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Losing the Stomach for Humanitarian Interventions

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

Over the last two decades, the United States has intervened militarily in several countries to protect human rights. Now, writes historian Mark Mazower in World Affairs, "the concept of humanitarian intervention is dying if not dead." And a good thing, too, he concludes.

On the first point, Mazower seems factually correct. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, liberals appalled by violations of human rights called for intervention in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo. They preferred to operate through international institutions, regarding the United States as morally suspect -- but it became clear that we were, as Madeleine Albright said, "the indispensable nation."

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Intervention fizzled in Somalia when the U.S. withdrew in 1993. And Bill Clinton, to his later regret, stayed out of Rwanda. The feckless European intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo succeeded only after the United States took charge in 1995. Liberals supported military action in Afghanistan under the NATO banner almost unanimously, and many backed military action in Iraq in 2003, as well.

The Iraq war was justified under the terms of U.N. resolutions 678, 687 and 1441. Unfortunately George W. Bush, in deference to Tony Blair, sought another U.N. resolution and never made the point that it was legally unnecessary. But when things turned sour, liberals scampered away amid cries that "Bush lied."

As Mazower notes, there's a tension between humanitarian intervention and traditional state sovereignty. After Iraq, liberals showed, in Mazower's words, "a new maturity in international relations" by upholding "the stability of international borders" rather than intervening to uphold human rights.

This seems to be the view of Barack Obama, whose foreign policy has shown a cold indifference to human rights that contrasts vividly with those of his five predecessors. "Clear legal norms, and the securing of international stability more generally, also serve the cause of human welfare," Mazower asserts. If we just used international institutions in a more sophisticated manner we could advance liberal goals effectively.

Not so, says the Council on Foreign Relation's Walter Russell Mead, in his American Interest blog. Mazower writes European history, but the international institutions set up by Europeans and Americans in the mid-20th century in response to the horrors of two world wars are not, Mead argues, appropriate to the different world of the 21st century.

"Europeans and Americans both find the Kantian vision of a bureaucratic world state incorporating basic European cultural ideas about states and laws very natural," Mead writes. But others -- East Asians, South Asians, Middle Easterners, Latin Americans -- don't.

They bridle at International Monetary Fund restraints and conduct their affairs so as to be independent of it. They have blocked agreement in the Doha trade talks. They create their own regional economic institutions -- ASEAN, Mercosur -- that may resemble the European Union but also declare their independence of it. They bridle at outside interference, as India did when Obama agreed to recognize as legitimate China's interest in South Asian affairs.

Moreover, the economic interests of the rapidly growing nations of what we once called the Third World are in conflict with the slow-growth environmental policies of Europe and North America. This was made clear, Mead points out, at last year's Copenhagen summit, which was supposed to produce a binding treaty pledging to reduce carbon emissions.

Barack Obama, on his second unsuccessful trip to Copenhagen in one year, managed to stitch together a deal with Brazil, China, India and South Africa that amounted to kicking the can down the road. "The process-loving, Kantian Europeans," Mead writes, "weren't even in the room."

What now? "Rather than chasing liberal internationalist mirages," Mead says, "we should focus on what we want and need, think about how we can get as much of it as possible at the best price -- and go for it in the most efficient way possible."

That sounds a lot like George W. Bush's "coalition of the willing." Unfortunately, the Obama approach of kicking our friends and groveling to the unfriendly heads us in the wrong direction. Our relations with India, Japan and the Eastern European democracies are distinctly chillier than they were under Bush. Our outstretched hand to Iran still meets a clenched fist.

All of which certainly makes humanitarian intervention unlikely in the near future. Historians of Europe may consider a chastened and unventuresome America a good thing. Victims of oppression with no aid in sight may take a different view.

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