Skip to content

Responsibility to Protect Ya Neck

September 2, 2011

There’s been a fair amount of push-back over the arguments about sovereignty that Joshua Foust and I have put out, which is to be expected. Zack Beauchamp has a thorough and thoughtful response:

We only endorse the idea that states have rights because accepting the idea that they do is good for individual rights. There’s no way to harm a state other than harming its people. In fact, the entire justification for states existing in the first place is that they’re guarantors of individual rights and well-being. Thus, we should only endorse the idea that states have “complete, independent authority” over their territory if we think that a system like that is actually good for the world’s citizens.

This is not quite true. After all, who’s “we?” Not every political community conceives of the social contract as between individuals and the state per se. For some, the state is a contract between society as say, a nation or another conception of community. To think that every state has internalized this idea requires a bit more elaboration than mere assertion. Certainly the origins of the state were not justified simply as a liberal effort to secure individual rights. States found justification for a variety of theological, dynastic, and security purposes, as well as the selection process of war and the desire to secure resource extraction. Liberalism and the state developed in parallel but not inextricably, to deny that there are illiberal origins and illiberal interpretations of the state then or now is a normative statement, not an empirical one. It is one that should cast doubt on the universal acceptance of R2P’s legitimacy as well as its value as a way of ensuring the rights and well-being of people (and I deliberately say people and not individuals), since the potential for ideological wars over what is the right kind of state order is reduced if all sovereignty is made contingent upon acceptance of a certain brand of liberal internationalism.

Beauchamp, along with Slaughter, have revealed R2P for what it actually is: a doctrine based on regime change and the destruction of the foundations of international order wherever practically possible. After all, are intervening powers really fulfilling their responsibility if they fail to effect regime change after intervening? This is exactly why I believe R2P is far more insidious than many of its advocates would have us believe or intend in practice. It is essentially mandating a responsibility, wherever possible, to seek the sanction, coercion, or overthrow of regimes which fail to meet a liberal conception of acceptable state behavior. Even if R2P is never applied against a major power, it is hard to see why such behavior would not be met with just as much suspicion as humanitarian intervention and previous Western regime change operations were. Indeed, a full treatment will reveal there is immense pressure for R2P to initiate the more fundamental, and more universal, impulse to revert to the potential ruthlessness inherent in international anarchy.

Beauchamp tries to argue that R2P is principled rather than potentially opportunistic by falling back on the argument about constraints:

We are constrained from intervening in some places because we thinks the moral costs related to intervening would be higher than the benefits. Intervention is justified by reference to R2P, not vice-versa. It’s not at all clear what NATO could do to help in Yemen and Syria given 1) the distinct character of the conflicts there, 2) its already-overexteded forces and 3) political roadblocks. It’s a truism in morality that “ought implies can” – we don’t have an obligation to do things that we, in fact, can’t do. Interventionism doesn’t require blindly ignoring costs or tradeoffs. It requires deploying resources when, according to one’s judgment, they can do the most good.

This is an overly static conception of constraints. Relying on just war logic, as R2P does in its criterion for intervention, it fails to consider that just war theory is far too simplistic to be of use in R2P considerations. Just war theory (in its modern secularized sense) only informs leaders which states a country can permissibly go to war with. R2P, however, requires consideration of which states should and ought to go to war with. In a purely short-term time frame where the potential intervening country cannot alter the calculations that influence the just war criterion, it is true. In the medium and long term, however, a country absolutely does have the ability to alter the conditions that make an R2P intervention advisable or inadvisable. It could make compromises on non-R2P issues to secure diplomatic consensus from necessary great powers and stakeholders. It could use intelligence and diplomatic efforts to prepare the battlefield for military intervention through the sponsoring of opposition groups, the undermining of state power through covert operations, or other activities. It could build up its military capabilities and improve those it would think most relevant to an R2P intervention. It could alter the rest of its foreign policy to bring that in line with its responsibility.

Using the merely secular version of just war theory, R2P cannot adequately answer questions of when a state should seek war and what kind of foreign policy it should adopt to make its occasional moral obligation of declaring war a more feasible possibility. What R2P really has more in common with is theological conceptions of just war and their retroactive migration into international law and secularized just war theory. The most prominent theologian in this quest was of course Francisco de Vitoria, whose theological writings on the morality of the conquista in the Americas were appropriated by various secular Western jurists in the early 20th century, most prominently the American scholar of international law, James Brown Scott.

