Retrenchment & Liberal Internationalism don’t really Fit Together (2): R2P


Here is part one, where I argued that international relations as a field has become increasingly uncomfortable with the America’s post-Cold War hegemony and the level of force used in the GWoT, but…

2. We’re drifting toward R2P (the responsibility to protect)

Simultaneously, we are elated that the Libya operation worked, (against all odds given the Iraq experience and what we know about foreign intervention in LDCs generally). Lots of Duck writers supported the intervention. (I found Jon Western’s arguments last spring particularly persuasive; some of my writing on Libya is here and here.) Even if you didn’t support it, and worried that it meant more ‘empire,’ it still tugged at your heartstrings to see Libyans fighting and dying against a nasty tyrant. So you probably supported the NATO intervention even though you didn’t want to.

We realize that dictatorships are extremely vulnerable only in short windows which the regime will close as quickly as possible with as much blood as necessary. If there is anytime that Syria or NK might switch to more humane governance, it looks like now, when the center is weak. As with Libya, there is a window of opportunity that is deeply tempting, despite our broad sense that the US is doing too much and killing too many people. But given how rare revolutions like Libya are, it feels ridiculous, almost immoral, to miss such a unique, human rights-improving opportunity on behalf of a generalized principle like retrenchment (‘make me a non-interventionist, but not yet’).

Further, there is growing body of evidence that intervention can actually work pretty well and most crucially reduce the killing. How many more times can you teach the Holocaust or Darfur or the Khmer Rouge or ‘rape as a weapon’ in class before you personally agree with R2P? For me this has been fairly central. I worry a lot about US ‘empire,’ but I find teaching the material that we do in IR to be so disturbing sometimes, that it makes me an unwanted interventionist. I often wonder how undergraduates must think of us as we calmly explain the ‘nuclear calculator,’ or how to gauge who is history’s worst genocidaire. So even if we broadly want US retrenchment, we are keen enough to realize that R2P is genuinely appealing and that the opportunities for it to be effective are both rare and short. Ie, if we don’t move quickly to help places like Libya and Syria when the rare opportunity arises, we leave them to yet further decades of repression. Who wants to explain that away? And realistically the only state with the ability to push through meaningful R2P interventions is the US.

In brief, the bulk of IR scholars today normatively wants two things increasingly at odds, I think: 1. a slowdown, if not end, of the GWoT – torture, indefinite detention, Guantanamo, drones, Islamophobia, national security state overkill, domestic militarism, and the relentless killing. 2. R2P – taking advantage of the momentary weakness of truly awful regimes to push through desperately needed liberal changes in the name of humanitarianism. The former results in the (much-wanted) demilitarization of US foreign policy and domestic culture, while the second requires a large, interventionist US military, because honestly, no one else can do really R2P besides the US.

I guess if you are Walt or Layne or Ron Paul, these aren’t in conflict. Realist ‘retrenchers’ think the second goal is fairly illusory, so they are comfortable foregoing it to get the sorely needed de-militarization of US life. But the work of Pinker, Goldstein, Western, the democratic peace, even the end of history, makes me more confident that humanitarian action can work and that at least minimally liberalized states can get along without killing each other or their own people. It is awfully tempting to think that just a little bit more exertion, a little more defense spending, a little more covert assistance could help push through desperately needed change in places like Syria or Zimbabwe…

But that’s exactly the ‘utopian’ attitude toward force that realists from Morgenthau to Walt would disparage, right? One small step leads to another to another, and pretty soon you’ve got US empire to handmaiden democracy everywhere all the time, with all the militarization, killing and other unintended consequences such a project must inevitably entail.

Does anyone else see these goals as an irresolvable dilemma? And what is the answer?

Cross-posted at Duck of Minerva.

