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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - Special responsibilities in world politics


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).

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