One Size Fits All?

February 28, 2012

As Syria descends into civil war, the international community again finds itself debating intervention: an idea that is at odds with the Westphalian norm of sovereignty. While the United States and Europe have shown themselves willing to intervene with force to prevent humanitarian crises and nuclear proliferation, China has largely opposed such measures. Can China be convinced to support the West’s proposed changes to the world order, or will it cling to the traditional Westphalian norm?


The issue is not whether China will buy into the rule-based order, but whether it can be convinced or motivated to support the major changes that the West is seeking. This will depend to a significant extent on how high the bar for legitimate intervention is set and on the forum that will be used to decide whether or not a nation has lived up to its new responsibilities.The question of whether China will buy into the prevailing liberal, rule-based international order—one promoted and underwritten by the United States—ought to be revised with regard to one key element: the Westphalian norm of sovereignty and non-intervention. The West is seeking major modifications that weaken the norm, while China is the champion of the established rule and the international order based on it. Several leading Western progressive leaders and public intellectuals have championed the legitimation of another major category of intervention: armed humanitarian intervention, referred to as the “responsibility to protect.”  And some in the West favor legitimizing interference in the internal affairs of other nations if they develop nuclear arms, referred to as the “responsibility to prevent.” Both entail not merely making exceptions to the sovereignty norm on a case-by-case basis if a crisis is faced (say as Qaddafi’s forces are about to overrun Benghazi and threaten to slaughter civilians), but for the categorical legitimation of interventions if they meet a priori criteria.

Throughout the discussion, it is important to keep in mind that both suggested normative changes seek to justifyarmed interventions; transnational non-lethal acts such as promoting human rights and democracy through mass media (like Voice of America’s China service) and cultural activities (such as student exchanges), are not at issue because they do not violate the Westphalian norm. I keep referring to the Westphalian norm—not the treaty—because at issue is the contemporary understanding of the principle that one nation ought not to use force to interfere in the internal affairs of another nation—and not the text of a document signed over 350 years ago.

China as Challenger

A question often raised in American foreign-policy discourse is whether China, as a rising power, will buy into the prevailing “liberal world order.” Although many who write on the matter do not refer specifically to the Westphalian norm or necessarily spell out the key elements of the liberal, rule-based order that China ought to embrace, there are several core values that appear in writings on the subject. Some scholars refer to the 1997 Manifesto of the Liberal International: “We believe that civil society and constitutional democracy provide the most just and stable basis for political order… that an economy based on free market rules leads to the most efficient distribution of wealth and resources, encourages innovation, and promotes flexibility… that close cooperation among democratic societies through global and regional organizations, within the framework of international law, of respect for human rights, the rights of ethnic and national minorities, and of a shared commitment to economic development worldwide, is the necessary foundation for world peace and for economic and environmental sustainability.”

What is the place of the Westphalian norm in the liberal order? In a 2008 essay in Foreign Affairs, G. John Ikenberry correctly pointed out that the Westphalian norm deserves much credit because it serves as a “foundation” upon which the liberal world order has been forged through creating a “stable system of states.” Liberalism builds on this norm as it seeks peaceful conflict resolutions and multilateral cooperation amongst states.

Who Is Seeking Change?

The 1990s and early 2000s saw numerous humanitarian crises around the world. The international community sometimes intervened with force, as in Kosovo, but did not in other cases. Many liberals and supporters of human rights were particularly troubled by the fact that the international community did not act to stop genocides in Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In The Problem from Hell, Samantha Power even pointed to earlier genocides that were ignored, especially the Armenian genocide and those in Cambodia, Bosnia and Iraq.

These humanitarian crises brought new attention to the issue of sovereignty. Among those who looked at the issue anew were Francis Deng and his associates, who published a 1996 book entitled, Sovereignty as Responsibility, which argues that when nations do not conduct their internal affairs in ways that meet internationally recognized standards, other nations not only have the right, but the duty to intervene. In effect such governments forfeit their sovereignty, making it conditional on good conduct. This idea has since been referred to as “the responsibility to protect.”

