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R2P is a Doctrine Designed to Strike Down the Hand that Wields It

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

There has been much ado about Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s ennunciation of “Responsibility to Protect” as a justification for the Obama administration’s unusually executed intervention (or assistance to primarily British and French intervention) in Libya in support of rebels seeking to oust their lunatic dictator, Colonel Moammar Gaddafi. In “R2P” the Obama administration, intentionally or not, has found it’s own Bush Doctrine, and unsurprisingly, the magnitude of such claims – essentially a declaration of jihad against what is left of the Westphalian state system by progressive elite intellectuals – are beginning to draw fire for implications that stretch far beyond Libya.

People in the strategic studies, IR and national security communities have a parlor game of wistfully reminiscing about the moral clarity of Containment and the wisdom of George Kennan. They have been issuing tendentiously self-important “Mr. Z” papers for so long that they failed to notice that if anyone has really written the 21st Century’s answer to Kennan’s X article, it was Anne-Marie Slaughter’s battle cry in the pages of The Atlantic.

George Kennan did not become the “Father of Containment” because he thought strategically about foreign policy in terms of brutal realism. Nor because he was a stern anti-Communist. Or because he had a deep and reflective understanding of Russian history and Leninism, whose nuances were the sources of Soviet conduct. No, Kennan became the Father of Containment because he encapsulated all of those things precisely at the moment when America’s key decision makers, facing the Soviet threat, were willing to embrace a persuasive explanatory narrative, a grand strategy that could harmonize policy with domestic politics.

Slaughter’s idea is not powerful because it is philosophically or legally airtight – it isn’t – but because R2P resonates deeply both with immediate state interests and emotionally with the generational worldview of what Milovan Djilas might have termed a Western “New Class”.

While it is easy to read R2P simply as a useful political cover for Obama administration policy in Libya, as it functioned as such in the short term, that is a mistaken view, and one that I think badly underestimates Anne-Marie Slaughter. Here is Slaughter’s core assertion, where she turns most of modern diplomatic history and international law as it is understood and practiced bilaterally and multilaterally by sovereign states in the real world (vice academics and IGO/NGO bureaucrats) on it’s head:

If we really do look at the world in terms of governments and societies and the relationship between them, and do recognize that both governments and their citizens have rights as subjects of international law and have agency as actors in international politics, then what exactly is the international community “intervening” in?

…For the first time, international law and the great powers of international politics have recognized both the rights of citizens and a specific relationship between the government and its citizens: a relationship of protection. The nature of sovereignty itself is thus changed: legitimate governments are defined not only by their control of a territory and a population but also by how they exercise that control. If they fail in that obligation, the international community has the responsibility to protect those citizens.

Slaughter is a revolutionary who aspires to a world that would functionally resemble the Holy Roman Empire, writ large, with a diffusion of power away from legal process of  state institutions to the networking informalities of the larger social class from whom a majority of state and IGO officials are drawn, as a global community. In terms of policy advocacy, this is a brilliantly adept move to marry state and class interests with stark moral justifications, regardless of how the argument might be nibbled to death in an arcane academic debate.

As with Kennan’s X Article, which faced a sustained critique from Walter Lippmann who realized that Containment implied irrevocable changes in the American system, R2P has attracted criticism. Some examples:

Joshua Foust –Why sovereignty matters

Much as advocates of the “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, like to say that sovereignty is irrelevant to the relationship of a society to its government (which Slaughter explicitly argues), it is that very sovereignty which also creates the moral and legal justification to intervene. For example, the societies of the United States and NATO did not vote to intervene in Libya – their governments did.

Foreign Affairs – The Folly of Protection

….RtoP, responding to the sense that these domestic harms warranted international response, solidified the Security Council’s claims to wider discretion. Yet it also restricted its ability to sanction intervention to the four situations listed in the RtoP document — genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity — and thus precluded, for example, intervention in cases of civil disorder and coups. Although the resolution authorizing force against Libya will certainly further entrench the principle of RtoP, it will not completely resolve the tension between RtoP — in itself only a General Assembly recommendation — and the UN Charter itself, which, according to the letter of the law, limits action to “international” threats.

