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R2P Debate Rising ( Part I.)

I thought I would call the attention of the readership to a debate that has been ricocheting around different social media platforms on R2P (Responsibility to Protect“). I have dealt with the topic several times in the past, related to the ideas of Anne-Marie Slaughter, but not much recently until Victor Allen, over at The Bridge, put up an enthusiastic post:

Strong State, Weak State: The New Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine represents a leap forward in accountability for states and does not infringe upon their sovereignty, as states are no longer held to be completely self-contained entities with absolute power over their populations. Rather, there is a strictly defined corpus of actions that begin the R2P process?—?a process that has different levels of corrective action undertaken by the international community in order to persuade, cajole and finally coerce states into actively taking steps to prevent atrocities from occurring within their boundaries. That R2P does not violate sovereignty stems from the evolution of sovereignty from its Westphalian form in the mid 17th century to the “sovereignty as responsibility” concept advanced by Deng, et al. Modern sovereignty can no longer be held to give states carte blanche in their internal affairs regardless of the level of suffering going on within their borders. This does not diminish state agency for internal affairs, but rather holds them responsible and accountable for their action and inaction regarding the welfare of their populations…

Victor’s post deserves to be read in full.

I did not agree with Victor’s framing of the legal character of state sovereignty, to put it mildly, nor his normative assessment of R2P.  Mr. Allen also described R2P somewhat differently than I have seen from other advocates, but I was less concerned by that as the concept does not seem to be presented with consistency by the community of  R2P advocates and theorists. Having seen similar theoretical debates over the years about angels dancing on pins over 4GW, constructivism, EBO, Network-centric Warfare, OODA,  Clausewitz’s remarkable trinity,  nuclear deterrence, preemptive war, COIN,  neoconservatism, free market economics, the agrarian origin of capitalism in England, Marxist theory etc. I am not too worried if Victor’s interpretation in its specifics is not ideologically perfect. It is representative enough.

I responded to Allen’s post somewhat crankily and with too much brevity:

R2P: Asserting Theory is not = Law 

….As far as premises go, the first point is highly debatable; the second is formally disputed by *many* states, including Russia and China, great powers which are permanent members of the UN Security Council; and the third bears no relation to whether a military intervention is a violation of sovereignty or not. I am not a self-contained entity either, that does not mean you get to forcibly enter my house.

That R2P does not violate sovereignty stems from the evolution of sovereignty from its Westphalian form in the mid 17th century to the “sovereignty as responsibility” concept advanced by Deng, et al. Modern sovereignty can no longer be held to give states carte blanche in their internal affairs regardless of the level of suffering going on within their borders.

Academic theorists do not have the authority to override sovereign powers (!) constituted as legitimized, recognized, states and write their theories into international law – as if an international covenant like the Geneva Convention had just been contracted. Even persuading red haired activist cronies of the American president and State Department bureaucrats to recite your arguments at White House press conferences does not make them “international law” either – it makes them “policy” – and that only of a particular administration. 

This riff  set off something of a reaction on Facebook in private groups and on Twitter as Mr. Allen, who I am sure is a fine gent, has a large set of common colleagues with me, some of whom are Boydians and all of whom are sharp strategic thinkers. Consequently,  Victor’s post(s) as well as mine and a later follow up by a “Leonidas Musashi” ( great nom de guerre)  made it into a high caliber defense forum as well as other sites online. My spleen-venting provoked the following rebuttal at The Bridge:

R2P: A Spectrum of Responses 

….Safranski’s final point about sovereignty as carte blanche seems to be a stealth argument for the principles of R2P:

States always could and did take military action in self-defense when disorders in neighboring states threatened their security or spilled over their border outright.R2P seeks to minimize harm caused by disorder through early action taken prior to conflicts spilling over borders that can potentially cause larger conflagrations, but more importantly, it recognizes that atrocities can happen entirely within the confines of a state, and that the international community will not allow them to continue unchecked. This recognition is easily seen in the rhetoric and discussions regarding rebels in both Libya and Syria. Libya is admittedly a flawed example of the use of R2P, with second-order effects seen in the Russian and Chinese opposition to UN-sanctioned stabilization operations in Syria, but that concern for the population first and the state second were common facets to both bear mentioning in the debate and illustrate the shifting nature of intervention and sovereignty. This shift is exemplified in the contrast between discussions in the UN General Assembly regarding Kosovo/East Timor and Syria: “most of the 118 states that mentioned Syria at the UN General Assembly in 2012 expressed concern about the population, up from less than a third who invoked Kosovo and East Timor in 1999… It is clear that a fundamental shift has taken place regarding humanitarian intervention and that more and more states embrace the broad values expressed by R2P.” (“Democracy, Human Rights, and the Emerging Global Order: Workshop Summary,” Brookings Institution, 2012)

Again, I caution about reading posts in full.

