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Letter from the Editor: January/February 2010

Lately, finally, Westphalian rules have been enjoying a vogue. Does the Obama administration care what states do inside their borders? Not really, given the importance it accords the world’s cooperation. Ought not the sight of demonstrators—liberals, democrats—being gunned down in their own streets give us pause when it comes to “engaging” regimes whose respect we crave? Not necessarily. The utility of diplomacy, after all, lies in its capacity to influence, to prod another to see the error of his ways, to encourage him to modify his future behavior. So has the new “realism” worked? Absolutely not.

From China and Iran to Burma, the proclaimed effectiveness of administration policies is contrived and largely fanciful. Having eliminated any obligation to link punishment to offense, the Obama team has discovered that the wider scope of action promised by its modest definition of American purpose is an illusion. Is it really necessary to point out that Iran will go on enriching uranium regardless of the president’s humble stance, or his high-minded rhetoric, or his exciting family history?

But these are pragmatic objections to ruthlessness. Obama’s foreign policy—let me say this plainly—offers no morally persuasive basis for America’s conduct abroad. It is one thing to claim that the president has removed the taint of his predecessor by guaranteeing that henceforth the United States will employ its power only in concert with and on behalf of the “world community.” But is this really evidence of heightened moral awareness? Or is it simply an effort to disprove the contention that raison d’état and the demands of humanity are inherently at odds with one another? Obama’s world community, after all, consists of governments, not people.

There is, to be sure, a venerable strain of liberalism that elevates non-intervention to the status of a moral imperative. But if staying mum in the case of human rights violations on the scale that Obama has ignored in China and Iran is what American liberalism has come to, then it has nothing to say. For the practice of statecraft throughout the West, all of this used to be an especially problematic issue, nowhere more so than among liberalism’s constituents. Used to be, because it is no longer: Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, and the decision of the United Nations to embrace and codify the “responsibility to protect”—these all but banished “sovereignty” from the lexicon of humanitarian affairs. Or as Kofi Annan put it, the war over Kosovo proved once and for all the need to enforce “the principle that massive and systematic violations of human rights—wherever they may take place—should not be allowed to stand.” True, Cuba, Singapore, Algeria, Iran: they still privilege the old verities. And so, it increasingly appears, do we.

—Lawrence F. Kaplan

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