‘Responsible’ Sovereignty vs the Responsibility to Protect


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The ramp up in drones and special operations in the GWoT has me thinking we are stumbling into a future of unspoken limitations on sovereignty.

Limits on sovereignty is an old story, and one of the classic points of disagreement in IR. Usually, it pits realists against liberals – the general lines being that states won’t really cede any authority to a higher institution, while liberals scramble to find examples from the UN system to suggest that sovereignty is slowing leeching away. The ‘institutional’ debate is wrapped up in globalization too. Globalization supposedly makes the world more interdependent. More interdependence means more rules are needed, so states will slowly give up some prerogatives in order to get the benefits of the global economy. Earlier generations of IR talked about ‘spillover,’ as states slowly slid into more rule-bound orders, almost unconsciously.

But now we are seeing something different. Now, we see the US (usually) telling countries that if they can’t get their act together internally, we will take action. The issue is the responsible use of your sovereignty (RS). If you turn your country over  to drug lords, proliferators, pirates, terrorists, etc, then you are gambling with your sovereign inviolability (Afghanistan, northern Pakistan). Or even if you don’t agree to turn over your state to such non-state and if it happens against your will, others will still feel it ok to intrude (Somalia, Congo).

This most definitely does not fit the traditional liberal IR image of sovereignty cession. It is a product of state-weakness (Somalia) or nastiness (Taliban Afghanistan), not democratic decision-making or spill-over (the EU).

If intruding on sovereignty used ‘irresponsibly’ sounds like another neo-con excuse for democratic imperialism (it is), one can always try the liberal internationalist version of this – ‘the responsibility to protect’ (R2P). R2P puts a lefty spin on this by saying that the government has a responsibility to protect its own people; i.e., governments can’t prey on their own people as in Sudan. Governments that continue to do so will ultimately face international sanction and an agreement by the great powers, ideally through the UN Security Council, to step into your affairs to protect your own people from you. Obviously, this only happens in extreme circumstances (Kosovo, Rwanda), and the Chinese, with their regular opposition to any ‘intervention in internal affairs,’ will oppose it. But nevertheless, R2P thinking clearly suggests that human rights sensibilities are now so advanced, that there are extreme limits to sovereignty, and that is almost certainly a good thing. Governments can do a lot, but they can’t do anything anymore.

If this sounds kind of benign, focused on human rights and the domestic population’s well-being, ‘responsible sovereignty’ is a little scarier, because it is focused on outsiders’ well-being (defined by them of course), and it explicitly embraces the use of force by outsiders to protect themselves from you and your carelessness. So if Sudan is a good example of the R2P logic – a nasty state tearing up its own people which should get whacked a bit by the international community for doing that – then Somalia is a good example of RS – failed state so out of any domestic control, and thereby becoming so dangerous to the rest of us, that it has essentially forfeited its right to manage itself and foreigners will do (some of) it for them. Is this neocolonialism?

Finally, the US has already flirted with RS before the declaration of preemption by the Bush administration. A century ago, in the Roosevelt and Wilson Corollaries to the Monroe Doctrine, the US reserved the right to intervene in Latin America should its governments become too ‘disorderly.’ The neo-con update of this idea is to expand it worldwide, which I can’t help wondering if the US can really afford now, with a $1.5 trillion deficit. Sounds like overstretch all over again…

5 thoughts on “‘Responsible’ Sovereignty vs the Responsibility to Protect

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