The only thing which comes close to the prescriptive idea of war is the notion of religiously-sanctified expansion, whether through missionary work, the conquista, or other missions with the moral force of the Catholic Church and its idea of proper earthly conduct behind them. As Carl Schmitt points out in Nomos of the Earth:

In the Middle Ages, just war could be a just war of aggression… As far as the substance of medieval justice is concerned, however, it should be remembered that Vitoria’s doctrine of just war is argued on the basis of a missionary mandate issued by a potestas spiritualis that was not only institutionally stable, but intellectually self-evident.

If Beauchamp is correct in rooting R2P in the replacement of traditional sovereignty and “not the idea of humanitarian intervention,” that should increase, not allay, our concerns about R2P’s implications for world peace, stability, and actual human flourishing. R2P is, under, of course, very different circumstances, the revival of the expunged theological-legal concept of the just war of aggression. In effect, the juristic legitimacy emanates from the consensus of the UN Security Council, but the moral legitimacy of R2P, by Beauchamp’s own admission, comes from an idea about sovereignty, one which is not entirely accepted within the United States and the Western world, let alone by the rising powers of Asia which refused to endorse it in the UNSC. This means that the new, morally sanctifying “potestas spiritualis” is actually far less institutionally stable or intellectually self-evident than was its predecessor in Middle Ages Christendom.

R2P is suspect as a doctrine precisely because it invokes a legitimacy based on foundations of great power cooperation rather than genuinely internalized universal morality, and operates on an intellectual self-evidence which becomes apparent only through the willful rejection of the legitimacy of alternative moral conceptions of sovereignty and government. In speaking of Slaughter’s argument, Beauchamp writes:

Her argument that “in the 21st century populations are often at equal or greater risk from their own governments as they are from other states” is the core claim here, and that’s almost certainly true. There are far more civil wars than state-to-state wars today, and the former have, in recent years, killed many more than the latter. That’s to say nothing of things like genocide and state created famine I discussed in my last post. Under the traditional conception of sovereignty, U.N. peacekeeping operations (which have been quite effective [pdf] in mitigating these problems) would be impermissible unless the warring party that was nominally the government consents. Even aid couldn’t be let in without their say-so. Do we seriously think an absolute right to sovereignty ought to be defended at these costs?

The argument that civil wars now claim more lives than interstate violence, while true, is not in and of itself evidence that sovereignty is a threat to humanity and that revoking it will necessarily lead to better outcomes. Firstly, a genuinely sovereign state would prevent civil wars through crushing them. This is not pretty, but that is the nature of civil wars. They are often less damaging when they are short and when they are won definitively. As Sherman told Atlanta:

War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it; and those who brought war into our country deserve all the curses and maledictions a people can pour out. I know I had no hand in making this war, and I know I will make more sacrifices to-day than any of you to secure peace. But you cannot have peace and a division of our country.

In some cases Sherman’s criteria would justify a regime’s cruelty against its people, in some cases it would justify cruelty by a country’s people towards its regime. But apparent here is the indivisibility of peace and order. When a country goes to war internally, it is because order has, empirically, been ruptured. It is for want of sovereignty in the substantive Hobbesian sense that a country goes into civil war, not for its excess. What Beauchamp is talking about is the hollow, post-colonial form of sovereignty which insists that any regime, regardless of whether it is even capable of fulfilling the task of sovereign control over its territory, ought not be subjected to the selective pressures of anarchy and allowed to continue its existence as a legal entity even if its de facto sovereignty over its territory is practically nonexistent.

Intervention in another country’s civil wars, especially on the losing side, has great potential to drag out a civil war and prolong the misery of its people (even intervention in the favor of the winning side can drag them out by allowing the losers to draw more recruits through the invocation of foreign meddling). As David Bosco pointed out in his trenchant assessment of the uncomfortable questions of the Libyan intervention:

The notion of acquiescing to a brutal crackdown on humanitarian grounds may seem perverse. But humanitarians make that kind of calculation all the time, though not always explicitly. The scale of human suffering in North Korea, for instance, dwarfs that in Libya. Yet no serious observer calls for intervention there, because of the expected cost. In Libya, Western policymakers argued that the balance tilted in favor of action. But particularly if a humanitarian intervention will be limited to air support for local resistance, the expected toll of prolonged fighting must be factored into the calculus.

