Faculty of Education, Social Sciences and Law

School of Politics and International Studies

Research Student: Benedict Docherty

The Sustainability of International Society: Normative Contestation and the threat posed by Liberal Vanguardism

Photo of Benedict Docherty

International Society as outlined by The English School of International Relations Theory takes the form of states believing they are bound by common interests and values and sharing in the working of common rules and institutions which are expressed as legitimate norms.

My research argues that International Society is sustained by everyday state practice in line with mutual expectations of legitimate normal behaviour. Such expectations outline who the members of the society are (193 recognised UN Member States), what their rights are (e.g. sovereign autonomy with juridical equality) and what obligations they owe to society and one another (e.g. respect for treaties and limitations on the use of force).

In particular I am considering the link between normative contestation and the sustainability of international society i.e. when states disagree on and contest what amounts to legitimate practice and attempt to introduce new norms of behaviour or amend existing ones.

The threat I will examine through documentary research of The United Nations Security Council complimented by interviews with serving diplomats is “Liberal Vanguardism”. This is a set of practices associated with liberal democratic states acting as a solidarist “international community” in response to mass atrocities and threats to international peace and security. It is argued that Liberal Vanguardism is visible in; military action unauthorised by the Security Council; coercive democratisation; neoliberal forms of state building; aggressive preventive diplomacy, and that these practices stand in contrast to existing pluralist  norms of sovereignty, non-intervention, multilateralism and The Responsibility to Protect.

The thesis is examining the international discourse around the responses to Côte d’Ivoire (2010), Libya (2011) and Syria (2011-2014), to understand how the rhetoric and practice of Liberal Vanguardism is contesting current norms so as to reshape International Society. It is also exploring the debate about how to best apply the three pillars of The Responsibility to Protect, so as to prevent, react to and rebuild after mass atrocities.

The thesis argues that the danger to International Society is not that contestation is occurring or that on occasion the rules of International Society are being broken, but that the attempts of states to advance new practices as norms irrespective of the reaction to them will provoke a “legitimacy crisis” and damage the consensus by which the society of states is sustained.

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