Here in this rebuttal Victor doubled down, which I admire because that is interesting, but with which I agree with even less because he seems to be far removed from how the world really works in terms of international relations, not merely in practice, but also in theory as well.  That said, his response deserves a much more serious reply than my first post evinced. I have been fiddling with one ( I seem to be moving slowly these days) but another voice – “Leonidas Musashi” – has entered the debate at The Bridge with a sharp retort against Allen’s conception of R2P:

Responsibility to Protect: Rhetoric and Reality 

….My main observation, however, is that the discussion thus far has been focused more on a “right” to protect than a “responsibility” to do so. The arguments indicate that a state has a responsibility to protect its people but takes for granted that third parties somehow inherit this responsibility when the state cannot fulfill it. There is a missing explanation here. The need to justify such efforts may seem callous, but a nation’s highest moral order is to serve its own citizens first. Such an explanation would certainly be a legitimate demand for a mother that loses a son who volunteered to defend his nation, or for a government entrusted by its people to use their resources to their own benefit. While it is often stated that the international community “should” intervene, explanation of where this imperative comes from is not addressed other than by vague references to modern states being interconnected. But this implies, as previously stated, a right based on the self-interest of states, firmly grounded in realistic security concerns, rather than any inherent humanitarian responsibility to intervene. Instability and potential spillover may very well make it within a nation’s vital interests to intervene in another country and pursuing humanitarian and human rights goals within the borders of another state may well be in a nation’s secondary interests. But if this is the case, the calculus of the political leadership will determine if pursuing this goal is worth the cost/potential costs – as has been done in such cases as North Korea, Iran, Zimbabwe, Tibet and Syria. In either case, the decision is determined by what is in the nation’s interests, a reality that makes R2P not a mandate, but a merely a post hoc justification for interventions that do occur.

Leonidas makes many good points, in my view, but the intellectual fungibility of R2P as a concept, its elastic and ever evolving capacity to serve as a pretext for any situation at hand is the most important, because it is potentially most destabilizing and threatening to other great powers with which the United States has to share the globe. In short, with great responsibilities come greater costs.

In part II. I will lay out a more methodical case on the intellectual phantom that is R2P.

11 Responses to “R2P Debate Rising ( Part I.)”

  1. T. Greer Says:

    “Leonidas Musahi” is a great choice. Sometimes I regret having been so eager to blog that I rushed into it without creating a better pen name than a simple abbreviation of my actual name. Missed opportunities.

  2. Lexington Green Says:

    Rights necessarily imply duties.  There can be no rights without duties.  If I have a right, someone else has a duty to do something or desist from doing something.  If people being oppressed somewhere have a “right” to protection, that means someone, somewhere, has a duty to provide that protection.  Who?  How?  Why?  What is the source of this purported duty?  Who is it imposed on?  Why those person or communities and not others?  Who decides when this duty arises?  Who weighs this duty against other duties that are not currently notional, like national sovereignty? How does a person in Rwanda have a right to the expenditure of money and human lives of American soldiers to invade his country and fight his government to protect him?  Does R2P mandate that developed countries spend 2.5% or more of GDP on expeditionary military capabilities to carry out this duty?  There is no coherent answer to these questions and there cannot be.  R2P is a rhetorical gimmick.  It has no substance and it cannot have any — formulated as a “right.” People like to talk in terms of rights, because it takes questions out of politics and creates an aura of legal obligation. The only case that can ever be made for using military force to defend people in a foreign country from anarchy or their own government is one based on prudence and moral judgment, not some completely baseless “right.”  If people in some foreign land are being massacred, those foreigners with the capacity and desire to intervene on their behalf weight the costs, risks and benefits — practical and political — of doing so and make a political decision whether or not to act.  That is all there is or ever can be to it.  Case by case, totality of the circumstances, political and prudential decision-making.  None of which has anything to do with any right. 

  3. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    To go all Uncle Joe on R2P: “The international community! How many divisions have they got?”


    (Though, in fairness to Pius XI, the Roman Catholic Church is an example of an institution that has exercised discernible trans-polity influence even when its own divisions or equivalent military units have been purely nominal.)

  4. larrydunbar Says:

    Is your web site, now, strong enough for this narrative? In other words, have you dragged it though the web enough to get the dingle-berries off and now it’s presentable here on Zenpundit? 🙂

    Are we talking rights of “being” and duties of “doing”? Which kinda divides the conversation into potential and kinetic energy, and, at least structurally wise, R2P may follow some sort of power-law (event/magnitude of events) in its distribution of energy.

