When it comes to foreign policy, the 2020s might be about to go retro. And nothing could be so perfectly targeted to hit that pre-Trump nostalgia spot for the administrative class quite like “Responsible American Leadership.” In this post-Cold War era, this term always seems to mean a rhetorical commitment to the unique benefits of U.S. global hegemony compared to past world powers as justified by its stated goals of humanitarian purpose.
The Biden administration’s commitment to continue a full Afghanistan withdrawal began under the Trump administration was a welcome break for the last few decades’ trend of continuously expanding “endless wars.” Nevertheless, the response from official and institutional sources in the media as well as the greater foreign policy power centers has been almost entirely hostile.
Not wanting to return to the doomed cause of that benighted nation, however, the rhetoric about the human rights of Afghanistan’s women and girls is instead most likely being weaponized to be deployed the next time the foreign policy establishment wishes to increase support for another military intervention. “We don’t want another Kabul,” will most likely be the refrain. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, despite the administration’s policy on Afghanistan, has already expressed regret that the Obama administration did not “do enough” in Syria. This implies that one of the most expensive training and equipment programs in CIA history, which largely benefited jihadist fighters, is not quite good enough for him. If the March Alaska talks with China was any indication, the Beltway establishment is currently laying the groundwork for a return to the hollow interventionist pieties of yesteryear.
An interesting figure to examine, and one whose persona and ideology is measurably influential upon an entire school of up-and-coming foreign policy wonks, is that of Samantha Power.
Biden’s head of the U.S. Agency for International Development has a long record of advocating for interventionism under the rubric of defending human rights and the “Responsibility to Protect,” also known as “R2P.” Power began as an academic responding to the horrors of the Rwandan Genocide and seeing the expansive definition of Clintonian foreign policy in the post-Cold War era as an opportunity to prevent such gruesome occurrences from happening again. Her 2003 book, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, laid out the issue of responding to genocide as an ethical quandary for U.S. strategists and advocated for increased interventionism. Ever since she has been dedicated to the idea that “international” (largely American) military force can bring about net positive outcomes in the developing world.
R2P claims that nation-states have the duty to protect their own citizens from genocide or crimes against humanity and that if a particular nation state does not do this, the international community has the responsibility to assist them.
R2P was adopted into the UN charter in 2005, likely as a pretext for paving the way for potential foreign involvement in Sudan in that year. The United States at the time was bogged down in the worst of the Iraq War and its botched aftermath and no one else had the capacity to enact such an operation in Sudan. So R2P remained on the books for a more opportune moment—which was found in Libya and later Syria.
R2P in Action
Even though Barack Obama had explicitly campaigned against George W Bush’s foreign policy (as well as Hillary Clinton’s in the Democratic primary), he soon proved himself amenable to many of their ideas. Power was a key influencer, holding multiple positions in the Obama administration.
Her time to cheerlead the U.S.’s first explicit invocation of R2P would soon be found in Libya. Though initially reluctant, Obama would be convinced by the leadership in Britain and France, as well as the endless lobbying by people in his own administration like Clinton and Power, to sign off on providing air cover and military assistance to the rebels against Colonel Gaddafi’s government.
By Obama’s own admission, it would become his worst mistake as president. Libya, once Africa’s most developed country, is now a hotbed of civil war, jihadist pockets and slave markets. The NATO operation may have “protected” some of the Libyan people from repression by internal state security forces, but it opened them up to far greater miseries beyond their prior imagining.
The proponents of R2P often point to Rwanda as the example for why interventionism is necessary. This is a harder case to make these days given the crumbling propaganda myths around Rwanda and Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Rwanda’s recent prosperity has been achieved through the murderous theft of Congolese mineral wealth. Furthermore, there is strong evidence to indicate that the 1994 presidential assassination which sparked the mass killings was masterminded by Kagame.
Power is merely one of the most visible manifestations of this kind of selective ideology, one that festers in elite universities, upper-middle-income brackets, and among the rank and file of the foreign policy establishment. It is easy to dismiss such sentiments as purely ideological cover for far more cynical motives, but for many in the Beltway establishment, these sentiments can be very real and genuine, even if they are often not the primary motivations for justifying primacy.
It certainly explains why people support such policies despite repeated failures that could not be justified in terms of strategic calculation for anyone who is not a defense contractor profiting directly from conflict. That said, the truism holds when applied to the foreign policy establishment: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Militarized Humanitarianism and the Cosmopolitan Dystopia
It cannot be denied that such policies are tied in with the acolytes of Samantha Power, and thus in turn with a sprawling defense establishment drunk on delusions of its own exceptionalism and fully aligned with the greater objectives of continued imperial expansion. What we are most likely going to see, if present trends continue, is the merging of the two consistent ideological projects of the present-day present Democratic Party: establishment culture war and the intertwined rehabilitation of neoconservatives.