Dan Trombly –The upending of sovereignty and Responsibility to Protect Ya Neck

Beauchamp, along with Slaughter, have revealed R2P for what it actually is: a doctrine based on regime change and the destruction of the foundations of international order wherever practically possible. After all, are intervening powers really fulfilling their responsibility if they fail to effect regime change after intervening? This is exactly why I believe R2P is far more insidious than many of its advocates would have us believe or intend in practice. It is essentially mandating a responsibility, wherever possible, to seek the sanction, coercion, or overthrow of regimes which fail to meet a liberal conception of acceptable state behavior. Even if R2P is never applied against a major power, it is hard to see why such behavior would not be met with just as much suspicion as humanitarian intervention and previous Western regime change operations were. Indeed, a full treatment will reveal there is immense pressure for R2P to initiate the more fundamental, and more universal, impulse to revert to the potential ruthlessness inherent in international anarchy.

Understandably, such critiques of R2P are primarily concerned with sovereignty as it relates to interstate relations and the historical predisposition for great powers to meddle in the affairs of weaker countries, usually with far less forthrightness than the Athenians displayed at Melos. It must be said, that small countries often  are their own worst enemies in terms of frequently providing pretexts for foreign intervention due to epic incompetence in self-governance and a maniacal delight in atavistic bloodshed. Slaughter is not offering up a staw man in relation to democide and genocide being critical problems with which the international community is poorly equipped and politically unwilling to counter.

But R2P is a two edged sword – the sovereignty of all states diminished universally, in legal principle, to the authority of international rule-making about the domestic use of force is likewise diminished in it’s ability to legislate it’s own internal affairs, laws being  nothing but sovereign  promises of state enforcement. Once the camel’s nose is legitimated by being formally accepted as having a place in the tent, the rest of the camel is merely a question of degree.

And time.

As Containment required an NSC-68 to put policy flesh on the bones of doctrine, R2P will require the imposition of policy mechanisms that will change the political community of the United States, moving it away from democratic accountability to the electorate toward “legal”, administrative, accountability under international law; a process of harmonizing US policies to an amorphous, transnational, elite consensus, manifested in supranational and international bodies. Or decided privately and quietly, ratifying decisions later as a mere formality in a rubber-stamping process that is opaque to everyone outside of the ruling group.

Who is to say that there is not, somewhere in the intellectual ether, an R2P for the the environment, to protect the life of the unborn, to mandate strict control of small arms, or safeguard the political rights of minorities by strictly regulating speech? Or whatever might be invented to suit the needs of the moment?

When we arrest a bank robber, we do not feel a need to put law enforcement and the judiciary on a different systemic basis in order to try them. Finding legal pretexts for intervention to stop genocide does not require a substantial revision of international law, merely political will. R2P could become an excellent tool for elites to institute their policy preferences without securing democratic consent and that aspect, to oligarchical elites is a feature, not a bug.

R2P will come back to haunt us sooner than we think.


Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway links here in a round-up and commentary about R2P posts popping up in the wake of the Slaughter piece:

The “Responsibility To Protect” Doctrine After Libya

….It’s understandable that the advocates of R2P don’t necessarily want to have Libya held up as an example of their doctrine in action. Leaving aside the obvious contrasts with the situation in Syria and other places in the world, it is by no means clear that post-Gaddafi Libya will be that much better than what preceded it. The rebels themselves are hardly united around anything other than wanting to get rid of Gaddafi and, now that they’ve done that, the possibility of the nation sliding into civil and tribal warfare is readily apparent. Moreover, the links between the rebels and elements of al Qaeda that originated in both Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq are well-known. If bringing down Gaddafi means the creation of a safe haven for al Qaeda inspired terrorism on the doorstep of Europe, then we will all surely come to regret the events of the past five months. Finally, with the rebels themselves now engaging in atrocities, one wonders what has happened to the United Nations mission to protect civilians, which didn’t distinguish between attacks by Gaddafi forces or attacks by rebels.

….Finally, there’s the danger that the doctrine poses to American domestic institutions. If Libya is any guide, then R2P interventions, of whatever kind, would likely be decided by international bodies of “experts” rather than the democratically elected representatives of the American people. American sailors and soldiers will be sent off into danger without the American people being consulted. That’s not what the Constitution contemplates, and if we allow it to happen it will be yet another nail in the coffin of liberty.

Read the rest here.

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