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How Well Does R2P Travel Beyond the West?

Abstract and Keywords

R2P invokes the power-morality nexus in international relations and interrogates the rules of engagement that anchor international society. Conceptualization of R2P as a liberal Western construct can therefore be divisive, especially when operationalization of the norm—as happened during the 2011 intervention in Libya—feeds into a West-against-the-Rest narrative. This is unfortunate because the R2P doctrine has deep roots in the non-Western world—Africa in particular—and Global South perspectives continue to strengthen its conceptual development. Emerging powers challenge the status quo of structural power and their rhetoric on R2P often invokes mistrust of Western altruism in international politics. Their actions, on the other hand, prove that they are no less prone to realpolitik in the normative domain. State actors in the normative middle of international politics, including developed as well as developing countries, are well placed to bridge the West-versus-the-Rest schism and to provide leadership in the R2P discourse.

Keywords: responsibility to protect, norms, BRICS, power, international society, Security Council, humanitarian intervention

The responsibility to protect (R2P) is usually conceptualized as a liberal Western construct, and this assumption has implications for the substance as well as the tenor of the discourse. As African scholars we consider ourselves part of the world beyond the West—the so-called ‘Rest’—and our approach to the theme is therefore a situated perspective, as our argument draws on non-Western discourses on humanitarianism and normative claim-making in international society. We will start off by commenting on the paradoxical nature of the latter, before we reflect on the genesis of the R2P norm.

Debate on the norm has transcended the legal-humanitarian debate of which it was born, and we will consider two pivotal moments in R2P’s political ‘journey’: the 2005 World Summit where world leaders endorsed the principles of R2P, and the deliberations around Security Council resolution 1973 that resulted in the 2011 military intervention in Libya. The latter, in particular, revealed critical fault lines in the discourse. One of these, the issue of structural power, will be examined against the background of what some commentators refer to as the ‘Rise of the Rest’.

The non-Western world includes the vast majority of sovereign states in the contemporary world order, and our focus will thus of necessity have to be narrowed down. The emerging power forum of BRICS, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, offers a useful pool of case studies because increasingly, in unison or individually, they counter the political hegemony exercised by the United States and its allies. Though few in number, the BRICS member states represent a massive portion of humanity, spanning Eurasia, Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and two of them are also permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC). The Council, of course, is the main arena of the R2P debate, given its unmatched legal authority over matters of global peace and security. Its actions (or lack thereof) and indeed its very structure have therefore contributed to the controversy around R2P.

Moving beyond the focus on actors and agency, we will consider some of the conceptual hurdles that induce a West-versus-the-Rest framing of the R2P debate. The (p. 209) most contentious of the three R2P pillars1 is arguably the third, which confers responsibility on the international community to intervene in the event of a state’s manifest failure to protect its citizens. It is at this junction that the fundamental ordering device of the contemporary state-system—the conjoined principles of sovereignty and non-intervention—is challenged by the practical reality of R2P. The resultant tensions around legitimacy, authority, real or perceived political agendas, and the sheer weight of historical precedent, shed light on structural schisms in international society.

Finally, and acknowledging the need to move beyond a binary template in the discourse, we will consider the potential of middle powers to exercise normative leadership and to straddle the political divides that undermine the development of a fully-fledged R2P doctrine.

Norms and (a Divided) International Society

Theorists of international society maintain that states, by virtue of shared interests and norms, coalesce in a ‘society’ that is organized through universally accepted rules of engagement, expressed in common institutions.2 The society of states originated in Renaissance Europe, whence values and codes of conduct were exported to non-Western societies. As the latter became socialized into the European norms (one of which is state sovereignty), the size of international society enlarged, until it took on a global dimension.

The role of norms in an ideational society is also a leitmotiv in the work of IR constructivists. These theorists argue that norms and international society are linked in a mutually constitutive relationship—the society itself is therefore conjectured and subjective. Moreover, the existence (and perpetuation) of international society relies less on structure than on practice, which in turn hinges on application of shared norms and traditions.3 The continuous process of contestation and interpretation that marks systemic norm dynamics, feeds into the ‘ontological insecurity’, as Rebecca Adler-Nissen refers to it, at the heart of international society.4

The peculiar making of contemporary international society has added to its existential diffidence. As history has shown, international society was exported to the non-European world through a medium that belied its attendant ideas of civilization and order: imperialism, embedded in mercantilism, compelled vast and extremely heterogeneous swathes of humanity to enter the state-centric world order. Not surprisingly, many critics take issue with the assumption that a Eurocentric engine of international society exerts normative, centripetal guidance over non-Western societies. As Vivienne Jabri notes:

the ideational construction of the international is conventionally attributed to the West, from the expansion of the modern state as a form of political organisation and (p. 210) recognition, to the institutions and practices of a neoliberal international political economy, to internationally recognised and instituted standards of individual rights.5

Theorists such as Brown, Epstein, and Zarakol warn that one-dimensional perspectives on world order reproduce historical patterns of asymmetric power in the international system.6 Related claims about one-direction norm-entrepreneurship can be provocative and divisive. At best, it is disingenuous to suggest that all acceptable behaviour by non-Western states is the positive result of Western influence.

The utility of such postcolonial perspectives becomes apparent when appraising the identities of states that are part of the Rest (exemplified by the BRICS) and their concomitant agency in influencing the extant liberal-internationalist and liberal-institutionalist order. By focusing on the postcolonial as a ‘split-subject’ of the colonial past and the liberal present, agency is accorded to the Rest as active shapers of the normative order without subsuming them into a Western-dominated international order.7 In the case of R2P, for instance, the positions of the BRICS are imbued with the diversity and characteristics of their individual historical, social, and political experiences including colonialism, poverty, inequality, globalization, and civil or cross-border conflict.8

African Roots, Global Consensus?

As in most debates about international norms, the notion of origin, or norm ownership, often crops up in literature on R2P. It is widely referred to as a ‘liberal’ norm, and thus frequently portrayed as a ‘Western’ concept by both proponents and their detractors. The academic debate has certainly been dominated by scholars from the Global North, but some prominent advocates have been at pains to emphasize the African roots of R2P, presumably in an effort to prove its non-Western (if not global) credentials.9 Paul Williams for example, has credited Africa with being ‘one of the most important crucibles in which R2P was forged’.10

Beyond the unfortunate fact that Africa offers the world’s largest ‘laboratory’ for R2P (on account of its disproportionate share11 of humanitarian crises) individual Africans have played key roles in conceptualizing the norm. (This was the case even before the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was co-chaired by veteran Algerian diplomat and long-time UN Adviser on Africa, Mohamed Sahnoun.) It was Francis Deng, a Sudanese diplomat and scholar, who first made the explicit connection between sovereignty and responsibility in a 1995 article, ‘Frontiers of Sovereignty’. Deng’s thesis informed his May 2007 selection as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide. His personal stature also prompted an upgrade of the position (which had been in existence for three years at that stage), to that of Under-Secretary-General.

(p. 211) African contributions to the genesis of the R2P discourse have also been salient within the main arena of global governance, the United Nations. The first two (and thus far, the only) African Secretaries-General of the organization, Boutros Boutros-Ghali and Kofi Annan, both ensured that the human security paradigm pervaded their executive agenda. Annan’s appeal for reinterpretation of the traditional understanding of sovereignty resulted in the launch of the ICISS during 2000. His personal contribution in this regard was lauded when he was awarded the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize.12

The unique African role in the genesis of R2P has not been limited to the individual level. Even before the ICISS issued its landmark report, the African Union (AU) became the first intergovernmental organization ever to condone humanitarian intervention in its charter, the AU Constitutive Act of 2000. As Edward Luck (who served as Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Responsibility to Protect from 2008 to 2012) says, R2P thus ‘emerges quite literally, from the soil and soul of Africa’.13

The identification of geopolitical R2P ‘roots’ is arguably of less importance than the extent to which a critical mass of state actors agree on its status. A ‘tipping point’14 in this regard arguably happened during the UN’s 60th anniversary in 2005, when the largest ever gathering of world leaders unanimously endorsed the principle of R2P. The symbolism of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the World Summit Outcome Document (WSOD) has been tainted, however, by doubts about the extent to which the two paragraphs actually reflected international consensus on the ‘meaning’ of R2P—hence the subsequent labelling of the WSOD phrasing as ‘R2P-lite’.15 While proponents cited evidence of R2P’s global diffusion, critics noted that inasmuch as R2P seemed to be ‘cascading’ through the international system, its application—the ultimate proof of its strength and legitimacy—had not been prevalent enough for it to become an uncontested part of international law.16

A definitive moment was reached in 2011, when the Security Council authorized the use of force to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Libya. It was the first time the Council acted in such a decisive way against a functioning state17 and once again a critical mass18 of states (considering that there was no opposition to the resolution within the UNSC) had swayed the decision. But this spectacular application of the third pillar of R2P had hardly commenced, when the debate descended into acrimony and revealed the discordant elements in the ‘consensus’ around R2P. Resolution 1973 and its aftermath highlighted a perennial subtext in the intersubjective discourse that defines international society: the reality of structural power.

R2P and Structural Power: The Example of BRICS

Michael Barnett and Raymond Duvall define power as ‘the production, in and through social relations, of effects that shape the capacities of actors to determine their (p. 212) circumstances and fate’.19 Since the end of the Cold War, several developing countries have become adept at doing just that, as they assumed the profile of ‘emerging powers’. The diplomatic initiatives employed by states such as China, Russia, India, Brazil, and South Africa, to draw on the BRICS example, dispel any doubts about them being submissive norm-takers. They confidently imprint on international society and its composite normative foundations20 as they reflect the non-Western world’s demand for more ‘democracy’ in the global arena. Richmond and Tellidis observe that the positions of individual BRICS countries are nuanced, multifaceted, and simultaneously informed by both critical and status quo-oriented postures.21

The degree to which emerging powers such as BRICS exert structural power is determined by their preferences (expressed through policy positions and voting behaviour in international forums), capabilities (their comparative resources and clout in international relations), and effective strategies to advance their foreign policy objectives.22 In their foreign policy rhetoric, especially in the multilateral organizations where they join forces, they make it clear that they are ready and able to provide leadership in an increasingly post-European international order.

The reform agenda of emerging powers is understandably prominent within institutions of global governance, where (despite the state-centric system’s much-vaunted anarchic nature) power hierarchies remain structurally entrenched. This is nowhere more evident than in the permanent, supremely powerful core of the UNSC. In the opinion of many commentators, the institutionalized monopoly of the P5 members is anathema to multilateralism and the Council’s historical-political configuration prevents it from serving as a neutral arbiter.23

Many states have campaigned for restructuring of the Council, arguing that its composition and working methods are relics of the past. Several emerging powers, including India, Brazil, and South Africa (the three BRICS countries without permanent membership of the Security Council) have not only insisted on reform, but campaigned as candidates for permanent seats. Their quest to become ‘equal co-architects of a new equitable international system’—as South African President Jacob Zuma declared when his country became the ‘S’ in BRICS during April 2011—is however not restricted to a ‘Rest against the West’ struggle.24 The status quo of institutionalized hegemony is jealously guarded wherever it is entrenched, and the P2 who happen to be BRICS members, Russia and China, are as guilty of this as their Western P3 counterparts—France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.25 Due to the prominence of BRICS and the aspirations of its members, the forum has had to reference the debate on Security Council reform. The same summit that admitted South Africa declared that ‘China and Russia reiterate the importance they attach to the status of India, Brazil and South Africa in international affairs, and understand and support their aspiration to play a greater role in the UN.’26 The discreet wording of the communiqué hints at Russia’s and China’s reticence to enlarging the pool of veto-wielding powers within the Security Council, even to their new comrades in BRICS. This raises the question of how other emerging powers would handle institutionalized leadership positions—especially the legally entrenched gate-keeping powers of the UNSC—should they be bestowed with such (p. 213) authority. Indeed, Jennifer Welsh raises the interesting point that, should agreement be reached on UNSC reform and additional permanent seats allocated to emerging powers, the R2P discourse might be negatively impacted with the possible return of a more dominant principle of sovereign equality.27

There is little doubt that all the BRICS members have the required ‘bargaining chips’ to influence the global diplomatic agenda: diplomatic clout and the ability to project enforcement capacity.28 All five of these states dispose of tangible power (military might and economic prowess)29 combined with intangible power in the form of influence and reputation. They are active contributors to UN peacekeeping missions and the common thread in their approach to international military operations is a strong commitment to multilateralism and support for UN oversight over actions under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. But many other, including much weaker, states can claim the same approach. The question is whether the rhetoric about their normative preferences in combination with the material capabilities to underwrite the implementation thereof at the international level, amounts to actual leadership in matters of global peace and security. This is a rather obvious requirement for states that hold, or declare themselves eligible for, a permanent seat at the highest table of global governance. The pursuit of status and power as a goal in itself, versus the pursuit thereof as a means towards playing a normative role at the international level, is therefore at issue.

The question arises whether the BRICS states have shown leadership in decisions on the operationalization of R2P. As a coincidence all five of them served on the Security Council during 2011, and the debate on an R2P intervention in Libya therefore offered rare insight into their simultaneous voting behaviour related to the norm. The adoption of resolution 1973 saw Russia, China, India, and Brazil abstaining, while South Africa supported the resolution, in tandem with the other two African states that were non-permanent members of the Council that year (Nigeria and Gabon). In this regard South Africa’s more ‘active’ voting could be explained by the fact that the impending humanitarian crisis in Libya was closer to home, on African soil, and therefore vicariously experienced as more urgent. In any event, the South African position soon turned to recrimination, echoing the sentiments expressed by the other BRICS members, as it became evident that the NATO-led intervention was overstepping its mandate in Libya.30 Subsequent debate on the humanitarian crisis in Syria saw all five BRICS members united in resistance to ‘foreign-imposed regime change’.31

From the voting behaviour on Libya, some commentators have deduced that the Western P3 provided leadership in R2P implementation, while revisionist non-Western powers such as Russia, China, India, and Brazil (and South Africa, after its U-turn on the decision) were ambivalent to the point of being irresponsible.32 But this verdict is captive to the assumption that R2P is an unambiguous and custom-based normative regime. The contrary is true, and the concerns expressed by BRICS members reflect what Edward Newman describes as ‘tensions about the legitimacy and authority of norm diffusion, collective decision-making and international institutions’.33 Clearly, some of the key principles of R2P are ‘in the eye of the beholder’. It is to these alternative views that we now turn.

(p. 214) R2P: A Matter of Perspective

The contestation that marks the R2P debate is generated primarily by the norm’s interrogation of sovereignty. The debate illustrates the tension between pluralist accounts of human rights associated with a Westphalian statist world-view, anchored in non-intervention, and a more solidarist world-view committed to the notion of conditional sovereignty. For instance, at the heart of R2P as expounded in the 2001 report of the ICISS, is a conditional view of sovereignty that is decidedly solidarist in nature. Conversely, the ‘R2P-lite’ version, as promoted by the 2005 WSOD, appears to advance a pluralist world-view. Conflict between these two world-views is replete with broader questions around legitimacy, power constellations of the international order, and international ethics.34

The principle of state sovereignty may be of Western design, but this fundamental interstate ordering device has been universally embraced and entrenched in the contemporary international legal order. In the Global South, where (as even a cursory glance at history will show) most states fought long and hard for this legal ‘coming of age’, states are inclined to insist on an absolute view of sovereignty. In the words of Gareth Evans, they are:

very proud of their newly won sovereign independence, very conscious of their fragility, all too conscious of the way in which they had been on the receiving end in the past of not very benign interventions from the imperial and colonial powers and not very keen to acknowledge the right of such powers to intervene again, whatever the circumstances.35

Beyond the West, states are therefore particularly apprehensive about revising the account of sovereignty as embedded in the Westphalian international society.36 Emerging powers, most of whom openly associate with the ‘Rest’ rather than the ‘West’, take a leading role in guarding the territorial integrity of their developing peers in the Global South. They do so individually as well as collectively, in multilateral forums such as BRICS where they create a rhetorical shield around the principle of sovereignty.

Reverting thus to the constructivist emphasis on identities and interests in international relations, the matter of ‘who decides how international society should meet its responsibilities’ seems pertinent.37 Criticism against the West, following alleged mandate creep and abuse of R2P in the 2011 Libyan intervention, exposed a legitimacy fault line around procedural issues. When conflated with paragraph 139 (conferring authority over interventions on the Security Council) of the WSOD, it reaffirms Chris Reus-Smit’s depiction of an unreformed Security Council as one of the ‘peaks of institutional hierarchy’.38

Whether it is the ‘West against the Rest’ or some other projected fault line in international society, the R2P discourse is riddled with questions about the interplay between power and normative regimes. As arguments put forward by the sceptics during the (p. 215) 2005 World Summit illustrate, there is deep mistrust in the non-Western world when it comes to any kind of intervention by the traditional powers of the Global North. The overarching concern is that R2P can be used as a ‘Trojan horse’—a decoy for self-interested interventions by powerful states.39

This argument is deftly exploited by neo-Marxists and their intellectual kin, who allege that humanitarian intervention denies the right of states to self-determination and facilitates neo-imperialism in postcolonial states. By the same token, political leaders of communist (or their successor) states such as China and Russia fiercely oppose the notion of intervention.40 An example of this is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s frequent and scathing criticism of the United States and its allies. In a speech during October 2014, he decried the relative value those states attach to national sovereignty and the legitimacy of a particular ruling regime. He said:

We have entered a period of differing interpretations and deliberate silences in world politics. International law has been forced to retreat over and over by the onslaught of legal nihilism. Objectivity and justice have been sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. Arbitrary interpretations and biased assessments have replaced legal norms. At the same time, total control of the global mass media has made it possible when desired to portray white as black and black as white. In a situation where you had domination by one country and its allies, or its satellites rather, the search for global solutions often turned into an attempt to impose their own universal recipes. This group’s ambitions grew so big that they started presenting the policies they put together in their corridors of power as the view of the entire international community.41

Putin’s proselytizing rankles, of course, for the recipients of Russia’s own international interventions—Ukraine being the most recent example. He is not the only leader who denounces R2P while seeming ‘to be those most aware of neglecting their own responsibility to protect and who most fear exposure of the (actual) skeletons in their closets’.42

The conflation of anti-West and anti-R2P rhetoric is unfortunate, because it exploits legitimate apprehension of postcolonial states about historical Western exploitation and domination. Africans in particular are cynical about the UNSC’s commitment to deal decisively and consistently with crises on the African continent. As Ademola Abass explains, ‘precedents of the Security Council’s extremely costly inaction in African conflicts (especially following state failure in Somalia and the Rwanda genocide) have left many Africans comprehensively disillusioned about leaving the implementation of R2P to the exclusive charge of the Security Council’.43 While the normative underpinnings of R2P are not rejected per se, implementation of the norm is viewed with suspicion of arbitrary or spurious intent. The Council’s track record offers a clue as to why the AU, in its Constitutive Act of 2000 and again in its Ezulwini Consensus of 2005, enshrined the organization’s right to intervene regardless of prior approval by the UNSC.

The African emphasis on the importance of a regional initiative, or at least regional buy-in, for intervention was one of the reasons for the Security Council’s swift (p. 216) adoption of resolution 1973 in 2011. At the time there appeared to be unprecedented consensus on the intervention, especially when the League of Arab States (LAS) appealed for urgent collective action. Amidst delayed reaction from the AU’s side, the three African members of the Council all supported the intervention, and the combined Arab and African support gave regional gravitas and legitimacy to the motion. This convinced even the most resolute opponents of intervention, the Russians and Chinese, to withhold their vetoes. But the regional support was less monolithic than it had appeared. The AU position that was in the process of being articulated advocated for a much more cautious and mediated approach and, as André Mangu points out, rejected foreign intervention as a solution to the crisis.44 The AU had adopted a ‘Roadmap’ to address the situation through a political settlement and constituted an ad hoc high-level committee (comprising African Heads of States) to engage strategic external stakeholders, including the LAS, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), European Union, and UN, in order to coordinate their response to the crisis.45 However, the Ad-Hoc Committee was prevented from proceeding with its in situ efforts to engage with the Gadhafi regime, once the military intervention had commenced.

The repercussions of the Libya intervention dealt a blow to international consensus on R2P. In some quarters it confirmed the suspicion that R2P is simply humanitarian intervention by a different name; ‘the droit d’ingérence in new clothes’ as former Brazilian Foreign Affairs Minister Celso Amorim had dismissed it.46 The criticism speaks to David Chandler’s warning that morality can be employed by power, but not inversely so.47 He identifies a lopsided relationship between realpolitik and morality within the concept of R2P and cautions against it being used as an avenue for powerful states to impose the ‘liberal peace’.48 The general trend from a non-Western perspective has therefore been to tone down the intervention dimension of R2P, in an attempt to forestall leeway for abuse of the principle by powerful actors.

Brazil demonstrated this at an early stage of the R2P debate, when Ambassador Baena Soares in his capacity as a member of the 2004 UN Secretary-General’s High-Level Panel (HLP) on Threats, Challenges and Change, insisted on explicit guidelines in the application of the norm.49 In similar vein, and in response to the resultant report by Secretary-General Annan, India’s UN Ambassador Nirupem Sen argued that R2P should not be used to confer legitimacy to an ideology of ‘military humanism’.50 On their part, China’s and Russia’s arguments at the 2005 World Summit reiterated ingrained commitment to sovereignty and non-intervention with strong insistence that the primary responsibility to protect civilians resided with the government of the state concerned.51

Beyond the rhetoric of responsibility and the issue of political will, the reality of unequal dissemination of enforcement capacity is played up by the implications of R2P’s third pillar.52 Most states in the world are unable to execute, or contribute meaningfully to, the type of operation that NATO led during 2011. The AU, notwithstanding its own ‘Roadmap’ for resolution of the crisis, was by all accounts not institutionally equipped (p. 217) to intervene.53 Its subsequent marginalization by NATO proved to be humiliating and the bitter rhetoric that ensued once again conjured up a ‘West against the Rest’ scenario. But the passive ‘passing on’ of R2P to a regional institution such as the AU, is not the answer either. Chandler makes the point that Western powers conveniently invoke the credo of ‘African solutions to African problems’, but only when it strategically suits them, and without regard to the capability of the delegated-to entity to implement the required action.54

An important stylistic difference in the non-Western approach is evident from procedural and temporal disputes around R2P. International relations practitioners operating in the liberal Western tradition generally value punctuality, linear progress and evidence of short-term outcomes in multilateral projects, whereas their non-Western counterparts tend to favour inclusive (hence usually slower) processes and a holistic approach to human relations. The past is treated with the same reverence as the future, and it follows that there can be no ‘quick fixes’ for sensitive issues: the implications are invariably long-term. In the deliberations around resolution 1973 (2011) on Libya, both Russia and Brazil made statements justifying their abstentions in terms of uncertainty about the long-term consequences of enforcement action.55 Proponents of a holistic approach (which is incidentally also accentuated in the 2001 ICISS report) demand adherence to the full continuum of conflict resolution strategies: the key R2P tenets of responsibility to prevent and responsibility to rebuild are therefore highlighted, rather than simple knee-jerk reaction to crisis situations. The growing anarchy in post-Gadhafi Libya attests to the fact that the 2011 intervention might have solved one crisis, but spawned others. It certainly failed in both the prevention and rebuilding responsibilities of the international community

During November 2011, in response to mounting backlash against the manner in which resolution 1973 was implemented, Brazil introduced a concept note on responsibility while protecting (RwP) to the UNSC.56 The document sought to strengthen the conceptual parameters of R2P by highlighting certain key conditions, including the idea that all ‘three pillars of R2P must follow a strict line of political subordination and chronological sequencing’; ‘comprehensive and judicious analysis of the possible consequences of military action’; explicit authorization by the UNSC with respect to use of force; and accountability on the part of implementers of enforcement action. The Brazilian contribution addressed a major shortcoming in the R2P doctrine, namely the issue of accountability once external actors have been mandated to intervene in a humanitarian crisis. Closely linked to this is the Chinese notion of responsible protection, which demands tough criteria for military interventions, accountability, and a focus on prevention as the central endeavour of R2P.57 RwP and responsible protection both relate to Acharya’s notion of norm subsidiarity, in which states challenge or resist attempts by more powerful states to marginalize or abuse global norms.58 Taken together, the Brazilian initiative and the Chinese proposition can be regarded as a form of agency and feedback that is pivotal to R2P’s normative development in the aftermath of the Libyan intervention.59

(p. 218) Bridging the Divide: R2P and Middle Power Diplomacy

The normative debates of the post-Cold War era have coincided with a more nuanced power discourse in International Relations. The idea that power can be ‘situational’ implies qualitative consideration of state behaviour, rather than simple quantification of state power, and the evolving interstate arena has seen a surge in leadership by so-called ‘middle powers’. Middle-powermanship suggests a liberal-internationalist tendency in foreign policy, with prioritization of peaceful, reciprocal tools of foreign policy rather than unilateral, coercive strategies. These states typically specialize—and provide diplomatic leadership—in niche areas such as disarmament, environmental affairs, and human rights; and use multilateral coalitions to galvanize the international community into action on these issues. In the realm of power, they are therefore staunchly predisposed to the use of soft power.60

Traditionally, middle powers were only found in the Global North: highly industrialized states such as Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and the Nordic countries that are established democracies with egalitarian socio-economic dispensations. However, over the past two decades the normative middle of international relations has increasingly expanded to include emerging powers—inter alia Turkey, South Africa, India, Malaysia, and Brazil—that exhibit distinct middle power behaviour. Eduard Jordaan refers to these states as ‘emerging middle powers’.61 Their ranks have been fortified by smaller states such as Ghana and Rwanda that reproduce the role of the ‘good citizens of the world’ in their respective sub-regions.

The R2P debate is a prominent example of a middle power project in the international domain. The Canadian government sponsored the ICISS and its consequent support for research on R2P has been matched by that of Australia. The landmark endorsement of R2P at the 2005 World Summit was in large part due to the efforts of these two states, aided by ‘sherpas’ from the developing world, such as South Africa and Rwanda, who helped to build consensus beyond the West.62

Middle powers, intent as they are on bridging interstate divides, have done much to avoid the ‘West against the Rest’ template in the R2P discourse. Following the WSOD, and intensifying after Secretary-General Ban’s call in January 2009, the General Assembly embarked on dedicated debate on the implementation of R2P. The portrayal of R2P as a North–South polarizing issue was dispelled by the active involvement of various states across all regions of the world. An example of collective middle-powermanship was seen during the 2009 UNGA debate, when a coalition of pro-R2P states known as ‘Group of Friends of R2P’ emerged: a group comprising 30 states straddling the developed and developing worlds, chaired by Canada and Rwanda. Another example occurred during 2010 with the founding of the R2P Focal Points Initiative63 by the governments of Denmark and Ghana. They were soon joined by Australia, Costa Rica, and over 30 other countries. Initiatives such as these are hailed by R2P (p. 219) proponents as evidence of the ‘community of commitment’ that propels global diffusion of the norm.64

Andrew Hurrell contends that there is a glaring need to focus on the role of middle powers and the would-be role of ‘middle-ground’ ethics in impacting normative orders.65 His point is echoed by Gareth Evans who makes a case for:

the kind of diplomacy which can, and should, be practised by states which are not big or strong enough, either in their own region or the wider world, to impose their policy preferences on anyone else; but who do recognize that that there are international policy tasks which need to be accomplished if the world around them is to be safer, saner, more just and more prosperous (with all the potential this has, in turn, to affect their own interests); and who have sufficient capacity and credibility to be able to advance those tasks.66

Inevitably, from a non-Western perspective, the moral imperative contained in Evans’s statement is not as straightforward as it sounds. The ‘policy tasks which need to be accomplished’, especially to make the world a ‘more just’ place, are contingent on one’s view of the world—and of what is wrong with the world. In this regard the foreign policy agenda and style of emerging middle powers differ markedly from those of their traditional counterparts in the Global North. They are much more assertive and revisionist when it comes to global governance, and openly seek regional and global leadership positions. This is in stark contrast to traditional middle powers, who emphatically shun the opportunity to lobby for permanent UNSC membership and participation in the arms race. It is a moot question whether emerging middle powers—India for example, with its nuclear weapons status—would be able to resist the allure of structural power, and the potential to abuse R2P.


Two seminal moments in the political journey of R2P were highlighted in this chapter: the 2005 World Summit and the norm’s 2011 application, through Security Council resolution 1973, to the humanitarian crisis in Libya. The latter event in particular opened up a Pandora’s Box of unresolved tensions at the heart of international society, and belied the 2005 veneer of universal consensus on R2P.

It would be folly to view the normative journey of R2P in isolation of the context(s) in which it is emerging, and the material realities and ideational variables that define the evolving global order. Indeed, the assumption of one-way norm entrepreneurship and socialization acts as a blinker to the ideational and temporal agency of non-Western actors. The heterogeneity of international society in itself portends elusive consensus on any new norm, and the increase in the range of interests and values, in combination with new evolving identities within international society, has caused contestation at every (p. 220) level of R2P’s development. From differing perspectives on the norm’s ownership, the pathways of its diffusion, and the agenda attached to its operationalization, it seems as though R2P has interrogated the very foundations of international society: its rules of engagement.

A recent trend in international studies is to pit the Global North against the Global South, or the ‘West against the Rest’, and the debate on R2P is no exception. There is value in this analytical approach (the juxtaposition of opposing perspectives) but also inherent danger, because a ‘them-and-us’ approach is prone to simplistic, sweeping assumptions. The world beyond the West may be united in lingering mistrust of Western altruism—hence the suspicion that R2P is a subterfuge for hegemonic aspirations—but it is certainly no less prone to realpolitik, normative rifts, and reproductions of structural power hierarchies.

Perceptions of a power shift in the international system have been reinforced by the behaviour of emerging powers from the non-Western world. Examples of these are the BRICS countries that have been resisting their historical designation as passive and subordinate norm-takers. The preferences, capabilities, and strategies projected by the BRICS in the international arena increasingly confirm their decisive impact on normative discourses, and the R2P debate is a case in point. The Brazilian initiative of responsibility while protecting and the Chinese notion of responsible protection are examples of attempts to restore the balance between solidarist and pluralist approaches to R2P, and to check the potential for abuse by the more powerful actors.

The polarizing juxtaposition of the ‘West’ and whatever lies beyond it has been mitigated to an extent by the activity of states that operate in the normative middle of world politics. In this foreign policy space, traditional middle powers such as Canada and Australia have been joined by emerging middle powers like South Africa, Brazil, and India that prioritize multilateralism and seek to bridge the schisms in the interstate domain. They are the normative sherpas of the world, and their role in international society is crucial: they have to lead by example and socialize other states into the values and norms of international society, even when such common institutions and patterns of interaction are in flux.

