Coalitions of the Willing and Responsibilities to Protect: Informal Associations, Enhanced Capacities, and Shared Moral Burdens

| March 2014
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“Coalition of the willing” is a phrase that we hear invoked with frequency—and often urgency—in world politics. Significantly, it is generally accompanied by claims to moral responsibility. (Such appeals recently bolstered calls to establish a coalition of the willing to intervene in Syria.) Yet the label commonly used to connote a temporary, purpose-driven, self-selected collection of states (and sometimes nonstate and intergovernmental actors) sits uneasily alongside these assertions of moral responsibility. This unease might be attributed to its association with a particular case. For some, the label was tainted when the United States led a “coalition of the willing” into Iraq in ostensible response to the threat of weapons of mass destruction: the actual willingness of all of those states initially announced as members is as contested as the legitimacy of the 2003 offensive, the ensuing protracted conflict, and the subsequent occupation. Nevertheless, the idea—and ideal—of a coalition of the willing has persisted beyond the infamy of that one iteration. The problem is, rather, that it is unclear how to speak coherently about assigning moral responsibilities—and apportioning blame—in relation to such ad hoc associations. Can coalitions of the willing be considered bearers of duties? Alternatively, should our calls to action—and our cries of condemnation in the wake of action that is stalled, ineffective, or deemed unjust—be directed toward their constituents? Or should our attention be redirected altogether, toward more formal, enduring and, arguably, legitimate organizations?

There has been widespread support for the idea that the so-called international community has a remedial moral responsibility to protect vulnerable populations from grave human right violations when their own governments fail to do so, and that this protection may, when necessary, include military intervention. But where exactly is this responsibility located? In other words, which body, or bodies, can be expected to discharge a duty to safeguard those who lack the protection of—or, indeed, come under threat from—their own government? The question is particularly pressing when the United Nations is unwilling or unable to act and there is no one state to fill the breach—no “agent of last resort,” to invoke Michael Walzer’s phrase (along with all of the controversy and potential risks that he acknowledges reliance on such a protector entails). This article examines coalitions of the willing as one (likely provocative) answer to this question, and explores how the informal nature of such associations should inform the judgments of moral responsibility that we make in relation to them.

There has been widespread support for the idea that the so-called international community has a remedial moral responsibility to protect vulnerable populations from grave human right violations when their own governments fail to do so, and that this protection may, when necessary, include military intervention. But where exactly is this responsibility located? In other words, which body, or bodies, can be expected to discharge a duty to safeguard those who lack the protection of—or, indeed, come under threat from—their own government? The question is particularly pressing when the United Nations is unwilling or unable to act and there is no one state to fill the breach—no “agent of last resort,” to invoke Michael Walzer’s phrase (along with all of the controversy and potential risks that he acknowledges reliance on such a protector entails). This article examines coalitions of the willing as one (likely provocative) answer to this question, and explores how the informal nature of such associations should inform the judgments of moral responsibility that we make in relation to them.

To read or purchase the full text of this article, click here.

For an online-exclusive response to this article, “Are ‘Coalitions of the Willing’ Moral Agents?,” by Stephanie Collins, click here.

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Category: Article, Issue 28.1

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