Constructivism explains the emergence of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

Why Constructivism?

The objective of this paper is to demonstrate why Constructivism is the most effective International Relations theory to explain the emergence of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine that subsequently became a norm in the United Nations about how to deal with threats to human security throughout the world. However, first a brief introduction to the theory of Constructivism in International Relations needs to be made.


The emergence of Social Constructivism

Until the end of the 90’s, the field of International Relations was guided by its two most prominent theories, Realism and Liberalism, and its two strands, Neorealism and Neoliberalism. However, these theories failed to foresee the breakdown of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War due to a lack of scrutiny of internal factors within the Soviet Union, such as identity and interests (Tsai, 2009: 27). Thus, new theories more critical to the old IR establishment emerged, and Constructivism soon became one of the leading schools in International Relations (Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2008: 162) for its ability to best explain this new, changing world.

Constructivism gives a great importance to ideas and how they are responsible in creating national or word identities which in turn will evolve into norms and rules. Once these norms become internationalized and institutionalized, like the Responsibility to Protect, they turn to be globally accepted to the point that they restrain what states and non-state actors do and influence their ideas of what is acceptable behavior (Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2008: 162).

The first scholar to coin the term “constructivism” was Nicholas Onuf, who first highlighted that the fundamental idea behind constructivism is that all human beings are “social beings” and that without our social relations we would not be human and that our interactions and identities ultimately allow for the social construction of our world (Onuf 1998: 59).

However, it is Alexander Wendt who became the most well-known advocate for social Constructivism in the field of International Relations.  In his article “Anarchy is What States Make of it: The Social Construction of Power Politics” (1992) published in International Organization, he states that Constructivism believes that norms, customs, culture and learning can change the behaviors and interests of a country‘s citizens. Unlike rationalism, which believes anarchy to be an effect of self-justification, Constructivism believes anarchy to be created by the state and therefore able to be influenced to change by state intervention (Wendt, 1992: 393).

Contrary to the state-centric perspectives on international affairs taken by both Realism and Liberalism, Constructivism argues that the main subject in International Relations is human beings. Moreover, Constructivism believes that behavior, interests, and relationships are socially constructed and are susceptible to change as “values and ideas can have an impact upon international relations; norms, systems, and relationships can change as an aggregation of agent-oriented processes” (Newman, 2001: 247).

Since this paper will be focusing on Constructivism with the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, it is important to demonstrate the links between Constructivism and human security and how the advent of R2P was socially constructed by an international community with a specific identity. In this case, idea of human security became, sometimes, more important than the sovereignty of the state which in turn was one of the pillars of both Realism and Liberalism.


Historical Background of the Responsibility to Protect Norm

With the end of cold war came the end of the bipolar world, where power was shared between two hegemonic nations: the United States and the Soviet Union. This event in itself is often seen as responsible for the rise in popularity of the Constructivist theory of International Relations. The emersion of this new world order could not be explained only with the more traditional theories. The old social concept of West against East faded away and this new shared idea of a united world surged, invoking a new idealism in society.

Without the opposing communist ideas, the United States became the sole hegemonic power in the world as its norms and rules were accepted as conventions worldwide. Together, with its European allies, it was believed that they would be able to intervene in any part of the world without another country or alliance to counter-balance their strength. The first new idea of the unbeatable West was constructed, defining a new international structure, which is one of the main characteristics of the Constructivism.

For the constructivists, ideas define the international structure. An international community that used to see only anarchism, or the lack of a supranational authority outside the helm of the State, could now envision a world where order could be reached and laws and regulations in the international relations could be imposed and guaranteed by this sole hegemonic power.

The first test for the hegemonic power in this new world order was the liberation of Kuwait from the hands of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. It was an overwhelming victory for America, Great Britain, France, and a few other Arabic countries from the coalition. A new idea was created: that the United States and Western countries could, in the name of the United Nations, become the world police and thus challenging the anarchic structure of the international world.

