A key lesson to draw from the failures of President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron to rally their nations behind military intervention in Syria, writes Michael Ignatieff, is the reticence of democratic peoples to bless the use of force in efforts “to protect civilians in countries far away.” In a New York Times op-ed the former Canadian opposition leader and authority on human rights in the age of terror both highlights the importance of popular consent for intervention and laments the ability of prior events to render that consent ever more begrudgingly tendered:
When democracy becomes the venue for testing the legitimacy of force, the bar of justification is set high. Democratic legitimacy is not a substitute for international legality, but it performs one of the crucial functions of law, which is to subject the use of force to strict control.
Democratic consent, of course, can be manipulated, as it was over Iraq in 2003. But when it is, democratic peoples have learned from the experience and have raised the bar higher.
Their reluctance to use force is not a passing phenomenon. Immanuel Kant was right that when the people bear the cost of war and get a chance to tell their leaders what they think, they are reluctant to authorize it.
Still, it is critical that they be willing, in the right circumstances, to do so. In the future, the Security Council may be deadlocked about intervening, and presidents and prime ministers will have to turn instead to their people for permission to save civilians. If the case for action is made honestly, if no one’s consent is manipulated, let’s hope the people say yes. We can’t fight genocide, ethnic cleansing and chemical weapons attacks unless they do.
Ignatieff, whose political memoir we’ll publish this fall, is driven by his concern for the “crisis of democratic legitimacy” facing the idea, developed by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty in 2001, “that all states, but especially democracies, have a ‘responsibility to protect’ civilians when they are threatened with mass killing.”
It’s interesting to consider Ignatieff’s reflection on the challenge of democratic war alongside James Whitman’s writing on the challenge of war for democracy. In his 2012 book, The Verdict of Battle: The Law of Victory and the Making of Modern War, Whitman makes the argument that the modern checks on military conflict often now leave ideologically-grounded moral imperatives as the only causes considered legitimate. But when fighting for high ideals like democracy, he explains, there’s no means for declaring victory short of the establishment of the principles at stake. Our modern warfare, then, can by its very legitimacy be almost guaranteed to be more prolonged, expansive, and destructive than wars of the past.