The pluralist counter-offensive? Steele on Annan and regime change.

Jonathan Steele has an interesting piece in the Guardian placing Kofi Annan’s resignation as the UN special envoy to Syria in the context of the wider frustrations  of the BRIC countries with how western states approach these kind of issues. 

This adds another dimension to what, in my July presentation to the “Britain and the use of force workshop”, I called (using Andrew Hurrell’s term) ‘a pluralist counter-offensive’. 

My central concern in that presentation was whether the progress that has been made in consolidating “the responsibility to protect norm” is being jeopardised by the west’s pursuit of a more ambitious agenda, namely “regime change” and “democracy promotion”. 

We of course saw his tension in the debate surrounding the Libyan mandate – the claim that NATO went beyond protecting civilians to pursue regime change and the reaction that caused in states like Russia and China.  So for instance, Russia told the Security Council on 10 May 2011 that  there was ‘a humanitarian imperative’ to protect civilians, but they insisted that states must

‘avoid excessively broad interpretations of the protection of civilians, which could link it to the exacerbation of conflict, compromise the impartiality of the United Nations or create the perception that it is being used as a smokescreen for intervention or regime change’. 

China too accepted that states could ‘provide constructive assistance’ but in so doing

‘they must observe the principles of objectivity and neutrality and fully respectthe independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the country concerned. There must be no attempt at regime change or involvement in civil war by any party under the guise of protecting civilians.’

Of course, this frustration contributed to these two states teaming up to veto Security Council UN resolutions on Syria.  It is of course always possible that these kinds of normative arguments are veils policies that pursue more particular interests.  But it’s interesting that in the fallout from the Libyan interventions these kinds of arguments extended beyond  Russia and China. 

Shortly after the Libyan crisis, for instance, Brazil echoed the pluralist argument when it introduced to the Security Council its document on state responsibility while protecting, in 9 November 2011.  This included a call for enhanced Security Council procedures ‘to monitor and assess the manner in which resolutions are interpreted and implemented’, as well as to ‘ensure the accountability of those to whom authority is granted to resort to force’.  It has been supported by India, Russia and China – the BRICs.

This is some of the context to Steele’s recent article.  His take seems to suggest taking these pluralist concerns seriously.

In the west it is easy to pillory Russia for rejecting internationally imposed regime change by saying Vladimir Putin fears a “colour revolution” in Russia (even though there is no such prospect). China’s democratic credentials can be sneered at. But when the three other Brics, which hold fair, orderly, and regular elections, object to the western line on Syria, it is time to take note.  

But what taking note means in the longer term is not entirely clear.  Steele notes how the Syrian situation has been ‘hijacked’ by regional power politics.  The danger of course exists that relations between the great powers might go down that path, in which case it  would make an interesting case study in how western vanguardism potentially poses a threat to the institutions of international society as concieved by pluralist IR theorists.   

On the other hand there exists a danger that western states miss a democratic opportunity and are accused of turning their back on a democracy promotion agenda.  Indeed Steele’s sensitivity to the difficult international situation does not determine his conclusion.  He seemingly remains committed to a solidarist, pro-democracy agenda.  Taking note of the pluralist counter-offensive

does not mean the democratic aspirations of Syria’s original protesters should be abandoned, or that the Syrian government should not start to implement the Geneva principles for transition that Annan briefly persuaded the big powers to accept. 

As always, it is difficult for the liberal state committed to the idea of an international society and democracy to strike the right balance.

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About Jason Ralph

Jason Ralph, Professor of International Relations, University of Leeds
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