Avoiding Avoidable Tragedy: Public Opinion and R2P (January)

In January, 2020 the Rights Writers were asked to discuss an issue in the context of US political discourse (including public opinion, if desired) – is any relevant legislation being debated? How are different branches of US government engaged with your topic? Consider particularly the 2020 presidential race.

In 2005, the international community coalesced around a new construct – the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). United Nations member states unanimously committed to understand sovereignty as a positive responsibility, requiring that each nation protect its people and all nations shoulder a burden to protect one another’s populations in the event that a government is unwilling or unable to do so. R2P was the international community’s response to a decade littered with atrocities carried out by states against their own populations or atrocities failed states failed to prevent.

Photo from a Trump Rally
Source: Tabitha Kaylee Hawk on Flickr

However, the R2P construct suffers from the central flaw that has plagued almost every product of an international institution – it requires state buy-in for implementation. A new theoretical framework cannot intervene to halt a genocide. A state can. Whether a state does is question of political will. And in the United States, political will is a question of public opinion. The decision to commit military force in particular can never be fully divorced from public opinion (nor, arguably, should it be).

Unfortunately, in the past decade, public opinion has fully soured on humanitarian intervention. Several countervailing trends have eroded support for even the most legitimate military action among the American public.

Support for isolationism has surged, as Americans increasingly believe the best way to keep the United States safe and provide for the American public is to withdraw from the world. A 2019 Gallup poll indicated that 30% of Americans prefer the US to reject foreign entanglements, whether diplomatic or military. Naturally, isolationism is at odds with humanitarian intervention.

Isolationism is often a product of a particular brand of intense realism, which dictates that the United States should only act abroad in furtherance of its self-interest. A Pew poll conducted in 2013 has found a reduced receptiveness to moral arguments in favor of particular foreign policy decisions. While 83% of Americans believed protecting the jobs of American workers to be an important foreign policy goal, and 77% rated reducing dependence on foreign oil to be the same, only 28% of Americans said protecting human rights in other countries should be given the same importance. Whereas realism sets priorities, isolationism purports to dictate a way of manifesting them. Realism is not intrinsically incompatible with humanitarian intervention, which may not always be costly, and may improve the reputation or geopolitical standing of the United States. However, isolationists assume intervention will backfire regardless.

US Air Force soldiers on a runway
Source: Wikimedia Commons

A different segment of the population is convinced that when the United States does take action abroad, it is and will always be in the furtherance of American interest, to the detriment of others. This belief is likely a product both of the fact that all nations often act out of self-interest and the groundswell of realist and isolationist rhetoric à la ‘America first.’ It also often dictates that the United States ‘stay out of it’ insofar as the American interest is perceived to run contrary to the interests of foreign publics.

A final line of thought concludes that some tasks – such as humanitarian intervention – are unachievably difficult. Even should the United States commit forces with the genuine intention of saving civilians from genocide, bad outcomes are inevitable. Thus, it is better not to try to begin with.

In light of these trends it is highly unlikely that Operation Allied Force – the American-led 78-day bombing campaign intended to force Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to end his genocide of Albanian Kosovars – could have happened in 2020. Avoidable tragedy would not have been avoided on account of public opinion.

Even in 1999, securing support for the mission was not easy. The Clinton Administration was convinced only by having witnessed the consequences of its failure to act in Rwanda in 1994 and Bosnia in 1995. Congress was lobbied intensely by Albanian Americans, who had spent years building relationships with their representatives. The United Nations Security Council refused to endorse the intervention – as Russia decried United States action against a fellow Slavic state and China assumed a pro-sovereignty stance without exception – rendering any military action illegal. (Though, ultimately, the US secured the support of its NATO allies.) Public opinion on the merits of intervention was divided, as warring columns debated the case on the front pages of leading newspapers.

However, intervention indisputably changed the situation for the better, saving hundreds of thousands of civilians, even as over a million Albanian Kosovars were forced to flee. With the help of the United States, the killing was brought to a halt and Kosovo was established as autonomous and ultimately independent. While the conventional thinking implies that answers cannot or should not be externally imposed, Kosovo proves that such reasoning is flawed, at least in some cases.

For the 2020 presidential candidates, discussion of humanitarian intervention or even America’s role in the world writ large is an unpopular topic. Unending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been as or more unpopular among Democrats as among Republicans. And while the election of a Democratic candidate might bring greater buy-in to international institutions and greater investment in development aid, it seems unlikely to a trigger a reevaluation of the American public’s stance on humanitarian intervention. Instead, it is left to the American public to reevaluate and elect leaders who might once again lend credence to the Responsibility to Rrotect.