Reforming the global order

Dennis Phillips, The University of Sydney

Gareth Evans The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All Washington D.C., Brookings Institution Press, 2008 (349 pp). ISBN 9-78081570-334-1 (paperback) RRP $34.95.

Brent Jones, Carlos Pascual and Stephen John Stedman Power & Responsibility: Building International Order in An Era of Transnational Threats, Washington D.C., Brookings Institution Press, 2009 (360 pp). ISBN 9-78081574-706-2 (hard cover) RRP $49.95.

It is easy to sympathise with those who despair at the current state of global politics. Today the world system seems to be broken, unable to function effectively in many crisis situations. Twenty years ago a peaceful end to the Cold War appeared to herald a new and more progressive era. At last nations could move away from confrontation and redirect their efforts toward a more co-operative effort to mitigate war, disease, poverty and inequality. Rather than realise a post-Cold War peace dividend, we have been burdened instead by bloody conflicts in Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan, to name but a few. Superimposed upon all this has been a global war on terrorism, as well as a series of mass atrocity crimes of which Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, Darfur and the Congo represent only a partial list. Not only has the world political system failed to prevent these slaughters, it has also struggled to cope with natural disasters and the worst international financial crisis in 60 years. Then, when confronted with an ominous and long-range security threat to all of us, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change failed to rise to the challenge at Copenhagen in December 2009.

Despite the many reasons to be pessimistic about the current world situation, the four expert authors of the two books reviewed here are resolutely optimistic, and with good reason. Counter-intuitively, they point out that global governance is not an abject failure. There has been, for example, ‘a 40 percent reduction in civil wars between 1993 and 2005’. Today at least 180,000 people are working worldwide to manage and control more than 20 significant conflicts (Jones, Pascual & Stedman pp. 12, 170, 184–187; Evans p. 234). When assessing the state of the contemporary world order, each author boasts strong academic and practical credentials. Gareth Evans’ comprehensive introduction to ‘the responsibility to protect’ is as much the record of a personal journey as it is an academic treatise. As CEO of the International Crisis Group and co-chair of the International Commission in Intervention and State Sovereignty, Evans (better known to many Australian readers as their Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1988 to 1996 and recently appointed Chancellor of the Australian National University) has played a key leadership role in the campaign to prevent mass atrocity crimes. Similarly, each of the three authors of Power & Responsibility also brings an impressive personal record to their collective goal of reforming the international order. Bruce Jones, who has had extensive involvement with UN and NGO work in several world trouble spots, is now director of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University. Carlos Pascual, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, is director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution and John Stedman, a former assistant secretary general of the United Nations, is currently a senior fellow at Stanford University.


Both books proceed from the premise that globalisation provides the world with many constructive opportunities, but simultaneously confronts us with an array of transnational threats: terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, pandemics, climate change, and the possibility of global economic collapse. To deal with these threats effectively, the authors argue that old rules based on perpetuating individual state sovereignty must be replaced by new standards of state governance and responsibility. Jones, Pascual and Stedman take a broad view and suggest specific and far-reaching reforms in the international order. Gareth Evans focuses more narrowly on the vital campaign to end the ‘recurring nightmare’ of mass atrocity crimes (Evans pp. 11, 39–43).

For readers not familiar with the evolution of international law and the principle of state sovereignty, the vital historical starting point is the Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years War in 1648. Although academic debate continues as to its significance, most historians agree that this treaty greatly advanced the development of an international system of sovereign states committed to the principle of non-intervention by one state in the affairs of another. While Westphalian principles undoubtedly had a stabilising effect on international relations, the norm of non-intervention ‘effectively institutionalized the long-standing indifference of political rulers toward atrocity crimes occurring elsewhere’ (Evans pp. 16–17). As Evans notes, ‘It has taken a desperately long time for the idea to take hold that mass atrocities are the world’s business: that they cannot be universally ignored and that sovereignty is not a license to kill’ (p. 11).

There are many reasons to be pessimistic about the current world situation.

