The reason why I’m lately obsessed with disasters, like the earthquake in PRC and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar, is rewarded by Ross Douthat’s post questioning liberal international hawks…
…offering a long-term agenda as a response to a question – how, when where and why the U.S. and our allies should intervene abroad – that tends to manifest itself as a series of discrete and very immediate challenges. It’s all very well to say that the United States should be trying to build a world order in which great powers like Russia and China are willing to sign on whatever sort of Burmese intervention might theoretically be sanctioned under the "Responsibility to Protect" umbrella, but even if you’re optimistic that such a world order is attainable – which Matt is, and I’m not – it’s still far enough off that we can expect many more Burma-style (or Darfur-style, or Kosovo-style, or Rwanda-style) quandaries in the meantime. And answering the "what is to be done?" question that invariably accompanies these crises by saying that "American officials …should keep pushing the international community to move to a world where something like the Responsibility to Protect has some force in the real world" amounts to answering it by saying "in the short term, nothing."
I have two problems.
Firstly, interventionism, as manifest in R2P, is the flip side of gunboat diplomacy, which to work requires a substantive military threat lurking over the horizon. Many more states would be willing to call America’s bluff here, and so, the risk of appearing weak increases.
Secondly, the emphasis is wrong. It’s not, in these two cases, that the CCP or SPDC are despotic, or even completely incompetent. According to Art Lerner-Lam in Foreign Policy, "[t]he Chinese have a very sophisticated system of response, even relative to global standards. They rely heavily on their military, and they have a large civilian component of engineers and scientists who assist. The problem is not with the system, but with the particulars of this event." The problem, then, is, that a disaster occurred. The international community needs to ask, why did a disaster occur? The answer is not primarily military, but is extremely political.
FP: There have been a number of natural disasters in East and Southeast Asia in recent months. Is this region particularly susceptible to disasters compared with others, and will it become increasingly so in the years to come?
(Art Lerner-Lam) ALL: To answer your first question, yes. East, South, and Southeast Asia are all highly susceptible and have what we call a multi-hazard risk profile. They are subjected to typhoons, cyclones, flooding, earthquakes, landslides, and in the case of Indonesia, volcanoes. From a geographic perspective, [these regions] are very susceptible to a whole range of hazards.
Whether the risk is increasing depends on two factors. One, are the hazards themselves increasing in frequency or severity? And two, are people becoming increasingly vulnerable in terms of population density and infrastructure? In the first case, you have to be a bit careful. We are not seeing increases in geological disasters such as earthquakes; you wouldn’t expect that. Those are geological processes, so the rate of occurrence should be somewhat consistent over time. But with sea-level rise, which we accrue to global warming, there is some potential for there to be an increase in cyclones.
But the changes in the natural frequency and severity of hazards are dwarfed by the changes in urbanization and construction practices. The key issues in vulnerability are related to social, economic, and political factors more than they are to the geographic factors: building cities near coastlines, improper construction, having institutions that are incapable of understanding the magnitude of a disaster and putting together a response—Myanmar being a case in point. You can attribute most of the increase in disaster losses to changes in the patterns of development.
In other words, the SPDC’s human rights record and its development record are two separate issues. ANY government that allows urbanization and hyper-density in high risks areas is in a sense irresponsible, These problems are geological and climatological. The UN, or the US or France, can condemn Yangon for slaughtering Karen. But, until any government devises a way to avoid setting poorer humans atop a veritable time bomb of questionable terrestrial real estate, it needs to stop wagging fingers. There are thornier issues involved here than gunboat diplomacy. There is no way to compare PRC’s response to the American response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, because no one has done well addressing the fundamental issue of why so many people would want to live in areas no sane animal would want to squat on.
Again, one can question how Beijing treats Tibetans, or the SPDC treats most of its population. But, it’s convenient hypocrisy to pass moral judgment on any government whose territory includes dirt of marginal, or even, dangerous, quality, when no one is brave enough to question why unfortunate people just have to live in hell, and on top it, have to endure a spectacle of fortunate, so-called educated people yelling over their struggling heads ignoring them.
Liberal hawks vs. neocons vs. realists…old quarrel! The relic of a pampered elite in a golden age. Move on!