President Donald Trump’s decision last week to order airstrikes to punish Syria for a chemical-weapons attack that killed and injured scores of civilians has exposed conservatism’s intellectual confusion about U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps the most troubling thing about this debate is the deficit of historical perspective – a failure to consider the moral-theological tradition of the West that insists that civilized nations have a responsibility to protect civilian populations in times of war.
Amid the brutally destructive Wars of Religion, Protestant thinker Hugo Grotius wrote On Laws of War and Peace (1625). “Though there may be circumstances, in which absolute justice will not condemn the sacrifice of lives in war,” he argued, “yet humanity will require that the greatest precaution should be used against involving the innocent in danger, except in cases of extreme urgency and utility.”
Here is a political principle, rooted in Judeo-Christian ethics, which has helped to protect countless civilians from the savagery of war. Here is a concept about human dignity that has influenced every international document on the conduct of nations in wartime: from the Geneva Protocol (1925), banning the use of chemical weapons; to the Genocide Convention (1948), adopted in the aftermath of the Holocaust; to the United Nations Responsibility to Protect (2005), a resolution authorizing military force to prevent crimes against humanity.
Yet many of the critics of the U.S. missile strike seem indifferent to this tradition. Conservatives such as Andrew McCarthy argue that Bashar al-Assad’s use of a weapon of mass destruction — which targeted innocent men, women, and children — involved “no vital American interests.” No vital American interests? When did conservatism decide that the United States has no interest in upholding a universal moral norm that has helped to prevent the West from descending into a permanent state of barbarism? When, exactly, did the humanitarian ideals of the Western tradition become irrelevant to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy?
It was the abject failure of the United Nations to uphold these principles throughout the 1980s and 1990s that produced the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine: the proposition that there is a collective responsibility to protect people from genocide, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity — even if it means military intervention. Overwhelmingly approved by the U.N. General Assembly, R2P insists that nations cannot hide behind the U.N. charter and “national sovereignty” in order to wage war against their civilian populations. The signatories to the doctrine — which include the United States — agree to take “collective action . . . should peaceful means be inadequate” to protect populations at risk of gross human-rights abuses. In this, R2P pays homage to the Christian just-war tradition.
The problem, of course, is that the U.N. Security Council is deemed the only legitimate authority to implement the doctrine. Just-war theorist James Turner Johnson has written of the historic dysfunction of the United Nations in this regard: “The structure of the U.N. is such that clear purpose and effective command and control are virtually unimaginable.”
As long as Russia — Syria’s chief patron — retains its veto power on the U.N. Security Council, there will be no U.N. resolution to punish Assad or prevent him from committing more war crimes. Russian president Vladimir Putin has even suggested that the United States manufactured the chemical attack as a pretense for an invasion. We thus face the bizarre spectacle of a permanent member of the Security Council either complicit in a chemical-weapons attack or, at the very least, committed to a false and outlandish narrative of U.S. malevolence — all for the purpose of insulating a genocidal regime from censure. The result, if experience is any guide: an even more belligerent Syria, more mass atrocities, more attacks on humanitarian aid workers, and the near collapse of a universal moral principle.
And there are no vital American interests in play?
“If we are not able to enforce resolutions preventing the use of chemical weapons, what does that say about our effectiveness in this institution?” asked Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “When the United Nations consistently fails in its duty to act collectively, there are times in the life of states that we are compelled to take our own action.”
Ambassador Haley has a good deal of U.S. diplomatic history on her side. The 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo — a bombing campaign that brought an end to the ethnic cleansing of the Balkan wars — lacked U.N. approval. It was, to be sure, a controversial intervention, and Bill Clinton’s deep aversion to American casualties contributed to the carnage and chaos during the campaign. But political realists who saw no important U.S. interests at stake — not even naked aggression and a humanitarian disaster within Europe’s borders could stir them — looked morally bankrupt once peace and security were restored to the region.