Historically, the evolution of global governance took another great leap forward with the foundation of the United Nations in 1945 and the gradual post-war advance of international law, human rights legislation and co-operative world institutions. None of the authors reviewed here wish to abolish that system and start over. Quite the contrary, they want to reform and strengthen the United Nations to make it and other international organisations much more effective. They also seek to make the leaders of individual nations more directly responsible for their actions. Thus, the idea of ‘responsible sovereignty’ is central to both books. No longer should state sovereignty be used ‘as a shield to protect governments from accountability for their behavior’ (Jones, Pascual & Stedman p. 9). Responsible sovereignty involves a comprehensive maturing of international norms based on ‘the injunction that state sovereignty entails obligations and duties to one’s own citizens and to other sovereign states’ (Jones, Pascual & Stedman p. 14).

The three authors of Power & Responsibility provide an impressive list of specific suggestions for improving the international community’s ability to respond effectively to leading 21st century threats: climate change, nuclear proliferation, the dark side of biological technology—‘the twenty-first century will be known as the biological century’ (p. 141), civil violence and regional conflict, transnational terrorism, world economic crises and ‘the hardest case – the broader Middle East’ (p. 271).


A critical and controversial aspect of Jones, Pascual and Stedman’s prescription for global change is that, to be effective, it must be guided by a renewal of American leadership—a leadership far more enlightened and co-operative than the ‘foreign policy void, bereft of vision’ that marked US diplomacy under George W. Bush. Because ‘there is no credible alternative’, worldwide institutional reform is dependent on bold, sometimes dramatic, changes in American foreign policy. The ‘yes we can’ optimism of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign is evident throughout Power & Responsibility (pp. 5, 35–42, 271–272).

Rather than begin with the obvious, and potentially most difficult, task of reforming the Security Council, Power & Responsibility advocates the creation of a new organisation, a ‘G-16 – the smallest (and therefore most efficient) number of states that includes all the major and rising powers and key regional states’ (Australia is not on the list). The G-16 would be not merely an expansion of the G-8, but a ‘steering mechanism with which to navigate the turbulence of diffuse power, transnational threats, and the changing distribution of power’ among nations (pp. 16, 46–55). Inspired by enlightened US leadership, the G-16 could ‘support the diplomacy required to move toward a regional security mechanism’ in the Middle East (p. 297). On a broader canvas, the G-16 could also promote improvements in the structure and efficiency of various international organisations, eventually paving the way for expansion of the UN Security Council through the addition of long-term, non-veto members (pp. 55–59).

Effective global change must be guided by a renewal of American leadership.

Prominent among the many other specific reforms recommended in Power & Responsibility are: strengthening the nuclear non-proliferation regime (ch. 5), creation of a UN High Commissioner for Counter-Terrorism Capacity Building (p. 206), establishment of an international Center of Excellence for Economic Prosperity (p. 252) and development of new and more effective instruments for preventive mediation and peace-building (pp. 197–203). Overall, Jones, Pascual and Stedman propose such an extensive array of international reforms, all predicated on fundamental changes in American foreign policy, that many readers will wonder how the most exceptional and persuasive of US presidents could achieve even a small portion of it.


Gareth Evans is also deeply concerned with the relationship between state power and state responsibility. Tracing the recent evolution of the campaign to prevent mass atrocity crimes, Evans begins with publication of the breakthrough 2001 report on ‘the responsibility to protect’, issued by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. In effect, the report accelerated the drive to shift international attention away from the notion of unfettered state sovereignty and onto the principle of state responsibility. As Evans explains, ‘The relevant perspective … was not that of prospective interveners but of those needing support. If any ‘right’ was involved, it was of the victims of mass atrocity crimes to be protected’ (pp. 38–41). The idea of an internationally shared ‘responsibility to protect’ was further developed and then unanimously approved by the UN General Assembly at the World Summit in 2005 (pp. 31, 38).

