The Ethics of Saying No

| June 2017
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I had the opportunity to take part in a panel discussion on democracy promotion at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, which got me to thinking about the ethics of “saying no”–that is, when should the ethical statesperson or policymaker be prepared to refuse requests for action on the grounds that aid cannot credibly be rendered and/or any intervention could conceivably make the situation worse. This line of thought was brought about by our discussion of “democracy triage”: that limited resources and efforts should best be concentrated in those situations where U.S. or Western action has a good chance of achieving its objectives. By definition, triage means other applicants for assistance will, of necessity, be denied, no matter how poignant their pleas for help. As with globalization, democracy triage has both winners and losers.

Saying no can be very difficult when someone advances a moral claim based on an appeal to values or universal human rights, but policymakers must balance competing and sometimes contradictory moral imperatives. Armed resistance to the Soviet Union continued in the Baltic States and Western Ukraine into the early 1950s, but these demands for self-determination and consequent appeals for help to the West (as with the Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956) had to be balanced against the risks of provoking a Third World War with atomic weapons in the mix. The West found it easier to agitate and pressure the USSR to respect human rights, and, of course, once the Soviet Union was in an advanced state of disintegration, the United States could recognize Baltic and Ukrainian self-determination no matter Moscow’s preferences.

Watching events in Syria over the past six years, at what point should the West have made it clear it was not prepared to intervene on behalf of the opposition? Policymakers hemmed and hawed, with talk about red lines and political solutions, but saying no–that the costs and risks of intervention were not going to be borne–never happened, leaving the rebel groups to continue to hope that one day, the long-awaited cavalry might ride over the horizon. (The latest exercise in wishful thinking came about this spring, when the Trump administration fired a salvo of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase after a chemical weapons attack in Idlib.) Making it clear much earlier that no meaningful regime change intervention was in the cards might have allowed for a settlement, or perhaps rebel leaders and fighters could have been evacuated and resettled along the lines of what was done for contra fighters in the late 1980s. It would have represented a disappointment and setback for the cause of democratization, but it might have diminished the horrific bloodshed and limited chances for radicalization.

Saying no is a realization of the limits of power, and is rooted in the just war tradition where the assessment of likely success forms part of the moral calculus of any action. Hans Morgenthau’s emphasis on prudence as the highest moral standard of the policymaker also feeds into this approach. Recklessness in the service of liberty and morality is no virtue.

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  1. Nikolas Gvosdev says:

    A reminder from the archives … Alan Kuperman’s observations from 1998:

    This dynamic has repeated itself so frequently that it’s become familiar. First, an oppressive government discriminates against a subordinate group within its borders. Initially, the group does not rise up because it knows that doing so will lead to its slaughter. The group then gets the attention of Western human-rights advocates and the media, who pressure the United States and/or other Western nations to issue warnings to the oppressive government, with hints of further action if it does not relent. The group infers optimistically from this rhetoric that the West will come to its aid if it provokes a violent government crackdown, and therefore escalates its insurgency. The government, realizing that henceforth the group represents a threat to its continued authority, chooses to eliminate the group from the territory through genocide or ethnic cleansing. Westerners, afraid of risking casualties or compromising higher interests, do not deploy troops until violence subsides, prompting the human-rights groups to decry the feeble response. American officials later say they should have intervened sooner.