The debate over what to do or not do in Syria has brought new attention to a legal doctrine that is also an internationalist commitment: “the responsibility to protect.” What is this responsibility? Whose is it? I want to try to answer these questions, thinking not only of Syria but also of earlier times when helpless people needed protection and of times to come. I will focus on the use of force to protect people under attack (usually by their own government). Humanitarian aid for refugees fleeing those attacks is also a form of protection, but it is less controversial. Everyone agrees that it is necessary, though there hasn’t been much political agitation to make it sufficient.
The “responsibility to protect” has been formally voted on and accepted by the General Assembly of the United Nations; it is now a part of international law; protection is a UN project. But the UN has no effective executive arm; there is no agent capable of carrying out whatever military action this responsibility might require. Nor is the Security Council able in any dependable way to authorize member states to act in its name. Indeed, since international law holds that only the Security Council can authorize the use of force, and since there is usually no willingness or no capacity to make the authorization, no one actually has a duty to act. And in the absence of a Security Council vote, no one has a right to act. Legality and responsibility don’t go together. Protecting the people who need protection, the victims of mass murder and other atrocities, is usually illegal.
So the responsibility remains what it was before the UN took it on. It is a moral duty, which, like certain other moral duties, sometimes requires acting outside the law. But this is a duty of a radically imperfect kind—because it doesn’t attach to any particular state or coalition of states in international society. Writing about humanitarian intervention in places like Rwanda years ago, I defended the maxim: “Anyone who can, should.” But with morality as with law, there is no way of enforcing this maxim. All we can do is yell at those who can but don’t.
Still, it is important to insist that there are a lot of states that are able to act and that have (sometimes) acted. American neo-isolationists who argue that the US must not become the world’s policeman need to be told that we haven’t done all that much policing. William Greider, writing in The Nation, condemns “our open-ended commitment to deter or punish bad guys anywhere around the world.” In truth, there are an awful lot of bad guys around the world whom we haven’t even tried to deter or punish. And other countries have sometimes, though not often enough, been helpfully at work. The responsibility to protect, even when it requires military force, doesn’t require the overwhelming, high tech military force of the US. Recall that it was the Vietnamese who shut down the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia; it was the Indians who marched into East Pakistan, now Bangladesh, to stop the killing there; it was the Tanzanians who overthrew the murderous regime of Idi Amin in Uganda. It was the Nigerians, with help from other African states, who intervened to stop the ravages of Liberian warlords in 1990. It was the Australians who took the lead in stopping the violence in East Timor (with rare UN approval).
The recent French intervention in Mali probably wasn’t an enactment of the responsibility doctrine (though there were many Malians asking to be protected from Islamist zealots), but it is another useful example of countries other than the US taking on the “bad guys.”
By contrast, America’s recent wars have not involved police work or the protection of others. In Afghanistan, we were fighting in self-defense against the people who attacked us on 9/11; despite a few pious remarks by US officials, we weren’t fighting to protect Afghan women against religious oppression. Nor were we fighting in Iraq to protect the Marsh Arabs or the Kurds. In fact, the Kurds were well protected without war by the no-fly zone, which was, originally at least, a project that several of our allies shared with us.
We can, then, plausibly hope for a division of labor in this business of protection. Of course, there will be laggards and sloths; there will be states fearful of acting and states that hope the division of labor will pass them by—as many Americans now do. In the aftermath of Iraq, there is a great unwillingness to act militarily here in the US; a lot of people are fighting, with great fortitude, against the last war—including politicians who didn’t do that when it counted. Anyway, the responsibility to protect isn’t only ours, and we need to think about what it entails without the self-referential moralizing and anti-moralizing that has marked the Syria debate. It’s not all about us.
Let me try to answer a few questions that are everyone’s questions.
1) Against what injuries and what evils is external protection morally required?
