Amitai Etzioni

G. John Ikenberry asks whether China will buy into the prevailing liberal, rule-based international order, which has been promoted and underwritten by the United States ("The Future of the Liberal World Order," May/June 2011). With regard to one key element of this order, however -- the Westphalian norm of sovereignty and nonintervention -- he might have inverted the premise. For here, the West has been seeking major modifications that weaken the norm, whereas China has championed the established rule and the international order based on it. 

Several leading Western progressives have sought to legitimize armed humanitarian intervention, under the rubric of "the responsibility to protect." Others have gone even further, seeking to legitimize interference in the internal affairs of other countries if they develop nuclear arms, invoking "the duty to prevent." Both concepts explicitly make sovereignty conditional on states' conducting themselves in line with new norms that directly conflict with the Westphalian one. The issue, in other words, is not simply whether China will buy into the existing rule-based order but whether it can be persuaded to support the major changes in the rules that the West is seeking. 

The past two decades have seen numerous humanitarian crises. The international community intervened with the use of force in some but not others. Many liberals were particularly troubled when the international community did not act to stop mass killings in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan, and their concerns led to calls for limitations on sovereignty in order to facilitate such action in the future. The Evans-Sahnoun Commission, an international study group on humanitarian intervention that released its report in 2001, and a 2004 UN secretary-general's high-level panel formulated and promoted the idea that when states do not conduct their internal affairs in ways that meet internationally recognized standards, other states have a right to intervene. This idea has since been referred to in shorthand as "the responsibility to protect." Writing in these pages in 2004, Lee Feinstein and Anne-Marie Slaughter (who would go on to serve as the U.S. State Department's director of policy planning) called for further scaling back sovereignty by adding "the duty to prevent," which would require countries to prevent other states from obtaining weapons of mass destruction (WMD). 

China, in contrast, has consistently opposed all changes to the Westphalian norm about the primacy of national sovereignty. Ever since it abandoned its Mao-era policy of supporting communist and anti-imperialist insurgencies in other nations, Beijing has argued that national governments should be the sole legitimate users of force within their borders, which it holds is, in the words of the Chinese diplomat Wang Guangya, "a universally recognized norm of international law." At the 2000 UN Millennium Summit, then Chinese President Jiang Zemin stated, "Respect for each other's independence and sovereignty is vital to the maintenance of world peace." During the Bosnian war, China was the only country not to vote in favor of the UN resolution authorizing a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Regarding Rwanda, China argued that any international intervention would require the consent of the Rwandan government. On Darfur, China insisted that no UN peacekeepers be sent without the consent of the government of Sudan. China joined France and Germany in criticizing U.S. President George W. Bush's decision to wage war on Iraq and clearly favors political over military solutions when it comes to the Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs.

Progressive interventionist voices have weakened somewhat recently, not least because, as The Economist noted, "the Bush years . . . damaged the intellectual case for intervention." Still, Hillary Clinton promised during her presidential campaign to "operationalize" the responsibility-to-protect doctrine and "adopt a policy that recognizes the prevention of mass atrocities as an important national security interest of the United States, not just a humanitarian goal." And the Obama administration invoked the responsibility to protect in its case for intervention in Libya (although it has been at pains to point out that such intervention will not be a regular occurrence). Before the United States and other Western powers seek to determine whether China can be moved to support changes in the traditional liberal order, therefore, they need to sort out what their own position is.

If the Westphalian nonintervention norm is to be changed, the question arises as to who should decide when violations of national responsibilities have reached the level that justifies an armed intervention and on what criteria the decision will be made. The UN Security Council is often cited as the appropriate forum for such rulings. Thus, when NATO intervened in Kosovo without UN authorization, this action was referred to as legitimate by some but also as illegal. The 2003 invasion of Iraq faced much condemnation because it was not fully authorized by the UN. In contrast, interventions in East Timor and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the rollback of Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait were considered legal because of UN approval.

Reliance on the UN raises familiar issues: the five Security Council members that hold veto power do not include all the current major powers, and many UN members are themselves gross violators of human rights. But all other potential decision forums have even greater defects, so realistically, the Security Council will remain the authorizing institution of choice for the foreseeable future.

As for what qualifies as a violation that justifies the breaching of sovereignty, the Sudanese scholar Francis Deng has suggested exempting from consideration those nations whose governments "strive to ensure for their people an effective governance that guarantees a just system of law and order, democratic freedoms, respect for fundamental rights, and general welfare." But with the bar set so high, few nations would be ruled out as possible targets.

The Evans-Sahnoun Commission proposed that intervention require: 

a) large-scale loss of life, actual or apprehended, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation; or b) large-scale "ethnic cleansing," actual or apprehended, whether carried out by killing, forced expulsion, acts of terror or rape.

It also recommended that any intervention be based exclusively on humanitarian intentions, be taken as a last resort, use only the minimum force necessary to complete the mission, and have reasonable prospects of success. Such a high bar might win China's support, as reflected in a 2006 statement by China's then UN ambassador, Liu Zhenmin, that supported the responsibility to protect as it pertains to "genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity" but insisted that "it is not appropriate to expand, willfully to interpret or even abuse this concept."

With regard to the duty to prevent, the problem is whether the development or possession of any type of WMD by states without internal checks on their rulers would legitimate intervention or whether only specific kinds of WMD would qualify. Biological and chemical weapons are much more difficult to detect and control than nuclear ones. Hence, an international regime dedicated to preventing all WMD would have to be much more interventionist than one dedicated, at least initially, to preventing the proliferation of only nuclear arms. 