This major modification of the Westphalian norm was further advanced in a 2001 report from the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (the Evans-Sahnoun Commission) called “The Responsibility to Protect.” The Commission’s report puts sovereignty as responsibility at the center of its proposals. It argued, “The Charter of the UN is itself an example of an international obligation voluntarily accepted by member states … The state itself, in signing the Charter, accepts the responsibilities of membership flowing from that signature. There is no transfer or dilution of state sovereignty. But there is a necessary re-characterization involved: from sovereignty as control to sovereignty as responsibility in both internal functions and external duties.”

While the UN Security Council had previously authorized interventions in states such as Somalia and Haiti, such authorizations have been rare and were made on an ad hoc basis; it had not developed a general case for degrading national sovereignty. Proponents of the new concept of sovereignty as responsibility sought to legitimate a fundamental shift in the international community’s role in the internal affairs of states by establishing an a priori category of conditions under which interventions would be justified. To the extent that this change to the Westphalian norm was accepted, nations that called for armed humanitarian intervention no longer needed to justify them in principle, but merely needed to show that a given nation had not lived up to its responsibilities—for instance by allowing a genocide to take place.

In 2004, two leading American foreign policy mavens, Lee Feinstein and Anne-Marie Slaughter, sought to further scale back sovereignty by adding a second responsibility that sovereign nations had to use, referred to as the “responsibility to prevent.” This responsibility entailed a nation’s obligation to refrain from acquiring or developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Moreover, the international community was put on notice that it had a role in ensuring that nations acting irresponsibly in this regard lost the privileges of sovereignty and therefore became subject to intervention. 

In a sense, this new responsibility reflects the spirit of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), according to which its 188 signatory nations have agreed that nations that do not have nuclear arms will not seek to acquire them and those that have them will commit to giving them up.  However, the NPT per se has no enforcement mechanism. It leaves it to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to report to the United Nations when nations deviate from the treaty and for the UN to decide what action, if any, to take. Nor does the NPT explicitly deal with nations that have refused to sign it (such as India, Pakistan, and Israel) or those who quit (such as North Korea). Thus, by defining a universal responsibility to prevent the acquisition of nuclear arms and call on the nations of the world to enforce it, Feinstein and Slaughter dramatically advanced the NPT precept.

In short, the agents of change, who are advocating a major break in one of the key elements of the normative international order, are progressive voices in the West: UN officials, scholars, public intellectuals and other officials.

Supporting the Established Order

China, far from seeking to challenge or transform the global order, has consistently opposed changes to the Westphalian norm. Ever since it abandoned its Mao-era policy of supporting communist and anti-imperialist insurgencies in other nations, China has argued repeatedly and strenuously that national governments should be the sole, legitimate users of force within their borders, which is the “universally recognized norm of international law.”

China’s position on cases of armed humanitarian interventions that are in line with the responsibility to protect is based on the invocation of the Westphalian norm. China abstained from and was the only country not to vote in favor of resolutions 781 and 816 authorizing the establishment and enforcement of a no-fly zone over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992 and 1993 to prevent attacks by Serbian warplanes: they argued that the “consent of all relevant parties” was lacking. In Rwanda, China argued that any international intervention would require consent of the Rwandan government. When Western powers held that action was called for to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, they worked via NATO and not the UN, because they anticipated that China, along with Russia, would veto authorization for such a mission. In response China’s UN Ambassador, Shen Guofang, stated that NATO created “an extremely dangerous precedent in the history of international relations … In essence, the ‘human rights over sovereignty’ theory serves to infringe upon the sovereignty of other States and to promote hegemonism under the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter.”

Although China joined the heads of 150 governments at the 2005 UN World Summit in endorsing the “the responsibility to protect” doctrine, its interpretation of the concept differed from others: China sees it as a responsibility for the international community to provide mediation of conflicts that cause grave humanitarian tolls, but not through the use of force without the consent of the concerned government. Still, China has shown enough flexibility to suggest that there is some room for a normative dialogue on whether certain categories of armed humanitarian interventions could be viewed as legitimate.