    One thought being, it’s slope (if it has one) will be quite different than what either Capitalism or Communism follow, and, by association, it would be as relevant as either of the two, if the two are even relevant in today’s world. 

    Politically, and in the context of 4GW, do you know if the insurgency to R2P is coming from a Liberal, Conservative, or both cultures? It is hard for me to imagine the insurgency against R2P is coming from the decentralized network of the Right, as R2P uses a normalizing force to control the friction within the society of bad actors.

  5. larrydunbar Says:

    ” R2P: “The international community! How many divisions have they got?””

    Considering neither the structure nor the culture is ever going to match, the answer would have to be the same one the Pope gave Stalin, “as many as you need.” 

  6. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Great to see the blog back up!
    Though I detest R2P “doctrine” with a vigor, I do admit that with each passing day I think the threat of R2Pers subsides a little bit.  They, as a group, have been generally unsuccessful in gaining the influence that the neoconservatives did, nor do they have the freedom of action that was lent to the neocons by 9/11.
    It’s also difficult to envision such a crisis which would demand action on the scale that R2Pers would like.  The types of crisis that R2Pers would like to get involved in tend not to be the type of crises that require immediate action.  Rather I think they tend to be plodding crises–like the Bosnian wars of yore or the Syrian civil war.  You just can’t generate the sense of urgency required, although these are the kinds of people who don’t like to let crises “go to waste.”
    About the only kinds of actions that the R2Pers can execute would be cutting of diplomatic ties, followed by the renewal of diplomatic ties in the form of “peace talks.”  And perhaps some limited cruise missile strikes, maybe a short bombing “campaign”, and maybe–very maybe–some limited boots on the ground wearing blue helmets.  That is it.
    So are the R2Pers nuts?  Absolutely.
    Are their doctrines crypto-imperialist?  Emphatically yes.

    Are they mostly harmless?  Probably.

  7. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Nate, I wish there were a “LIKE” button. Concur, sir.

  8. larrydunbar Says:

    ” They, as a group, have been generally unsuccessful in gaining the influence that the neoconservatives did, nor do they have the freedom of action that was lent to the neocons by 9/11.”
    True enough, but I don’t believe in comparing NeoCons with R2P’ers that R2P’ers are looking to gain the influence that the neoconservatives were able to muster. The NeoCons are mostly a One-Trick-Pony. Enforce conformity in the world and the world will be a better place. could be their model. From what I can gather, this is much different narrative than what the R2P’ers are following. As the S.O.F. has said, “place an x on the map and we can hit it.” I am not sure that is an exact quote, but if the “gap” between Pakistan and India keeps you awake at night, then you can bet that there is a S.O.F somewhere between Pakistan and India. Of course the narrative in the decision making of the R2P’ers depends on many things. For one, is the S.O.F, as the C.I.A., mostly a tool of the POTUS and is the country going to be, once again, taken over by the NeoCons?
    From Scott’s answer, I think there is a very good chance it will. The “tipping” point is very close.

  9. zen Says:

    Second – great comment Nate!
    I think in general you are correct. There is a war weariness is the air mixed with a well-justified cynicism about elite competence (or lack thereof). That mitigates against the launching of new crusades.
    The one caveat I will mention is for all their talk, much like the neocons ( and perhaps, moreso) the R2P crowd are a lot less infatuated with democracy at home than abroad. They are a technocratic lot that prefers to outsource war decisions to administrative (at home) and IGO (abroad) bodies to evade democratic accountability to the ordinary citizens or their hapless, partly complicit, legislative representatives. not unlike their comrades in the EU bureaucracy. This is a back door to get us into messes before strategy and questions of interest can be raised in more legitimate forums

  10. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Yes, concur on the R2Per less-than-constitutional M.O.  At least neocons made honest attempt to feign interest in constitutional procedure and formalities.  The R2P technocratic approach is but another aspect of their crypto-imperialism.  And we live in an era of the imperial executive.  To the left, this is a feature, not a bug.  The right has more complicated views on executive power.
    The cure is a combination of congress and the judciary holding the executive accountable.  But will that happen?  It’s certainly a long shot!

  11. larrydunbar Says:

    “The right has more complicated views on executive power.”
    Do tell, do tell!!
    Yes, the Right loves execitive power, because it acts a a normalizing force controlling the friction. More normalizing force the more friction the Right is able store as entropy within its distribution. It’s when the Right starts losing execitive power that things get serious. When the Right took execitive power away from Germany in WWll, Germany, along with Japan, structurally destroyed itself.
    Germany recovered much within the EU, Japan was not so fortunate in its relationship with the U.S., considering its failed nuclear power industry.

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