Firstly, I must say clearly what may have been understood by my remarks in previous posts—I do not believe that the nation-state (and by extension, the United Nations) has exclusive utility in today’s world as an international instrument of justice or as a tool to establish freedom, though national governments as ever serve a vital domestic role. I think just as non-state evil actors (Al-Qaeda terrorist organizations, for instance), have clearly become a force of disorder in worldwide in the 21st century, non-state good actors must respond by being forces of order. Technologies and individuals create networks all across the planet, and just as these have been perverted for wrong, these can be mobilized in beneficial ways. A secular example, MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers/Doctors Without Borders) supersedes national lines to provide physical care for displaced peoples and many others in dire need of medical attention (earning them a Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago). There are many other formal NGOs and charities that serve in similarly important capacities. So, certainly, care for the needs of the afflicted is essential, and both countries and individuals are components of this—neither should leave the responsibility solely to the other, but endeavor insofar as possible to work in concert, or at least not against one another.
Stopping the source of affliction? Well, that’s frequently far more difficult, as everyone knows. Just exposing the existence of the evil can itself be a tremendous tool. Information sharing about human trafficking, sexual exploitation, murder, rape, and other horrors can give victims courage and identify frequently shadowy perpetrators. Frequently, simple exposure to information about the freedoms others enjoy elsewhere can spur revolutions among oppressed peoples. Many democratic nation-states have laws on the books outlawing activities that occur within their borders—they need citizens and networks to expose wrongdoers and put pressure on the legal system to enforce the extant regulations. For instance, important non-state actors, like banks, can be pressured by both the nation-states within which they operate and by networks of individuals to cease providing a means for the transfer of ill-gotten and ill-intended funds. Unfortunately, particularly in non-democratic contexts, perpetrators oftentimes are much better equipped than their exploited opponents. Sometimes (mostly in democratic societies, even previously only nominal ones) passive resistance can work to bring about change, other times people feel called to arms. This is the point where the situation becomes morally fraught, with the very real risk that employing violent means will become an end in itself, and the former victims will end up as vicious and depraved as their old masters. Too, nation-states have had repeated problems with supplying arms to the enemy of their enemy and then later having those same weapons pointed back at them. The same challenge would beset any private group who sought to do the same. It is rare—and we Americans are particularly historically blessed in this regard—that wise leadership will establish limits to the behavior and aims of their revolutionary combatants, and after achieving the stated aims, not set themselves up in dictatorial positions.
Nation-states do have obligations among themselves, agreements for mutual defense and economic relations that they must honor, and various states go through periods of preeminence, but unless they are defending their own borders or contractually engaged in the defense of an ally’s, and thoroughly punishing infringement thereof, I don’t think the preeminent democracy of the moment should be throwing troops into active combat elsewhere, no matter the internal evils of a non-democratic regime. For one thing, contemporary democracies (which typically don’t fight one another, preferring to settle their disagreements through alternative, peaceful means) don’t all have the same historical qualifications and experiences in different parts of the world. Sometimes, the more influential the democratic nation-state, the more deliberately ignorant its leadership and population about others’ cultures and individual aspirations and simultaneously arrogant about its ability to bring order to chaotic countries; another “lesser” democracy and its people may be better equipped to handle the challenge of reforming the particular failed state because of a shared history, language, or culture. Wisdom leads to humility, and humility recognizes others’ strengths and encourages them to lead when they are best suited for the task at hand.
I don’t think acknowledging the aforementioned reality predisposes a shared worldview, but I think that Christians have an essential role to play in the struggle for peace and justice at home and abroad. I believe people have a responsibility before God to promoting compassion and justice within and to their own nations. This is a natural placement—I was born an American, as others were born French, Russian, Korean, Serbian or Chinese, and it is within this context first that we act. Insofar as we are able, we are by God’s grace to see to the welfare of our families and of the “least of these” (widows, orphans, the poor, the disabled, the helpless) within our immediate surroundings, and also in our countries as a whole. For many of us, an exclusive concentration on addressing these local needs would occupy all of our time and energy, but I think that the very nature of modern communications means we are all called to have a broader, intercultural perspective, to not be entirely focused on our own small sphere (though that is considerable) but also to have a concept of world needs. Some of us are more multiculturally aware than others, but each has his or her own strengths. The nature of the holy catholic (universal) church as Christ’s body is simultaneously intimate and global. And we should not forget that God himself is the main actor in directing the affairs of nations—we need to be always talking to him, and listening to his leading, praying for his terrible swift mercy rather than relying exclusively on our own limited understanding of world problems and events.
I cannot say that France has a better rationale than we do for getting involved in Syria, but there may be some diplomatic justification (defense of a large number of its nationals in the country, for instance) which is more legitimate than our own. They certainly have a closer historical relationship to the country than we do, and their direct investment in the area may be greater (I haven’t checked the numbers). I do think that given France’s long connection with Iran—and supply of technology to that country for its controversial nuclear program—that a French military reconfiguration of Syrian affairs would send a stronger deterrent message to Iran’s extraterritorially ambitious leadership than any US action. But whatever either the French or the US governments eventually do, I don’t think individual Americans need stand idly by while the chaos in Syria continues—we should look into means of mitigating the suffering there, all the while making sure that any atrocities are documented and deplored, and their instigators clearly identified for the time when they will inevitably face justice. Everyone does, either in this life or in the one to come.