WPS 2018-02: Nationalism, Human Rights, and the Prospects for Peace: An Essay on Sovereign Responsibilities

David Luban

This essay examines novel threats to peace – social and political threats as well as military and technological. It worries that familiar conceptions of state sovereignty cannot sustain a legal order capable of meeting those threats, not even if we understand sovereignty as responsibility to protect human rights. The essay tentatively proposes that recent efforts to reformulate state sovereignty as responsibility to humanity offer a better hope. Under this reformulation, states must take into account the interests of those outside their sovereign territory as well as those of their own people – in particular, the shared interest in subduing dire threats to world peace.

Responsibility to humanity – here termed ‘R2H’ for short – raises difficult practical and philosophical questions. Some may fear that R2H would become a Trojan horse for powerful interests wishing impose their will on the less powerful. The essay argues that these fears misunderstand what R2H requires. Alternatively, R2H may sound utopian, in an era of waning trust in internationalism and an upsurge of reactionary nationalism. In response, I argue that reactionary nationalism is itself a dire moral and practical mistake – a symptom of our current ills, not a cure.

WPS 2018-02 (pdf)