One of the most complicated dynamics in international relations is whether foreign powers should intervene when a government is creating a humanitarian crisis among its own people. David L. Phillips, a former a senior adviser to the United States Department of State and to the United Nations, has repeatedly dealt with this problem, and in his most recent book, “Liberating Kosovo: Coercive Diplomacy and U.S. Intervention,” he suggests a criteria for when to intervene, based on the lessons learned during and after NATO’s military attack in the former Yugoslavia. Syria is a current conundrum of whether to use outside military force against a government that is attacking its own people.
Phillips, 53, is now the director of Columbia University’s Program on Peace-Building and Human Rights. He recently sat for an interview to discuss foreign interventions and the importance of increasing women’s involvement in conflict resolution.
PassBlue: What lesson can be learned from NATO’s intervention in the war in Kosovo in 1999, to the humanitarian crises today?
David Phillips: The only way you can mobilize international support for military action is by demonstrating that you have run the course of diplomatic options. Diplomacy backed by the threat of force is still diplomacy; you don’t want to be trigger-happy. The idea is to try to convince a repressive regime into changing its behavior and use military action as a last resort. The other major conclusion is really at the back end. You really don’t intervene unless you have an exit strategy, and the exit strategy requires a capable and committed local partner with the integrity to lead. If you don’t have a body or an individual who you can hand over power to, you can easily get stuck in an open-ended occupation and that’s not in the interest of the directly affected population.
PassBlue: From your experience, what has been more influential regarding US decisions to intervene — moral judgment or national interests?
David Phillips: Americans like to use virtuous power for the greater good, so there is always a moral dimension. We have a sense of outrage as freedom-loving people when innocent victims are slaughtered. But it is clear that’s not the sole criteria. If it were, the US would have sent troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where five million people have been killed; to Darfur, which we have labeled as a genocide — 300,000 Darfurians have died there, maybe 400,000 — so ultimately it comes down to national interest.
PassBlue: How would you rate the UN Security Council‘s efforts in conflict prevention and its judgment on whether to intervene?
David Phillips: Pathetic. China and Russia’s obstruction on three Security Council resolutions on Syria shows their unwillingness to deal with rogue and genocidal regimes such as Bashar al-Assad‘s [president of Syria]. The international community works when the US is pushing an agenda. If you multilaterize the decision-making, you end up with the lowest common denominator and that’s usually inaction. Principled and courageous leadership from Washington is called for.
PassBlue: How did the intervention in Iraq influence the US and the international community’s motivation to intervene in today’s humanitarian crises?
David Phillips: The 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq by the Bush administration, which was done illegally and under false pretenses, undermined a century of effort to lay the groundwork for more robust international engagement to protect the rights of citizens whose interests are abused within sovereign states.
PassBlue: Given your involvement in peace talks in many different places around the world, how often have women been able to play significant roles in conflict resolution?
David Phillips: Not often enough. [Security Council] Resolution 1325 makes clear that women should not only have a role at the peace table but that they should also be involved in political mobilization at the grass roots and in peace-building activities, including economic development. Unless you engage women fully in post-conflict activities, it is easy to backslide and to see conflict resume. Resolution 1325 represents a gold standard to which all countries should adhere.
PassBlue: How would you characterize the nature of conflict resolution when women are involved?
David Phillips: I think the experience of Liberia is instructive on the role of women [the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace's work to help end Liberia's 2003 civil war]. Their voice was heard, their leadership was felt, their impact on local economy was significant. Liberia is a good model on how women can play a constructive role.
PassBlue: Aside from UN Resolution 1325, which mandates women’s participation in peace talks, what else can be done to increase the role of women in conflict resolution?
David Phillips: Beyond the resolution, attitudes must change. All too often, women are the primary victims of conflicts. Women and children are the most displaced. They too often lack a voice when it comes to public opinion or political negotiations. It’ll take time for combatants who are typically male to engage women at every stage of a peace process, but it is important that we get there.
PassBlue: What projects are you working on now?
David Phillips: I am also a member of the adjunct faculty on the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and a senior adviser for peace-building and reconciliation for the US Department of State. I work in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, South Sudan/Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Iraq and the Balkans — especially Serbia and Kosovo.
[This article was updated on May 2, 2013.]