R2P Is Not the New COIN

The foreign-policy blog Zenpundit asserted today that”R2P is the new COIN.”

This is not to say that R2P is a military doctrine, but like the rise of pop-centric COIN, it will be an electrifying idea that has the potential fire the imagination of foreign policy intellectuals, make careers for it’s bureaucratic enthusiasts and act as a substitute for the absence of a coherent American grand strategy. The proponents of R2P (R2Peons?) appear to be in the early stages of following a policy advocacy template set down by the COINdinistas, but their ambitions appear to be far, far greater in scope.

I think this comparison is useful, but I reach a different conclusion than Zenpundit does. In my opinion, R2P stands no chance of becoming the next COIN because attempts to make civilian protection a guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy will be resisted stiffly by the U.S. military.

The specific collection of beliefs and ideas we now call COIN (link) became ascendant in the latter half of the 2000s because it spoke to the needs and desires of civilian and military leaders alike. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. and its allies appeared to be losing the wars they had started a few years earlier in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at least not winning them. Policy-makers responded to the risk of failure by groping around for fresh ideas on how to tip those messy and costly wars toward “victory.” COIN took shape in response to this demand. COIN gave military leaders new things to try in place of the old ones that were failing, and it fanned policy-makers’ hopes for a way to bring those costly wars to some successful end. (NB. Never underestimate the power of desperation for new ideas when things aren’t going how the U.S. governments wants them to go. In that environment, “I don’t know” and “We can’t win” are not acceptable responses.) COIN’s emphasis on clearing insurgents from population centers and then sustaining security in those areas gave birth to the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, and the apparent success of that campaign was all the confirmation needed to cement many of the principals’ beliefs that COIN could finally put those wars on winning tracks.

By contrast, R2P doesn’t have that same cross-cutting appeal, and it won’t get it any time soon. Some influential civilian advisors in the Obama administration have vocally advocated for more emphasis on civilian protection in U.S. foreign policy, but the doctrine doesn’t speak to any problems the country’s military leadership needs or wants to solve. If anything, the opposite is true; R2P threatens to pull an exhausted and potentially shrinking military into even more fights with a more ephemeral connection to core U.S. interests. On this point, I found remarks former defense secretary Robert Gates made to a congressional committee considering  U.S. military intervention in Libya to be especially telling. In March 2011, Gates said:

There is a lot of, frankly, loose talk about some of these military options. Let’s just call a spade a spade. A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defences. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. Then you can fly planes around the country and not worry about our guys being shot down. That is the way it starts…It is a big operation by a big country.

Gates was probably one of the most popular civilian leaders of the U.S. military ever, in part because rank-and-file soldiers felt like he had their backs. When Gates resisted policy-makers’ efforts to pull his guys into yet another fight of questionable relevance to U.S. interests, it said a lot about the reaction we can expect from the U.S. military to similar situations in the future–especially ones involving forces more formidable than Gaddafi’s.

I think the military’s skepticism of R2P will be enough to prevent its ascendancy to COIN-like status, but it’s worth noting that civilian support for R2P as a pillar of U.S. foreign policy may be weaker than Zenpundit suggests, too. A year from now, the week after Libyan rebels seized Tripoli with NATO air support will probably mark the apex of R2P’s influence on U.S. policy. The ensuing complications in Libya; the continuing failure of tepid international efforts to stop the bloodshed in Syria; and the resurgence of violence against protesters in Yemen will all serve as painful reminders that civilian protection does not come cheap or easy. Meanwhile, the U.S.’s economic woes are likely to curtail its adventurist impulses, and politics on the U.N. Security Council–which must approve military interventions under R2P–are only going to get more complicated as the U.S. and Europe increasingly depend financially on rising powers that are deeply skeptical of Western interventions.

Based on these considerations, I’m pretty sure we’ve already seen the local maximum for R2P’s influence on American policy. As laudable as the doctrine’s ambitions may be, and as much as we “nattering nabobs” might like to debate it, I don’t think R2P is going to alter substantially the practice of U.S. foreign policy any time soon.

Leave a comment


  1. Your point on the absence of military leadership and R2P is well-taken; while there has been limited progress in mobilizing military resources for mass atrocities operations, they’re certainly not subsumed into a larger, doctrinal framework. That said, I’m not sure that you take into full account the impact that civilian protection policy has had on the civilian bureaucracy. I mentioned this in my Slouching Towards Columbia post, but the developments are much more gradual–the prioritization of human/civilian security in the State Department’s Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy and subsequent bureaucratic adjustments, the creation of the Atrocities Prevention Board–but they’re tangible. And I’m not sure that the challenges of civilian protection during the Arab Spring mark the apex of civilian protection, either. It’s just as feasible that the U.S. government would use this as a lessons-learned opportunity, in order to prevent circumstances like the Libya intervention or the tepid response to violence against protesters in Yemen.

    • Dan, your points about marginal changes in civilian bureaucracies are well taken. I also don’t dispute that R2P is part of a broader, if uneven, trend in global norms toward international cooperation in defense of liberal ideals. Nevertheless, I’ll stand by my assertion that R2P is not going to have the kind of deep impact on U.S. foreign policy in the near future that COIN had in the past several years. I think that optimism about COIN’s transformative potential played a major role in keeping the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan in large numbers longer than would have been the case without it. The decisions to keep pushing for “victory” in those fights after they stagnated were two of the biggest U.S. policy choices since the ones to start those wars. I just don’t see R2P playing a central role in any decisions of comparable magnitude any time soon.

  2. Ink Spots has a smart reply to this post and the one from Zenpundit that kicked it off: http://tachesdhuile.blogspot.com/2011/09/r2p-is-not-new-coin-but-ulfelder-is.html.


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