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On Power and Norms: Libya, Syria, and the Responsibility to Protect


Viewed from a normative standpoint, the Libyan and Syrian conflicts may be read as the moment of inflection in the liberal normative order pioneered and diffused by the "West," with the traditional recalcitrance of the "Rest" now becoming normatively consequential. The Libya intervention is the final flames of a liberal Western order; the Syrian conflict is the incipient signs of a post-liberal polycentric world. And yet the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) all endorsed, in different shades, the imperative of stopping the bloodshed and protecting civilians in both Libya and Syria. Furthermore, within Europe and the United States too, there has been no consensus on intervention in Syria. What thus do the stories of Libya and Syria tell us about normative evolution at the global level when it comes to key notions like civilian protection, intervention, and state sovereignty? At face value, the Libyan and Syrian crises suggest a tipping of the scales in the international system from the "West" to the "Rest." However, this paper argues that a situated and multifaceted analysis of power reveals that Western and BRICS countries alike played crucial roles in determining the overall international responses to both crises. In doing so, all major international actors involved contributed to the ongoing global normative conversation about when and how to respond to mass atrocities, with likely long-term implications for the responsibility to protect.

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