Prevention without Hard Power: Mission Impossible?

by Kyle Matthews
Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies
Concordia University

A review of The Responsibility to Prevent: A Report to Congress from the Friends Committee on National Legislation by Bridget Moix and Trevor Keck. Washington, DC: Friends Committee on National Legislation, 2008. 39pp.

The Friends’ Committee on National Legislation prepared this report with one target audience in mind, the US Congress. The crucial thrust of this policy report is that if concerned citizens want to further integrate regard for human rights into US foreign policy, the most effective way to achieve this goal is through funding. Given that Congress is responsible for enacting legislation and overseeing the approval of finances for government business, both domestically and overseas, it is of strategic importance to convey to these decision-makers their critical role in shifting from a culture of response to a culture of prevention. It is also very important to engage Congress so that it carries out its important democratic role of seeking accountability from the executive branch of the government.

The report argues quite assertively that US foreign policy has become too militarized, and as a result, there is presently a dangerous capacity shortfall within the US “civilian agencies.” The principle recommendation issued in the report is to “rightsize” the State Department (4). In conveying the need for policy reform through institutional strengthening, the report cites previous policy studies to highlight the wasteful cost to the US government of assuming a reactive rather than preventive approach to conflict management. Members of Congress are urged to seize upon this to improve how the US presently does business. Given the state of the American economy in early 2009, the authors make a poignant and timely argument that proposals designed to improve the effectiveness of US foreign policy in both financial and moral terms should be implemented immediately.

The real danger, according to the Friends Committee, is that current leaders and decision-makers within the US government, when confronted with having to respond to a crisis in a far away country, find themselves with very few soft power options at their disposal. We are reminded that an overreliance on military solutions to what are essentially political problems does not have a strong track record of success abroad and should only be considered when all other strategies have been exhausted. The salience of this final point is not to be dismissed as it is one of the principle elements of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine, which was endorsed by the US in 2005. R2P offers decision-makers an exceptional guidance tool that they should consult before soft power options (for example, diplomacy, economic sanctions and travel bans) are abandoned and a decision to use hard power (coercive military force) is taken.

The real policy question is how to turn concern for grave human rights violations into swift action. To achieve this as quickly as possible requires a two-pronged approach. The first is the structural transformation of America’s diplomatic and civilian agencies, while the second is securing resources from within the existing federal budget. The recommendations of the report under review are focused on realizing the latter exclusively, thereby implying that if government capacity is created, leadership will follow. If one turns her/his attention to the case of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, she/he will observe that the US did have the capacity and knowledge to act but chose not to. History demonstrates that if Congress does not apply pressure on the executive branch of government to become engaged in humanitarian crises, far too often the bureaucracy will simply become risk averse.

The authors should be commended for making use of a wide range of US government policy statements that identify failing states, genocide and forced migration as serious threats to US national interests and international security. The emergence of piracy off the coast of Somalia is a recent testament to the strategic need to prevent intra-state conflict abroad and not permit any country to be ignored by the international community while it implodes. The policy lessons drawn from post-1994 Somalia and post-1989 Afghanistan are painstakingly clear: if you ignore failed or failing states, you do so at your own risk.

While putting together a very strong and convincing analysis of the gradual reductions to non-military spending in the US government’s foreign policy budget, the report under review identifies an interesting paradox: American military leaders, both past and present, and security experts alike, are calling for the strengthening of the US government’s civilian capacity to prevent and respond to international crises. This policy discussion is taking place while government resources for humanitarian and development activities are continuing to be allocated to the Pentagon at a faster rate than the State Department.

A critique is that the report does not consider what role the military should play in the prevention of mass atrocity crimes, if any. Perhaps the best example of this at present is Zimbabwe, where the application of soft power strategies by the international community has failed to force Robert Mugabe out of power. Unlike Kenya where the rapid reaction by the international community in early 2008 helped generate a political compromise that prevented the conflict from escalating, Zimbabwe has proven to be unresponsive to outside pressure. The continuation of Mugabe’s destructive economic policies coupled with escalating human rights abuses have led to calls from people of moral authority, most notably Desmond Tutu, for forceful military action to be taken. Indeed, there are limits to soft power. Policy-makers must appreciate that without credible coercive force waiting in the wings, predatory regimes might not comply with their responsibility to protect their own citizens.

The only other comment that this reader has to contribute is that the report could be strengthened by making one more proposal. That is, members of Congress should travel abroad more frequently to meet with US officials, NGO workers and community leaders in countries that are currently listed as politically fragile. By taking part in more official visits, members of Congress would no doubt be personally touched by what they see and who they meet, and will begin the process of embedding political will within the House and the Senate.

Concerned American citizens who read the “Responsibility to Prevent” report should carry on the message by writing to their members of Congress, expressing concern over human rights issues ranging from specific cases such as Zimbabwe to Darfur, to child soldiers and climate change induced conflict. Giving the State Department more resources, both human and financial, will equip the US government with a new cadre of diplomats and aid practitioners. Perhaps then we will witness the evolution of new and creative solutions to prevent crises in fragile states and volatile regions of the world. As an outsider participating in this US foreign policy debate, I can assure both the American public and members of the Congress that a multitude of countries would be very welcoming to a renewal of US leadership on this issue.


Kyle Matthews is the Lead Researcher for the Will to Intervene Project (W2i) at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. In partnership with Lieut. General (ret.) Romeo Dallaire, W2i will release its groundbreaking report on building domestic political will in the U.S. and Canada for the prevention of mass atrocities in September 2009, in Washington and Ottawa. He previously worked as a diplomat with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. During that time, he was posted to Tbilisi (Georgia), Kinshasa (the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Switzerland. He began his career with CARE in Albania and later joined it Canadian office in Ottawa, where he managed various humanitarian response initiatives and peace-building projects, under which he spent considerable time in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Originally from Ottawa, Kyle completed his Master's in Development and International Relations at Aalborg University in Denmark (2001), earned a certificate in Refugee Issues from York University (2002) and received his undergraduate degree in History from Carleton University (1996). He is currently completing a Professional Master's at the School of Policy Studies at Queen's University.

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