Responsibility, Power, and Irresponsible Intervention

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The last few weeks have seen more than their fair share of political chaos worldwide: the escalation of the Ukrainian civil war and the shocking attack on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17, the lightning occupation of northern Iraq by ISIS extremists, the Israeli assault on Gaza, and the collapse of the Libyan government as the nation spirals into sectarian violence. Each of these tragedies raise pointed questions of responsibility. In what sense were Ukrainian rebels responsible for shooting down that plane? In what sense was Russia responsible? How responsible is Israel for mass civilian casualties in Gaza? What responsibility does America bear for the power vacuums left in its ill-conceived interventions in Iraq and Libya?    

From the perspective of politicians and media outlets in the U.S., Russia appears to be almost directly responsible for the plane crash in the Ukraine, while the chaos in Libya, which has already probably claimed as many civilian lives, is no one’s fault but their own. And yet the two cases are not all that dissimilar. In each case, a major power backed rebel militants in a smaller, chaotic nation, invoking the ideal of “democracy” and “self-determination,” despite the somewhat dubious character of the rebels in question. In each case, the rebels proved to be more rash and less organized than anticipated, achieving little political success while inflicting serious collateral damage. Of course, there are as many differences as there are similarities, but it is a worthwhile thought experiment to reflect on the latter. 

Responsibility, while perhaps the most important notion in international politics, allows ample space for diplomatic equivocation, evasions, and double standards. Paradoxically, all nations want to maximize their power while minimizing their responsibility (and want to pin responsibility on their adversaries, while minimizing their adversaries’ power), even though power is part of what determines the scope of responsibility.

Responsibility, of course, is not the same as guilt. An executive or politician is responsible for misdeeds that happened on his watch, even if the superior neither supported nor knew about the subordinate’s actions. In such cases, we might say that ultimately there were sins of omission somewhere along the line on the superior’s part, so that responsibility does at some level imply culpability, but in the case of large and complex organizations, this seems to stretch the notion of guilt too far.

Responsibility is thus a useful term inasmuch as it enables us to invoke moral agency—demanding that someone take actions now to redress a problem, or to prevent such in the future—without getting into the very difficult business of precisely apportioning guilt.  And yet responsibility itself can be very difficult to apportion. Within hierarchical organizations, this is comparatively easy: responsibility is assigned de jure, with each superior potentially responsible for anything that happens within his sphere of authority. But once we seek to assess responsibilities laterally in interpersonal or international relations, we are forced to fall back largely on de facto power and proximity. The adult who is on the playground when another parent’s child rashly climbs a tree and gets hurt may bear some responsibility simply by being close to the situation and having power to prevent it. 

Likewise in international affairs, the U.S. has often felt responsible to prevent atrocities around the globe simply because it has the power to do so, and regional powers feel a responsibility, not unmixed with self-interest, to preserve some order among their neighbors. But such a thinly-stretched notion of responsibility cannot sustain a great weight of blame. America cannot be culpably responsible for harms in every corner of the globe merely by being hypothetically able to prevent or ameliorate them. Existing entanglements or alliances, or stated intentions of involvement thus provide a basis for a thicker notion of responsibility (just as the adult who had promised to keep an eye on the kids at the playground bears more responsibility than the mere bystander). 

From this standpoint, then, the U.S. cannot evade substantial responsibility for events in Israel, Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya, to name a few. But the relationship of power and responsibility makes any invocation of responsibility a two-edged sword. Projections of power primarily intended to serve self-interest are often masked by the quasi-altruistic language of responsibility, language that is quickly withdrawn when things go sour (as in Libya). But this means that those who critique existing American entanglements by pointing out the responsibility we bear for such crises face a paradox: to point out responsibility may simply serve as justification for continued interventions ad infinitum. 

The language of responsibility, then, has a bias toward action—better to act and err, we reason, than be deemed irresponsible for inaction. However, action for the sake of action, thoughtless of the consequences, is irresponsible. Sometimes, then, when action can do little good and much harm, we must remind our leaders that the most responsible thing is to not to do anything.

-  Bradford Littlejohn has a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh in Theological Ethics. He researches and writes in the areas of Christian Ethics, Political Theology, and Reformation History and is president of The Davenant Trust. He is also managing editor of Political Theology Today and a regular columnist for several blogs.