Are the Obama folks genuine multilateralists?
FP executive editor Susan Glasser and Turtle Bay‘s Colum Lynch sat down this week with U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. In the course of the conversation, she offered the most detailed response I’ve yet seen from an American official to the charge that the West abused its authority in Libya under Resolution 1973: ...
FP executive editor Susan Glasser and Turtle Bay's Colum Lynch sat down this week with U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. In the course of the conversation, she offered the most detailed response I've yet seen from an American official to the charge that the West abused its authority in Libya under Resolution 1973:
FP executive editor Susan Glasser and Turtle Bay‘s Colum Lynch sat down this week with U.S. ambassador to the UN Susan Rice. In the course of the conversation, she offered the most detailed response I’ve yet seen from an American official to the charge that the West abused its authority in Libya under Resolution 1973:
"We made very, very clear — I made very, very clear — in laying out to the Security Council what this authority would entail. The protection of civilians, as mandated and drafted, in what became Resolution 1973, was going to involve air strikes against [Muammar] Qaddafi‘s command and control centers, air strikes against moving columns, air strikes against any asset of the regime that would threaten civilians. We discussed this at great detail and we, in fact, debated language that laid all of that out in great specificity so that countries could not claim that they didn’t know exactly what they were granting when passing that resolution," said Rice. "We wanted the council to make a clear eyed decision. If they hadn’t supported this it wouldn’t have happened…But in voting for it, or not opposing it, the council gave a clear-cut green light. Now there may be some cynical folks who say that perhaps the Russians and the Chinese were trying to give the coalition — NATO, and Western and Arab powers — enough room to hang themselves and they’re frustrated that that wasn’t exactly the outcome. I don’t know. But I do know it was very clear what they were voting for and the outcome was one that was potentially foreseen … although I understand that you have to be somewhat nuanced to see it. But the resolution and the actions of NATO really were genuinely to protect civilians, they were not designed for regime change…What transpired was that, in addition to the NATO air campaign to protect civilians, [there was] growth and transformation of the opposition. They cohered ultimately into a sufficiently capable multi-front force to ultimately topple Qaddafi."
Rice appears to be insisting not that there can be reasonable disagreement about the scope of the resolution but that Russia, China, South Africa, and India are disingenuous in asserting that NATO’s activities went well beyond what the Council had authorized. At the same time, she does appear to acknowledge (although her words are not entirely clear on this point) that there were two distinct phases to the operation: the first designed to protect civilians from immediate attack and the second to help the transformed opposition topple Qaddafi. Rice also suggests that the rebel forces were transformed through some organic process, adroitly sliding over the question of whether foreign military advisors and arms shipments of dubious legality were an important part of that transformation.
The debate about whether the West was disingenuous and manipulative in its use of Security Council authorization has now run for months, and the camps are pretty well delineated. Rice and others (see Erik Voeten’s smart post here) insist that the BRIC claims to have been snookered are not credible. Others, myself included, see the Libya operation as fairly clearly in excess of Security Council authority (though not necessarily bad policy).
On its own, this debate is not all that important and should probably now be consigned to dusty law reviews, where folks can wrangle over the fine points of old Security Council resolutions for years. But there is embedded in this debate something important: the question of whether the Obama administration is genuine in its professed committment to multilateralism. Steve Walt, in response to an earlier post of mine, doubles down on his insistence that the administration (and interventionists more broadly) are deeply hypocritical:
The real puzzle is why advocates of intervention are so fond of invoking multilateralism, institutions, and the importance of international law, and then so quick to ignore it when it gets in the way of today’s pet project. Realists aren’t always right, but at least we’re not hypocrites.
The charge here is that many of those who claim to respect law and institutions in fact use them as mere means to an end and will happily discard them when inconvenient. They do not see them as genuine restraints that should be respected for their own sake, but as tactical instruments to be deployed and withdrawn as the situation demands. The administration loves the UN’s Human Rights Council when it is criticizing others, but feels no obligation to respond seriously to the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings when he asks about American targeted assassinations.
Nor does the administration appear inclined to part with the customary great-power privileges that sap the legitimacy of existing multilateral institutions in the eyes of much of the world. Despite the administration’s claims to want a more equitable international architecture, for example, it quietly backed Europe’s bid to maintain leadership of the IMF. It shows no signs that it will surrender its customary privilege of naming the head of the World Bank and open that process to international competition. And on perhaps the most enervating issue of great-power privilege–the structure of the UN Security Council–the administration has zero appetite for reform.
Hypocrisy may be too strong a term here. I’d say it’s just more evidence that the actual practice of politics makes pragmatists of everyone.
David Bosco is a professor at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. He is the author of The Poseidon Project: The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans. Twitter: @multilateralist
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