Special Responsibilities: Global Problems and American Power by Mlada Bukovansky, Ian Clark, Robyn Eckersley, Richard Price, Christian Reus-Smit, and Nicholas Wheeler

| January 2014
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9781107021358_p0_v1_s260x420Special Responsibilities: Global Problems and American Power, Mlada Bukovansky, Ian Clark, Robyn Eckersley, Richard Price, Christian Reus-Smit, and Nicholas Wheeler (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 290 pp., $29.99 paper.

Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright famously described the United States as the “indispensable nation,” entitled to lead because it “sees further than others do.” She was one of the many government officials who believed their country had “special responsibilities,” and was therefore different in some way from other states. Such claims are sometimes made to rally domestic support for some costly international action; at other times they are used to exempt a great power from norms or constraints that weaker states are expected to follow.

In Special Responsibilities: Global Problems and American Power, a distinguished group of six co-authors looks at the tensions, complexities, and competing ethical claims that surround this familiar concept. On the one hand, international order rests partly on the idea of “sovereign equality”: all legitimate governments supposedly possess certain rights, privileges, and obligations irrespective of their relative power. But on the other hand, the strongest states have a greater capacity to act, and usually enjoy a certain special status. Indeed, other states often welcome their efforts to manage problems confronting the broader global community. Given this tension, a careful scholarly examination of the special responsibilities that some states are said to possess was long overdue.

Not surprisingly, recent discussions of “special responsibilities” have focused primarily on the role of the United States, particularly during the “unipolar moment” that followed the end of the cold war. Accordingly, this book seeks to use the concept of special responsibilities to “shed an original light on the social nature of American power and how it comes to be variably instantiated in attempts to address key global problems” (p. 22). The authors pursue this goal in three main ways. They begin by exploring how leaders, scholars, and competing theoretical approaches have understood the special role(s) that great powers play. After describing how great powers have long seen themselves as responsible for managing global problems (a phenomenon dating at least as far back as the Concert of Europe), they argue that purely power-based accounts cannot fully explain either why certain states take on special responsibilities or why others states accept them in that role.

They acknowledge that capabilities are a key part of the story, but they maintain that this feature does not tell us how social power is constituted in specific policy domains. Instead, the authors see America’s willingness to exercise certain special responsibilities, and the acceptance of that role by others, as a critical step that translates raw capabilities into meaningful social power. Thus, the book “seeks to demonstrate how that power is contingent upon its international social acceptance, and how it varies from one issue area to another” (p. 12).

The second part of the book explores these ideas through well-crafted case studies of three global issue areas: the nonproliferation regime, climate change, and global finance. The nonproliferation case illustrates how America’s special responsibilities can be formally codified—that is, how the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) confers different obligations on nuclear and nonnuclear weapons states—but it also illustrates how these obligations can be contested and altered over time.

The case of climate change is more complicated. Although greenhouse gas emissions by developed countries such as the United States created most of the problem, it cannot be solved unless rising industrial powers (for example, China and India) also take costly mitigating actions. The result is an even more highly contested arena in which agreement on guiding principles (such as “common but differentiated responsibilities”) has been fragile and in which domestic politics at home and abroad have crippled efforts to achieve a meaningful global agreement.

The realm of global finance turns out to be more complicated still. Whereas the United States was once the linchpin of the Bretton Woods system, its special responsibility in this realm has been diluted in part by a lessening of its economic clout, but also by greater global reliance on market mechanisms, private financial firms, and informal networks. Indeed, in this case it is no longer clear if any single actor is genuinely “responsible” for global financial management.

Finally, the authors emphasize that the concept of special responsibility is laden with normative content. As they put it, “the justifiable assignment of special responsibilities is not a straightforward function of capabilities alone . . . [they also] represent a unique fusion of both functional and ethical arguments” (p. 124). Adopting an explicitly cosmopolitan perspective, they argue that “special responsibilities ought to be assigned to those states and nonstate actors with the relevant capabilities to make the biggest difference to alleviating the plight of those who are most vulnerable to particular global or transboundary risks, and who are therefore entirely or largely dependent on action or inaction by the capable agents” (p. 222). In the case of climate change, for instance, this ethical stance implies that the United States is morally obliged to help mitigate climate change because (1) its large emissions helped create the problem, (2) it has the economic and technical capacity to act, and (3) it can do so without impoverishing its own people.

On the whole, the book does a good job of highlighting the contested nature of this concept and showing the different forms that America’s “special responsibilities” take in different policy domains. The case studies are illuminating and the authors have done their best to present a complicated set of arguments in an accessible way. Even so, the reader has to wade through a fair bit of jargon and reread key passages several times in order to figure out exactly what is being said. Verbs like “condition,” “structure,” or “instantiate” crop up with some frequency, making it occasionally difficult to figure out what is supposedly causing what.

In short, this is a serious work of scholarship, and the combination of theoretical, empirical, and normative sophistication is impressive. Students and scholars interested in how raw power is (or is not) translated into effective global management will find much of value in its pages. Yet there are also three important limitations to this study, each worth noting briefly.

First, the case studies offer more support for a realist view than the authors acknowledge. In the case of nonproliferation, for example, it is not clear whether the United States and Russia agreed to reduce their vast nuclear arsenals because they had accepted a “special responsibility” to do so within the context of the NPT or simply because it was a way to save some money and stabilize U.S.-Russian relations. (Here it is worth noting that both states continue to spend money modernizing their arsenals, suggesting that genuine disarmament remains a distant goal at best.) Similarly, failure to make significant progress on the problem of climate change suggests that short term self-interest continues to trump any broader sense of special responsibility—an outcome that would not surprise most realists. Moreover, while the authors correctly observe that capabilities are not the only thing that confers special responsibility on states, the case studies also reveal that material capabilities remain the single most important factor that determines whether a state can even contemplate taking on some special role.

Second, while the authors make a powerful normative case for a cosmopolitan conception of global responsibility, this is not the way the world actually works. Perhaps highly capable states ought to take on responsibilities commensurate with their ability to help the most vulnerable, but few, if any, great powers behave this way. Great power is normally exercised for selfish rather than philanthropic reasons. Even now, leaders are more often rewarded for advancing the security and well-being of their own citizens, not for advancing cosmopolitan ends or fulfilling broader moral desiderata.

Lastly, although the book is well-grounded theoretically, it does not advance a theory of its own. There are no hypotheses or “if–then” statements found in this book, and relatively few clear causal statements. As a result, it does not identify the conditions or the concrete policy steps that could lead to more effective management in the policy domains it examines. Peering through the lens of “special responsibility” helps bring some of the obstacles into greater relief, but we are still left with the fundamental challenge of facilitating collective action in a world lacking legitimate central authority.

Cooperation in such circumstances is most likely when the most powerful actors recognize that providing the requisite collective good is in their own narrow self-interest. That is the real, but underemphasized, lesson of this otherwise useful book.


Stephen M. Walt is Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Affairs at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His daily weblog is walt.foreignpolicy.com.

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Category: Book Review, Issue 27.4

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