Regarding the responsibility to prevent, China joined France and Germany in criticizing President Bush’s decision to wage war on Iraq. China’s state-run newspaper, the People’s Daily, reported that President Jiang Zemin considered it China’s “responsibility to take various measures to avoid war” and to push for a “political solution of the Iraq issue in the framework of the United Nations.” China took this stance even after supporting the 2002 Security Council resolution 1441, which granted Iraq a last chance to disarm or face “serious consequences.”

China clearly favors political over military solutions to nuclear proliferation in Iran and North Korea. Various observers contend that when it has been willing to take action against these countries, the measures were limited (e.g. watered-down sanctions), and Chinese support came only after immense pressure from the West.

In short, there seems to be no indication that China will accept the responsibility to prevent any more than it embraces the responsibility to protect. It supports the long-established Westphalian norm and is clearly the conservative force in this matter.

What Now?

If one accepts that the West is seeking major modifications to the Westphalian norm and that China seeks to uphold the traditional order, the question follows: What might be the next steps that could lead to mutual changes to the rule-based order?

First, the West needs to reach a higher level of shared understanding about the normative changes it favors. When the US championed and led an armed intervention in Libya in 2011, the Obama administration did not base its position on the responsibility to protect, arguing that Libya was a prime example of a case in which such action was justified, and it refrained from using such a categorical legitimation of the intervention. Instead, it stressed that the intervention in Libya was an exceptional case, and another intervention under similar circumstances was off the table.

Hillary Clinton promised during her presidential campaign to “operationalize” the responsibility to protect doctrine and to “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.” By contrast, when Obama was asked at a press conference about his thoughts on the responsibility to protect, he avoided embracing the new norm and stated instead, “There are going to be exceptional circumstances in which I think the need for international intervention becomes a moral imperative, the most obvious example being a situation like Rwanda where genocide has occurred.”

The Obama Administration’s position on the responsibility to prevent is reflected in its position on Iran. It has repeatedly announced that it is “unacceptable” for Iran to acquire nuclear arms and has mobilized the international community to impose sanctions on Iran. Obama promised during his campaign, “I will take no options off the table in dealing with this potential Iranian threat.” But the administration has not yet chosen to intervene militarily—and if it did, it would find very little support among its allies, not to mention in the third world, China or Russia.

According to a 2011 report by the United States’ German Marshall Fund and Italy’s Compagnia di San Paolo foundation, most US and European policymakers would prefer a nuclear-armed Iran to taking military action if the diplomatic track fails (only 42 percent of policymakers in the US and 32 percent in Brussels support military action). Thus, before one can discuss what the US can or should expect the role of China to be regarding armed interventions to stop genocides and preventing the proliferation of nuclear arms, the US needs to sort out its current position and find out whether its allies will support the idea of scaled-back sovereignty.

The Forum and the Criteria

In the transnational give-and-take with China regarding changes to the Westphalian norm (and in effect with governments, publics, and institutions worldwide), two key issues arise: Which authority will determine when the violation of national responsibilities reaches a level that justifies armed intervention and which a priori criteria ought they employ?

The UN Security Council is often cited as the appropriate forum for such a ruling. But reliance on the UN raises many familiar issues: among others, that veto power within the Security Council is held by the five nations that were part of the alliance that won World War II, but does not reflect the major nations of today; that many UN members are themselves tyrannies and gross violators of human rights; and that the Security Council was deadlocked and unable to act when atrocities took place in Cambodia, the Kurdish parts of Iraq and elsewhere. There were many other reasons for inaction, but the UN structure was certainly among them. Numerous suggestions have been made to make the Security Council more representative and thus enhance the legitimacy of its rulings, but none of these reforms are forthcoming.

