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T.V. Paul notes in Chapter 1 that constructivist IR scholarship has not developed a theory of power transitions. Despite the fact that once such a statement gets put into print, someone is bound to come forward and contest it, the claim is plausible enough if one views constructivism not so much as a theory of international politics, but rather as a set of ontological and epistemological commitments respecting the role of ideas in constituting social and political life, including (but not limited to) international politics. Beyond the assertion that ideas are central to making a society what it is, there are many different forms of constructivism. At the most general level, a constructivist perspective brings at least three things to the table in analyzing the problem of peaceful accommodation: (1) a delineation of the ideational contours of the society or order into which emerging powers should be accommodated; (2) a more refined understanding of the identities of those involved, especially considering the question of who is doing the accommodating, and who is to be accommodated; and (3) some specification of the role of ideas in the process of accommodation. This chapter deploys a constructivist orientation in reviewing and assessing approaches grounded primarily in the liberal and realist traditions, but including also the international society school, security communities literature, and the “practice turn” in IR, with the aim of fleshing out these three dimensions of the problem of accommodation. My analysis leads me to conclude that ultimately, accommodation is a moral responsibility falling both on the dominant and the aspiring powers. With so much at stake, both hegemon and aspirant must draw on some common stock of ideas in order to intentionally develop meaningful practices of accommodation; institutions alone will not “solve” the problem of accommodation.
Although, because of their focus on the role of ideas, constructivists tend to emphasize that international order is malleable in principle because it is a social construct, they are unified neither in how they conceptualize the current international order, nor in regarding the actual malleability of international society at any given time, nor about the process by which international orders are transformed.
Some members of this team of authors have occasionally collaborated together over
the years and decades. Collectively, we all came together for the first time in
2004, as part of a larger group working on a project on ‘Resolving
International Crises of Legitimacy’, funded by the British Academy. That
project was born of our shared interest in issues of international legitimacy,
and how this interacted with ‘power’ in world politics. The
specific legacy of that undertaking was a special issue of the journal
International Politics, 44 (2/3) 2007. The broader
legacy was the immense intellectual stimulus of working together as a group, and
when the opportunity arose to resume this collaboration, it was immediately
seized. This opportunity was created in 2007 by a funding award from the UK
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) that included a collaborative
dimension, and we all gratefully acknowledge this generous support. Given that
throughout we have been variously based in Australia, Canada, Italy, the UK and
the US, the award enabled periodic workshops that brought us together, and
without which this book would not have been possible.
The award covered a generic project on the social bases of American power. In
part, this represented a carry-over from the previous study: if an institution
were to suffer a ‘crisis’ of legitimacy, how might this be
resolved? What role should the United States specifically play in bringing about
this resolution? These questions appeared to become even more pertinent with the
election of the Barack Obama administration. Our initial intention was to
approach this under the rubric of ‘hegemony’, as this was already
the principal element of the cognate research being undertaken by Ian Clark as
part of his individual role in the overall ESRC project. However, in the course
of our meetings, it gradually became clear that what was routinely expected of
hegemons was that they would bear special responsibilities for contributing to
the solution of global problems. Slowly, the main focus on hegemony diminished
and was replaced by that on special responsibilities. We wanted to emphasise
that our theory of special responsibilities was one specific way of elaborating
our general approach to the social constitution of power. This also justified
the focus on the US as it offered a useful framework for disaggregating US power
‘The grading of powers is a matter of theory’, Martin Wight once remarked, whereas the ‘managerial function of the great powers is a matter of practice’. Special responsibilities erode this distinction: they are about the grading of powers, as well as their managerial functions. Accordingly, this chapter traces how special responsibilities came to be developed in both theory and practice. At its heart is to be found the complex interplay between the category deemed to be special, and the nature of the responsibility that is as a result attached to it. Special responsibilities first arose within a traditional and European-centred states system. In that context, it was the seemingly fixed category of the special that attracted attention; subsequently, a more reflexive understanding of responsibility has led to a more fluid understanding of those who are to be considered special, and for what specific purpose. This fluidity has tracked the more complex global system that has evolved in the meantime.
This chapter clearly demonstrates that there was a practice of special responsibilities long before there developed any coherent ‘theory’ to account for it. When a theory began to emerge, it was one that largely emphasised a responsibility attaching to a pre-existing group of states, namely the great powers. That the explanation and justification took this particular form, rather than something else, meant there were a number of significant consequences. Any attempt to make sense of special responsibilities must therefore begin with a brief history of its practice, and how this subsequently came to be engaged in the International Relations (IR) theory literature.
