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Bounding R2P – A European Monroe Doctrine?

April 12, 2011

The opposition of major powers to the Libyan intervention poses some interesting questions for the future of R2P, which I began to explore in a previous post. R2P is supposed to be a universal principle. However, the pragmatic considerations in its implementation mean that Responsibility to Protect cannot be, in practice, a universal norm.

Only certain states believe in the values of Responsibility to Protect, and even fewer of those have the capability to enforce the norm in question. Of those states, only one really has the ability to attempt a military intervention to uphold the norms of R2P anywhere in the world – the United States. The majority of states supporting Responsibility to Protect, with the military power capable of enforcing it, are concentrated in Western Europe, with the United States having a strong but not always decisive lobby in its favor.

In addition to sharing the norm and having the military capability of enforcing it, the actual implementation of R2P passes another filter, and that of practicality. It is clear at this point that nobody intends to uphold the norms of R2P anywhere and everywhere, and that choices of where to intervene must lie in some combination of geopolitical interest and the likelihood of exerting a decisive impact. For the European states, that means R2P will be mostly enforced in the band of states extending from the Sahel to the Balkans. This is, traditionally, the realm and near environs of maritime Europe.

There are relatively few constraints to R2P interventions in these areas, once the powers adhering to the norm decide to enforce it. Russia and China lack the geopolitical interests in most of these countries to expend significant effort opposing intervention, since these states lie in a European sphere of influence. Thus, with the exception of the US and the Western Europeans themselves, these states have no real benefactors to complicate and deter a military intervention.

What the decision to begin more serious implementation of R2P will really mean is its repeated exercise in the states of the Sahara, Sahel, Mediterranean rim, and Balkans. Each intervention will contribute to the development of an increasingly sophisticated and probably accepted norm of humanitarian intervention, but one that will not cross over into the sphere or geopolitical realm of the other major great powers. Most of Eurasia, from the Arabian peninsula and post-Soviet west to South Asia and the Pacific Southeast will remain relatively immune to the R2P norm.

It will resemble, rather than a global international norm, a sort of European Monroe Doctrine. R2P, as part of a Western “political idea” about the proper constitution and behavior of states within the European sphere of influence, and a body of practice relating the interaction and sovereignties of major powers and minor states, will become quite similar to the American desire to carve out its own set of political ideas and accepted geopolitical behavior in its own area of influence. Also like the Monroe Doctrine, much of its true enforcement, at least initially, will come from an external power. Just as the British fleet was what really upheld the Monroe Doctrine in most of the 19th and early 20th century, the US with its unrivaled capability for power projection and “unique capabilities” will play an important role in helping, or at least allowing, Europeans to enforce this norm. Also like Britain during the 19th century, the US will be able to use this very leverage to declare the exceptions to the system itself. As Britain long maintained the ability to intervene in the southern cone and its bases in Canada and the Caribbean, the US will be able to exert a deciding influence on many of the European decisions to implement R2P in concrete cases.

There are both strong normative and geopolitical constraints to the expansion of R2P beyond this European sphere. For one thing, the US has no partners in the rest of Eurasia which are interested in upholding or enforcing the Responsibility to Protect in their own region. India maintains strong skepticism of R2P and its concrete implementation in Libya, as I mentioned in the previously linked post. As for the institutional bodies shaping the normative environment of Southeast Asia, ASEAN and associated fora are strongly opposed to the interventionism R2P requires. Some Western observers have confused Asian attempts to escape their “old” roles as pawns of great power politics with a similar embrace of the new European-led norms transcending sovereignty and upholding universal human rights. Instead, the “political idea” emerging from East Asia is one of non-intervention and a degree of political pluralism. China and India, for their parts, have strong memories and persistent fears of foreign interference or intervention within their own borders, and are lending their increasing power to upholding these norms, at least where their geopolitical interests are at play.

Will proponents of R2P accept the geopolitical bounding of their idea? If they do not, they need to recognize that interventions which further establish R2P’s precedent within the European sphere of influence may well reduce its likelihood of adoption outside of that realm. This is not to understate the accomplishment it would be if Europe were to enforce and uphold R2P within its neighborhood. However, seeing R2P in practice will likely drive areas less susceptible to European intervention further into opposing normative and geopolitical camps. Sub-Saharan Africa will likely increasingly court China to provide diplomatic cover and support for its own sovereignty, while the rising power of states opposed to R2P will increase their material ability to carve out their own normative space separate from the system the Western powers establish in the European neighborhood. In other words, the success and implementation of R2P might mean, in concrete terms, something very different than what its original proponents intended.

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