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

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.

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