Thus my concern about opportunism and R2P, by which cost-benefit calculations and utilitarian principles in the use of force are essentially dispensed with because of the potential for action. However, humanitarian intervention is just an ancillary benefit of R2P, whose core is really about restructuring, wherever possible, the relationship between territory, rights, and rule. As Bosco notes:

Unless, that is, the humanitarian calculus is not the most important one. Intervention can support all sorts of other values and goals, including self-determination and self-government. Supporting a rebel group with a just cause might be the right choice even if doing so produces a prolonged and bloody conflict. Taking those other objectives into account, however, requires a debate that goes well beyond a simple humanitarian calculus.

Yet to be sold to the international community, R2P must often be couched in the rhetoric of saving lives and protecting civilians, even though its actual goal is the far more sophisticated and controversial case that Beauchamp candidly lays out. While Beauchamp insists that Libya is not actually very important for R2P, that Libya will have future consequences for the implementation of R2P is indisputable.

Like most principles and doctrines in the international system, the seeming acceptance of R2P rationales in Libya is less the product of a universal recognition of a doctrine’s objective truth or moral good, but an intersubjective consensus built on contingency and mutual misunderstanding of the beliefs and calculations of other entities. The inherent friction of military action and international politics will lay the contradictions of this intersubjective consensus bare. Let us take the implementation of R2P in Libya for what it was. Beauchamp and others have argued that it was the product of a case-by-case calculation, but this underplays the very different calculations and objective of other powers and political entities with accepting the case the Europeans and later US would make for implementing UNSC 1973.

First, take the United States. As I explained in my previous post, there was a very strange perception of strategic opportunity that spurred the US to action in Libya. It was not as if this country had even accepted R2P, rather, certain parts of the US establishment were absolutely proponents of R2P and the strategic cases for Libyan intervention that were also made, despite the objection of the less humanitarian-minded officials in the intelligence community and Defense Department.

Then, take the European states. I cannot speak much to British calculations, although Aaron Ellis of Thinking Strategically absolutely can. However, if we examine France, it is much less clear this is a country that has internalized the principles of R2P than a country willing to invoke it for ulterior strategic considerations. Far more than most other intervention participants, France had very strong material and strategic considerations in intervening in Libya (though as in any other countries, there were certainly elements of the French public and French government which were acting genuinely altruistically). After the rapid and shocking fall of Ben Ali in Tunisia, France realized its leverage in North Africa would rapidly disappear if it did not curry favor with some of the revolutionary movements in the region. Additionally, the Lampedusa crisis revealed the potential damage an influx of immigrants could do to European security by provoking an emergency restriction on the Schengen agreement by Paris. Now that France is the NTC’s most powerful local sponsor, France has a chance to conduct forward disruption of immigrant flows across the Mediterranean.

There is, of course, the Arab League’s support for the Libyan interventi0n. However, it is quite obvious their support of for R2P in Libya may be the most cynical calculation of all. After all, many Arab states were engaged in suppressing their own populaces through means not yet as violent as Gaddafis. Vitally, however, Gaddafi had very few friends in the Arab world. After his failure to achieve a position of Arab leadership, it is well known Gaddafi chose to use his power and influence to cultivate stronger relationships with Africa, as evidenced by the radically different reaction of the African Union towards the Libyan civil war compared to the Arab League. Gaddafi had no real friends in the Arab world, certainly not among the monarchies who eagerly supported the rebels in their fight against a usurper of the Libyan monarchy.

Arab regimes had, in Libya, an opportunity to portray themselves on the same side as the Arab street even as they oppressed Arabs in their own countries. Indeed, in some ways escalating the war in Libya distracted external and internal attention from their own crimes. It is obvious that Arab regimes do not much care about the idea of R2P because the Gulf Cooperation Council has been busily assisting the government of Bahrain in suppressing its own populace, and I doubt the support for that suppression would change if Bahrain chose to escalate the brutality of its actions. The GCC intervention actually represents a victory for absolute sovereignty in its classic sense (not its Westphalian one, which Osiander, among others, has demolished as an unhelpful IR meme), but for the Metternichian suppression of threats to a fellow ruler’s sovereignty. In other words, the GCC at least has shown it still does believe in absolute sovereignty.

Never mind, of course, that Germany, Brazil, India, China, and Russia would not cast their votes in favor of intervention in Libya. That they let the resolution go through is, as Bosco noted, a sign of their belief that the intervention would result in civilian protection rather than the upending of sovereignty that Beauchamp describes. Having learnt what R2P actually means in practice, which is the revocation of sovereignty itself and the denial of sovereign rights in theory, they will be far more reluctant to support R2P again in the future. They know it represents an ideology and view of world order they find dangerous and destructive.