China is much more likely to support the UN than, say, the Council of Democracies or NATO, and it is unlikely to agree to dilute its veto power by adding other nations that will be granted such power. Indeed, former Chinese President Jiang Zemin stated China’s continued support for the central role of the UN Security Council in handling international disputes: “We should come together to safeguard the authority of the Security Council rather than to impair it … It is against the will of many member states for any country to bypass the Security Council and do what it wishes on major issues concerning world peace and security.”

In short, although the West may seek to change the forum, for instance by including India in the Security Council, realistically one must assume that the UN Security Council will remain the major international body that will rule on whether the responsibility to protect or to prevent has been violated and what armed responses are called for.

If the forum question is in effect settled, then what qualifies as a violation worthy of intervention? If the West seeks common ground with China and the international community, the key issues will be what specific conditions justify action and how high to set the bar.

China is more likely to accept changes to the sovereignty question that set a high bar for intervention, such as the suggestions made by The Evan-Sahnoun Commission, which 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.” Moreover, both the Commission and the High-Level Panel asserted that any intervention must be based on exclusively humanitarian intentions, be taken as a last resort, use only the minimum force necessary to complete the mission, and have reasonable prospects of success.

The importance of such a high bar to China is reflected in a 2006 statement by its UN ambassador. The country supports the responsibility to protect doctrine as it pertains to “genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity,” but insists that “it is not appropriate to expand, willfully to interpret, or even abuse this concept.”

Whether the killing in Libya prior to the UN resolution authorizing a no-fly zone met the limiting criteria for the use of force is unclear. In any case, China abstained, which has usually been its way of opposing such armed interventions. It follows that if one is seeking common ground with China in the quest to modify the Westphalian norm, one had better consider stricter adherence to the high standards spelled out in the recommendations of the Evans-Sahnoun Commission.

With regard to the responsibility to prevent, the problem is whether the development or possession of any type of WMD by states “without internal checks” legitimates intervention, or whether only specific kinds of WMDs qualify. Biological and chemical weapons are much more difficult to detect and control than nuclear weapons. Therefore, an international regime dedicated to preventing all WMDs would have to be much more interventionist than one dedicated to preventing only the proliferation of nuclear arms. Given that most chemical and biological agents are reported to be less dangerous than nuclear ones, a strong case can be made that the threshold for intervention should, at least for now, be set at the nuclear prevention level.

It is noteworthy that China has not explicitly condemned the responsibility to prevent. When former Vice-Premier and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen argued against the preventive war doctrine in an editorial in a state-run newspaper, the Foreign Ministry distanced itself from his remarks, stating that they were not commissioned. Moreover, China has spoken out against nuclear proliferation, though has also urged that solutions come only through the UN.

A normative give-and-take with China is much more likely to bear fruit the more one stresses that neither new responsibility justifies forced regime change and neither calls for bringing about democracy and enforcing human rights through armed intervention. China opposes these types of regime change for obvious reasons.

Indeed, there is a very rarely discussed deep normative principle that underlies and connects the two new responsibilities: both focus purely on saving lives. They thus provide a much higher bar for intervention than those sought by neo-conservatives and others who favor promoting a “freedom agenda” through lethal means. This issue came up recently in the run-up to the invasion of Libya. There was much more support—in the Arab League, Europe, and even the US—for preventing a massacre of thousands of civilians in Benghazi than for using military force to push Qaddafi out and thus open the door to a new regime.

But, as so often happens, once the shooting started, it escalated well beyond the original goal, demonstrating the danger of the slippery slope and proving that if one seeks to modify the Westphalian norm, one must set clear and strong markers. One can justify going to war to save lives (if all other means of stopping the massacres and the spread of nuclear arms have been exhausted), but it is much more taxing to make a normative case for advancing other rights by the use of force, such as the rights of free speech, religious practice and assembly.

The right to life has a special standing. The particularly high normative standing of the right to life is revealed by the fact that criminal codes in many nations place a higher penalty on taking a life than on violating other rights. Forced regime changes rarely lead to expected results and tend to cause great loss of life and many casualties, as has been the case in Iraq and Afghanistan.