12 thoughts on “Retrenchment & Liberal Internationalism don’t really Fit Together (2): R2P

  1. That’s easy. Any liberal internationalist would say: multilateralism. They would say – and have been saying for over half a century now – that the US needs to build up the legitimacy of international institutions and bring other powers into the fold to share in the responsibility of advancing liberal values, with the US maintaining a leadership role, but less assertive and domineering role. In their view those two goals are essentially complementary. Cutting back on unilateralism is, for them, the key to recovering moral high ground, devolving legitimacy and power to multilateral institutions and giving others the space and incentives to get involved. As for the claim that only the US has the wherewithal to make R2P happen, not only is that a very interpretation of R2P, it also underestimates the extent to which unilateralism/imperialism actually increases the costs of advancing liberal norms by causing recalcitrance or even a backlash among other great and rising powers and occupied peoples. Countries like Brazil, India and even China, they argue, are not essentially anti-liberal, they just refrain from assuming a more proactive role because the structure of international order, at the moment, doesn’t give them the space they require. They can be “responsible stakeholders” if you just let them. Even Europe would do more if the US would just take a step back (Realists, with the exception of Mearsheimer, tend to believe the same thing, that Europe would provide for their own security more if the US wasn’t so ready to do it for them). I think this belief is explained in part by ethnocentrism and in part by wishful thinking – precisely because of that deep emotional attachment to humanitarianism that arises from reading about atrocities. Going back to Jervis and dissonance theory, we can say that liberal internationalism is how many scholars have been resolving – in the psychological sense – this age-old conflict for decades now.


    • Sorry, I was out of town for work. Thanks for commenting on two of my posts. I responded to your Duck comment as well.

      I agree with a lot of this, but I think multilateral violent collective action is much harder than you propose. In fact, the Bush administration found the transaction costs of NATO higher than the benefits from emanciated European militaries and just went around them. The more America’s allies’ capabilities decline, the worse the problem I identify in the posts becomes, and European capabiliies are getting worse not better. US SecDefs seem to be regularly furious about this, but nothing changes. And the Libya op showed just how reliant EU militaries are on US C4ISR and all those necessary, expensive, and unglamorous techs that only the US buys.


      • I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but how much of that is just the US being inflexible and unwilling to play the multilateral game? The continued de-mobilization of Europe is to a large extent a symptom of the free riding that comes with US unilateralism and continued protection. US officials say they want Europe to start pitching in, but don’t give the right incentives…


      • PS: I replied to your reply at Duck. Although I disagree with your characterization there I find the exercise extremely valuable and it relates to my own work on Chinese foreign policy, so thanks for that! Cheers!


      • That’s probably right. There’s a weird symbiosis between the US and its allies, that I see all the time in Korea. The US likes being the big-dog and doesn’t really want allies who are too strong and independent-minded, while US allies kinda want the US to carry the blame and the costs while they the free-ride to keep defense spending low. US SecDefs complain endlessly about low allied defense spending, but I can’t imagine that they actually want more allies prone to free-lancing (Israel, e.g.). So I agree that the incentives are a tangle. It could be possible that NATO still could work reasonably well if it were more balanced and ‘multilateral’ (rather than its current state wherein the European allies act more like a support group for US hegemony). But honestly, I don’t think so. I think the actual history of alliance cooperation, and the logic of collective action, both tells us that one very strong actor supplemented by others will almost certainly behave more coherently and monolithically than a set of equally balanced actors. The incentives to buck-pass in a balanced coalition (like the WWI allies) are enormous. This is the whole problem to my mind – if one really wants R2P, then I think we have to accept militarized US hegemony with all the costs, like an imperial presidency, that that implies.


      • I tend to agree that collective action problems – and diverging preferences – make cooperation in balanced systems more complicated than usually acknowledged (many people equate multipolarity with multilateralism, which is a serious and dangerous mistake). But that’s why, I think, liberal internationalists usually emphasize a continued role for US “leadership”, in part to mitigate these challenges to cooperation. On the other hand, the costs of great power balancing and risks involved in engaging in great power war are much higher than those of R2P and “humanitarian” intervention, so I’m not sure of how far we can stretch the WWI analogy here.


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