Friday, September 19, 2008

With power comes responsibility. Or does it?

“With power, it is said, comes responsibility. If we are powerless to do or bring about anything, we cannot be accountable or answerable for anything.”(Sovereignty: evolution of an idea. Robert Jackson). Jackson goes on to say that governments like Canada or other minor powers are clearly not responsible for upholding international peace but rather, it is the sole responsibility of the major powers, such as the United States, to uphold world peace. There are several issues embodied in these concepts so lets start at the beginning.
Saying that “with power comes responsibility” implies that if someone has significantly less power than someone else then they are completely free of responsibility, from preventing wrongdoing or ensuring safety. This concept is equally applicable to individuals, societies, and countries. To better understand, let us examine this theory in a different scenario. If the building you are in catches fire, and some of the other residents who are incapacitated are trapped inside, and you are powerless to stop the fire, what do you do? Are you powerless and therefore leave, hoping the firefighters are able to save the poor trapped residents? No. You do what you can to save these individuals even though you are “powerless”. Canada may not have near as many troops as the U.S., but that does not negate responsibility. Supporting other nations in an attempt to fulfill one’s responsibility would be one practical and acceptable solution. Relative levels of power should change nothing but tactics.
Another major problem of this theory is the role and responsibility given the major powers. Allotting them with the specific responsibility of maintaining world peace and security can be a very dangerous proposition. Interpretations for what constitutes world peace could be very unpleasant, akin to a powerful tyrant taking it upon himself to impose “his” version of world peace on the world. There are even more possible and questionable interpretations for maintaining “security”. Under this philosophy any country with considerable power, enough to be considered a major power, becomes obligated to meddle in other countries’ affairs, enforcing its interpretation of peace and security. Under this philosophy, it is the right of the U.S. to attack and destroy any country that does not conform to a “peaceful” manner, or who disturbs its security or control. Under this philosophy, the U.S. can manipulate and conform other countries to its will under the context of keeping global “security”. This view says that the U.S has been fully justified in every war and foreign conflict in which it has engaged. The actions taken by major powers for the “greater good” are reflected in the words of Shakespeare “We are oft to blame, and this tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage and pious actions we do sugar over the devil himself.”
In closing, one’s power or lack of power does not negate or change the nature of one’s responsibility. Having power doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want in the name of peace, and not having power does not excuse you from action.


lynn s said...

I agree that even if someone lacks power, they still have responsibilities. However, I still have doubts about the whole concept, because as everyone knows, we do not live in an ideal world. I’ll use your example of Canada vs. the United States to make my point. You said that Canada does not have nearly as much power as the United States to uphold world peace, but even so, they still have a responsibility to uphold world peace as well. You later mentioned that they can fulfill their responsibility by supporting the United States and their actions to uphold world peace. But would Canada’s support make that much of a difference since they lack power? Will their support mean anything to other countries that are disrupting world peace?

Paul Bendor-Samuel said...

Support may take a different form than merely providing troops. While they could not offer a similar number of troops they could supply the ones that other countries provide. It is important not to get stuck in the mind set of traditional tactics. For instance, if a leader like Saddam Hussain rises to power they Canadians could send a contingent to assassinate him. An assassination would not utilize more resources than a country such as Canada has available. As I just mentioned support in the form of supplying would also be a viable option. All that being said the use of troops is not out of the question, but creativity and thinking outside the box would help. I would remind you that it is not manner in which the obligation is carried out, but that the obligation is fulfilled is important. In regards to the support of other countries support being ineffective I would point out that when pooled the resources would be quite substantial. Alas it is true that we do not live in an ideal world, but looking only for imperfect solutions would be inexcusable.

leecbryant said...

I agree with your second point. Giving nations responsibility based on their amount of power is asking for trouble. The temptation to misuse or misinterpret that responsibility is too great. And because the most powerful nations have this responsibility they also have the means do the most damage with it. This idea of responsibility and power also came up in Thomas’ post, “Humanitarian Intervention,” where he proposes that the issues in Sierra Leone and Rwanda are partly due to the lack of intervention by more powerful nations that have the responsibility to help. I think these two posts illustrate the difficulty in managing such power and responsibility and the fine line between using them to help or cause serious damage (by not using them at all as in Thomas’ example).

Scarlett D'Anna said...

While I agree that countries with less power - be it military or otherwise - are not excused from action, I do not think this concept is at odds with the quote from Sovereignty. Jackson says that if a sovereign is completely powerless it holds no responsibility, not that sovereigns with considerably less power than others are exempt from action on the international front. I think what Jackson means is not that the super-powers hold all responsibility and the lesser powers hold none, but rather that power is relative and responsibility is likewise proportionate. To go along with your analogy of a burning building: the firefighters (or a powerful sovereign) are the strongest, best trained, and more able to save those trapped inside (an endangered sovereign); meanwhile, the average resident (a less powerful sovereign) has a choice to help others escape, but is not obligated to, like the firefighter.