The Risks of the “Shaming” Approach to Policy

| July 2015
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Given that we have just commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica, as well as considering the further bad news from Ukraine, this seems an appropriate time to examine the ethics and efficacy of a peculiar American approach to foreign policy: the attempt to shame the U.S. government into taking action. More specifically, this is the situation where U.S. officials make promises or commitments that they know the American public does not necessarily support or endorse, in the hopes that once another country or party has taken those steps and provoked a negative response, the subsequent outpouring of condemnation will push the United States to take decisive action.

We don’t know whether the Bosnian Muslim representatives would have accepted the plan  put forward in Lisbon in spring 1992, before the war had started, calling for the devolution of power in Bosnia to local ethnic units that was put forward in 1992 (and would have diminished their position in the new state vis-a-vis the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats)–but it seems clear that they believed that if they refused, and held out, that American support would be forthcoming. Similarly, the Maidan revolutionaries in Ukraine may have decided to move ahead with the overthrow of the Viktor Yanukovych government and to push for Ukraine’s westward orientation, but again, it is apparent that they were counting on a much greater degree of American support and aid than has in fact been forthcoming. One can also add the non-extremist anti-Assad opposition in Syria to the list as well–particularly after observing the U.S./NATO intervention in Libya earlier in 2011.

If, on the other hand, the U.S. had made clear in all three cases (Bosnia, Ukraine, Syria) that they could count on the sympathies and good will of the U.S. populace but that concrete, decisive aid would probably not be forthcoming, would the Bosnian Muslims, Maidan revolutionaries and anti-Assad forces have so readily moved into a confrontational position? Might they have been more amenable to embracing possible compromise solutions that fell short of their desired goals? (In the Syria case perhaps no compromise with Assad would have been possible; in Bosnia there was a plan on the table and there was the outline of a transition plan for Ukraine.) Again, it is hard to know, but one can make the argument that it would have been a better ethical outcome for actors to be crystal clear on what help they could reasonably expect–and make the calculations about their likely chances for success.

This also raises the ethical question of who speaks for the United States. Certainly, U.S. diplomats are well-trained in how to use very precise language that avoids giving any blanket guarantees or commitments. Members of the U.S. Congress, however, can be less circumspect in their language and certainly advocates “on the outside” in think tanks, the press and lobby groups can convey an impression that they are in a position to deliver more. Generally this is often accompanied by the start of a “shaming” campaign in the media–the U.S. has to “do more”, “must act now,” “cannot stand idly by,” or “has a responsibility to act.” But in the case of Bosnia, effective U.S. action did not occur for years. Washington did not move to lift an arms embargo that had been imposed on all participants in the Yugoslav wars in an effort to try and smother the conflict (but which could not impact existing stockpiles of weapons which were disproportionately controlled by Serbian forces). There was real reluctance on the part of the U.S. public to intervene even with footage of atrocities and suffering. The end result of the Bosnian war–the Dayton Accords–created a settlement that was not marginally much better than what had initially been on the table in Lisbon three years earlier.

In the cases of Ukraine and Syria, steady use of shaming language by advocates of greater U.S. involvement, aid or intervention has not really moved the policy needle.  Despite extensive coverage of the humanitarian tragedy that is the Syrian civil war (and attendant refugee flows) and of the crisis in Ukraine, the U.S. government seems to be doing just enough to show involvement (limited training of Syrian non-extremist rebels and some humanitarian aid for refugees; sanctions on Russia and some provision of assistance for Ukraine).

The real risk is that any significant action may be delayed until after the crisis or event has largely exhausted itself–meaning that a moderate intervention takes place after the bulk of the human suffering has occurred. The U.S. acts–belatedly–and a less than satisfactory outcome is the result.

The Bosnian tragedy is a case where unwillingness to really get involved should have been the spur to finding a compromise–even though it would have not met all the aspirations of the Bosnian Muslims and required the United States to accept policies that ran counter to values about non-discrimination and avoiding territorial partitions on ethnic criteria. Instead, Washington signaled its unease about such a settlement, which was interpreted by the Bosnian Muslims as a signal of positive support for their position. Aid, however, was not forthcoming–and the shaming effort against the George H.W. Bush administration did not work to change that reality. Candidate Bill Clinton who throughout 1992 was highly critical of the Bush administration stance on Bosnia tended to reiterate it once he took office in 1993. Hundreds of op-eds printed in U.S. papers denouncing American inaction and calling for U.S. involvement (arms shipments, air strikes, etc.) may have salved the consciences of the authors but did little to change the horrific realities on the ground.

Yet the pattern unfortunately persists. And when the 40th anniversary of Srebrenica is commemorated, what additional solemnities will accompany those remembrances?

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