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Military Interventions and Hope

April 1, 2011

Chris Blattman has written a really good post on foreign military interventions. I love that his response is infused with hope and many of the points he makes are points that I have long thought about and discussed with others. Below are some quotes from his post and my thoughts:

There ought to be international norms and institutions that enforce some basic rules, like armies and police not purposefully killing civilians.

Agreed. But it is that word “enforce” that is key. You can come up with and have countries sign all the declarations you want, but if there are no repercussions for breaking the agreement, then it is useless.

The easiest ones at hand–sanctions, asset freezing–work at best in some cases and at worst in none. I regard them as reliable but insufficient tools.

So very true. Sanctions work best when citizens of that country believe the sanctions will have an affect and are willing to endure them. Also, it helps if you can prevent other countries from not abiding by the sanctions.

But I’m skeptical that non-military means alone can prevent massacres of innocents. I think our choice is a hard one: have more aggressive means of intervening, with (at least at first) big risks of failure, or live with a degree of war crimes…In the face of failure, one has to decide whether to give up or persist. I think it depends whether you think that experimentation, however risky and costly, is going to lead to better practices and institutions, and thus better outcomes.

Risk. We must be willing to risk and experiment, because the alternative is something I really don’t want to consider: giving up and watching from the sidelines as more and more people are killed because the perpetrators know they can get away with it. The other night some friends and I were in a taxi coming back from the US vs Paraguay soccer match and our driver was Jordanian. He said that it is our judicial system that makes us so different from places in the Middle East. He said, when you know you can do something and not be convicted there is no fear.

I for one was very surprised that the UN Security Council endorsed military action against Libya. This is big. I suspect the UNSC’s failure to act in Rwanda and the Congo, and to some extent Iraq, played a big role in their decision. That is institutional evolution in action. That makes me hopeful, because I think unified responses and moral authority matter.

I was quite surprised too by this decision. Ever since the failed humanitarian mission to Somalia the UN and most countries have been hesitant to act to stop atrocities from occurring. This is especially true of countries that have been seen to have no strategic interest or resources. It is sad that the UN has waited this long to act, but maybe this is a sign of things to come. What still gets me is that the UN has done basically nothing in Cote d’Ivoire, but has decided to intervene in the case of Libya.

Another thing that makes me hopeful: If we evolve to the point where the UNSC, or some other body, can make consistent and credible threats of prosecution and intervention, they’ll probably need to use force far less. On the other hand, if the world threatens and then backs down, or rewards the most thuggish leaders with coalition governments, we could move in the opposite direction.

Yes, yes, and again I say yes. We have threatened action for far too long without backing it up and look where that has gotten us. Countries and groups do what they want because they know no one is going to intervene. Credible treats are ones that are backed up.

I want to see us try, risk, and experiment, because the alternative hasn’t worked so far.

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