On Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and the Construction of a Liberal International Order

Sep 17, 2011

Debate over NATO’s military intervention in the Libyan civil war has reinvigorated discussion among observers of international relations on the merits (or demerits) of the United Nations’s Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine. You can find links to important entries in the current debate at the end of this post, but I’m going to react here to one part of it. In a rejoinder to her critics, including IR student and Slouching Towards Columbia blogger Dan Trombly, Princeton University’s Anne-Marie Slaughter casts R2P as an instrument for positive change in the international system, a wrench that ratchets the world closer to the liberal ideal of government for the people on which, she claims, the contemporary notion of sovereignty is based. For The Atlantic, she writes:

It is international law itself — or rather the governments that bring it into being — that is in the process of redefining the international definition of sovereignty (e.g. the conditions on which you can be a player in the international system) to include a responsibility to protect (R2P) their citizens. Trombly argues that this conception of sovereignty “essentially strips its value,” because the whole point of a sovereign is to protect individuals from each other, in return for which it can and must demand absolute obedience. In the R2P world, by contrast, the sovereign “protects and serves.” Strips its value? Really? I may be an international lawyer, but I’m also a daughter of Charlottesville, Virginia, home to Monticello and Mr. Jefferson’s university. Last I checked, “protects and serves” was his definition of domestic sovereignty. The Declaration of Independence, after all, argues that all men have inalienable rights and that governments exist “to secure these rights … deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” “Protects and serves” is how all liberal democratic governments define their relations with their citizens; and I would wager the majority of the world’s autocracies at this point as well.

To my mind, though, R2P’s power as an instrument of positive change in the international system is greatly weakened by its dependence on a process of selective enforcement in which the judges are effectively immune from the coercions they impose upon others. Strong supporters of R2P often justify selective enforcement in terms of opportunity, saying it’s reasonable to apply limited resources to cases where they might be expected to make the biggest difference, and to choose the instruments of intervention based on their expected costs as well as their benefits.

I agree, but that’s not the kind of selectivity that bothers me. On both moral and consequential grounds, the virtual immunity of the powerful is the larger problem. As Slaughter notes, R2P is rooted in liberal thought. The moral equivalence of individuals, and thus the right to equal protection under the law, is the core idea of liberalism. As long as application of R2P depends on political bargaining among powerful actors who are not subjected to the same coercion, I think the doctrine does as much harm to the normative foundations of a liberal international order as it does good. Targets and observers of R2P-based sanctions will see the national interests of the powerful, not the health of the international order or well-being of its constituents, as the engines of those interventions. (See this analysis, for example.) The ensuing cynicism does not reinforce liberal internationalism, it undercuts it.

To think about how a liberal international order might really develop, we can look at how liberal orders have arisen within states. Here, I think Douglass North, John Wallis, and Barry Weingast’s recent book Violence and Social Orders is especially useful. In that book, the authors (NWW) argue that contemporary states are founded on two types of order–natural states and open access orders–that represent different solutions to the common problem of controlling violence. “The natural state reduces the problem of endemic violence through the formation of a dominant coalition whose members possess special privileges,” they write (p. 18). By contrast, open access orders control violence through powerful, consolidated military and police organizations that are subservient to a political system, control of which “is open to entry by any group and contested through prescribed, and typically formal, constitutional means” (p.22).

Based on those two descriptions, it’s clear the international system we have today is more like a natural state than an open access order. The UN Security Council represents the dominant coalition, and the veto power of its members conveys the special privilege of virtual exemption from R2P.

For liberal internationalists, then, the crucial question is how to secure a transition from the one type of order to the other. On that, NWW write (p. 26):

The transition…has two stages. First, a natural state must develop institutional arrangements that enable elites to create the possibility of impersonal intra-elite arrangements. Second, the transition proper begins when the dominant coalition finds it in the interest of elites to expand impersonal exchange within the elite and institutionalize open elite access to organizations, effectively creating open access for elites. We call the conditions that may evolve in a natural state that enable impersonal relationships among elites the doorstep conditions. The doorstep conditions represent institutional and organizational support for increased impersonal exchange, as well as institutions consistent with the logic of the natural state that can be used in the transition to support open access orders.

According to NWW, the three doorstep conditions are: 1) rule of law for elites; 2) perpetually lived forms of public and private elite organizations, including the state itself; and 3) consolidated political control of the military.

As I see it, R2P advances none of these doorstep conditions. It does not create any new or expand any existing “perpetually lived” organizations, depending instead on existing (exclusive) organizations for decisions about enforcement. It does not consolidate political control of a non-existent international military force. Last and maybe most important, it tries to advance rule of international law, but it does so by appeal to an organization whose decision-making procedures are premised on elite bargaining and exceptionalism.

In short, I think R2P is a well-intentioned but deeply flawed attempt to advance the liberal cause in the international system. Because it fails to advance any of the doorstep conditions identified by North, Wallis, and Weingast, I think it ends up reflecting rather than transforming the conflicted nature of the contemporary international order. Transformation will only happen when the most powerful states agree to subject themselves to equal scrutiny and sanction, and I see few signs of that happening any time soon.

Now, the background reading:

  • You can find excellent background information on R2P on the web site of the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP).
  • Slaughter kicked off the recent debate I describe with this entry in her new blog for The Atlantic.
  • That post prompted ripostes from Dan Trombly (here, here, and here) and Joshua Foust (here).
  • For The Dish, Zach Beauchamp weighed in on Slaughter’s side (here).
  • Most recently, Slaughter responded with the post from which the quote above was taken (here).
  • Also worth reading is this article by Cristina Badescu and Thomas Weiss from the November 2010 issue of International Studies Perspectives, in which they discuss how fights over the application of R2P can help advance the norm by clarifying its scope and process.

This post originally appeared on my blog, Dart-Throwing Chimp.

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Jay Ulfelder is a Carr Center Fellow at Harvard University. Jay Ulfelder has two decades of experience working at the intersection of social science and data science, with a particular focus on protest, collective action, human rights, democracy, and forecasting.