Though such a project will have little popular appeal, it will provide a unifying force for the government, mainstream media, and nonprofit sectors to advocate for future regime change and military interventionist operations. R2P is about to return, hoping that the American public’s notoriously short attention span has long forgotten the disasters of intervention in Libya and Syria.
More than a year ago, the book Cosmopolitan Dystopia: International Intervention and the Failure of the West‘ was published. Written by Philip Cunliffe, professor and co-host of the Aufhebunga Bunga podcast, Cosmopolitan Dystopia serves as a useful tool in describing how the process of humanitarian interventionism actually undermines the very “liberal order” it is supposed to be serving by sabotaging diplomacy and international sovereignty in order to justify a constant necessity for American power projection.
“Moral leadership” of the kind so often ascribed to people like Power is an internationalist version of American exceptionalism that exists to not only justify the violation of foreign nations’ sovereignty but also to prepare the public and even the international community for more of the same.
In a world where the strongest and most hegemonic country touts defense of universal human rights as its prerogative, then universal rights become a potential messianic complex built explicitly to undermine the sovereignty of all countries that are not themselves or among the hegemon’s alliance networks.
This then becomes a self-feeding process, as the failures of military intervention worsen the targeted region through bombing, sanctions, and the creation of refugee flows, justifying yet more interventionism under a human rights pretext. And what shows this process in microcosm better than Samantha Power taking charge of USAID, the organization that will no doubt be providing humanitarian relief to many countries devastated by military interventions for which she once advocated?
One of the ironies created by this process which is pointed out by Cunliffe is that the true cosmopolitans of this new order are the jihadists and criminal gangs that thrive in the wake of such humanitarian-imposed state failure. Here are the people from many different countries all coming together to get along in a conflict zone at the expense of everyone else.
Given the long history of the U.S. and its client-states covertly supporting jihadi groups, these relationships may be more sinister than we can say definitively. Either way, this bizarre co-dependence between liberal interventionists and terrorist organizations ends up creating an ecosystem where both are officially enemies but rely on the policies of their supposed opposition to help spread their influence over a region of conflict. To quote Cunliffe:
Cunliffe correctly diagnoses that recognizing the sovereignty of other nations and their ideological divergence is more important than constructing a common and universal definition of humanity for those who wish to curtail the perpetual war state. The imperial wars of the 21st century are not a betrayal of liberalism and humanism, but its inevitable outcome when wedded to an imperial project. The rhetoric of human rights wielded by powerful states serves as a constantly available back-pocket declaration of war that could be potentially deployed against any country on Earth.
The Great Awokening and the New Humanist Crusade
When a foreign country bans or puts pressure on an NGO operating within its borders, this too creates another feedback loop where that country now looks paranoid while also reaffirming to American citizens that they are “in the right” to support such organizations against reactionary powers. What otherwise might have been a dispute between geopolitical rivals becomes a new culture war. Russia is homophobic, so you can’t have dealings with Russia. We aren’t like Russia. The Russian people yearn to be free under a system like ours.
Seeing the opportunistic way that human rights issues are used to sell hatred of foreign countries in media discourse, I wish to put forward the theory that the R2P supporters are hoping to use the culture war so perfected by online activists to justify their diplomatic and military policies. This in turn appears to justify the persecutions of groups in other countries which can now be labeled by local reactionaries as American infiltrators sent to undermine their culture.
This worsens the culture war abroad and gives ammunition to people in D.C. to continue to expand their policies, much in the way that military interventionism and global jihadism feed off of each other. In the end, we are left with something that performs in much the same way past forced religious conversions and “civilizing missions” did to justify their nations’ perpetual expansion. If something is for someone’s own good—for their betterment as a human being even—it is justified under a doctrine of common humanity just waiting to be ideologically unified under the One True Faith.
For opportunists this is just as an excuse, but it takes an authentic propaganda wing that really believes in the mission to convincingly sell it to the undecided. Needless to say, it is probably not an accident that Samantha Power herself credits her personal faith with her political convictions.
Among such people whose self-worth is defined by knowing what is best for everyone is an existing recruitment pool to sign on to humanitarian interventionism and thus the continued expansion of military operations. This will occur even if this is not the intention of those masterminding the policy. It is obvious that, at some point in the early 2010s, establishment actors came to realize that cultural conservatism and jingoistic nationalism, their former favorite recruitment tool, had run out of steam and the new way to recruit was to manufacture consent around the culturally liberal younger set. Such strange re-alignments can already be seen when “anarchist blue-haired, red-haired, yellow haired-ish girls are standing side by side with Salafists” to demand the continuation of war and sanctions against the Syrian state.
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About the Author
Christopher Mott is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.
He is the author of “The Formless Empire: A Short History of Diplomacy and Warfare in Central Asia.”
Chris can be reached at: email@example.com.