R2P: A Priest, A Linguist, and an Economist Walk into the General Assembly…

Miguel D'Escoto, GA president

What kind of issue would cause a left-wing priest, a radical linguist, and a free market economist to take the same side? The answer: opposition to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) at the United Nations. The priest is the nutty General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto, the linguist is the flaming radical Noam Chomsky, and the economist is the sensible young academic Christopher Coyne.

R2P is the principle that the international community should intervene to protect people from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity if their own governments fail to do so. It has been official UN doctrine since 2005, and the UN General Assembly debated its renewal last week.

Most of the discussion about R2P is normative: should we rescue people from genocide and war crimes? Of course we should. How can anyone familiar with Auschwitz, Cambodia, and Rwanda feel otherwise?

What D’Escoto, Chomsky, and Coyne all do is shift the debate from normative (how should people behave?) to positive (how do people actually behave?) They ask, who is the “we” in the normative statement above going to be, and how will they behave? D’Escoto started the General Assembly debate by asking the positive questions:

(1) Is it more likely that the principle would be applied only by the strong against the weak?

(2) Will adoption of the R2P principle in the practice of collective security more likely enhance or undermine respect for international law?

(3) Does it guarantee that states will intervene to prevent another Rwanda?

(4) Do we have the capacity to enforce accountability upon those who might abuse the right that R2P would give nation-states to resort to the use of force against other states?

Chomsky and D’Escoto both conclude that, in practice, R2P is just Great Power imperialism in disguise. Although a lot of other statements by these two are nuts, this conclusion is not completely crazy. After all, any intervention has to be approved by the Great Powers that sit on the UN Security Council.

Christopher Coyne, who wasn't actually present at the UN R2P debate last week, and does not share the leftist paranoia of Chomsky and D’Escoto, does arrive at similar positive conclusions. He wrote a paper about the “Nirvana fallacy,” the assumption of a perfect intervener. So in the R2P case, Nirvana is a neutral, benevolent, all-knowing, powerful, rapid, humanitarian force that will identify and rescue those at risk. A positive analysis would conclude that no such Nirvana exists or ever will exist, and that the likely answers to D’Escoto’s questions are (1) Yes, (2) Don’t Know, so Be Careful (3) No, and (4) No.

There is plenty of space between “Never Again” and “Never Intervene.” There are probably some situations where some Power can rescue innocents from war crimes, and we personally would move Heaven and Earth to support them. But the advocates of R2P as a general principle have a long way to go to explain how they will turn the normative into the positive.