Welcome to the "End of History," human-rights style. Like Francis Fukuyama's famous argument, there is simply no basis other than our hopes and our preferences to make us think that though the road toward this radiant future, to use the old Soviet expression, will be neither straight nor smooth, nevertheless it only goes one way, and that is in the direction of progress, peace, justice, and rights.
It is this religious quality to the support for R2P that helps account for the odd reaction among those who believe that something must be done to stop the Assad regime's war against much of its own people despite the Russian and Chinese vetoes. Obviously, some of this is purely political posturing. But it is not only spin. The moral outrage, however misplaced, is real enough. In her contribution to the New Republic symposium, Suzanne Nossel -- formerly Richard Holbrooke's deputy when he was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, founder of DemocracyArsenal.org, former chief operating officer of Human Rights Watch, and now executive director of the U.S. branch of Amnesty International -- illustrated this faith-based ethical triumphalism perfectly when she insisted that though the Russian and Chinese vetoes of the Security Council resolution had been "a sharp political defeat," it had also represented a "potent moral victory" and a "tectonic shift" in the advancement of a global human rights regime whose victory is now inevitable, no matter what kind of sovereigntist rear-guard actions the Russians and Chinese may continue to mount.
The implication is clear. Three years after the adoption of R2P by the U.N. General Assembly and more than a year after the beginning of the Arab Spring, not only is the Assad regime on the wrong side of history, but the Russians and Chinese are as well. In her New Republic piece, Nossel even goes so far as to imply that the Russians and the Chinese know this themselves. They cast their votes out of fear of this human rights-based future, she writes, claiming that the "bell of international condemnation and isolation tolling now for Damascus sounds an uneasy note in Beijing and Moscow." Even by the hubristic standards of the human rights movement, these are extraordinary claims. One doubts, however, that they will cause either Vladimir Putin or Hu Jintao to quake in his boots as this owl of Minerva flies by, presumably with a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights held in its beak.
Beneath all the incantatory bluster, however, a certain nervousness shows through. To judge by the fevered, angry response of U.S., French, and British officials, it seems as if they genuinely believed the Russians and Chinese would be obliged to truckle before the historic inevitability of the human rights revolution. How else to account for the spectacle of Ambassador Rice storming out of the Security Council chamber in fine, old, Khrushchev-era Soviet style once the vetoes had been cast, or her declaration shortly after that Russia and China had held the council "hostage" (one can only wonder how long until those words are thrown back at her the next time the United States vetoes a Security Council resolution on Israel-Palestine, as it has so often in the past).
Safely out of government, Slaughter was able to go further, demanding that the United States and its allies do something to bring the carnage in Syria to an end. Otherwise, she wrote, R2P would be exposed as a "convenient fiction for power politics or oil politics." So convinced is she of the positive value of the responsibility to protect as a force for peace and international security that she seems perfectly willing to envisage an end run around that pesky Security Council veto the Russians and the Chinese had the gall to invoke. To be legitimate, she writes, all that would be required from the United Nations would be the "authorization of a majority of the members of the [Security Council]," as an exercise of R2P, "with clear limits to how and against whom force could be used built into the resolution." Like the iconic U.S. officer in Vietnam who told a reporter that his troops had been obliged to burn the village in order to save it, Slaughter seems to be willing to undermine the structural foundations of international order, which, for better or worse, is based in large measure on the Security Council, in order to further it. Peace is war; war is peace. George Orwell, call your office.