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Moral Hazard and Moral Policy

March 1, 2010

An article in FP claims that, thanks to the Obama administration, genocide is now properly recognized as “a National Security Threat. Genocide is obviously a national security threat for neighboring states. They can indeed generate heavy costs for the US in relief and peacekeeping operations. But this argument obfuscates the difficulty of preventing genocide without inflicting similar material costs and depletion in soft power. It is plainly obvious when the blood is spilling that there is a problem which demands a response. It is less so when the violence has not yet begun.

Take the example of South Sudan. Major investments in South Sudan’s government and a deployment of peacekeeping forces would be no easy undertaking. Even if there is no calculable difference between the cost of preventative and reactive missions, it is always better to prevent, of course. However, is bloodshed so easily avoidable? Bosnia proved it was difficult to prevent ethnic cleansing in the midst of a general conflict without increasingly violent actions. As the US faces this dilemma, the problem of “soft power” becomes more pronounced. Preventing genocide with intervention would curry favor with South Sudan and sympathetic countries, but the acts taken to do so will reduce it with others.

Patrick Porter of King’s College notes the moral hazard endemic to interventionist strategy. An open-ended commitment to preventing genocide, as outlined in the FP essay, would be a rhetorical signal to separatists and embattled states that pursuing policies that put their populations in harm’s way can trigger American and international aid. Such has already occurred in Kosovo, a case which proved taking such risks can actually bear fruit, as Porter notes. The US cannot afford to intervene in every conflict – the real prospects of mass killing and humanitarian catastrophe keep us in Iraq and Afghanistan today. How many more can the US realistically commit itself to, especially if its policy proliferates, rather than deters, crises which merit intervention?

A moral foreign policy that at least intervened in some conflicts would be better than an apathetic one, comes the retort. The problem is that no foreign policy is really moral, even one that refuses to separate moral from national interests. The ugly reality is that not all genocides or humanitarian capacities affect the calculation of US interests, nor are all equally susceptible to intervention. Eventually, the calculations of realpolitik will impinge upon moral imperatives. A moral foreign policy, in the eyes of the international community, quickly degenerates into an hypocritical one, as America appears to selectively intervene in its own interests, and weak or victimized groups invite crises and delay resolutions so the US will serve their own.

A purely moral foreign policy is a contradiction in terms. There endures a distinction between politics and ethics, can and ought. Building an international framework, perhaps involving the strengthening of regional alliances and capabilities, that can prevent or mitigate the worst infliction of murder and misery is possible, if difficult. An open-ended commitment to ending mass killing, though, is an invitation to endless and bloody entanglements or hollow bluster. However morally admirable the intention, the consequences of pursuing unsustainable strategies would do little to serve our national interests or human welfare.

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