The Slippery Slope Of Unilateralism

I had an interesting back and forth several years ago with Anne-Marie Slaughter, then a professor at Princeton, later policy planning director at the State Department, and now back to academia about an old line from something she wrote where she said “the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough.”

She clarified her position thusly:

I would not rule out unilateral action under any circumstances: a nation that had chosen to try unilaterally to stop the genocide in Rwanda in the face of both global and regional inaction would be hard to condemn. Similarly, it is imaginable that the United States or any other nation could conclude that it had absolutely no choice but to use force to defend its vital interests. But the entire point of our article was to minimize the likelihood of either of these situations ever occurring by embracing doctrines in the humanitarian and the non-proliferation area that would spur non-military collective action early in the game and would ensure global or at least regional authorization of force if it came to that. It is worth remembering that Kofi Annan himself told the General Assembly in September 2003, after the invasion of Iraq: “It is not enough to denounce unilateralism, unless we also face up squarely to the concerns that make some States feel uniquely vulnerable, since it is those concerns that drive them to take unilateral action. We must show that those concerns can, and will, be addressed effectively through collective action.”

So fair enough. But now flash forward to March of 2011 and it seems to me that the Obama administration in which Slaughter so recently served is, in fact, trying to engage in some non-military collective action vis-à-vis Libya. But she has an op-ed in The New York slamming the president for “Fiddling While Libya Burns” arguing that not only should we push for UN Security Council military intervention in Libya, but that if that fails we should intervene anyway: “If the Security Council fails to act, then we should recognize the opposition Libyan National Council as the legitimate government, as France has done, and work with the Arab League to give the council any assistance it requests.”

Gone missing here is any real sense of using American leadership to promote a rules-based global order. Instead it seems to me that we’re headed down a slippery slope of unilateralism. The violence taking place in Libya today is no Rwandan genocide. Far from being a threat to global non-proliferation norms, the Libyan government brokered a deal with western leaders years ago to give them up precisely in order to enhance its standing as a legitimate government. So what is the actual standard being proposed here for when the American government should offer military assistance to rebel groups? Leaving aside the myriad practical questions about intervention in Libya and think about what is the rule being proposed for this rule-based order? To me, this sounds like a proposal whose medium-term consequences will be to return Africa to its unhappy Cold War situation where it becomes a venue for endless superpower proxy conflicts.

If the US Congress has the appetite for spending a few billion dollars (PDF) on promoting some humanitarian objectives somewhere, surely there are some other human needs in the world. I wouldn’t put Slaughter in this camp, but there’s definitely a set of people in the United States who seem to want to help suffering people in the developing world if and only if that can be accomplished by killing other people in the developing world. It seems to me that it’s a huge mistake to give in to that mentality.