Prudence or indifference? Obama wrestles with Syria’s conflict

More than 140,000 people are said to have died in Syria’s civil war. United Nations reports of atrocities, Internet images of attacks on civilians and accounts of suffering refugees rend our hearts. But what is to be done – and by whom?

Recently, the Canadian scholar-politician Michael Ignatieff urged U.S. President Barack Obama to impose a no-fly zone over Syria, despite the near-certainty that Russia would veto the United Nations Security Council resolution needed to legalize such a move. In Ignatieff’s view, if Syrian President Bashar Assad is allowed to prevail, his forces will obliterate the remaining Sunni insurgents – at least for now; with hatreds inflamed, blood eventually will flow again.

In an adjoining article, columnist Thomas Friedman drew some lessons from the United States’ recent experience in the Middle East. First, Americans understand little about the social and political complexities of the countries there. Second, the U.S. can stop bad things from happening (at considerable cost), but it cannot make good things happen by itself. And, third, when America tries to make good things happen in these countries, it runs the risk of assuming responsibility for solving their problems.

So what are a leader’s duties beyond borders? The problem extends far beyond Syria – witness recent killings in South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Somalia and other places. In 2005, the U.N. General Assembly unanimously recognized a “responsibility to protect” citizens when their own government fails to do so, and in 2011, it was invoked in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, authorizing the use of military force in Libya.

Russia, China and others believe that the principle was misused in Libya and that the guiding doctrine of international law remains the U.N. Charter, which prohibits the use of force except in self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council. But, back in 1999, when faced with a Russian veto of a potential Security Council resolution in the case of Kosovo, NATO used force anyway, and many defenders argued that, legality aside, the decision was morally justified.

So which arguments should political leaders follow when trying to decide the right policy to pursue? The answer depends, in part, on the collectivity to which he or she feels morally obliged.

Above the small-group level, human identity is shaped by what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities.” Few people have direct experience of the other members of the community with which they identify. In recent centuries, the nation has been the imagined community for which most people were willing to make sacrifices, and even to die, and most leaders have seen their primary obligations to be national in scope.

In a world of globalization, however, many people belong to multiple imagined communities. Some – local, regional, national and cosmopolitan – seem to be arranged as concentric circles, with the strength of identity diminishing with distance from the core, but in a global information age, this ordering has become confused.

Today, many identities are overlapping circles – affinities sustained by the Internet and cheap travel. Diasporas are now a mouse click away. Professional groups adhere to transnational standards. Activist groups, ranging from environmentalists to terrorists, also connect across borders.

As a result, sovereignty is no longer as absolute and impenetrable as it once seemed. This is the reality that the U.N. General Assembly acknowledged when it recognized a responsibility to protect endangered people in sovereign states.

But what moral obligation does this place on a particular leader such as Obama? The leadership theorist Barbara Kellerman has accused former U.S. President Bill Clinton of the moral failure of insularity for his inadequate response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. In one sense, she is right. But other leaders were also insular, and no country responded adequately.

Had Clinton tried to send troops, he would have encountered stiff resistance in the Congress. Coming so soon after the death of U.S. soldiers in the 1993 humanitarian intervention in Somalia, the American public was in no mood for another military mission abroad.

So what should a democratically elected leader do in such circumstances? Clinton has acknowledged that he could have done more to galvanize the U.N. and other countries to save lives in Rwanda. But good leaders today are often caught between their personal cosmopolitan inclinations and their more traditional obligations to the citizens who elected them.

Fortunately, insularity is not an “all or nothing” moral proposition. In a world in which people are organized in national communities, a purely cosmopolitan ideal is unrealistic. Global income equalization, for example, is not a credible obligation for a national political leader, but such a leader could rally followers by saying that more should be done to reduce poverty and disease worldwide.

As the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah put it, “Thou shalt not kill is a test you take pass-fail. Honor thy father and thy mother admits of gradations.”

The same is true of cosmopolitanism versus insularity. We may admire leaders who make efforts to increase their followers’ sense of moral duties beyond borders, but it does little good to hold leaders to an impossible standard that would undercut their capacity to remain leaders.

As Obama wrestles with determining his responsibilities in Syria and elsewhere, he faces a serious moral dilemma. As Appiah says, duties beyond borders are a matter of degree, and there are also degrees of intervention that range from aid to refugees and arms to different degrees of the use of force.

But even when making these graduated choices, a leader also owes his followers a duty of prudence – of remembering the Hippocratic oath to first of all do no harm. Ignatieff says Obama already owns the consequences of his inaction; Friedman reminds him of the virtue of prudence. Pity Obama.

Joseph S. Nye is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Presidential Leadership and the Creation of the American Era.” THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration Project Syndicate ©(

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 14, 2014, on page 7.




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