Our first case of nuclear weapons represents one that is predominantly state-centric, and is centred on core issues of international security. If there is one domain that approximates the Waltzian view of great powers taking on special responsibilities, this should be it: material capability and role converge to the point where there is no space left for any social idea of responsibility at all. In fact, as we will show, the nuclear domain has not simply followed this Waltzian dictum.
This chapter examines the nature and functioning of special responsibilities in relation to the development and possession of nuclear weapons, and it centres on an examination of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The reason for focusing on the NPT is that it established a legal categorisation between those that were recognised as nuclear weapon states (NWSs) and those non-nuclear weapon states (NNWSs) that consented, whilst parties to the treaty, to give up the right to acquire nuclear weapons. For our purposes, it is crucial that this categorisation became the focus of expectations (which pre-dated the treaty) regarding the special responsibilities of the nuclear and non-nuclear powers. We show how these special responsibilities have mediated between the principle of sovereign equality, on the one hand, and the stubborn fact of material inequality, on the other. Moreover, and contrary to the Waltzian argument, the chapter demonstrates how these special responsibilities constitute the possibilities of legitimate political action within this domain, supporting our cardinal claim in the book that special responsibilities cannot just be unilaterally asserted by powerful states, but have to be recognised as such by those to whom they are addressed.
The previous chapters have worked through the history and theory of special
responsibilities and provided an empirical analysis in three different
domains of global governance. It now remains to explore the ethics of
special responsibilities. We offer an initial, and tentative, account that
we consider both ethically compelling, and also largely consistent with the
preceding sociological history. Here our primary task is to elucidate and
defend the ethical basis for the assignment of special responsibilities to
particular states or other actors. What claims to special responsibilities
are justified? Given that one of our core sociological arguments has been
that special responsibilities are domain specific, then we might expect that
the ethical justification for the allocation of special responsibilities
would be similarly so. We certainly show this to be the case when we explore
the specific content and application of ethical principles in the domains of
nuclear weapons, climate change and global finance. It nonetheless remains
an open, and interesting, question whether there are some core or common
principles, a recognisable family of arguments, or at least a common moral
grammar that would apply to all the cases.
There are two possible methodological routes to exploring this possibility.
The first is to develop specific ethical arguments for each of our three
case studies, and then see if there are sufficient commonalities to allow
development of universal ethical claims. The second is to begin by
developing general ethical arguments for the allocation of special
responsibilities in world politics, and then applying them to each of the
case studies. Both routes would enable an exploration of the extent to which
our ethical arguments formed part of the actual allocation, or subsequent
contestation, of special responsibilities in the three cases. We opt for the
second route because it is more interesting and challenging, and likely to
be of broader interest to normative International Relations (IR)
During his visit to China in November 2009, US President Barack Obama gave a joint press conference along with China’s President Hu Jintao. In his statement, Obama identified three major global problems: nuclear proliferation, climate change and economic recovery from the global financial crisis. Their common feature, he insisted, was that none could be solved by either state acting alone. He therefore welcomed China’s greater role, ‘a role in which a growing economy is joined by growing responsibilities’. This emphasised the seeming proportionality between the material resources enjoyed by a state, and the scale of responsibilities it was required to shoulder. It explicitly brought together one view of international politics, as rooted in material resources, with an importantly different view, as rooted in social responsibilities.
There are four interesting dimensions to this statement. First it specified those key global problems in particular. Second it attempted to address them by an explicit appeal to responsibility. Third it assumed that increased responsibilities flow from greater material resources. Fourth it attempted to (re)allocate these responsibilities to reflect those new material distributions.
