Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012



‘President Obama and I believe that despite the budget pressures, it would be a grave mistake for the US to withdraw from its global responsibilities.’

‘US leaders have understood that to claim authority over others would force their counterparts in subordinate states to deny this fact and thus undermine the legitimacy of US rule. As a result, US authority has been cloaked in euphemisms.’

The term ‘special responsibility’ is more than a euphemism for US authority or ‘soft power’. The language of responsibility and special responsibility is routinely used in the practice of international relations, often to delimit specific collective action problems and to articulate guidelines for the exercise of legitimate, accountable authority in addressing those problems. The above epigraph from former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s speech to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies was part of an exhortation to the Europeans to bear more of the burden of NATO responsibilities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. Rather than cloaking US power in euphemism, Gates seems instead to be acknowledging US special responsibility, while also asking that the burden of responsibility be shared among capable allies. In doing so he must evoke shared notions of legitimacy – not to cloak US power, but to enlist cooperation in achieving common goals.

This book has attempted systematically to analyse the practice of evoking special responsibility, explicating with theory and evidence how special responsibilities have been allocated and contested in the face of three important global problems: nuclear non-proliferation, climate change and financial regulation. We have also developed a way of reasoning through the ethical issues surrounding special responsibilities, and suggested how such ethical reasoning may be applied in the specific case studies. In this conclusion, we consider special responsibilities as a form of social power, their relationship to international orders, the global role of the US and the consequences of the diffusion of responsibility in world affairs.

Walker, W.A perpetual menace: Nuclear wespons and international orderLondonRoutledge 2011