Self-Interest and the Distant Vulnerable

| September 2016
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What interests do states have in assisting and protecting vulnerable populations beyond their borders? Today, confronted as we are with civil wars, mass atrocities, and humanitarian catastrophes that have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians and generated the displacement of sixty million more, this question is as urgent as it has ever been. It is also one that is answered in a variety of ways.

Narrow interpretations of nationalism and realism tend to insist that states have no interests in assisting the distant vulnerable. A narrow nationalism claims that a state should never risk blood and treasure for the sake of vulnerable outsiders. In the wake of President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene to protect civilians in Libya in 2011, for example, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Bolton rebuked the president for embracing the Responsibility to Protect principle, describing it as “a gauzy, limitless doctrine without any anchor in U.S. national interests.” He charged Obama with “a desire to divert American military power from protecting U.S. interests to achieving ‘humanitarian’ objectives.” The president’s “highest moral duty” is to protect American lives, he declared, “and casually sacrificing them to someone else’s interests is hardly justifiable.” A narrow realism reaches similar conclusions, claiming that, in a dangerous and unpredictable world, the scope of the national interest ought to be restricted to the pursuit of one’s own power and the maintenance of one’s own security. Such an interpretation of U.S. interests was arguably at play in the deliberations within the Obama administration leading up to the decision to intervene in Libya. While they were ultimately unsuccessful in their arguments, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen warned Obama against intervening on the grounds that core American security interests were not at stake. However, such circumscribed nationalist and realist conceptions of self-interest strike many as problematic. Indeed, Obama himself later recalled that he was troubled by the arguments of some of his advisors, given the urgent threat to the lives of Libyan civilians, and he felt a need to be “calibrating our national-security interests in some new way.

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Category: Article, Issue 30.3, The Ethics of War and Peace

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