The past decade of U.S. Africa policy has made some wish most for policies that would “first, do no harm.” A Hippocratic test could be useful for President Obama’s new Africa team at the NSC and the State Department, as they reflect on the harm that has punctuated their predecessors’ policies towards many African countries.
I’m more in favour of a hippocratic policy than a hypocritical one. But though “first, do no harm” it is often cited as a valuable guiding principle, when you think about it is not a very good rule of thumb. (In many respects there are parallels with the so-called “precautionary principle”, which also strikes me as heavily overrated as a guiding light.)
Suppose someone had argued as follows in 1994: “Intervention to stop the genocide in Rwanda might do harm. We don’t fully understand Rwandan politics, and we don’t know how to disengage from a military intervention. Our rule is: first, do no harm. Therefore we will not intervene to prevent the genocide.” Interesting argument, wrong answer.
Actually, Anthony Lake (President Clinton’s National Security Adviser) did say something a bit like that. He said on May 5 1994:
We have to ask the hard questions about where and when we can
intervene. And the reality is that we cannot often solve other people’s
problems; we can never build their nations for them …”
The literal application of the hippocratic rule prevents policy-makers from taking risks where there is a possibility of doing harm but where the good could massively outweigh it. If we adopt a policy of never doing harm, we will limit the amount of good we can do.
The following seem to me good principles:
- think about the wider and long term consequences of your decisions
- only do things were the good is likely to outweigh the harm
- where possible limit the harm you do
That said, I agree with Ms Herskovits that the US has made policy mistakes in Nigeria, Kenya and Somalia. The answer is not the Hippocratic Oath but more often choosing values and long-term interest in democracy and peace over short term strategic considerations.