The Trouble With Genocide Prevention

There’s nothing wrong with preventing genocide, of course. But the public conversation on preventing genocide in the United States has, over the years, come to be dominated by a kind of myopic focus on the idea of using unilateral American military force to stop genocides. The basic way the conversation goes is basically that whenever humanitarian emergencies break out, we do nothing to stop them. And sometimes we invade Iraq. But then whenever anyone suggests that the U.S. commit itself to following international law and not using non-defensive military force absent a UN Security Council authorization, people show up insisting that we need to maintain the right to unilateral non-defensive war in order to stop genocide. Then whenever humanitarian emergencies break out, we do nothing to stop them. But the larger cause of unilateral militarism lives to fight another day. Or something.

Beyond the maddening nature of this cycle, meanwhile, it’s extremely hard to imagine situations in which unilateral American military force would really improve a humanitarian crisis. The Ambassador at Large has some worthwhile thoughts on this:

Rather than focusing on “sending in the troops” to stop the bad guys from doing bad things, we can grasp thoroughly the ethnonationalistic motivations of all actors in a conflict, and work towards implementing diplomatic solutions that head off the worst impulses of these actors. That’s what worked — temporarily, at least — to defuse the crisis in Kenya before it spiraled out of hand. That, my friends, is Responsibility To Protect in action, and not a shot was fired from the international community. Sending NATO or the UN to a futile mission of pacifying Darfur, or sending Western troops to distribute aid at gunpoint in Myanmar after Cyclone Nargis (let’s remember, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner was a strong advocate of this hair-brained scheme) will cause more problems than it solves.

By contrast, we could have taken action in Rwanda. A UN peacekeeping force, with robust mandate, was already there, and the signs of chaos were everywhere well in advance. Proper preventive action could have stopped the bloodletting, which killed 800,000 before spilling into Congo and bringing about the deaths of at least 5 million more in the subsequent 14 years.


Conflict resolution, conflict prevention, and peace enforcement when/if an agreement is in place is where the action is at. Trying to contain the damage around the edges of a conflict doesn’t really solve anything, and trying to directly insert foreign military forces into ongoing wars is unlikely to genuinely resolve anything. See also John Norris and John Prendergast on the situation in Sudan:

Certainly, protecting civilians is an important goal that will require significant energy and resources for the foreseeable future. But it is not sufficient. Protection efforts must be buttressed by a broader approach to end Sudan’s multiple conflicts. Pursuing the goal of civilian protection during the conflict should not obscure or divert energy from the larger and ultimate objective: bringing peace to Sudan by securing a credible deal for Darfur and implementing the terms of the CPA. As the two most influential countries with Sudan and two countries with the most to lose if the CPA collapses, the United States and China have compelling reasons to work jointly for lasting peace.

The flipside of these considerations is that when skeptics of far-flung war-fighting hear that someone or other wants to do more to prevent mass killings of civilians abroad, they shouldn’t just assume that what the person has in mind is starting a lot of new wars. That is what Robert Kagan and Max Boot have in mind. And it’s what some Democrats have in mind, too. But other people — usually the people with a real interest in humanitarian issues and the crisis-afflicted regions, rather then generic Very Serious People — are talking about actually finding ways to prevent people from being killed, not finding new pretexts for killing people.