The Burmese government’s criminally neglectful response to last month’s cyclone, and the world’s response to that response, illustrate three grim realities today: totalitarian governments are alive and well; their neighbors are reluctant to pressure them to change; and the notion of national sovereignty as sacred is gaining ground, helped in no small part by the disastrous results of the American invasion of Iraq. Indeed, many of the world’s necessary interventions in the decade before the invasion — in places like Haiti and the Balkans — would seem impossible in today’s climate.
The first and most obvious reality is the survival of totalitarian government in an age of global communications and democratic progress. Myanmar’s military junta employs the same set of tools used by the likes of Stalin to crush dissent and monitor the lives of citizens. The needs of the victims of Cyclone Nargis mean nothing to a regime focused solely on preserving its own authority.
Second is the unwillingness of Myanmar’s neighbors to use their collective leverage on behalf of change. A decade ago, when Myanmar was allowed to join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, I was assured by leaders in the region that they would push the junta to open its economy and move in the direction of democracy. With a few honorable exceptions, this hasn’t happened.
A third reality is that the concept of national sovereignty as an inviolable and overriding principle of global law is once again gaining ground. Many diplomats and foreign policy experts had hoped that the fall of the Berlin Wall would lead to the creation of an integrated world system free from spheres of influence, in which the wounds created by colonial and cold war empires would heal.
In such a world, the international community would recognize a responsibility to override sovereignty in emergency situations — to prevent ethnic cleansing or genocide, arrest war criminals, restore democracy or provide disaster relief when national governments were either unable or unwilling to do so.
During the 1990s, certain precedents were created. The administration of George H. W. Bush intervened to prevent famine in Somalia and to aid Kurds in northern Iraq; the Clinton administration returned an elected leader to power in Haiti; NATO ended the war in Bosnia and stopped Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of terror in Kosovo; the British halted a civil war in Sierra Leone; and the United Nations authorized life-saving missions in East Timor and elsewhere.
These actions were not steps toward a world government. They did reflect the view that the international system exists to advance certain core values, including development, justice and respect for human rights. In this view, sovereignty is still a central consideration, but cases may arise in which there is a responsibility to intervene — through sanctions or, in extreme cases, by force — to save lives.
The Bush administration’s decision to fight in Afghanistan after 9/11 did nothing to weaken this view because it was clearly motivated by self-defense. The invasion of Iraq, with the administration’s grandiose rhetoric about pre-emption, was another matter, however. It generated a negative reaction that has weakened support for cross-border interventions even for worthy purposes. Governments, especially in the developing world, are now determined to preserve the principle of sovereignty, even when the human costs of doing so are high.
Thus, Myanmar’s leaders have been shielded from the repercussions of their outrageous actions. Sudan has been able to dictate the terms of multinational operations inside Darfur. The government of Zimbabwe may yet succeed in stealing a presidential election.
Political leaders in Pakistan have told the Bush administration to back off, despite the growth of Al Qaeda and Taliban cells in the country’s wild northwest. African leaders (understandably perhaps) have said no to the creation of a regional American military command. And despite recent efforts to enshrine the doctrine of a “responsibility to protect” in international law, the concept of humanitarian intervention has lost momentum.
The global conscience is not asleep, but after the turbulence of recent years, it is profoundly confused. Some governments will oppose any exceptions to the principle of sovereignty because they fear criticism of their own policies. Others will defend the sanctity of sovereignty unless and until they again have confidence in the judgment of those proposing exceptions.
At the heart of the debate is the question of what the international system is. Is it just a collection of legal nuts and bolts cobbled together by governments to protect governments? Or is it a living framework of rules intended to make the world a more humane place?
We know how the government of Myanmar would answer that question, but what we need to listen to is the voice — and cry — of the Burmese people.
Madeleine K. Albright, the United States secretary of state from 1997 to 2001.