As we saw in the preceding chapter, the practice of claiming, ascribing and distributing special responsibilities has been a prominent and persistent feature of world politics for at least the last two centuries. Furthermore, International Relations (IR) scholars of diverse theoretical persuasions talk as though such responsibilities do exist, and fall disproportionately on the shoulders of some states. Yet we struggle to find within IR much in the way of sustained theoretical reflection on the nature, function and significance of special responsibilities in world politics. The nature of responsibility itself has gone largely unexplored, as have the particular characteristics of ‘special’ responsibilities. Very little has been written on the relationship between the definition and distribution of responsibilities and the constitution of international social orders, and discussions of the relationship between responsibilities and political power seldom amount to more than an equation of great capability with great responsibility. More specifically, as the previous chapter explained, the existing literature on special responsibilities in world politics suffers from five principal weaknesses: (1) a conceptual shallowness, apparent in a general failure to probe the nature of responsibility in general and special responsibilities in particular; (2) an unnecessarily narrow conception of agency, in which special responsibilities are the preserve of great powers, but it is consistently denied that a single superpower could have or uphold them; (3) the restriction of special responsibilities to the maintenance of international order, narrowly defined; (4) a monolithic conception of the international system, in which there is one, central distribution of special responsibilities spanning the full range of diverse social domains (security, economic and environmental); and (5) a failure to grapple with the complex ethical issues raised by practices of special responsibilities (addressed in Chapter 6).
The financial crisis of 2007–9 severely shook global confidence in the regulatory approach and capacities of the United States. Is the country which, since the end of the Second World War has been the presumed lynchpin of the global financial order, still capable of exercising special responsibilities in the domain of global finance? Has the US been consistent in exercising special financial responsibilities, or has its faith in the ability of market forces to be self-regulating undermined the exercise of special responsibilities? Since special responsibilities are ‘socially sanctioned’ powers, the answers to these questions depend not only on our assessment of US material power, interests and will to lead, but also on how US authority is viewed by other important actors in the domain of global finance.
In keeping with the overall orientation of this volume, our primary focus in this chapter is on how special responsibilities have been articulated by states and in international institutions. However, we cannot neglect the responsibilities of market players in global finance, especially now that many have grown so large, and the amount of capital they command is so voluminous. The interplay between private firm and market responsibilities on the one hand and political responsibilities on the other, is thus an important theme explored in this chapter. In the political realm, we highlight and analyse the tension between formal articulations of responsibility embedded in institutions such as those negotiated at Bretton Woods, and more informal tacit arrangements which have at times replaced and supplemented the formal agreements. We find a pervasive tension between the institutionalised expression of general responsibilities of all states on the one hand, and informal or tacit articulations and claims of special responsibilities of specific states on the other. This tension can at least partly be understood as an aspect of the gap between formal equality and actual differentiation of capability so often faced in international society, as laid out in the introductory chapter of this volume. The broader normative context of sovereign equality, and concerns of narrow national self-interest, condition and in some cases limit the articulation of special responsibilities, rendering certain forms of special responsibility more tacit than explicit, and others the source of contention and conflict. And yet, the influence of claims of special responsibilities is discernible in shaping developments that cannot be adequately accounted for in terms of material power politics.
‘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.
Environmental problems arrived relatively late on the agenda of international
relations but they are now persistent and ubiquitous, having crept up, as it
were, on a rapidly modernising world as the unintended and in many cases
unforeseen side-effects of otherwise acceptable practices. These special
features of environmental problems make the allocation of responsibility
especially difficult and troublesome, and explain why they are often
characterised as ‘wicked problems’. In this chapter, we focus
on the wickedest of them all – the problem of human-induced climate
change – which is destined to remain a permanent item on the
international agenda for the foreseeable future.
The debate over who should take responsibility for climate change has become
more urgent as the successive reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC) have become more confident about the seriousness of
the problem and the window of opportunity for preventative action
diminishes. The development of a low carbon global economy requires a
massive transformation of social purpose and social practices at multiple
levels of social aggregation. Few would deny that everyone should
‘play a role’ and share in the general responsibility to
address such a major collective action challenge. Yet it does not follow
that everyone should play the same role or take on the same responsibility,
given the vast differences among individuals, households, communities,
firms, organisations and states in terms of their historical contribution to
the problem, capacities to respond and adapt, levels of income, development
needs and vulnerability. The problem of climate change is especially
pernicious from an ethical point of view because the impacts cannot be
geographically quarantined to ensure that the big greenhouse gas emitters
suffer impacts in proportion to their causal responsibility, or that the
least culpable and most vulnerable are protected. Indeed, in many (though
not all) cases, there is an inverse relationship between causal
responsibility and capacity to respond, on the one hand, and vulnerability
and under-development, on the other. These features suggest that the
collective task of preventing dangerous climate change can be more fairly
and effectively fulfilled by differentiating social roles and
responsibilities among different social agents. Our task in this chapter is
to examine how states have negotiated different roles and responsibilities
to address climate change, with a particular emphasis on the roles and
responsibilities of the US.