3 nationalities. 2 people. 1 goal. Our thoughts on the latest in international affairs.
I recently had a conversation with a good friend on the role of the US in the world. Specifically, we discussed in the context of humanitarian crises, genocides, civil wars–occurrences all too familiar today. In just the past few years there have been enough to supply many a Ph.D. dissertation. Perhaps too many: I brought up the recent conflict and near genocide in the Central African Republic that was missed by most Americans, and deplored the US government and mainstream media for sidestepping it all together amid so many “more relevant” crises. But my friend simply responded, “Why should we care? Why is that our problem?”
He has a point. Once it becomes our problem, it often becomes a problem–a big one at that. There are significant risks related to American involvement: death of our troops, waste of taxpayer dollars, mission creep, and worst of all, doing more harm than good. But, policymakers in the past had to have known those quite obvious risks before embarking on humanitarian and peacekeeping missions. And yet they still embarked.
But, as a recent Foreign Policy post aptly argues, stopping genocide has never been a core interest of the United States. As an ardent realist, I concur. I do believe foreign policy is merely an extension of domestic politics and national interests (mainly the latter). Yet as a human being, I dissent. I also believe humanitarian intervention is an extension of our natural empathy, of human nature.
We live in arguably one of the most democratic, free, and representative nations in the world, where enough agreement in public opinion can rapidly produce change. We do have the power to significantly affect decisions, and realign “core interests”. It’s time we speak up.
Forceful, adamant public opinion has no doubt produced the opposite effect before. Although not humanitarian related, the Vietnam War was famous for inciting anti-war protests that arguably helped force the eventual US withdrawal. More relevantly, fresh wounds from an immensely failed US/UN mission in Somalia cast a somber shadow on public opinion of humanitarian intervention in the 90s, no doubt playing a role in the weak, latent US responses to the Rwandan Genocide and Bosnian War later that decade.
If such strong, directed public outcry can deter, why can’t similar sentiments urge the US to intervene in situations where our sheer military power, resources, and leadership are direly needed? Unfortunately, this equates to almost every situation. As the global superpower, the US has much latitude in these matters (a US veto in the UN or NATO dooms any proposal) and always provides the largest chunk of resources (almost a third of the UN Peacekeeping budget and a fourth of the NATO budget). For many, a US decision on whether to intervene can mean life or death.
I hate to say this, but…with great power comes great responsibility. Not just responsibility from the most powerful government in the world though. From its people as well. The US undoubtedly has the ability to change the outcome of every humanitarian crisis. And, the American people irrefutably have the ability to change the outcome of any US policy decision, if massive support is mustered. But somewhere among first-world comforts, pervasive apathy, and arguments about which side of a conflict is right while civilians perish on the sidelines, we stopped caring about the suffering of those around the world.
During the Bosnian War, it took the massacres of two UN-designated “safe areas”, Zepa and the more infamous Srebrenica, to galvanize public opinion and finally elicit a desperately needed humanitarian intervention by NATO and the US.
Has the moral threshold increased? How many more UN safe areas need to be bombed in Gaza before an intervention is deemed necessary?
Maybe the magnitude of killings just isn’t high enough in Gaza. Maybe it will take another Srebrenica Massacre, where more than 8,000 civilians were killed in three days. That would surely upset even the most indifferent, complacent individuals.
But it’s not just Gaza where suffering is muted in American minds. In Syria, a third of the almost 120,000 casualties since March 2011 have been civilians, and the tally is still rising. In Iraq, Nigeria, South Sudan–and too many more places to name–desperate humanitarian need is matched by an American public increasingly out of tune with the world.
Visiting Sarajevo, Bosnia after the war (which in pictures looked strikingly similar to Gaza today), then Secretary of State Warren Christopher said:
My day in Sarajevo was not, of course, an adequate basis on which to conclude that our actions and policies in Bosnia had been successful or wise. The experience did provide, however, a visual and visceral confirmation of what I knew to be a fundamental prerequisite for success: that the suffering these people had endured had not diminished their desire or will to restore themselves to normal lives. If they were still willing to supply the heart, I was convinced we should not shrink from providing the means.
So, my friend: humanitarian crises are our problem because we are human. And when humanity has the desire, the will, and the heart to continue living, but not the means, do we sit back and watch as they fall to the earth or do we reach out our hands and help them up? There is no right answer, no moral absolutism, to this question. But I would argue human nature always answers with help, empathy, and compassion that abide by no racial, ethnic, religious, or national barriers.
It’s time we start caring again about nations and peoples other than our own. It’s time we regain our humanity.