Prevention and International Protocols, All Wrapped Up in One

Marc Ambinder on pre-emption preclusion of “the greatest existential threats” — weapons of mass destruction, but also, as he hypothesizes that the Obama administration might contend, the interconnected danger posed by failed states:

But that also means: if suddenly, somewhere, a vulnerable population is being slaughtered, the United Nations, or the United States, or NATO, shouldn’t dither; they should intervene to stop it. The UN — and the US — have no moral authority to compete in this marketplace if they step away from these challenges and then demand that failing states acquiesce to various international regimes and protocols.

Of course, the intervention — if it is truly to be pre-emptive — in the case of mass atrocities must occur before the slaughter begins. Even in a case like Rwanda, which exploded “suddenly,” leaving the international community in paralysis and setting off a relentless pace of killings, the signs of something dangerous — and destabilizing, to look at the situation in eastern DR Congo right now — were evident for a long time.

But Ambinder is right; the prerogative to demand failing states’ compliance to international protocols must be accompanied by an actual willingness to engage the problems at hand. Moreover, it also requires that the states doing the demanding — Member States of the UN all — must themselves meet international protocols. This leads to a moral — and practical — obligation for the United States in particular to sign on to and fully adhere to these internaional agreements, which include not only big obvious ones like the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, but also lower-hanging fruit like the ban on cluster munitions.

Interestingly, one such international compact — one that has been formally adopted by all UN Member States — exists that could provide exactly the framework for preemption and prevention that Ambinder is seeking: the Responsibility to Protect. And if Obama’s pick for UN ambassador is any indication, the United States may be throwing more of its support behind this high-potential strategy in the near future.