During our group’s discussion about realism’s political morality, the selective interventions by Western powers in Libya and Kosovo but not Syria and Rwanda were raised as instances where state interests could be said to have trumped moral choices.
Each of these countries have their own particular geopolitical circumstances but the international community chose (or in Syria’s case, is choosing) to respond to (broadly) comparable and demonstrable ‘evils’ – ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and Rwanda and despotic regimes in Libya and Syria in quite different ways. If international politics is really constrained by morality then wouldn’t the ‘moral’ course of action in each case be intervention aimed at stopping the atrocities/deposing the dictators (subject to a UN Security Council resolution)?
Or when looking at these four examples, does the realist argument (advanced in various forms by the likes of Machiavelli, Morgenthau and Kennan among others) that moral considerations are subordinate to a state’s overriding preoccupation with interest and power have some substance?
Kuperus examines ‘selective intervention’ in Kosovo and Rwanda and contends that:
The West’s response to humanitarian concerns in Kosovo were reinforced by strategic interests in Europe’s future and the NATO alliance. If the West were truly committed to the creation of a world system where respect for humanity was of the highest order, we would take notice of other regions of the world where regimes have engaged in heinous crimes against humanity. Unfortunately, the West has ignored many of these cases.
Kuperus contrasts this to the Rwandan situation where it took over a year for President Clinton to acknowledge that genocide had occurred and claims that non-intervention stemmed from the African country’s status as ‘non-vital’ to American national interests.
While many observers have pointed out that Syria is not conducive to Libyan-style intervention (and indeed any Western military action may provoke Tehran), the international community’s response to Assad’s violence has been limited when compared to the efforts to topple Gaddafi. And while the world watches, civilian casualties continue to mount in Homs and other Syrian cities. Kofi Annan may yet have averted the need for direct intervention if the April 10 troop withdrawal is adhered to but could the crisis have been ended earlier? Or do states need different interests (eg. access to energy resources like oil) to be threatened to stir them into action?
None of these scenarios are black and white, so maybe the actual state of play when assessing the actions of states is as Miller says: “Great powers behave inconsistently, sometimes hypocritically. Their power and size have given them that luxury and latitude — it’s part of their job description”.