President Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's Syria discussion on Monday night, amidst a thorough discussion of horses and bayonets, raised an important question: what is the strategic impact of mass atrocities prevention, and how can we conceive of the United States' role in atrocities prevention policy? Two summers ago, in his presidential directive on mass atrocities, President Obama described mass atrocities prevention as a "core national security interest" for the United States. The president's declaration was, in some sense, momentous: towards the end of his second administration, President Clinton initiated a similar, if smaller-scale early warning effort; Obama's presidential directive, however, marked the first public, official recognition of the causal interaction between mass atrocities and threats to U.S. national security.
Human rights organizations, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience, and the Genocide Prevention Task Force have previously identified the national security/mass atrocities link; but, when the commander-in-chief describes atrocities prevention as a U.S. national security interest, it's a bit easier to take him at his word. Except, of course, when it's not. The link between mass atrocities events and U.S. national security is, at best, tangential, and certainly not causal. In previous discussions of the interaction, human rights advocates have identified outbreaks of terrorism, regional instability, and transnational trafficking operations as mass atrocities events' malicious step-twins. Sudan, where Osama bin Laden staged al Qaeda's nascent operations between 1992 and 1996, is an oft-cited example, as is Somalia, where statelessness has fostered contagious extremism, regional spillovers, and an intractable humanitarian crisis.
Where mass atrocities occur, the logic goes, U.S. policymakers should anticipate the gradual, expedited, or contemporary emergence of palpable threats to U.S. foreign interests. For advocates of the national security/mass atrocities link, preventing, mitigating, and halting atrocities -- through preventive diplomacy, as in Kenya, or military intervention, as in Libya -- will enhance the United States' strategic posture in key crisis arenas and, over the long-term, strengthen U.S. soft power in conflict-affected regions.
Unfortunately, the argumentative logic of a national security-infused atrocities prevention agenda lacks analytic rigor. Mass atrocities may occur as direct consequences of political instability, but, as James Fearon implies, the strategic logic of discriminate violence against civilians differs widely from that of political insurgency, conventional conflict, and organized crime. Mass atrocities may occur alongside terrorism events, but they are neither the cause nor the consequence of state failure, insurgency growth, or transnational crime. They are, first and foremost, a unique political technology, which merit distinct attention from the varied forms of political violence that captivate national security practitioners.
In spite of the non-linkage between mass atrocities and U.S. national security threats, foreign policy analysts have described atrocities prevention as a third-tier "national interest." If the first tier characterizes direct threats to U.S. safety, security, and collective livelihoods, and the second tier describes extended threats to U.S. foreign interests, the third tier might incorporate a broader perspective on U.S. foreign policy priorities, including strategic collaboration and cooperation with foreign allies, soft-power priorities, and the credible promotion of U.S. normative, commercial, and economic interests abroad. The third tier encapsulates a set of policy priorities that, over the long-term, maintain U.S. leadership, security, and normative credibility. Atrocities prevention, as a mechanism for soft-power promotion, as well as a moral responsibility for U.S. policymaking, clearly fits the bill.
In parsing the role of atrocities prevention in a broader framework for U.S. national interests abroad, it's worth remembering that, while members of the defense, intelligence, and diplomatic communities play a key role in preserving the first and second tiers of U.S. national interests, a relatively limited subset of U.S. local, regional, and federal agencies, institutions, and organizations strengthen a broader base of U.S. national interests, whether through norm diffusion, commercial activity, or institutional support. Foreign aid initiatives, in some respects, represents an essential component of this latter community of political actors. As Charles Kenny has demonstrated, foreign aid programs operate most effectively when geared towards "tangible results," rather than idyllic, practically unachievable normative priorities. Atrocities prevention programs, including localized mediation, preventive diplomacy, and peacebuilding initiatives, are well-poised to play this role. As advocates continue to press for varied interventions in atrocities events, this is worth bearing in mind: atrocities prevention is worthwhile not because of its national security implications, but because, in Kenya, South Sudan, and Kyrgyzstan, it works.
This post was originally featured on the blog of STAND, a student advocacy organization for atrocities prevention in U.S. foreign policy.