A normative give-and-take with China will be more likely to bear fruit the more it is stressed that the new responsibility to prevent neither justifies forced regime change nor calls for bringing about democracy and enforcing human rights by the use of armed interventions. This means focusing on saving lives and not regime change. The right to life has a special standing, because all other rights are conditioned on it, but it is not conditioned on them. 

At the same time that the West seeks to legitimize interventions to protect life, it should reject China's claim that some nonlethal transnational acts, such as communications or educational and cultural exchanges, amount to prohibited interventions in a nation's internal affairs. For instance, China misused the sovereignty argument when it vetoed a 2007 UN Security Council resolution calling for the Myanmar regime to allow unimpeded access to the country to humanitarian workers and release its political prisoners. Such resolutions do not violate traditional conceptions of Westphalian sovereignty, nor do they violate any international laws or shared understandings. On the contrary, they are sound means to gradually build an international community, in which shared norms develop out of nations and people expressing their appreciation and censure across state lines, just as China often does.

In short, Ikenberry and others are correct to see further incorporating China and other rising powers into the existing liberal world order as a crucial challenge for the decades to come. But liberals need to understand that changing the rules of the game in a progressively cosmopolitan direction will make accomplishing that task even more difficult than it might otherwise be.

AMITAI ETZIONI is University Professor and Professor of International Relations at George Washington University.


Amitai Etzioni's thoughtful response to my essay makes the important point that China's hesitations about the liberal world order center primarily on the ideas that the West has advanced in recent years about liberal interventionism, state sovereignty, and "the responsibility to protect." Etzioni and I do not directly disagree -- but we do differ on how to think about the significance of this tension in Sino-Western relations.

The main argument of my essay was that China and other rising non-Western developing states face an international order that is both wide and deep, the product of projects to build systems of global order. One is the Westphalian project, which over the centuries has developed rules and institutions for the management of great-power relations and the operation of the modern state system. The other is the more recent project of building an open and rule-based system organized around free trade, collective security, democratic solidarity, and institutionalized cooperation. Since World War II, this project has incorporated ideas about universal human rights, culminating in the recent emergence of the responsibility-to-protect norm.

Etzioni suggests that the West needs to soften its support for such new interventionist norms so as to entice China to join the existing order. But China already has more than enough reason to be enticed -- and little reason to resist. The existing order is easy to join and hard to overturn. Rising states in past international orders never confronted such a deeply rooted and multifaceted system as China does today. This system presents Beijing with both massive constraints and huge opportunities. 

China's disagreement with the responsibility-to-protect norm also needs be put in perspective: that norm represents only a tiny aspect of the larger set of global rules and institutions. Indeed, in pushing back against this norm, China is invoking other norms and ideas in the system -- most important, Westphalian ones about sovereignty. In doing so, China is being driven further into the existing international order. Moreover, the tension that exists within the international order between norms of state sovereignty and the responsibility to protect should not be surprising, and it is more of a virtue than a defect. Think about the internal politics of Western democracies. In all of them, there are tensions between competing norms, such as social equality and market freedom. But both of these are legitimate norms, and day-to-day politics involves the struggle over them.

It is also important to note that China's position on sovereignty is evolving. Although Chinese leaders initially condemned the principle of the responsibility to protect, they endorsed it at the UN's 2005 World Summit and later reaffirmed that support in UN Security Council Resolution 1674. This year, when the norm was invoked with regard to Libya, China did not veto the Security Council resolution that paved the way for NATO action. Rather than reject the norm, China has attempted to disassociate itself from U.S.-led military interventions aimed at regime change and link itself to UN-led efforts to protect civilians. Chinese leaders realize that if decisions about humanitarian intervention are made in the UN Security Council -- a quintessentially Westphalian institution -- their country will have some ability to influence the outcomes. And as the world moves to a more multipolar system, countries other than the United States and its Western partners will increasingly be involved in decision-making regarding UN operations -- a shift that also gives China incentives to work with the new norm.

Meanwhile, as China grows in geopolitical importance, its own strategic interests relating to interventionism will presumably also evolve. It is understandable that China, as a poor developing country, now sees the erosion of norms of sovereignty as a threatening symbol of American "liberal imperialism." But as it becomes a global power, China will no doubt begin to see new sorts of dangers lurking in its strategic environment, such as weak states and nuclear proliferation. It may not fully embrace the human rights vision behind the evolving norms about state sovereignty, but it will appreciate the ability of the international community to act when these dangers become overwhelming.

Etzioni is correct in noting the tension between sovereignty and interventionism, but most of the Westphalian and liberal norms reinforce one another. The Bretton Woods institutions and the other postwar multilateral economic institutions, for example, are intended to strengthen the ability of national governments to manage and protect their domestic economies. Building a liberal world order does not mean erecting a world government and usurping state sovereignty; rather, it is an agenda for strengthening the fabric of the international system, infusing it with rules, institutions, and other tools with which governments can manage their economies and societies. Liberals should remember, more than they do, that this project is heavily dependent on the stable and well-functioning Westphalian system of states. As I mentioned in my essay, the problems of Hobbes must be solved before the promise of Locke can be realized.

It is in this sense that I agree with Etzioni. Western liberal internationalists and their governments need to remain focused on finding ways for states to navigate the turbulent waters of economic and security interdependence. And in doing this, they should engage China and seek ways to bridge their differences over norms of sovereignty and interventionism. After all, China and the West have no choice but to work within the current framework: there is no alternative world order lurking offstage that is as functional or legitimate as the existing one.

(Photo: Stuck in Customs / flickr)

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