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India, Libya, and the Bounding of R2P

March 27, 2011

While much ink has spilled over the Libyan crisis and its effect on relations between and among Western and Middle Eastern nations, it is important to remember there is a world beyond these parties. The parties which abstained from the UNSC vote authorizing the Libyan intervention constitute nearly half the world’s population, a significant part of its economy, and particularly when one considers the shift in global power, Germany and Russia are already vital states, but China, India and Brazil are certainly not minor recalcitrants.

This means the stand against Libya is not merely the usual authoritarian suspects, but three democracies with significant amounts of world power. For all the bluster about Responsibility to Protect and rethinking sovereignty, as well as the new norms of liberal democracy and human rights beyond the Western world, we ought to stand up and take notice that this understanding of sovereignty and internationalism is not broadly shared. This should lead liberal internationalists in the West and beyond to question why it is the Libyan intervention happened in the first place, and what we can truly expect from it going forward.

Bruce Riedel’s “Letter from Agra” points out some of the Indian confusion over events in Libya. India, despite being the world’s largest democracy, has a foreign policy which generally ranges between neutralism, realism, and nationalism. The issue of Jammu and Kashmir, along with other various secessionist movements, already inclines India towards a skeptical view of “rethinking sovereignty.” In the view of some Indian leaders and strategists, India and the rest of the world did not come all this way economically, politically, and militarily to have their sovereignty “rethought” by anybody. Their goal is to alter the Western orientation of the old system of sovereignty, not to fundamentally alter its order.

Whatever goodwill the US earns from Libya, and my previous writings incline me to think there will be rather less than promised, it will certainly not earn much from the rest of the world. India has moral and strategic reasons for its reluctance. It shakes the leadership’s faith in the strategic logic of what should be an important Indian partner in its dealings with Islamic extremism and China, and evokes memories of meddling Western powers. The latter concern was essentially shared among the BRIC countries, none of which would like to see the furtherance of Western hegemony.

China’s abstention came for obvious reasons, though it did not outright oppose to prevent alienating the Arab world. Russia’s decision likely came for a similar reason, though there has been infighting between Medvedev and Putin on the matter of Libya. As for Germany, it rightly recognizes that it has no serious interest at stake in Libya, and did not want to be dragged into the conflict. For these states, it was not obvious the Right to Protect should force Western intervention in a civil war.

Are these mere moral outliers who will come around eventually? No, I suspect they are not, given the power of the BRIC states relative to Atlantic Europe is rising, not falling. The Arab support for foreign intervention was primarily tactical, and the extension of a no-fly zone into airstrikes caused no small amount of discontent. Particularly when the GCC is willing to turn around and suppress dissidents in Bahrain, there is little reason to think that a new norm, rather than mere national interests, have asserted themselves.

We should also remember that the Mediterranean and Africa is basically the local domain of European power, and that European states, at least, would need significant co√∂peration from local partners to undertake such an operation further east in Eurasia. Nor is it clear that Western states would want to apply a similar norm in say, Southeast Asia, were the situation to arise. Unfortunately for proponents of R2P, ideologies do have a territorial scope, and given the relative weakness of power projection capabilities by Western states beside the US, it is unclear how far Western proponents of this rethought sovereignty can carry their ideals without the hegemon’s support. Nor is it clear the US would be willing to risk alienating India or China by bringing these ideals to their neighborhood in the first place.

So if we consider that opportunity and circumstance, rather than the real scale of human rights violation, is the threshold for R2P interventions, then it may well work out that R2P, rather than becoming a universal doctrine, is instead territorially bounded. While R2P is not neocolonialism or outright imperialism, we need not be surprised if its exercise confines itself to Europe’s traditional geostrategic area of influence – Atlantic Africa, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean Middle East and Arab world.

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