Technology allows us to follow events around the world in real time. Front page photos show cities in the Middle East reduced to rubble. Nightly news programs project horrendous scenes of people dying while fleeing across the Mediterranean Sea in make-shift vessels. Reporters file stories tracing the desperate lives of those who have newly arrived in Europe only to find hostility if not rejection in what they thought would be relief from their war-torn countries.
The images and stories touch us all, and inevitably lead to a cry to do something, a demand that somehow, someone intervene to stop the killings, to help the refugees or to restore peace and order.
What to do? An eminent international observer noted that: In Iraq the international community intervened and it was a failure. In Libya the international community partly intervened and it was a failure. In Syria the international community did not intervene and it is a failure. In other words, three recent attempts to stop conflicts by massive intervention, half-hearted intervention, and no intervention have not succeeded. The situations in Iraq, Libya and Syria have not improved. Hundreds of thousands have died; millions have been displaced.
The emotional, simplistic cry ”Do something” has not led to tangible results. The Responsibility to Protect, a humanitarian proposal adopted by the United Nations to protect civilians from the scourges of war, has not protected civilians in Iraq, Libya and Syria. International humanitarian law has not been respected; hospitals and schools are bombed, innocent civilians have been starved to death. The International Committee of the Red Cross has been unable to ensure that basic norms, recognized and ratified by the international community, have been upheld. More generally, international laws, including human rights conventions, have been flouted with no obvious consequences.
As proof that there exists justice in the world today, optimists will point to the trial of the former president of Chad, Hissène Habré, on charges of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture during his rule from 1982 to 1990. The fact that he is being tried in another African nation, Senegal, could be further proof of the evolution of justice. But, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, the only sitting head of state wanted for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for his actions in Darfur, is still free and exercising power, undeterred by his arrest warrants.
We have seen the optimism of liberal interventionists and neo-conservative hawks turn to cynical neglect. Simplistic idealism lies in the ruins of Homs and Aleppo. It resides in desolate refugee camps stretching across Turkey and Lebanon. It was buried at the bottom of the Mediterranean as the final resting place for those who never made it across to Europe. It is reflected in the terrified faces of those who made it to Europe only to be attacked by nativist hooligans.
Pessimists have lost faith in the institutions responsible for governance. The success of the Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders campaigns in the United States is closely tied to a rejection of the Republican and Democratic parties, to those in power in Washington.
More globally: Has the United Nations been effective in stopping the violence in Iraq, Libya and Syria? Has it been able to restore peace and security, a primary objective of its responsibilities? It is too easy to fault the major powers, to say that the organization is dependent on the political will of its members.
We now know what is going on in real time. Technology instantly transports us around the globe. However, the same technology has loosened confidence in institutions such as political parties and international organizations. Empowered individuals have weakened traditional agents. We undermine the very legitimacy by which eventual actors would have the authority to act.
We all want peace and security. We don’t want to read about or see bombings, wars, millions of refugees and people suffering. We want someone to do something. But, beyond the emotional desire for solutions, we cannot begin to understand how to construct processes that would lead to those solutions. “Do something” is a necessary reaction to what we are witnessing, but it is entirely insufficient to finding solutions.