Advocates should recognize that the world is more peaceful now than it has ever been before. Most of these improvements to human flourishing have occurred not because, but in spite, of the destabilizing potential of R2P. The UNSC-mandated peacekeeping interventions that Beauchamp praises existed before R2P, are often directed at states where formal sovereignty does not exist, and rarely involve the change of an established regime. They occur because of great power consensus about the need to restore order in anarchical spaces, and that consensus by great powers is exactly what R2P and the vision of a transformed world behind it threaten most.

R2P is dangerous because, in seeking to alleviate human suffering that, however horrible, pales in comparison to the violence of the past and even to the mass human catastrophe of much more easily alleviated and less politically controversial enterprises, such as famine, disease, and other challenges (which, as Jay Ulfelder has pointed out on Twitter, would be far less resource-intense commitments) call into question its value for human flourishing. In a world of limited resources, it might be easy to see why Libya is a better case for intervention than Syria or Yemen. It is harder to see why Libya’s situation is so terrible that it demands US resources and actions when Mexico sees 15,000 drug related murders a year or famine in Somalia kills hundreds of thousands. Of course, one can neatly sidestep this by noting the moral importance of R2P and the goals Beauchamp puts at its core, which seek not just to establish peace or prosperity as the absence of war and suffering, but in a positive sense through re-ordering the international system.

Yet to return to a doctrine which sanctifies, through an impossible moral vision of universal rights enforced upheld by great powers, is to flirt with disaster and the destabilization of the international order, which is built on uglier foundations than the ideals that R2P argues for. Accepting the absolutism of sovereignty does not mean morally accepting the righteousness of terrible regimes, but it does mean de-emphasizing the role of just causa, especially in the crusading theological sense, as a legitimate right to war. The stability of the 19th century among sovereign states was the result of the suppression of justa causa and its replacement with justis hostis. The recognition of other states as legitimate sovereign entities, and the de-emphasis of the religious and then political-ideological causes for launching “just wars of aggression” during the Wars of Religion and the era of the French Revolution allowed for the flourishing of modern international law and the development of restrictions on extremely brutal forms of warfare in the absence of a common potestas spiritualis.

The reintroduction of wars over regime-type, of universal ideologies seeking to expand through force, and the criminalization of certain sovereign states and behavior previously considered normal was what gave Schmitt so much hostility and animus towards international liberalism. The Cold War era, through a combination of bipolarity, nuclear deterrence, geographic dispositions of major powers, and technological changes, provided the foundations for stability and the reduction in major wars between states. Meanwhile, great power stability provided the scope for humanitarian intervention to mitigate the problems of civil wars. Libya is instructive because this did not come about through a common moral consensus, and to the extent it did it was possible through the elimination of the vehemently racialist or telluric regimes which opposed universal world order during WWII. The victory of a universal ideology was made possible first through the most devastating war in world history, and then through the containment and exhaustion of the next-strongest power of the batch which remained. Essentially, great power peace and Western might were prerequisites to the formation and application of the universal system of rights. Rather than strengthening them, the “new sovereignty” which R2P is supposed to advance is likely to seriously endanger those rights and the peace which was their foundation.

The countries which opposed R2P in Libya are not minor recalcitrant states. India and China are on the rise, and many Asian states share their skepticism of regime change and the idea of great powers regulating small states’ behavior towards their own peoples. Simply because R2P can’t be legitimately applied against Russia, China, or India does not mean that the doctrine does not have a destabilizing effect. In moralizing the international environment, the differences between the interests of Western powers and the more conservative powers of other states become more apparent. The attempt to apply R2P outside of America or Europe’s traditional areas of influence would be a serious provocation on the part of the Western world because it would have adverse geostrategic consequences for major Asian powers. Consider that the early and intermediate effects of responding to R2P violations by powers which are not ripe for external intervention are the traditional tactics of isolation. The moral condemnation of a regime, sanctions on its economy, and support of its opposition are all likely to push it into the arms and spheres of influence of powers such as Russia, China, or other less morally discriminating or liberally minded states. They also, historically, tend to do a poor job of preventing the potential for violent repression, since they encourage revolt but do not significantly weaken the ability of the targeted state to respond to it with force, as Burma shows. Lo and behold, Burma is in the Chinese orbit despite India’s best attempts to bring it out. Attempting to repeat the sliding scale of Burma elsewhere will lead to many of the same consequences.

