myanmar’s military junta employs the same set of tools used by the likes of Stalin to crush dissent and monitor the lives of citizens. The needs of the victims of Cyclone Nargis mean nothing to a regime focused solely on preserving its own authority. Second is the unwillingness of Myanmar’s neighbors to use their collective leverage on behalf of change. A decade ago, when Myanmar was allowed to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, I was assured by leaders in the region that they would push the junta to open its economy and move in the direction of democracy. With a few honorable exceptions, this hasn’t happened. A third reality is that the concept of national sovereignty as an inviolable and overriding principle of global law is once again gaining ground. Many diplomats and foreign policy experts had hoped that the fall of the Berlin Wall would lead to the creation of an integrated world system free from spheres of influence, in which the wounds created by colonial and cold war empires would heal. In such a world, the international community would recognize a responsibility to override sovereignty in emergency situations — to prevent ethnic cleansing or genocide, arrest war criminals, restore democracy or provide disaster relief when national governments were either unable or unwilling to do so.”

Undoubtedly the optimism that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc has faded. The pin that burst that bubble occurred on 11 September 2001. The spirit of cooperation ended as people were asked to take sides in situations where doing so would have created difficult internal problems for some countries. Intervention, however, should be a tool of last resort. Albright touched on the subject of leverage and lamented that not all countries had used the leverage they have to help populations in distress. New York Times’ op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman wrote a piece that emphasized the importance of using leverage when you have it [“It’s All About Leverage,” 1 June 2008]. Friedman writes:

“The Bush team negotiated with Libya to give up its nuclear program, even after Libya had accepted responsibility for blowing up Americans on Pan Am Flight 103. Those negotiations succeeded … because, at the time, shortly after the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Bush had leverage. Iraq had yet to fall apart.”

Friedman wrote his column in response to the uproar created by Barack Obama’s declaration that he would talk to America’s foes as well as his subsequent “clarifications” on that subject. Friedman continues:

“Mr. Obama would do himself a big favor by shifting his focus from the list of enemy leaders he would talk with to the list of things he would do as president to generate more leverage for America, so no matter who we have to talk with the advantage will be on our side of the table. That’s what matters. … As I have argued before: When you have leverage, talk. When you don’t have leverage, get some. Then talk.”

In the book Leveraging for Success in United Nations Peace Operations, Jean Krasno, Donald Daniel, and Bradd Hayes conclude:

“Instruments of leverage appear to range along a continuum, albeit overlapping at times, from hard leverage like the use of or threat to use military force at one of the spectrum, to soft leverage, exemplified by intangible qualities such as trust at the other.”

They go on to list some of the instruments of leverage, which include: military force, economic and financial tools, nonfinancial constraints or sanctions, the power of information, legal leverage, the internalization of international norms, the use of local groups and international NGOs, moral authority, impartiality, prestige, social pressure and personal contacts, and exposure and accountability. Rarely are all those tools applied in a single situation. Albright concluded her op-ed piece by writing:

“The global conscience is not asleep, but after the turbulence of recent years, it is profoundly confused. Some governments will oppose any exceptions to the principle of sovereignty because they fear criticism of their own policies. Others will defend the sanctity of sovereignty unless and until they again have confidence in the judgment of those proposing exceptions. At the heart of the debate is the question of what the international system is. Is it just a collection of legal nuts and bolts cobbled together by governments to protect governments? Or is it a living framework of rules intended to make the world a more humane place?”

As I have written previously, the world needs leaders blessed with both wisdom and resolve. Such leaders would undoubtedly understand the importance of leverage and how to use it. It is too soon to raise our hands in submission and give up trying to make the world a more secure place. Security is essential to development and development is essential to helping bring billions out of the grip of poverty.

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