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Guest post: Civilian Protection Policy, R2P, and the Way Forward

September 13, 2011

Those of you who follow me on Twitter have probably noticed that I get into just as many arguments about R2P on there. Daniel Solomon (@danatgu) has been a frequent sparring partner and a sharp defender of the doctrine, and absolutely deserving of a >140 character outlet.

As readers of this blog are well-aware, the NATO intervention in Libya, the subsequent uncertainties surrounding Libya’s post-Qaddafi future, and the limited international responses to emerging civilian protection crises in Syria, Yemen, Sudan, and elsewhere have sparked a robust blogosphere debate on the “responsibility to protect” doctrine (R2P) and contemporary frameworks for state sovereignty. The debate, initiated by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial post on the limits of sovereignty as a foundational framework for international political interactions, has weaved between the schools of international relations theory. The most recent incarnation features a dialogue between Dan Trombly and Jay Ulfelder on liberal internationalism and the corrosive impact of R2P’s great-power exceptionalism.

The several back-and-forths has raised the profile of the sovereignty question in the R2P discussion and, in doing so, has helped clarify the purpose and functionality of civilian protection policy in the international order. At the same time, however, the normative discourse on sovereignty has evaded the practical realities of R2P’s implementation, pushing the most extreme cases of the doctrine’s application—namely, military action—to the center of the debate. This, I suppose, is an unfortunate result of the nature of military force in the public sphere: R2P’s implementation in Libya, much like democracy promotion in Iraq, did not enter into the amorphous public consciousness until the last-resort military option became operational. At its core, the central limitation of the blogosphere’s R2P debate, on both sides, has been its unwillingness to articulate the limits and foundational policy framework for the doctrine itself.

In her initial sovereignty post, Professor Slaughter (sorry, the blogosphere isn’t that democratic) mentioned an important policy distinction, though it bears repeating: to describe R2P as a “sanitized” version of humanitarian intervention belies the doctrine’s short historical and functional application. Both in theory and in the doctrine’s practical application, R2P represents a comprehensive policy framework, in which the use of military force represents a necessary, if insufficient model for implementation. Nowhere has this been clearer than in the U.S. policy responses to Libya and Syria, respectively. The full spectrum of civilian protection policy emerged in the weeks leading up to NATO’s intervention—the ICC investigation into the situation in Libya, the persistent diplomatic isolation of Qaddafi’s regime by the international community, and the levying of international sanctions against members of Qaddafi’s inner circle—and continued throughout the operation. In Syria, where international actors have not raised the threat of military force, the policy response has been challenging, but no less robust. As analysts have observed, however, the international community’s pressures on the Assad regime have made a tangible, medium-term impact on the regime’s survival.

Still, a number of questions about R2P implementation remain. As Joshua Foust has observed in his sovereignty posts and on his Twitter feed, the lack of a strategic mindset surrounding R2P, even with its policy framework, raises serious questions about the doctrine’s functional sustainability. For all of Professor Slaughter’s optimism surrounding the gradual rise of a liberal international order—and Dan’s associated paranoia about R2P’s unintended consequences for the stability of the international system—the nation-state will, in the short- and long-term, remain the predominant determinant and executor of international civilian protection policy. As any respectable structural realist will tell you, the prospects for normative and institutional shifts are wholly dependent on the whims of great powers. Multilateralism may be the Obama administration’s modus operandi, but U.S. power, rather than a Security Council consensus or the warm-heartedness of the Arab League, remained the essential component in mobilizing international policy leverage against Qaddafi’s regime. R2P seem like Kant redux, but Rousseau, tweaked to account for developments in human rights theory, is likely a more appropriate comparison. R2P, quite simply, envisions a higher moral standard for the social contract, but one that is ultimately dependent on the existence of the Weberian state for enforcement.

That said, Jay is completely accurate in characterizing the elite exceptionalism of R2P’s implementation as the primary barrier to the liberalization of the international order. So long as R2P’s implementation relies on China’s leverage with the Global South, and the Big Boys in the international playground remain immune from the third pillar of R2P doctrine, there is little hope for the norm’s internationalization. Full international accountability will rely on the development of international and domestic political will for civilian protection—otherwise, the world’s Chinas and Saudi Arabias will persist in evading the international normative trend.

Meanwhile, R2P has arguably been successful in raising the profile of human security concerns within the limited context of U.S. and international policy priorities. Joshua is right—despite progress on the operational front, the U.S. continues to lack a comprehensive civilian protection strategy. However, there are tangible indicators that this limitation is starting to change, at least on the domestic-organizational level. The State Department’s Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review, released last December, included a variety of bureaucratic adjustments necessary to improve U.S. responses to mass atrocities, with a heightened development and diplomacy emphasis on human security issues. Additionally, as Professor Slaughter mentioned, President Obama’s recent directive on mass atrocities prevention could prove fruitful in emboldening a more strategic perspective on U.S. policy responses to civilian protection crises. Of course, the future of these organizational initiatives under a non-Obama administration is uncertain, but their influence on the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy is not to be dismissed.

Until the great-power exceptionalism dilemma is mitigated, however, the future of international civilian protection policy and the R2P doctrine is bleaker than R2P advocates (myself included) are usually willing to admit. However, as the blogosphere continues to discuss the dilemmas of sovereignty, great-power exceptionalism, and the ethics of intervention, the practical policy framework for R2P is worth assessing. Too often, commentary on doctrinal concerns focuses on foreign policy’s flashier events; where incrementalism is at play, as is often the case in the foreign policy bureaucracy, smaller, structural and bureaucratic shifts should be given their due consideration. In the context of R2P, these gradual steps will likely demonstrate a brighter future for civilian protection than the doctrine’s detractors suggest.

Daniel Solomon is a junior at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, studying international security studies. He also serves as the Student Director of STAND, the student-led division of the Genocide Intervention Network/Save Darfur Coalition. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of STAND or the Genocide Intervention Network/Save Darfur Coalition.

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