Responsibility to plead


Did anyone see Michael Ignatieff and Paul Heinbecker on the brooooadcast this afternoon? Am I the only one who thinks these two advocates of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P to the cool kids) did a bang-up job of demonstrating the doctrine’s — what’s the word I’m looking for here — sucking vapidity?

I’m a fan of Heinbecker and at least an occasional critic of Ignatieff, but regardless, I’m not sure how you can argue that R2P is a tool for deciding whether or how to intervene in the Burma disaster zone. R2P holds that intervention is permissible, over the objections or despite the resistance of sovereign states, if they are unable or unwilling to protect their populations from natural or human-inflicted disaster. The doctrine was written up, at Lloyd Axworthy’s behest by a UN committee of which Ignatieff was a member, essentially to provide ex post facto justification for the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999. Vaclav Havel spoke to Canada’s parliament during that campaign and essentially wrote the script for the R2P, three years ahead of time:

“The idol of state sovereignty must inevitably dissolve in a world that connects people, regardless of borders, through millions of links of integration ranging from trade, finance and property, up to information: links that impart a variety of universal notions and cultural patterns….we all, whether we like it or not, suffer responsibility for everything that occurs.”

So how would Ignatieff and Heinbecker fulfill the Responsibility to Protect in Burma? Ignatieff told Don Newman he wants Canada’s government to go to the Burma thugocracy and say — this is a quote — “Come on, guys!” Heinbecker said the best method would be to put diplomatic pressure on Burma’s Chinese patrons, so China would in turn pressure Burma to let aid workers in.

Um. That’s not the Responsibility to Protect. That’s classic Westphalian diplomacy. The R2P isn’t about asking nicely, it’s about what to do when asking nicely fails. And the problem with R2P is that precisely the same hard choices face governments today as they did in its absence. Do we send in troops? What happens if the regime pushes back? What level of disaster rises to the level of requiring intervention? Did Darfur? Did Iraq?

R2P is a thing that looks like a decision and is, therefore, comforting to people who don’t like decisions. In that sense it’s like buying a gun to protect your home. You still have to decide whether to shoot the guys who break in. And if you ask them to leave — “Come on, guys!” — and they don’t, then the decision still awaits.


Responsibility to plead

  1. When I heard Ignatieff ask those questions during QP yesterday, while being annoyed at the fact that PVL was answering for Bernier, I kept wishing someone on the government benches would ask him if he was suggesting that Canada invade Burma to deliver aid.

    ’cause that was certainly what it was sounding like.

  2. Well, in its more robust form, it justified the Iraq war.

    Walking it back from that is probably what makes it sound so lame now.

  3. Norman Spector took aim at Lloyd Axworthy’s piece in today’s Citizen. Essentially, what all this R2P stuff amounts to is: “Someone should do something!”

    It’s the triumph of the Stephen Lewis school of internationalism.

  4. Not to beat up your metaphor, but in Canada if you qualify to buy that gun, as a responsible and paperwork literate citizen, then choose to shoot the robber, you stand a good chance of going to jail. Hmm invade abjectly poor, nasty junta-run sovriegn country and there will be those who accuse you of war-crimes and atrocities when things invariably get difficult and call for the IJC etc when someone gets shot.
    Iggy seems to adore guns and easy winning in theory, it is when the reality of shooting the gun and the messy consequences are imminent that he blabbers.

    At the least I think we should start dropping food into the Burmese delta.

  5. The gun analogy fails at the level that you are the invader in the Burma scenario, not the homeowner.

    By extending the logic of your desired R2P you empower government, at all levels, to violate personal sovereignty as well as national, on the slippery slope of “state morality”/”we know what’s best for you” . Since the whole legal concept of sovereingty is the foundation of property rights and rule of law, as we have come to understand over the past 800 years, are you proposing some sort of situational morality of convenience?

    I find this kind of thinking scary. People have flocked to Canada for nearly 150 years because our system of law and property rights were the envy of the world. They ran away from the systems of governance you are advocating here.

    I appreciate the situation in this circumstance is extreme, but it reminds me an apocryphal Churchill story…

    Winston is at a high-society cocktail party and an extremely attractive debutante is fawning on him. “Would you sleep with me for 100,000 pounds?” he asks her.

    “Why of course I would Mr. Prime Minister!” she replies breathlessly.

    “Would you sleep with me for one pound?” he asks.

    “What kind of girl do you think I am?” she angrily accuses him.

    “We’ve already determined that”, he deadpans. “Now were just negotiating terms”.

    The rule of law is a lot like virginity, you either have it or you don’t. As citizens we should all realize that…oh sorry we’ve recently become “consumers”. How convenient for those who wish to abrogate the rule of law. Citizens vote for their long-term interests, consumers shop for deals.

  6. Although a co-author of the ICISS report, Ignatieff has not been above simplistically misrepresenting its contents and their international reception, including during his leadership campaign, when he described it as reporting on “the rules that ought to define when it is right to use force in international affairs.”

    His latest remarks confirm, as Wells suggests, that he hasn’t fully thought through the full implications of his recollected version of R2P.

    Not that he’s made no intellectual progress at all, of course, for when he delivered the speech from which that quotation above was taken, Ignatieff was still simply a self-declared ‘serious person’ and not yet the sadder and wiser ‘man of sorrows’ who authored his Iraq neah-culpa.

    Since that essay’s publication, of course, the seasoned intellect has gone on to offer this sophisticated foreign policy approach during a speech in February of this year:

    “His [Ignatieff’s] overriding message was that Canada matters more than ever on the world stage, a position that requires us to adopt the unaccustomed approach of ‘banging on the table.'”

    And so today we read that a “Come on, guys!” has joined “table-banging” as the newest and sharpest arrow in Michael Ignatieff’s foreign policy quiver.

    That’s progress, of a sort, I guess.

    On behalf of a grateful nation, I offer thanks that Canada has not been forced to endure a fourth decade of Michael Ignatieff’s absence from our national policy debates.

  7. I’m glad you have commented on Mr. Ignatieff’s question in the House of Commons. My thought when hearing it was, “What in the world is Canada supposed to do if the Burmese gov’t refuses aid”? It’s easy to spout platitudes, but how to practically work them out is another thing. One would expect a more intelligent question from the learned professor.

  8. Neoconservatives call it “pre-emptive war”.
    Progressives call it “the responsibility-to-protect”.

    Both are just euphemisms for neoimperialism.

  9. So, is all the detached critical opinion over with, or is there more of the same yet to come?

    Don’t get me wrong…I agree with it. But how many times do we need to read the same thing?

    Do you boys have any better ideas at this point? If so, I’d certainly like to hear them.

    “It’s the triumph of the Stephen Lewis school of internationalism.”

    Oh, bravo…*clap clap clap* I’m glad to see the 3+ million MacLean’s gets each year from the Publications Assistance Program is money well spent.

  10. Short of parachuting aid workers in by military helicopter- no.

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