The responsibility to protect isn’t engaged by the ordinary brutality of authoritarian governments. What is necessary in such cases is local opposition, political struggles that can legitimately be encouraged from the outside by state and non-state actors but can’t legitimately be supported by an army marching across the border. Nor is the responsibility engaged by civil war. Imagine how Abraham Lincoln’s government would have responded to a European intervention to protect the civilian population of the South against the ravages of General Sherman’s army. Civil wars are commonly brutal, and there is much that should be done from the outside, politically and diplomatically, to stop them. But military intervention is not a good idea.
The responsibility is engaged by mass murder, ethnic cleansing on a large scale, mass rape, and state-sponsored terror. Looking at Syria and beyond, I think that the use of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons against civilians obviously belongs on this list.
2) When is protective action required?
The standard just war criterion of “last resort” doesn’t mean much here. As soon as the killing or the terror begins, the effort to stop it, by force if necessary (and it is usually necessary) must also begin. If the killing is over, definitely ended, then forceful protection is not an issue. The responsibility to punish involves other agents and other means. If the killing is episodic, protection is almost as urgent as in the case of an ongoing massacre: it is necessary to prevent the next episode. Of course, there are always other things to do—diplomat notes, UN resolutions—but there can’t be a moral duty to wait; the duty is to act. Sometimes, threatening to use force, if the threat is credible, can lead to a negotiated end of the killing, as it may have done in the Syrian case. Pre-emptive protection, by threatening force or using it, may sometimes be justified (though it will always be illegal) when there is good reason to think that the killing is about to begin.
3) Who are the responsible agents?
“Whoever can, should” is still the relevant maxim. Local responses from near neighbors are probably best—as in the Vietnamese, Indian, and Ugandan interventions that I listed above. Sometimes the best responder is the old imperial power, which may well bear some responsibility for the violence and the victims (as in Rwanda, where no one responded). What is definitely not necessary in these cases is a pure moral will, what just war theorists call a “right intention.” In politics, motives are always mixed. And it doesn’t matter if the state that stops the killing in this case was once responsible, in the near or distant past, for killing elsewhere.
4) What are the limits on this responsibility?
Two criteria of just war theory are critically important when the use of force is being considered. First, there has to be a high probability of success. Second, there has to be a reasonable expectation of proportionality: that the costs of the intervention won’t exceed the evils against which it is directed. Both of these are judgment calls, made under conditions of uncertainty and under the pressure of time. For what is happening is happening right now; the number of victims (or the risk to vulnerable populations) increases every hour. This issue has been at the center of the Syria debate, and opponents of any military action have produced impressive lists and grim speculations about the likely costs of an American attack. But they often haven’t bothered to speculate about the costs of American inaction—as if they really don’t care what happens in Syria so long as the US is not the (direct) cause of what happens. A recent post on this blog by James R. Martin provides a nice example of an impressive, but one-sided, list. I can’t say how weighing the costs of acting and not acting might turn out. These are indeed judgment calls; they are very hard; but they are morally required, and they can’t be made in good faith except by people who recognize that strong states, capable of acting, are responsible not only for what they do but also for what they don’t do.
5) When does this responsibility end?
The goal of the military action must be a state where all those who needed protection have it. The goal isn’t, can’t be, the establishment of a just society or the best political regime. Protection is always protection against something (Khmer Rouge madness in Cambodia, Indonesian militias in East Timor, warlord brutality in Liberia, Assad’s chemical weapons in Syria), and it’s that something that must be dealt with. There is no larger political project. If protection is necessary against a murderous regime, and that regime is overthrown, the responsible agents do acquire additional responsibilities. They must at least begin the political reconstruction of the country whose people they have rescued. But they have no business imposing their own design on the reconstructed state.
The responsibility to protect is an internationalist doctrine, but because it commonly involves the use of force, this has to be a constrained internationalism. The Red Army marching on Warsaw to create a communist society in Poland is something else entirely, as is the American army marching on Baghdad to bring democracy to Iraq. Communism and democracy are political projects only—for what is involved is not the protection of lives but the promotion of an ideology. This may be the best ideology, but what is required in its promotion is political not military action. Protection, by contrast, requires whatever action is necessary.
Michael Walzer is the former co-editor of Dissent.