November 16, 2018

What role for the U.S. in the battle to stop genocide and mass atrocities?

As I continue to post draft questions from the teaching guide over the coming month, I’m grateful to a few bloggers out there who have agreed to co-host some questions to help get a mix of reader feedback. (If you have a site with readers who you think would be interested in joining the conversation, let me know and I’ll add you into the co-hosting schedule). I’ll be cross-linking to their sites and incorporating some of their reader reactions here for anyone who is interested. As always, feel free to bite off just a segment of the question and apply it to other issues you are working on. Here goes the next question, which UN Dispatch is co-hosting:

In A Problem from Hell Samantha Power argued that it was in the realm of American domestic politics that the battle to stop genocide was lost. Fighting for Darfur suggests that in the case of Darfur, this was not true: Succeeding in capturing the attention of Washington was a necessary but not sufficient condition; global geopolitics were key and in this realm, China’s role was central. Is Power’s theory about the privileged U.S. role in stopping atrocity crimes out of date? Or was Darfur an anomalous case? What does the speed of the international response in Libya suggest? If the American-centric theory is out of date, what does this mean for U.S.-based activists intent on stopping mass atrocity crimes?


  1. Daniel Solomon says:

    Thanks for your discussion questions–I hope the thought-provoking quality of the online conversations translate into a valuable teaching guide. Regarding the discussion question, it appears that the American-centric *policy* approach to facilitating genocide/mass atrocities prevention and response is outdated. The question of leverage is, of course, central to any understanding of the diplomatic, economic, and military tools necessary to confront genocide and mass atrocity. Dismissing alarmist predictions of America’s decline, it’s not too much to argue that America’s soft power has waned in the decade since Power published her book. China’s role in the Darfur conflict may be a unique case study, due to the particularly robust economic relationship between China and Sudan. However, it’s clear that the political, economic, and military leverage possessed by emerging powers will become an increasingly important component of genocide/mass atrocities prevention and response policy.

    In addition to the policy-making processes, these leverage points will become integral components of the *politics* of genocide/mass atrocities prevention and response. The speed of the international response in Libya suggests the importance of two American policy approaches moving forward: the strategic importance of multilateralism, and the related utility of “leading from behind.” While they suggest a revised model of American power, these two approaches reflect the persistent centrality of American domestic politics to the fight against genocide. Under the Obama administration’s engagement-heavy policy approach, the United States has proven capable of promoting its interests in informal and formal multilateral fora. Even as China challenges the primacy of American power, it’s unlikely that China will play a significant multilateral leadership role. So long as the United States remains capable of guiding consensus in multilateral fora, American domestic politics should remain a primary battleground for U.S.-based activists.

  2. I agree with you in many respects, Dan. I think the mythology of unilateral US power being the one and only key to stopping genocide is certainly an outdated formula, for many of the same reasons you suggest.

    Additionally, I think that the idea of the “privileged US role” has implications that are counterproductive towards our longer-term goals. If intrinsic in our goal of genocide prevention is the empowerment of people across the world, the idea that unilateral US action can and should ‘fix’ the goings-on in other countries is certainly a hindrance.

    Questions such as these are precisely why the genocide prevention movement needs to continually examine itself and seek its own improvement. Discussions like these are important because they complicate the notion that there is one simple, tangible, and immediate thing that we as activists can and should do in this arena.

  3. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    I’m cross-posting here some comments received over at UN Dispatch, which co-hosted this question.

    Comment from Mark Goldberg:

    My sense is that U.S. engagement is necessary, but not sufficient. Libya is an extreme case of confronting mass atrocities because of the use of military action to stop the atrocities. The United States was somewhat reluctant at first, but quickly assumed a leadership position. The fact that China and Russia were somewhat indifferent to resolution 1970 (they abstained); that the Arab League was gung-ho; and that at least half of NATO signed up for the battle were the key criteria for facilitating a swift international response.

    So: these criteria, I think, made the Libyan intervention possible:

    1) American leadership

    2) Chinese and Russian indifference at the Security Council.

    3) The endorsement of relevant regional bodies (in this case, the Arab league)

    4) At least a small number of other (mostly European) countries participating in a coalition of the willing.

  4. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    I’m cross-posting here some comments received over at UN Dispatch, which co-hosted this question.