However, in 1992 came the United Nations Operation in Somalia I (UNOSOM I), aimed to provide humanitarian relief to the Somali population who were suffering under a devastating civil war. At the end of the same year, the United States offered to establish an international force under its leadership to help the distribution of food and aid. However in 1993, a battle on the streets of Mogadishu, famously known as “Blackhawk Down,” brought to the American homes the remembrance of the Vietnam War where American soldiers were also dying in faraway lands without clear purpose. The images of dead American soldiers being dragged on the street changed the perception of the American public and another new view of the world was created. Namely, that the United States should not intervene in any conflict it does not understand and which it does not have any direct interest. Due to the hegemonic nature of the United States during this period, the same principal of nonintervention was closely followed by the European countries.

It was not a long time after the events in Somalia that this new dogma was put to test. The genocide of 800, 000 Tutsis by Hutu extremists in Rwanda and the horrors of the Balkan wars, specifically the massacre of Srebrenica, horrified the world. In both cases, there were UN troops on the ground but due to the lack of personal and proper rules of engagement, the killing of thousands of innocent civilians could not be avoided.

The old assumption that the State’s sovereignty was inviolable was put in question. How to avoid a new Rwanda if the international community cannot properly intervene inside a country when crimes against humanity are being perpetrated? The answer was the rise of a new UN doctrine, Responsibility to Protect (R2P) which eventually became a norm for dealing with conflicts where the State could not guarantee the safety of its own population or was, in itself, responsible for such human rights violations. In one of the descriptions of the R2P given during a UN session it is stated that there is a collective international responsibility “exercisable by the Security Council authorizing military intervention as a last resort, in the event of genocide and other large-scale killing, ethnic cleansing and serious violations of humanitarian law which sovereign governments have proved powerless or unwilling to prevent” (Session, 2004).

One of the biggest advocates for the implementation of the R2P was Kofi Annan, the then secretary general of the United Nations once stated: “If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violation of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?” (2000: 48)

Therefore, since Constructivism places human beings as the main subject of international security, the state-centric approach of the two former traditions, Realism and Liberalism, is too simplistic and fails to take into account the multiplicity of actors involved in the institutionalization, promotion, and maintenance of the current human rights regime. Scholars of this tradition thus theorize that the greater the involvement of civil society in lobbying for R2P implementation, the greater the chance of achieving its implementation (Carlsen, 2012: 4).

As Mary Kaldor, an IR scholar from Britain writes, “the changing international norms concerning humanitarian intervention can be considered an expression of an emerging global civil society. The changing norms reflect a growing global consensus about the equality of human beings and the responsibilities to prevent suffering wherever it takes places” (2001: 110).

Hence, the institutionalization of the R2P doctrine was constructed first inside the civil society, especially in the United States who, as the hegemonic power, had the responsibility to avoid a new Rwanda or Srebrenica and had the power to spread a new idea worldwide based on its hegemony. From a Constructivist perspective, it is argued that an individual must note the influence of the United States identity in forming foreign policy decisions (Schmidt 2012: 13).

With this new identity, where morals and human security were more important than the sanctity of the State’s sovereignty, civil society first pressured its state leaders who, in turn felt compelled to create international rules and norms to preserve human security. By employing “moral leverage,” civil society actors can push state actors to change their practices by “holding their behavior up to international scrutiny, or by holding governments or institutions accountable to previous commitments and principles they have endorsed” (Keck and Sikkink, 1998: 201).

Therefore, the formulation of the R2P shows the continually changing structural characteristics observed by social Constructivism that has a more human-centric focus, which is surprising as an international norm since up to its inception, international affairs were inexorably State (sovereignty) focused.


One of the main elements of Marxism is the materialist notion of history (Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2008: 145). Marxism has its focus on economic and material aspects. According to Marx, economic development is effectively the motor of history. Hence, any attitude from the bourgeoisie (the capitalist), which is the one who has the power at the superstructure, would only be taken in order to have some kind of financial gain through class conflict and exploitation of the proletariat (workers). For Marx, any norms or rule would only reinforce the pattern of power and control in the economy (Baylis, Smith and Owens, 2008: 145).


