Kissinger claimed that the Russian and Chinese governments are upholding the foundations of a world order that the United States should not lightly cast aside, an order in which sovereignty gives a government the right to rule its people and territory without intervention from other states and a corresponding obligation not to intervene in the affairs of others. It is true that this principle is enshrined in the United Nations Charter, but four years after the charter was passed U.N. members also adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By the end of the 20th century, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan — now the United Nations’ special envoy for Syria — was arguing that states existed to serve their people, rather than the other way around. And by 2005 all the world’s states, on the 60th anniversary of the U.N. Charter’s passage, adopted the doctrine of the responsibility to protect, which effectively adopted a definition of sovereignty as responsibility. Sovereigns bear responsibility to not only their fellow sovereigns but also their own people, to protect them from genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, and grave and systematic war crimes.
President Obama believes in sovereignty as responsibility. Standing up for that principle will result in a world that will be more stable, prosperous and consistent with universal values — the values Americans know as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. It will be a far better world for the United States as well as for Syrians, Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans and billions of others. But bringing it into being requires demonstrating firmly and quickly that when governments cross the line of genocide, or engage in crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing, or grave and systematic war crimes against their own people, the world will act — with force if necessary and with the approval only of a regional organization and a majority of the members of the U.N. Security Council. Only then will murderous dictators begin to think twice.