Consider that in 2008 Bernard Kouchner and other R2P advocates were debating using the Burmese crime against humanity of denying aid delivered by military-affiliated relief forces to victims of Cyclone Nargis as justifying forced entry into Irrawady Division. So the idea of this sliding scale of isolation ending in an attack on a country, even in the context of R2P, does have some potential. It is the mere threat of this potential which will contribute to distrust of Western power and the erosion of great power stability. Unlike in the past, Western powers will no longer have a definitive upper hand in being able to deter alternative ideological agendas or foreign policies which challenge their own. As cases such as Iraq and Burma have shown us, the isolation of regimes through non-military means often binds them to foreign policies and internal policies which increase Western hostility to their continued existence. In the case of Burma and North Korea, the cumulative effect of those choices is also to draw them closer to powers such as China and thus transform them from mere humanitarian disasters to ongoing humanitarian disasters which are potential flashpoints for war.

In other words, the implementation of R2P, even in the limited, circumscribed fashion that its more sober advocates argue for, puts into motion long-term changes which have a destabilizing result and increase the potential for internationalized civil war and the destabilization of great power relations. Furthermore, even touting the doctrine that a government’s sovereignty ought to be revoked on a moral basis if it does not promote individual rights is a direct and hostile provocation of Russia and China. The likely response, will likely be the adoption of vehemently anti-liberal ideologies by great powers which oppose R2P proponents, adding moral overtones to the fundamental differences in interest that the anti-sovereignty agenda of R2P will come to represent. More fundamental, and far more widely internalized than any of the abstract notions about sovereignty at the core of R2P, is the street wisdom of power competition, which, with equal apologies to ICISS and the Wu-Tang Clan, and credit to co-blogger Adam Elkus, one might call the “Responsibility to Protect Ya Neck.” The truly tragic thing about R2P is that it sets in motion the consequences it most wishes to avoid.

Charles V, a contemporary of Vitoria, used his fleeting moment of continental power and dual inheritance of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire to try to respond to the Protestant reformation and the undermining of Church authority through the immense worldly power at his disposal. His quest, and the dreams of universal Catholic monarchy it engendered, helped set in motion the undoing of the Church’s worldly power by provoking militant responses from France and the Ottoman empire, who his efforts brought together against him. Vitoria, for his part, developed arguments for the righteousness of the missionary mandate which international legal theorists would use to justify, in secular terms, the acceptability of Protestant evangelization in Europe and abroad. As the GZA admonished competitors in the music industry:

That’s what ya get when ya misuse what I invent
Your empire falls and ya lose every cent
For tryin to blow up a scrub
Now that thought was just as bright as a 20-watt light bulb

Trying to turn a doctrine such as R2P, with relatively minor improvements to human welfare but a radical rebuke to notions of international order, into a new principle of foreign policy, and its underlying ideas about sovereignty into the basis of the world system that cannot and will not accept it, is both a misuse of the international order the great powers created and an excellent way to endanger the peace and prosperity of the international system. R2P is based on a utopian vision of sovereignty, even if its actual potential for implication is rather more restrained. But the idea and its limited implementation can provoke more than enough fear and loathing to re-introduce enmity and intensified anarchy to the international system. It would be better to remember that while Hobbes did indeed see the value in sovereignty for protecting international rights, he also understood its actual basis and foundation in power and the management of power, for without common power, existence tends to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Introducing a principle which rejects all the notions and foundations of power which our exceptionally peaceful international system relies on for the sake of such ambiguous and ephemeral gains seems dangerously unwise, particularly when other uses of our resources could do much more to alleviate human suffering without the same destabilizing consequences. Of course, learning to do this requires accepting the nature of anarchy and the power-political and material, rather than ideological, basis of stability. Or, as one man put it: “Neglected for now, but yo, it gots to be accepted / That what? That life is hectic.”

6 Comments leave one →
    • September 6, 2011 3:04 pm

      Thanks for the reply. I think we do basically agree that the fundamental international order is upended, since there are obviously many societies which do not operate along the rules of Western liberal theories of popular sovereignty. Where we differ is that you believe a new, improved order can emerge from the upending, whereas I tend to think that any kind of international order is inherently unsustainable, even if the transition is manageable. I happen to think that R2P endangers the transition, but that’s because I see a basic incompatibility between the ideals of its adherents and the future power of its opponents…


  1. Wikileakd and Sovereignty | Fear, Honor, and Interest
  2. A Note on the (Raging) Debate over R2P, Sovereignty, and International Order « Dart-Throwing Chimp
  3. R2P – does it upend the “traditional” order of state sovereignty? « RightOfFulbright
  4. the intervention ratchet’s lexicon: disaggregating mass atrocities response policy « Securing Rights

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: