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The Domestic Politics of the UNSC Resolution on Libya and R2P

- March 21, 2011

One of the many important questions about last week’s UN Security Council Resolution on Libya is what kind of precedent it sets for future multilateral actions. Some fear/hope (depending on one’ normative starting points) that the resolution further strengthens or even reflects the arrival of an evolving norm known as the “Responsibility to Protect”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Responsibility_to_protect (or R2P). For pro and con discussions, see “here”:http://duckofminerva.blogspot.com/2011/03/libya-r2p-or-regime-change.html, “here”:http://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2011/03/21/the-libyan-no-fly-zone-responsibility-to-protect-and-international-law/, “here”:http://hotair.com/archives/2011/03/20/28658/, and “here”:http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/content/view/53257/99999999/1/1/

My preliminary take on this is that there is little evidence that the existence or strength of the norm was decisive in guiding the bargaining process over the UNSC resolution but that the outcome of the Libyan intervention may have profound consequences for beliefs about what constitutes an appropriate response to (the threat of) excessive force against ones own population. Let me elaborate on both points.

By most accounts, the decisive actors were France and the Arab League. Both the British and the U.S. were in favor of imposing the no-fly zones but both had understandable domestic and international reasons for not wanting to take a leadership role. By all accounts, the Arab League’s request for a no-fly zone was critical in convincing China and Russia to abstain rather than veto a resolution and in persuading the U.S. that it could intervene without further alienating the Arab world. While the Arab league’s decision-making process is clouded in mystery, it surely didn’t hurt that its secretary-general, Amr Moussa, wants to run for President in Egypt on a pro-democracy platform and that most Arab governments face democratic uprisings of their own. I have seen no evidence that there is a genuine shift among Arab leaders towards favoring international intervention in domestic affairs for humanitarian reasons.

In France, there is more rhetoric that mirrors the R2P norms (although, as far as I can tell, rarely explicitly mentioning the doctrine). Yet, all analysis that I have seen stresses the domestic political rationales for Sarkozy in the wake of scandals about the French response to the Tunisian uprisings (leading to the “departure of the defense minister”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-12591452) and Sarkozy’s waning domestic popularity. “The Guardian”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/20/libya-crisis-nicolas-sarkozy-electoral has a good English language analysis:

bq. “The French do like to have their president play world statesman,” mused one diplomat in Paris last week, before France’s Mirage and Rafale fighter planes had taken to the skies. “A good crisis,” he added, might be just what Sarkozy needs.

Contrast this with the domestic politics in Germany. Der Spiegel has an interesting interview (“English version”:http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,752164,00.html) with the German Foreign minister Guido Westerwelle in which they ask him in several different ways why the government decided to abstain from the vote and oppose the military actions. The minister replied to each question in the same way: we do not even want to suggest that we are going to use German troops. In his words:

bq. I don’t want us to venture onto a slippery slope that would lead to German troops participating in a war in Libya.

It also doesn’t bode well for the norms argument that none of the three aspiring permanent members on the Council, Germany, Brazil, and India, favored the intervention. One would expect that especially these states should be sensitive to acting in accordance with a strong developing norm. The abstentions of China and Russia are “very much in accordance”:http://bosco.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/03/17/abstention_games_on_the_security_council with their past behavior. While they are worried about precedent, they have generally not vetoed actions as long as these do not affect core security interests. This happened long before the term “responsibility to protect” was ever coined (e.g. “the Haiti intervention in 1994”:http://www.webster.edu/~corbetre/haiti/bookreviews/malone.htm).

In short, while there will surely be implicit or explicit references to R2P language by the UN Secretary-General and other actors, I don’t see much evidence that the norm itself played much of a role in cobbling together the coalition. This doesn’t mean that the intervention will not have profound consequences for R2P. My reasoning here depends on a different understanding of how norms develop than advocated by most “Constructivists”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_relations_theory#Constructivism in international relations. Constructivists believe that debates in international organizations and elsewhere help states understand what actions are appropriate or inapproriate in international affairs. Once a norm has been accepted by a critical number of states, it can become internalized and may be applied in a routine or habitual (non-reflective) way when deciding upon future actions.

I would argue that there is “little evidence”:http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=346225 that international organizations socialize the representatives of states, let alone states themselves. Moreover, high profile actions such as military intervention are unlikely to become routinized. This doesn’t mean that norms or shared expectations are unimportant. We live in a complex strategic world where expectations and beliefs about what others are likely to do matter greatly. I suspect, however, that these beliefs are more likely shaped by the consequences of actions rather than by rhetoric about them. For example, the relative success of the first Persian Gulf War led states to the expectation that it is the appropriate thing to ask for UN Security Council authorization of military interventions, even though there was no such norm in the 1970s or 1980s. My expectation is that the same will happen here: If the intervention in Libya is successful in avoiding massive civilian casualties and (perhaps) removing Khadaffi from office at low cost to the intervening powers, then this will reinforce the belief that this type of military response can and should be applied to a situation that resembles Libya. I leave the question of whether the development of such a norm would be an unmitigated good to another blog post.