The United States and Foreign Intervention: Responsibility or Moral Hazard?

Ukraine, US, NATO and Partnership for Peace member nations kick off Exercise Rapid Trident 2011

by Carmyn Chapman and Matthew Short

The world order has shifted, yet again. Renewed turbulence in the Middle East provoked by the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the current crisis in Ukraine have generated serious dilemmas in the international system, while simultaneously demanding principled and pragmatic policy positions. Numerous international actors and organizations alike turn their gaze to the United States, expecting a response. As the conflicts escalate, two salient questions arise. Will intervention suffice as a solution, and, if so, would such action produce worthwhile results?

In his 2015 State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama called, “Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against [ISIS].” However, the White House has been notably absent in such stark rhetoric with regard to Ukraine. In a bi-partisan letter from March this year, 11 Senators and Congressmen urged President Obama “to quickly approve additional efforts to support Ukraine’s efforts to defend its sovereign territory, including through the transfer of lethal, defensive weapons systems to the Ukrainian military.” As examples of modern-day dilemmas surrounding intervention, these issues cause global actors to bemoan the lack of a solution acceptable to all the major players within the international community.

The 2005 World Summit Outcome of the United Nations broadly defines varied degrees of intervention to include sanctions, cessation of diplomatic communication, and military engagement such that “[the U.N. Security Council is] prepared to take collective action … in accordance with the Charter, including Chapter VII … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” Intervention is, therefore, broadly defined as an infringement on state sovereignty.

Non-intervention is an internationally accepted legal norm, substantiated by consistent recognition and respect of state sovereignty. In the Corfu Channel Case of 1949, the International Criminal Court (ICC) ruled, “the alleged right of intervention as the manifestation of a policy of force … cannot, whatever be the present defects in international organization, find a place in international law.” Since that time, the international community has failed to come to a consensus on the efficacy of intervention.

The application of intervention policy has evolved significantly since the United States ended its isolationist era by engaging in World War II. Today, the principle mission statement of the U.S. State Department cites one of its primary functions as to “create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community,” which emphasizes the country’s role in maintaining a safe and peaceful international system. If the U.S. holds “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” then alienation of those rights represents an infraction upon the victim for which the international system has a responsibility.

ISIS, as an entity sui generis, claims statehood solely through the use of violence. In describing the organization, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic states that ISIS, “rejects peace as a matter of principle; that it hungers for genocide; that its religious views make it constitutionally incapable of certain types of change, even if that change might ensure its survival.” Furthermore, in Wood’s perspective, ISIS can no longer maintain the fragile narrative as the true Caliphate without territorial control. Thereby, an unending war of attrition, the bane of a conventional military as employed by Al-Qaeda, is off the table for ISIS. An intervention against ISIS would be different from the War on Terror due to how ISIS has defined its propaganda narrative.

Leon Panetta, former Director of Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of Defense, called for the U.S. to “understand that this is not an enemy that you can kind of stand aside and not confront.” ISIS has institutionalized terror, and non-intervention concedes enforcement of their “rule of law.” For the U.S. foreign policy, in such cases of humanitarian responsibility, interventions are more the norm than the exception. Conversely, Fareed Zakaria, of the Washington Post, refuted the presumption that interventions abroad can prevent threats to domestic national security. He cites 13 interventions in the Middle East since the 1980s and concludes, “no matter what the United States has done over the past two decades, Islamic radicalism has been on the rise.”

CarmynMatthew Noentanglements

Zakaria postulates that interventions precipitate enemies, destabilize regions, and further offset the balance of power in the international system. Those who urge intervention against ISIS, or increased involvement in the growing conflict in eastern Ukraine, must recognize that engagement only bolsters the legitimacy of belligerent groups and lawbreakers. Intervention provides such groups the chance to fight “The Great Satan,” a label gifted to the U.S. in 1979 by the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, and touted since by other opponents.

The rapidly evolving crisis in eastern Ukraine provides opportunity to exercise restraint and achieve a diplomatic solution. In his Foreign Policy article, titled “Why arming Kiev is a really, really bad idea,” Stephen Walt explains that providing arms “is a recipe for a longer and more destructive conflict … destroying Ukraine in order to save it is hardly smart or morally correct diplomacy.” Supplying Ukraine with arms, as proposed by the March 5th letter, is legal. However, it infringes upon state sovereignty and inflames the conflict. The ICC found the supply of arms as a form of intervention in Nicaragua vs. United States and ruled that “financial support, training, supply of weapons, intelligence and logistical support, constitutes a clear breach of the principle of non-intervention.”

Should the Ukraine crisis result in a ‘frozen conflict,’ similar to South-Ossetia, and a deterioration of international relations, the resulting outcome may well reinvigorate the Cold War system, placing a brick wall divide, and Russia en face to the rest of the West.

Perception and perspective are principal. In his article, Waltz also differentiates between a Russia acting out of aggression, which should be met with deterrence, and a Russia acting insecurely, which should therefore be addressed with a diplomatic response to prevent increasing aggression and hostilities. Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes in an American Interest article, reaffirm Walt’s paradigm; “if the regime’s spasms of aggression reflect its uncertain domestic footing, the West’s response should be adjusted accordingly.” Diplomacy, freedom, and peace may yet prevail without further loss of life or a return to a dangerously polarized international system.

The quandary of intervention is multifaceted and must be preceded by an exhaustive examination of socio-political considerations. A spectrum of possibilities exists to respond to the international crises of ISIS and conflict in eastern Ukraine. Actors may adhere to a strict interpretation of non-intervention, rely solely upon communication and compromise, provide logistical support to regional actors, initiate unilaterally, act through multi-national organizations, or intervene under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. For these instances of contested intervention, some options can be labeled as extraneous, while others remain unclear.

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