Friday, May 27, 2011

The lone sheriff

An unlikely coalition of liberals and conservatives came together to urge the "humanitarian intervention" in Libya. Peter Berger describes the liberal case for such intervention, exemplified by one Samantha Power, a member of the National Security Council and one of the President's advisers who advocated intervention. The argument is based on a comparatively new doctrine in international law called the responsibility to protect which Berger describes: "States have the duty to protect their citizens. If they are unable or unwilling to do so, other states may have the duty to intervene, in the final instance by military means. Specifically, such intervention is justified in the case of four derelictions: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. The intervention has to be approved by legitimate authority—which turns out to be (surprise!) the United Nations. Very importantly, sovereignty cannot be used as a shield behind which any atrocity can be perpetrated." Berger then goes on to consider whether the doctrine is credible:
This cannot be the place to go into the legal intricacies of the “responsibility to protect” (I am not competent to do so anyway), let alone to discuss the moral or realist merits of the invasions of Iraq and Libya. But it is within the broad purview of this blog to look into the moral reasoning behind this doctrine. I think it is essentially plausible. The insistence on the exclusive authority of the UN is much less plausible: The UN is not a world government, but a conglomerate of states, some of which are egregious violators of human rights. It seems to me that a “coalition of the willing, if the ”willing” consist of democracies with a respect for human rights, is a more plausible authority. Be this as it may, I would suggest that the moral reasoning here can be described as the “logic of the lone sheriff”.

Let us assume that there is one solitary sheriff responsible for the security of a village. Let us further assume that he fulfils this responsibility quite well. A neighboring village has no sheriff . If a serious crime is about to occur in the neighboring village, our sheriff will feel the right, even the responsibility to cross the boundary between the villages in order to stop the crime. Nothing Quixotic about this. It becomes Quixotic if the sheriff now goes from village to village, even far from home, looking for crimes to stop—even leaving aside the likelihood that, in this case, his own village will become insecure and perhaps go bankrupt.

It seems to me that this metaphor expresses a plausible moral logic. It remains plausible if one extends the logic to an imperial power, such as Britain in the nineteenth century or the United States today. American exceptionalism has been rightly criticized. In terms of this particular issue, America is not exceptional because it is morally superior, but quite simply because its power is exceptional. Whether by design or by happenstance, the United States is the only global sheriff. There is no one else to play this role. Much if not all the world is covered in a grid of Pentagon Commands. There are all these peasants, blissfully unaware that they are denizens of, say, Central Command—unless an American drone hits them, or unless a flotilla of American ships and planes comes to their relief after an earthquake or tsunami. Such power brings with it a “responsibility to protect” that is indeed exceptional. Yet even the United States cannot exercise its power all the time, in every place. If it tries to do so, it will indeed come to resemble Don Quixote. And it will very likely fall off its horse. .... [more]
Samantha and the Lone Sheriff | Religion and Other Curiosities