Responsibility to Protect, Responsibility to Whom?

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, painting by François Dubois

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, painting by François Dubois

In the natural sciences it is customary for theories and concepts to be tested and retested, falsifiability being one of the touchstones of academic rigour. In the social sciences, by contrast, it is common for ideas to simplify and ossify, with acceptance and repetition degrading them into clichés. So it is with a term like “sovereignty”, which is so loaded with significance that a precise and agreed definition in politics or law has long been dismissed as unlikely. In the absence of such a definition, its use in at least some fields of international relations has been reductionist — exemplified by the “billiard ball” model of states that are thought to interact with one another as billiard balls do on a table. Shiny and smooth, the surface of these billiard balls is all that matters to international society, ignorant of and irrelevant to what happens inside. Sovereignty in this conception is antithetical to the idea of responsibility to anyone but the sovereign. “L’état,” as Louis XIV may or may not have said, “c’est moi.”

Wielding not a cue but a hammer, Luke Glanville successfully demolishes this caricature in an impressive historical survey of sovereignty, building on a doctoral thesis supervised by Alex Bellamy and Richard Devetak. His argument, which extends back to the emergence of sovereignty in early modern Europe, is that sovereignty has always entailed aspects of responsibility as well as authority.

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This is a draft review of Sovereignty & the Responsibility to Protect: A New History by Luke Glanville (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2014). The full version is available on SSRN here.