Why Marxism cannot explain the emergence of the Responsibility to Protect

For Marxists, the accumulation of capital is the driving force for any action of the State who is nothing more than an actor run by the elite or bourgeoisie at the expense of the proletariat (workers). However, if this is the case, what does a state have to gain in intervening in a country without to compensate for the material and human cost of such involvement? In fact, quite a few of the UN operations throughout the world were in countries that had something to offer to the Western world such as Cocoa in the Ivory Coast, minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or oil in Libya. However, some of the UN missions who were authorized under the concept of R2P were in countries that did not have much to offer or the operation of which would not pay for the UN’s involvement such as Mali, Central Africa Republic, East Timor and Darfur. In these cases, with the Marxist focus on capital gains, the Marxist theory does not explain and would not authorize these particular interventions. Even before the beginning of R2P, under humanitarian intervention doctrines which swayed the formulation of the R2P, the decision of US to intervene in Somalia in 1992 and regardless of the absence of any economic or geopolitical benefit to be gained, showed that moral values do matter in state decisions (Finnermore 1996: 143).

The examples mentioned above put in check the Marxism assumption that states or the elite would not act for other reasons if not the accumulation of capital and power. The fact that states and the United Nations did intervene in countries where they did not have perceived gains proves that their interests were shaped by values that had been socially constructed and accepted in the world, such as the assurance of human security when the state cannot guarantee the same.



Post-colonialism is a critical approach to International Relations. It is not a complete International Relations theory in itself but more a lens through which world politics can be viewed. It condemns the Western centered origin of theories to understand the world and attempts to promote a more bottom-up method. According to post-colonialists, mainstream theories do not take into effect the different realities of the world when analyzing it, only maintaining the same system of power that was once established during the colonial eras. During these eras, the discourse, culture and costumes were created in the Western world (colonizers) and then imposed in the rest of the world (colonized). To this day, even with the end of colonial empires, the same political control exists, not in a physical way but through culture, economic and military power.


Why Post-colonialism cannot explain the emergence of the Responsibility to Protect

One can state that the application of the Responsibility to Protect is nothing more than an institutionalized form of political control of the West countries over its ex-colonies and thus the R2P would be a mere continuity of the old colonial system. Moreover, challengers of R2P argue that the doctrine is only serving the interests of the powerful as it allows them greater freedom to intervene in the affairs of weaker states (Bellamy 2006: 146).

This could be true if it was implicit in the R2P that only Western or old colonizer countries would have the power to intervene and that only developing countries or ex-colonies had the obligation to guarantee human security inside its borders or risk international intervention. However, since the Balkan wars were one of the events that influenced the creation of the R2P and it was a region that did not belong to any of the ex-colonial powers, it is implied in R2P that it does not matter if the State belongs to the core of periphery of the world, its sovereignty has to guarantee human security inside its borders in order to comply with international law.

Furthermore, in many countries where the R2P was used as the justification for a UN mission, a great number of the troops come from developing countries, like African Union soldiers in Somalia, Darfur or Central Africa Republic. In some cases, even the leading country in the mission is a former colony, as in the case of Brazil who leads the United Nations mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). Therefore, even if post colonialists try to create a parallel between the R2P and a continuity of the power tolls from the West over developing countries, it cannot fully explain the justification of UN interventions and some of its characteristics.



Events that leave profound marks on the world, like the genocides in Rwanda and the atrocities in Bosnia, largely affect the identity of the international civil society as these events pressed and will continue to press for the construction of norms and rules to better ensure human security throughout the world. This shifting of ideas and perceptions has changed the way the international community distinguishes sovereignty from the right of a State over its territory and the population within it to the obligation of the state in guaranteeing human security inside its borders. In order to assure that countries will comply with such principal, the Responsibility to Protect was institutionalized and now is part of a doctrine followed by the UN and most of its more influential members. The emergence of such norm can better be explained through a Constructivist lens where ideas matter, the identity of the international community can change and influence the social construction of a new international relations structure, and state sovereignty can be violable if human security is being compromised.

It was also demonstrated that neither Marxism and its focus on economic and material aspects, nor Post-Colonialism and its belief that the Western-originated norms are a mere continuity of political control over developing countries, can better explain the advent of the Responsibility to Protect as the main doctrine to guide future decisions on international interventions by the world community.



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