Professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study Michael Walzer advocated for swift action to end the ongoing crisis in Syria on humanitarian grounds at a lecture for around 150 students and faculty in Copley Formal Lounge on Tuesday. The lecture, entitled “What is the Responsibility to Protect?” was the 2016 Sullivan Lecture, an annual lecture focused on current developments in the fields of government and law.
Chair of Georgetown’s department of government Charles King emphasized the importance of the Sullivan Lecture, which is made possible by an endowment from Daniel and Sheila Sullivan. The endowment supports and promotes the study of ethics in government, law and other professions along with the annual lecture.
“We are very proud of the long tradition at Georgetown of integrating the normative study of political theory with the empirical study of institutions and behavior, a fundamental union that too often in political science today has been allowed to weaken,” King said.
After an introduction from assistant professor at the department of government Joshua Cherniss, Walzer began by explaining how the conflict within Syria — stemming from a civilian uprising against dictator Bashar Al-Assad in 2011 — is complex and that identifying a plausible solution is difficult.
“This is a hard case and I know the maxim that hard cases make bad law, but I don’t think that maxim holds for political theory,” Walzer said. “At least I shall proceed under the view that hard cases make for better, or at any rate, more realistic, theories.”
Walzer emphasized that his views on the Syrian situation have evolved over the years. During the lecture, he read from blogs he wrote over the course of the conflict, commenting on their applicability in light of current events.
In one post from 2012, Walzer expressed how, if unprepared or not forceful enough, any intervention in Syria would be rendered useless without physical ground troops. Otherwise, no effectual gains would be made.
“I can’t see any of these requirements being met without an intervention that puts foreign boots on the ground, and at this moment everyone wants a quick fix, weapons in the hands of the opposition, but which opposition and air strikes against Syrian military bases?” Walzer said.
Walzer said that deep contemplation of the ramifications of a humanitarian intervention is the only course of action.
“Many people have been criticizing President Obama for dithering over what to do in Syria. Not me; dithering seems an entirely rational response to what’s going on there,” Walzer said.
The last blog post Walzer referenced was from October 2013. In the article, he posited that perhaps his previous statements against American intervention in Syria were wrong. With two million Syrians having fled the country, he read how it was not the right choice to oppose American intervention in Syria.
“Many of us who opposed an American intervention in Syria argued from the example of Iraq … the U.S. invasion produced a disaster in Iraq, millions of people displaced outside the country and inside too,” Walzer said. “The most common argument from the left was simply that the U.S. must simply not do anything like that again. Well the U.S. didn’t, yet disaster has struck Syria on an even greater scale.”
Walzer next explored how the debate on Syria has brought to light an important doctrine, “The Responsibility to Protect.”
Included within the Outcome Document accepted by the United Nations General Assembly during the 2005 World Summit, R2P allows the U.N. Security Council to authorize force under certain conditions. If a country fails to protect its nationals from genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity, then the U.N. can vote to carry out the use of force in such countries.
While he appreciated the symbolism of R2P, Walzer stressed how it is distinct from other military action since it is not enforced in cases of ordinary brutality by authoritarian governments or in cases of civil war. He argued how as the conflict within Syria is seen as a civil war, an R2P response has yet to take place.
“Syria today cannot be described in a singular way. There is a civil war, there is tyranny, there is a war of all against all with terrifying consequences for the civilian population, and there is a religious crusade,” Walzer said. “Any intervention would have to be with all of these, which is why it can’t be aimed only with ending the brutality by overthrowing the tyrant.”
According to Walzer, the best actors to take on the job of intervention are neighboring countries, including Turkey and the Arab states. Yet making tangible progress towards peace is unfeasible if both Turkey and the region do not receive the necessary backing from other powerful allies and the U.N.
“‘Whoever can, should,’ is still the relevant maxim. Local responses from relevant actors are probably best,” Walzer continued. “Sometimes the most suitable responder is the old imperial power which may well bear some responsibility for the violence and the victims.”
David Golemboski and Alexandra Stark, doctoral candidates in the department of government, both said they enjoyed the lecture and particularly appreciated the chance to hear from a leader in the field of political science.
“He’s obviously a legend in the field of political theory and in the world of political science, and it’s a pleasure to hear him speak,” Golemboski said. “He does a nice job of wrangling a bunch of moral considerations into a nice package, not necessarily any clearer in regards to coming up with an answer, but helpful in terms of thinking through hard problems.”
“It was fascinating to have such a well known and prestigious just-war scholar, to be able to hear his thoughts firsthand, and to ask questions and interact with him,” Stark said.
Cameron Bean (SFS ’18) said he was struck by the opportunity to hear from one of the political scientists often cited in their class, saying that Walzer’s talking points and ideas made an impression on him.
“It was great to hear from the author of one of the books that I’m reading for one of my classes and to be able to get his thoughts on a current issue. It was really powerful,” Bean said.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.