Attacking countries we aren’t at war with is the new norm
The Daily | May 23, 2011
IT HAS been a bad few months of a bad few years of a bad few decades for the central principle of international relations. Consider an odd headline about an American attempt to kill Anwar al-Awlaki, an al Qaeda propagandist and recruiter — from The New York Times, but typical of many others: "Drone Strike in Yemen Was Aimed at Awlaki."
What's odd about this headline is that it did not seem odd. Once upon a time, dropping a bomb on a country with which we are not at war or even in a state of hostility would have seemed a pretty shocking violation of the principle of sovereignty. Nowadays it's bigger news if we bomb a country we are at war with.
Pakistan is another non-hostile country with which we're not at war. But no American seriously questioned the legitimacy of the commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad. In fact, Americans might impeach a president who let a little thing like Pakistan's sovereignty stand between a bullet and bin Laden.
And then there is Libya. The United States bombed it heavily, then turned it over to NATO for more bombing, even though Libya is also a country with which we're not at war. In fact, Libya, at America's behest, renounced support for terrorism and gave up its quest for nuclear weapons — thereby, as things turned out, heightening its vulnerability to attack by the very same Americans with which it cooperated. (You can be sure the North Koreans have noticed.)
Heaven knows, there's nothing new about countries' violating one another's sovereignty. What is new is that, as of 2011, the principle of sovereignty has no defenders. History, I think, will show that sovereignty lost its primacy in international relations right around now, to be replaced with —well, nothing in particular, which is the problem.
The modern doctrine of sovereignty goes back to about 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia put an end to seemingly endless religious wars by establishing that sovereigns should not interfere in one another's internal affairs. In 1812, the United States paid a bloody price to establish its own sovereignty. If you want to know how Pakistanis felt about the U.S. assault in Abbottabad, you might look back at President James Madison, who had no sympathy at all for Britain's claims that its war with France gave it legitimate national-security reasons to seize and conscript American sailors on the neutral seas.
Technology, terrorism and three mutually mistrustful but weirdly conspiring ideologies have deprived sovereignty of its former champions. Technology lets everyone see what goes on everywhere and makes it easy to project force across borders, whether by missile or suicide vest. International terrorism has forced even sovereignty's traditional defenders to accept that borders must be violated to pursue threats like bin Laden and Awlaki. Humanitarians believe sovereignty ends where massacres begin. Neocons see a new Hitler around every corner. Internationalists think sovereignty lodges in the United Nations. Put all of those forces together, and you have an unbeatable coalition.
Realists, including me, support the sovereignty system because on balance it's the least terrible approach. It protects countries (well, governments) not only from one another but also from themselves — from the exhausting and destabilizing temptation to intervene willy-nilly, as opportunity and politics dictate. The West's essentially random intervention in Libya is a case in point.
Especially striking is the sweeping language the U.N. used in authorizing the Libya intervention: "take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack." One U.S. official told me he had never before seen such a broad grant of authority, much less expected the U.N. to approve it. It all but dissolves Libya's borders as far as intervention is concerned.
All necessary measures — a three-word epitaph for the Peace of Westphalia. We can debate the sovereignty system's merits all year, but a better use of time at this point is to figure out how to structure a stable international system without it.
I think the best idea is a modified, narrowed version of sovereignty proposed by Amitai Etzioni, an international relations scholar at George Washington University. He called his proposal Security First in a 2007 book by that name well worth reading. Sovereignty is not absolute, he suggested. But it should be observed wherever governments — even undemocratic and unsavory governments — provide their citizens and the international community with a reasonable degree of "basic security" from personal violence at home and from aggression, terrorist attack and nuclear proliferation abroad.
Security First sets a lower bar for interventions than does traditional realists' focus on stability, which lets regimes get away with almost anything. But it sets a higher bar than do humanitarians and neocons, who seem willing to intervene almost anywhere.
That's one answer. Perhaps the Obama administration and Congress can come up with a better one. They need some kind of doctrine because right now all they have is the seat of their pants.