Intervention Fatigue

I’m not sure about Phil Carter’s take on the Madeleine Albright NYTimes op-ed that’s generating a good deal of discussion. Here’s the key passage from Albright’s piece:

. . .And despite recent efforts to enshrine the doctrine of a “responsibility to protect” in international law, the concept of humanitarian intervention has lost momentum.

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?

Carter steers that last question back to a more practical one:

The next president — whether Obama or McCain — will have to do more than right the course in Iraq and Afghanistan. He must also decide what to do in places like Darfur, Burma and countries unknown, where both our ideals and interests will beg us to act. Other questions relate to this one, such as the role of international institutions and America’s policy on respecting national sovereignty. But the crucial question for our next commander-in-chief will be whether, why and how he employs American power abroad.

Outside of self-defense and treaty obligations, the major arguments for intervention as they have shaped up over the past ten years are humanitarian reasons (liberal hawks), Western values (neocons), and the globalization stability function that’s emerging. The arguments aren’t necessarily exclusive. Interventions against terrorism, for instance, are defended based on a mixture of self-defense, values (democracy promotion), and stability. In fact, I think the argument can be made that on the level of American domestic opinion they might actually be mutually dependent.

The problem Albright has identified has more to do with the international wariness of American intentions due to the neocons’ legacy more than the other two, and while the next president will in fact have to make the decisions Carter enumerates, he will have to do so in the context of a more complex constellation of interests and consensus. (Nikolas Gvosdev has some very interesting thoughts on that here.) Albright has already illustrated the ways in which the former influences the latter. The question Carter leaves out is how the latter will influence the former.

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