“I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria,” Donald Trump said in announcing his decision to order an airstrike on Syria. Just the day before, US ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley had demanded collective action against the Assad government and threatened that the US might take independent action.
Sure enough, it did: With a decision so sudden it appeared impulsive—the president didn’t consult congress—Trump went from saying that “something should happen” about Syria to ordering the strike.
In a matter of hours, the US had set out to discipline Assad for using chemical weapons on his own people. Trump justified his decision primarily as a matter of US national security, an attack aimed at stopping further use of chemical weapons. But with the launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles from naval ships, the US resumed its most controversial role on the world stage, that of world policeman.
For decades, America has intervened around the world, whether or not the UN agrees. It’s a most complicated position to be in. The US can be damned it if does: slammed one more as an imperialistic power—and damned if it does not: criticized as a giant standing idly by as defenseless children die.
But how is it that the moral responsibility of fixing the world’s injustices, even those that are the consequence of internal conflicts, fell to the US? After all, other countries with formidable military power don’t feel compelled to take foreign countries’ matters in their own hands. And, intervening wasn’t an American obligation for a good long while after its founding. John Quincy Adams said it clearly, in 1821:
[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.
American’s calling to be the world’s policeman has its origins in both of the last centuries’s world wars. But it came to full flower after World War II, when the US national interest was squarely tied to combatting the spread of totalitarian communism as advanced by an expansionist Soviet Union.
Leader of the free world
Almost exactly 70 years ago, on March 12 1947, a speech by president Harry Truman framed the philosophy that US holds the key to world’s freedom. It’s a view so entrenched in the American ethos that Trump quickly surrendered to it once in office—even after running a campaign that rejected global responsibilities and strikingly stark speeches as president asserting that his job was to look after America, first.
The Truman speech was delivered after the UK announced its decision to stop supporting the Greek government in its efforts to fight communists. In laying out what became known as he Truman Doctrine, the president asked a joint session of congress for financial aid, as well as military personnel on the ground in Greece. Encapsulating an argument that would lead to many American interventions—from Korea to Kosovo to Iraq— Truman said:
I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.
I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.
In other words, make room for the leader of the free world.
Americans have since made this part of the way they approach the world. It lead to a UN coalition fighting a communist invasion of South Korea in the early 1950s (dubbed a police action), and another pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the early ’90s. But there is hardly any another country in which the question of a presidential candidate’s intended action in another country’s internal conflict would be a topic of debate, as Syria was in the 2016 US electoral campaign.
A new collective responsibility
Until recently, however, unilateral US and NATO interventions were not simply, in most cases at least, bypassing the UN—they were essentially violating the UN charter, which in Article 2 prescribes:
All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.
Only international conflicts could benefit from UN-sanctioned intervention. Unmitigated horror has sometimes been the result, most terribly, perhaps, in Rwanda in 1994, when UN-led coalitions failed to stop the Tutsi genocide. Other national forces, including the US, didn’t intervene in a matter deemed to an internal affair. On the other hand, the NATO air campaign in Kosovo in 1998, labeled a “humanitarian” intervention to stop the genocide against the Albanians, could be justifiably seen as a violation of Serbia’s sovereignty.
These calamities led to the 2005 UN agreement on the Responsibility to Protect (R2P; pdf), endorsed by all full-member states (that is, every country except the Vatican, Taiwan, Kosovo, and Palestine). The endorsers commit to protect against “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity” within their own countries. They have bound their sovereignty to their capacity of doing so: When a government fails to protect its citizens, other countries, through the UN, gain the right to step in. This essentially validates in international approach to human-rights violations.
But the UN’s collective approach doesn’t clear the path for America to intervene as it pleases. The current structure of the UN makes security council votes on intervention an opportunity to fight diplomatic proxy wars over proxy wars (Russia and China have blocked action against Assad.).
So while it might not be the US responsibility to answer this question alone, it remains for the world to address—if genocide or war crimes are in progress and the security council won’t come to agreement what should be done?
And who should do it?