    Comment from reflectionephemeral:

    Maybe this doesn’t quite fit into the list you’re trying to compose, if you’re trying to look at the actions and negotiations of would-be intervenors. But I think that underlying those decisions, factors that led to #1-#4 in your list, were (#5) clear lines of control, and (#6) a clear aggressor using military force against a population of civilians. The (#7) relevance of Libya to world interests– ie, its oil pipelines– also factored in, I think, as did Libya’s (#8) complete absence support from any remotely powerful ally.

    Syria doesn’t meet #8, Yemen doesn’t meet #5 or #6, and Cote d’Ivoire didn’t meet #5, #6, or #7.

    Of course, as I go adding more and more factors, I get to return to my own preferred theory of everything: all decisions to intervene are one-offs. While various factors help to explain the likelihood of intervention, and decisions are informed by actions and results from the past, no one expects states to be rigidly rule-bound.

  5. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    Thanks everyone for the comments.

    Jenn, reading your thoughts about what might be counter-productive in the view that the U.S. has a privileged position reminded me of a post Alex Thurston did on U.S.-Nigeria relations at Sahel Blog last week:

    Dan – I like the policy/politics distinction. I also like the ability to distinguish between different ways that American power might manifest itself – leadership can be as valuable, if not more so, when done without public fanfare. The key words for me in your last sentence are “so long as”. I think the Bush administration, thanks largely to Iraq, became incapable of guiding any consensus and we are only just beginning to see the shadow of that baggage recede. The prospects for the U.S. playing that role right now seem promising, but I think it would be a mistake to assume that will necessarily remain the case. Change any variable – the personalities in power, another public specter of U.S. hypocrisy on human rights a la Abu Ghraib, another intervention that either is illegitimate or is perceived as such by others – and America’s ability to play a positive multilateral role is undercut once again. I also think China is already playing a multilateral role, staking out one side of the line that is increasingly apparent between those countries who do and do not see sovereignty as conditional. So I guess I still end up in a place where I think winning the battle within the realm of American domestic politics is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition. That’s a much harder sell to activists though, since people are more likely to act if they believe that success or failure lies in their hands alone.

  6. Rebecca Hamilton says:

    One more comment in from a reader at UN Dispatch that I’m posting below:

    DMillenson writes:

    I’d like to take a stab at Bec’s question in general terms.

    First off, I’m not even sure that Samantha Power’s thesis was totally true when she wrote the book, but it was certainly much more true when she wrote it than today. Bec convincingly argues that Power’s thesis did not hold in the case of Darfur, but I would argue that it’s also true of most developing countries carrying the potential for conflict.

    Much of this is due to economics. According to the BBC, China-Africa trade will likely exceed $110 billion this year, enabling most African countries (see: Zimbabwe, Angola) to more safely ignore Western sanctions. (Places where Western companies hold more relative sway, like Ivory Coast, are exceptions.) This would matter less if China had a more genuinely free market economy, where companies are not the agents of government. However, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are often the thin end of the wedge, enabling other SOEs to enter, lubricating diplomatic relations and (as in the case of Sudan) arms deals.

    And it’s not just China. All the BRICs (and others) operate this way (though Russian oil companies aren’t venturing into Africa in the same way). In Sudan, India’s ONGC and Malaysia’s Petronas have significant stakes, and despite those countries democratic character, they are almost as impervious to human rights concerns as the Chinese. (India, too, is trading more with Africa.) Although Russia’s oil companies do not venture abroad in the same way, they are more than happy to sell arms to all and sundry. Those countries geographically closer to the BRICs (and others with a similar profile) are even more within the BRICs’ sphere of influence.

    Simply put, most of the time Western countries aren’t going to use force and they will even more rarely get robust UN authorization for it. And it’s not like these countries are unique in their unwillingness to act ethically abroad (not that the US does either much of the time). Many European countries, like the UK, resisted strong anti-bribery laws for their corporations operating overseas until only the last few years.

    What does this mean for US-based activists? They need to continue to exert pressure on American officials, but without alliances and coordination with similar groups based in other countries, their efforts will prove insufficient. Obviously doing this sort of thing in China doesn’t exactly work, but China doesn’t like to be the lone dissenter on the Security Council and will sometimes, as with Darfur and Libya, acquiesce on certain votes if it perceives an international consensus around an issue.

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