One possible solution to the current impasse is to broaden the exceptions to bans on the unilateral use of military force, to permit both preventive self-defense and humanitarian interventions. Such proposals have been considered and rejected. So many countries are potential threats, or host mass atrocities during periodic bouts of turmoil, that such exceptions would swallow the ban on war. In particular, there is opposition abroad to Obama’s effort to permit unilateral intervention to punish Syria as a user of chemical weapons because of the door it opens to broader application. Why not also intervene to stop the use of other weapons of mass destruction that cause harm to civilians?
Another possible approach is reform of the Security Council. The Guardian recently argued that the permanent members of the Security Council do not fairly represent the world’s population: “The obvious solution is enlargement and the replacement of the veto system with majority voting.”
But a moment’s thought reveals the limits of this idea for a humanitarian agenda. The most populous countries that do not currently have permanent seats are India, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Egypt. These are not countries known for pursuing a foreign policy that promotes human rights, and most of them hardly pay attention to the human rights of their own citizens. If they sat on the Security Council and majority rule governed, countries with liberal values would be routinely outvoted. And if the five members with veto power kept it or vetoes were given to additional countries, approval of resolutions would be even harder than it is today. Past efforts to expand the Security Council have failed in the face of opposition of the current veto holders and of geopolitical rivals of countries that have been proposed for a permanent seat.
The deeper problem is that the rules and principles that serve America’s interest conflict with the interests of China, Russia, and other countries. The rule of humanitarian intervention would authorize the use of military force against countries where mass atrocities occur—and whether or not you think the political persecution that routinely takes place in China and Russia count as “mass atrocities,” both countries experience periodic bouts of political turmoil where mass atrocities really do occur. Even more so for their partners, such as North Korea and Sudan. A rule of humanitarian intervention would help delegitimize these repressive regimes. And the same is true for many other countries in the world, from Pakistan to Ethiopia to Venezuela. Even if China and Russia themselves do not fear an American invasion, they do fear American interventions that will lead either to broader instability or to more American dominance.
China and Russia thus very sensibly resist the establishment of an international norm that authorizes intervention in their own countries and the lands of their allies and not in the United States and (most of) its allies. They are content with the U.N. system, which enables them to oppose efforts to establish such a norm.
Meanwhile, here at home, for 30 years five presidents of both parties have disregarded the U.N. rules on the use of force. It seems fair to say that while the United States continues to use the language of law, its position is more a self-made doctrine of American exceptionalism, which lays out U.S. claims and expectations and does not make them reciprocal for other states (as “law” necessarily does). Something like the Monroe doctrine, but applied to both hemispheres. The Bush-Obama doctrine, as one might call it (though there are some variations between the presidents), extends throughout the world. It declares that dictatorships that stay in power through violence and threaten their neighbors must fear America’s might, whatever the rest of the world might say.
This can last only as long as the United States can overwhelm other countries with its power. For a country often thought to be on the brink of decline, it’s a bold stance to take.