What we learned from the Security Council debate over Libya

What we learned from the Security Council debate over Libya

"We have often seen in our contemporary history that the weakness of democracies leaves the field open to dictatorships."

-French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, Mar. 16, 2011

Yesterday the United Nations Security Council voted to authorize military intervention to protect the Libyan people from the depredations of Colonel Qaddafi’s rule. What have we learned from the debate over the resolution and its outcome?

(1) The international system doesn’t work in the absence of U.S. leadership.  It was only the near 180-degree shift in the Obama administration’s position on a no-fly and no-drive zone in Libya — in the face of what was shaping up to be a massacre by Libyan government forces in Benghazi and strong pressure for urgent intervention from Britain, France, and the Arab League — that made the UNSC vote possible. For weeks, President Obama has judged the risks of action in Libya to be greater than the risks of inaction — with the effect that the United States ended up sitting on the sidelines. But the White House belatedly realized that American inaction was the greater risk to the national interest.

In the meantime, by choosing to stand aside during the early, critical stage of the Libyan uprising, the U.S. implicitly endorsed the status quo and allowed Qaddafi to regain the initiative. Washington also unwittingly signaled to other contested regimes in Bahrain and Yemen that they had a choice to avoid the "Mubarak option" of ceding to the will of the people — by shooting them — without risking their U.S. ties. Lesson: America still has the unique power to manage unfolding international crises, which are essentially unmanageable when Washington sits on the sidelines — and a U.S. decision not to intervene is as much a strategic choice as the decision to do so.

(2) The world’s rising democracies need to decide whose side they are on.  Developing democracies Colombia, South Africa, and Nigeria supported the Council resolution on intervention in Libya. Brazil and India did not. Great powers have to make choices in international affairs — it’s what makes them great powers. India’s abstention in the Libya vote disappoints its many American friends who supported President Obama’s call last November for a permanent Indian seat on the Security Council. India’s current two-year UNSC rotation was always going to be a litmus test of New Delhi’s ability to be a constructive player at the high table of world politics, from which India was excluded for 60 years.  

It is ironic that India — which intervened in what was then East Pakistan in 1971 to prevent a civilian bloodbath in Bangladesh’s independence struggle, intervened in Sri Lanka in 1987 for similar reasons, and has played a critical role supporting democratic solutions to civil conflicts in Nepal, Afghanistan, and elsewhere — decided that the same values of democracy and human rights that govern its own society are not for New Delhi to protect and advance elsewhere. The same goes for Brazil. Do these giant democracies really think their interests will be better served in a world in which leaders have an absolute right to slaughter their people — a world in which an archaic notion of "non-intervention" precludes any active defense of the same universal values that underlie the Indian and Brazilian miracles?

(3) The Responsibility to Protect is no longer a Western concept. The Arab League’s urging of international military intervention in Libya to protect the Libyan people was a historic departure from the norms of sovereignty embraced for decades by Arab strongmen. In the explicit judgment of (largely unelected) Arab League leaders, Qaddafi forfeited his claims to sovereignty over Libya by virtue of his treatment of the Libyan people. This is a more progressive, and enlightened, standard for the universal protection of the basic rights of humankind than that embraced by some of the world’s developed democracies. 

Should such a principle strengthen as a pillar of international society, history will clearly not be on the side of Sinocentric autocracy or other forms of authoritarian rule; indeed, it may not be either China or the West but key players in the developing world who shape a new understanding of the limits of sovereignty under international law in a way that tilts the international system more firmly towards freedom. Going back to Point 2, one would imagine that India, Brazil, and for that matter Germany would want to be on the right side of this evolving debate.

(4) U.N. Security Council candidacy has a corrosive effect on countries’ willingness to stand up for what they believe in. Three of the four countries aspiring to UNSC membership and currently sitting on the Council — Germany, India, and Brazil — abstained from the vote on Libya (South Africa, the fourth, voted for it). Their officials appear to believe that being true to their values and voting with their more natural democratic allies on the Council could complicate their ability to secure Chinese and Russian support for their permanent membership aspirations. While this may be true, the opposite logic should equally apply. Their failure to vote with their natural allies by standing up for the same basic rights for the Libyan people that Germans, Indians, and Brazilians enjoy could complicate American, French, and British support for their quest for a permanent seat on the Security Council. 

(5)   France may be America’s natural ally in Europe. It goes without saying that the relationship with Britain will always be special, and that British and American interests in world affairs will continue to closely align. The surprise in the Libyan debate is how forcefully France has demanded justice for the Libyan people and assertive action against their oppressors. In fact, France’s pedigree as a country with significant military capabilities that is quite comfortable wielding them overseas makes it a more comfortable partner for the United States than conventional wisdom would suggest. Forgotten in the emotional debate over the Iraq war were concrete French offers to form a substantial part of the military invasion force in 2003 if only Washington would give the U.N. process a bit more time. As French Gaullism gives way to closer military and intelligence cooperation at NATO — whose military structures France rejoined in 2009 — and bilaterally with Washington, a natural entente should continue to consolidate between the United States and the country whose people showed the world, in 1789, that the droits de l’homme are the gift of no ruler but the prerogative of humankind.