the intervention ratchet’s lexicon: disaggregating mass atrocities response policy

This is the second post in a series on the lexicon of intervention’s slippery slope. The series is intended to educate human rights advocates about the opportunities, costs, and opportunity costs of coercive responses to mass atrocities.

Let’s review: in my last post, I riffed on de Waal, Meierhenrich, and Conley-Zilkic’s analytical notion of a “teleology of mass atrocities prevention.” Addressing the “texture” of Holocaust memory in public discourse, I expanded on the notion of a moral mass atrocities narrative, with broad implications for policymaking, public perceptions of genocide and mass atrocities, and academic research. I addressed the emergence of psychological and anthropological experimental research on mass atrocities, noting its under-prioritization of political institutions and incentives. I referenced Meierhenrich’s model of disaggregated atrocities research as a path for further investigation, understanding, and nuance.

The second part of de Waal et al.’s essay concerns our “epistemological” understanding of mass atrocities response policy–that is, the boundaries of our atrocities termination knowledge. What works, and how do we know? As I mentioned in my first post, our cognitive perception of mass atrocities–as an exclusively moral stain on the human conscience, rather than a complex, multi-level web of political, economic, and social interactions–has led to a myriad of methodological missteps in assessing atrocities termination. In the present-day policy discourse on mass atrocities, as before, false dichotomies are commonplace: intervention will end mass atrocities, while non-intervention will encourage their continuation. Similarly, selection bias abounds: when Samantha Power writes on the failure of U.S. policy intervention in mass atrocities, she identifies the most egregious instances of institutional, organizational, and policy failures; on the other side, when David Rieff condemns the folly of human rights advocacy, he relies on a cursory selection of flawed interventions and disastrous consequences. Opposing viewpoints present each other’s ideological commitments as slippery slopes: for anti-interventionists, R2P paves an inevitable path towards military intervention, while R2P advocates’ understanding of realism wholly precludes the implementation of civilian protection policy. Each assertion encapsulates fragments of truth (as with all logical fallacies), but it’s the perception that counts.

In constructing an “epistemology” of mass atrocities termination, de Waal et al. reiterate the need for disaggregated research. As in the case of mass atrocities’ emergence, civil war research is about a decade and a half ahead of the game. Qualitative and quantitative assessments of civil war termination are critical components of the comparative politics arsenal, underlining the various roles of negotiated political settlements, peacekeeping operations, and decisive military victories in facilitating sustainable peace. Given the overlap between conflict- and atrocities-oriented preventive policy tools, the civil war research may be particularly useful as a foundation for atrocities termination. Indeed, de Waal et al.’s preliminary termination models bear a striking similarity to the civil war literature’s standard frameworks: decisive victory, limited victory, regime fragmentation, and third-party intervention all feature prominently in existing models of civil war termination.

A disaggregated approach to assessing mass atrocities termination yields important conclusions for human rights policymakers, who seek to avoid the false dualism of “humanitarian intervention.” Throughout the past two decades, domestic and international approaches to human rights policy have improved, allowing for the emergence of “smarter,” more targeted forms of economic, political, and diplomatic statecraft. While the effectiveness of these “new” policy tools is uncertain (see, for example, Dan Drezner’s study on “smart sanctions” policy), one thing is clear: in contrast to third-party military interventions, they generally don’t exacerbate the short-term prospect of mass atrocities. That may not sound like much, but, for a field of policy intervention with a particular concern for the “do no harm” principle, the avoidance of unintended consequences can determine the continued operational legitimacy of human rights doctrine.

However, in spite of the narrative strength of de Waal et al.’s disaggregated atrocities termination model, the international, regional, and national policy implications remain implicit. Each framework provides a different nexus of incentives, institutions, and decisions that may lead to atrocities termination, with foggy, unarticulated entry points for third-party actors. It’s clear, then, that a complicated epistemology of mass atrocities termination is insufficient: in addition to the “how do atrocities end?”, “who ends them?” is also worth asking. As Bec Hamilton implies, Samantha Power’s concept of third-party intervention in mass atrocities developed in a different international system, where U.S. hegemony tangibly coincided with dominant, credible influence in national, regional, and international affairs. If, as Anne-Marie Slaughter suggests, international actors are operating in a networked world, we need different metrics for policy effectiveness, particularly when concerned with the prevention and termination of mass atrocities.

In a recent, inspired Twitter rant, Jay Ulfelder decried the general lack of specificity in calls for third-party policy intervention: “Instead of waving hands at “int’l community,” need to specify who would do what, & how that cooperation would get started.” Expanded beyond 140 characters, Ulfelder’s complaint demonstrates the crucial, underemphasized role of leverage in our contemporary understanding of mass atrocities response policy. To a limited degree, the emergence of regional organizations (ECOWAS and the Arab League, for example) has underlined the evolving disaggregation of third-party intervention. Western actors–that is, the states with the most change-oriented foreign policy outlooks–possess a waning monopoly on political and economic incentives, including arms transactions, security assistance, and trade policy. Depending on your metrics of economic and political development, China may or may not be catching up to the United States, but its mounting relative influence over authoritarian regimes in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central Asia is largely indisputable.

Thus far, research on leverage and mass atrocities has been case study-based, or anecdotal. In the spirit of not-reinventing-the-wheel, democratization researchers have outlined a workable metric for the relationship between leverage, linkage (the social, political, economic, and cultural relationship between the third-party actor and the democratizing state), and the effectiveness of international democratization policy.* Levitsky and Way’s leverage framework relies on three characteristics of state-to-state interaction: relative levels of third-party political and economic strength; the existence of competing foreign policy priorities (for example, the impact of Manas air base on U.S. human rights policy in Kyrgyzstan); and the counterbalancing influence of regional and international actors. Given the trajectory of international policy inaction on Sudan and Syria, to name a couple, Levitsky and Way’s leverage metrics may be a valuable mechanism for the disaggregation of mass atrocities response policy research, as well as a more nuanced approach to policy intervention in mass atrocities.

In addition to the Intervention Ratchet’s Lexicon series, this post is the second in a three-part assessment of contemporary narratives of mass atrocities prevention and genocide termination, sparked by de Waal et al.’s essay. You can read the first part here. Check back in a couple of days for the third installment, which will address the mass atrocities prevention community and the organizational-cultural challenge of disaggregating mass atrocities prevention.

* Hat-tip: to Jay Ulfelder for the Levitsky and Way reference.

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