Global impunity has consequences

Global impunity has consequences
© Getty Images

The tragic murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the tepid response of the international community thus far highlights a growing trend toward increasingly brazen actions by countries that are failing to trigger meaningful consequences that could lead to reforms.

The Khashoggi incident followed closely on the heels of other Saudi actions that have been widely criticized for running counter to accepted international norms, including its ongoing air campaign in Yemen that has caused significant civilian casualties and helped ignite the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, and its treatment of the Lebanese prime minister last year. In the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, several Western government officials and financial institutions canceled their attendance at a major Saudi economic summit, but it is not yet clear whether there will be any lasting effect from this incident or the others on the relationship between the kingdom and the international community.


Also consider the Russian violations of accepted norms over the past four years. Beginning with its illegal seizure of Crimea, Moscow has acted with growing impunity across a broad front. These actions have included its role in the shooting down of flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014, its indiscriminate bombing campaign in Aleppo in 2016, its meddling in American elections, and its assassination attempt earlier this year using a nerve agent against a Russian citizen living in England. The Western sanctions against Russia have damaged its economy, but there is little evidence that they have been sufficient to alter its behavior.

This worrisome trend is also apparent in the increasingly harsh treatment by various governments of independent voices and the most vulnerable parts of their societies. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of imprisoned reporters around the world broke another record last year, a dubious distinction that is likely to be surpassed again this year. More than half of those jailed are in China, Egypt, and Turkey.

While the Chinese crackdown on the press has been well documented, far less attention has been paid to its handling of the minority populations there. United Nations human rights experts this year cited credible reports that China has now detained more than a million ethnic Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in the region of Xinjiang, and forced as many as two million to submit to reeducation and indoctrination. Beijing has, not surprisingly, denied these allegations and said that its policies are aimed instead at “preserving stability, promoting development and unity, and improving livelihood.” In other words, absent significant external pressure, China is unlikely to alter its treatment of its Muslim population.

It is certainly true that throughout history, countries have acted with impunity, and it is clear that Western nations are not without blame in this regard. But it feels as though the pace of this type of bad behavior is accelerating, and that the international community is at a loss for how, and even whether, to respond. So why should Western leaders care about these incidents, especially when many of the actions are confined within the borders of countries with which they already have frosty relations? Because history shows that as leaders grow accustomed to violating selected global norms occasionally, they become more likely to violate any norms they wish to with regularity. Or to paraphrase Hamlet, for these type of leaders, their appetites will likely grow with the eating.

It is worth considering for a moment, then, what this type of unbridled behavior could mean for the world over the next few years. Might, for example, a Saudi monarchy that feels that it has paid no concrete price for the Khashoggi episode eventually feel empowered to double down in Yemen, increasingly assert itself in the Middle East, or perhaps even engage in a direct confrontation with Iran that potentially drags the United States along with it? Or might President Putin, if he believes that the cost is manageable, eventually feel emboldened to feed his desire to reclaim additional territory along the Russian border, intervene in other crisis areas such as Libya, or formulate new methods for undermining democratic societies? Or might President Erdogan, absent concern about potential international blowback, shift from simply trying to secure his southern border to launching a large scale military campaign against the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, potentially causing a rift within NATO?

A world without strong Western leaders and firm commitment to enforce long established global norms of behavior would be a darker and more dangerous place to live. This is the moment for Western leaders to join together to reaffirm their commitment to the core democratic values and accepted rules of international conduct that were established after World War II, and to reaffirm the principle that violating these norms will carry serious and lasting consequences. Thankfully, the West still has a powerful set of policy options available to employ in this pursuit, including secondary economic sanctions and robust democratic promotion tools. The only question now is whether the West has the will to act.

Michael P. Dempsey is the national intelligence fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a fellowship sponsored by the U.S. government. He served as the former acting director of national intelligence. The opinions expressed in this commentary represent solely the views of the author.