An integral part of refocusing the debate from state sovereignty to state responsibility involves taking the emphasis off military intervention in favour of a wide range of preventive policies. Evans repeatedly makes the point that in the campaign to end mass atrocity crimes, military intervention is absolutely a last resort option (pp. 55–61, 128, 213). In the campaign to end mass atrocity crimes once and for all, The Responsibility to Protect advocates more aggressive use of a traditional ‘toolbox’ of non-violent options: diplomatic peacemaking, collective pressure, political and economic incentives and sanctions, constitutional and legal measures and so on (pp. 107, 150). Evans cites the Kenya crisis in early 2008 as ‘the best recent example of the early, and effective, mobilization of political and diplomatic resources to bring back under control an explosive mass atrocity situation’ (p. 106). Post-election violence in Kenya could have become catastrophic had it not been for the intervention of ‘an African Union-mandated Panel of Eminent African Personalities, led by … Kofi Annan’ and others who managed to ‘calm the situation and eventually mediate a settlement’ (p. 107). Evans’s discussion of the Kenya crisis reminds us that when ‘the responsibility to protect’ is successful, especially in its preventive stage, we hear much less about it than when mass atrocities occur, as in Rwanda or Srebrenica in the mid-1990s.


Power & Responsibility and The Responsibility to Protect are strongly aspirational. The authors of both books strive to be realistic while at the same time advocating high standards for international conduct and co-operation. They acknowledge that we live in an imperfect world where fundamental change is incremental. Evans begins and ends his book reminding us that determined and positive action on many levels will be required to shift the international focus from state sovereignty to state responsibility and realise the full meaning of a responsibility to protect. The road ahead will be hard. Success is not guaranteed. But the easiest and shortest route to failure is a defeatist attitude: ‘You don’t get to change the world simply by observing it’ (pp. xiii, 241).

Jones, Pascual and Stedman share this sentiment. They are well aware of the many obstacles in their road map to global institutional change. Co-operation on a grand scale from all nations will be required to implement most of their proposed reforms. Exceptional leadership, especially exceptional American leadership, is an essential prerequisite. The challenge is admittedly great but, presented with the historic opportunity afforded by the election of Barack Obama, ‘it is incumbent upon us to seize it before it slips away’ (p. 315).

It is far too easy to come up with excuses for inaction.

In view of the creative ideas, optimism and actual record of past achievement represented by the authors of these two books, it would be churlish to fret over what some may see as weaknesses in the overall argument. However, readers may share the authors’ collective aspiration but also emerge doubtful about the prospects of many of the proposed changes. In their references to ‘the responsibility to protect’, Jones and colleagues describe this fledgling reform as ‘a paradigmatic example of what we refer to as the adoption of “how it should be,” not “how it will be” norms’ (pp. 175, 192–195).

Any attentive reader of Power & Responsibility will notice the repeated reference to the necessity for the development of an international ‘consensus’ to achieve essential reform (pp. 94–96, 105–109, 136–138, 168). Jones and colleagues are certainly not alone in arguing that a renewal of American leadership is essential to improved global relations, but ‘cooperation on a grand scale’ is far easier to recommend than to achieve. If we had anything approaching that level of international co-operation now, then presumably many of the proposed reforms would not be necessary. Jones and his co-authors are probably correct that the United States will continue to play the key role in world governance for decades to come. However, they seem to assume that a more enlightened, generous, multilateral US foreign policy is actually possible and would somehow ‘resonate around the world’, persuading other nations, even China and Russia, to co-operate with the new American ‘vision’ for global governance (pp. xiv–xvi, 90–92, 272, 302–305).

Further, the key to that new ‘vision’ involves a sea change reversal in many aspects of American foreign policy. Revolutionary change under any US president is rare. Today it is probably impossible thanks to the opposition in Congress of a group of dead-end Republican politicians determined to obstruct all proposals for positive reform under Barack Obama. For this and other reasons, the priceless ‘window of opportunity’ that Jones, Pascual and Stedman saw when writing this book seems much less obvious today than it did when President Obama first took office a year ago.

But these caveats do indeed border on the churlish. As Gareth Evans notes, it is far too easy to come up with excuses for inaction. Fortunately, he and other pioneers of change have been motivated by what he describes as ‘a fairly unquenchable sense of optimism: a belief that even the most horrible and intractable problems are soluble; that rational solutions … do eventually prevail; and that good people … and good governance will eventually prevail over bad’ (p. 7).

Dennis Phillips teaches US foreign policy at the United States Studies Centre of The University of Sydney.