R2P is widely considered a liberal norm, but in our opinion it is a radical norm. It seems designed for a world that is not (yet) institutionally or legally equipped to deal with its implications. At the same time it has already left an indelible imprint on the narratives within international society, where the R2P discourse has been driven by the normative middle. Emerging middle powers, in particular, are essential to the debate because these states are, in many ways, microcosms of the contradictions within international society.


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                                                                                                                    (1.) In his 2009 report Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon proposed a three-pillar approach towards implementation: pillar one spells out the primary protection responsibilities of states towards their own populations, while pillar two places responsibility on the international community to assist individual states with their R2P capacity-building. Pillar three stipulates timely and decisive response by the international community in cases where states are unable or unwilling to protect a population at risk (UNGA 2009).

                                                                                                                    (2.) Bull 1977, pp. 13, 172.

                                                                                                                    (4.) Adler-Nissen 2014, p. 149.

                                                                                                                    (5.) Jabri 2014, p. 373.

                                                                                                                    (7.) Bhabha 1994, p. 245; Jabri 2014, p. 378.

                                                                                                                    (10.) Williams 2009, p. 413.

                                                                                                                    (11.) Africa dominates the Security Council agenda in terms of the sheer number of unresolved conflicts and humanitarian crises on the continent. As a result, Africa has hosted the UN’s largest and most numerous peacekeeping missions.

                                                                                                                    (12.) The Prize was jointly awarded to the UN and its Secretary-General. The selection committee pointed out, however, that Kofi Annan was singled out because ‘[i]‌n an organisation that can hardly become more than its members permit, he has made clear that sovereignty cannot be a shield behind which member states conceal [human rights] violations’ (Norwegian Nobel Committee 2001).

                                                                                                                    (14.) In 1998, Martha Finnemore and Kathryn Sikkink addressed the diffusion of norms by putting forward a three-stage life cycle: norm emergence, norm cascade, and norm internalization. Their model suggests a ‘tipping point’ between the first two stages, when a critical mass of state actors adopts the norm. The third stage, norm internalization, is marked by a ‘taken-for-granted quality’, where the norm in question ceases to be an issue of public contestation (a point clearly not reached in the case of R2P!).

                                                                                                                    (15.) Weiss 2007, p. 116.

                                                                                                                    (17.) Welsh 2013, p. 366.

                                                                                                                    (18.) Setting out what is meant by a ‘critical mass of states’ goes beyond quantitative calibration to take into account whether or not pivotal states (or states that adequately ‘represent’ the world) have endorsed the norm under examination. This raises more questions about identity and interests of the actors who reach the consensus—in the case of resolution 1973, the controversial structural composition of the UNSC.

                                                                                                                    (20.) We are not arguing that the collective BRICS, as a multilateral organization, purports to have a normative international agenda. As Andrew Cooper (2010, p. 69) has pointed out, the club is ‘largely silent on most political, strategic and social matters’.

                                                                                                                    (22.) Kahler 2013, p. 712.

                                                                                                                    (23.) AU 2005; Luck 2006, pp. 120, 121.

                                                                                                                    (27.) Welsh 2010, p. 246.

                                                                                                                    (29.) All emerging powers have a degree of hard power, even if only relative to a respective region, as in the case of South Africa.

                                                                                                                    (33.) Newman 2013, p. 236.

                                                                                                                    (34.) Newman 2013, p. 236.

                                                                                                                    (35.) Evans 2009, p. 3.

                                                                                                                    (36.) Brown 2013, p. 19.

                                                                                                                    (38.) Reus-Smit 2005, p. 90.

                                                                                                                    (39.) Bellamy 2005, p. 39.

                                                                                                                    (40.) Bellamy 2009, p. 27; Sarkin 2009, p. 14.

                                                                                                                    (43.) Abass 2012, p. 218.

                                                                                                                    (44.) Mangu 2012, p. 7.

                                                                                                                    (47.) Chandler 2004, p. 76.

                                                                                                                    (48.) Chandler 2004, p. 76.

                                                                                                                    (50.) Bellamy 2009, p. 88.

                                                                                                                    (53.) Nganje 2011, p. 3.

                                                                                                                    (54.) Chandler 2011, p. 30.

                                                                                                                    (60.) Behringer 2013, p. 14.

                                                                                                                    (61.) Jordaan 2003, p. 165.

                                                                                                                    (62.) Pollentine 2013, p. 50.

                                                                                                                    (63.) R2P Focal Points are senior government officials responsible for analysis of mass atrocity risk situations and crafting suitable early responses to prevent occurrence of mass atrocities.

                                                                                                                    (65.) Hurrell 2013, p. 222.