The notion of responsibility constitutes a major concept in the contemporary normative language of global politics. With regard to both the practical reasoning behind global governance and the empirical challenges posed by a globalized world, responsibility has become a key organizing term in academic and policy circles. Indeed, major leaders regularly lean on the concept to situate themselves or others before global threats and challenges. In short, the governance of such challenges is framed today in terms of responsibility. This language of responsibility appears chiefly in two forms. The first is moral. World leaders have, for example, repetitively spoken over the last twenty years of the moral responsibility to alleviate undue human suffering, climate change vulnerability, and global poverty. However important in its own terms, this language of moral responsibility covers over a deficit in global political agency with regard to these same challenges and crises. That is, the oft-repeated allusion to “our moral responsibility” toward the vulnerable of humankind is not so much evidence of an emerging global moral conscience (although it is also that) as it is of a lack of political will and action.
The second form is, conversely, political, but at present pitched in normative terms alone—the emerging norm of the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). Under RtoP an international majority of states is positing a norm that ties external sovereignty (independence from other states) to the fulfillment of specific conditions of internal sovereignty (respect of basic human and civil rights). These conditions concern the political responsibility of persons who assume offices of state and their decision-making structures. RtoP shifts, in this sense, the normative language of responsibility of the last two decades from a moral register to a political one—or, at least, to a normative register reinforced by the increasing robustness of international human rights law.
This article formulates an intellectual move from moral to political responsibility in world politics and outlines the conceptual contours of what political responsibility and political duty in a globalized age might look like. It does so within the ambivalent tension between these two dominant ways of talking about responsibility— one that translates a global political deficit, the other that anticipates sovereignty as responsibility. My central contention is that, in a world beset by empirical global problems and global collective inaction, we need less to speak of the moral responsibility of political agents than to develop a new language of political responsibility that has purchase on practical politics.
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