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Recalibrating Norms: Europe, Asia and Non-Traditional Security Challenges

Date: Monday, 29 November 2010
Time: 3.00pm – 4.30pm
Venue: Conference Room 1, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, S4, Level B4.


Click play to listen to the audio recording of the seminar.

Click here for the presentation slides.

Speaker: Associate Professor Katja Weber, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology
Chairperson: Associate Professor Mely Caballero-Anthony, Head, RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies


The European Union (EU), conceptualising sovereignty in terms of ‘constitutional independence’, has made some progress in addressing non-traditional security (NTS) challenges. However, in the Asia-Pacific, the non-intervention norm has impeded multilateral, multi-level and multi-faceted efforts to deal with human security in the region.
Since states have the obligation to improve human rights, Associate Professor Katja Weber argued that there is a need for a careful recalibration of sovereignty-related norms, in particular, those of non-intervention and unanimity which can often be found in regional institutions. This can be done by empowering various actors, especially those with a less stringent understanding of non-intervention, by providing them with the necessary tools to address regional problems that threaten human security, in particular those issues with domestic roots. The attempt to calibrate these norms draws on Prof. Weber’s previous work on institution-building and the voluntary curtailment of freedom of action. Her research takes a comparative approach, focusing on the EU and the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) with reference to NTS issues.
Prof. Weber began by unpacking the different usages of ‘sovereignty’. Her current research conceptualises sovereignty as entailing constitutional independence, arguing that ‘a state is in ultimate overall control of its own affairs’ (Alan James, 1986, Sovereign Statehood: Basis of International Society,p. 30). According to this view, the state is not contained, however loosely, within a wider constitutional scheme. It was further noted that the criterion for sovereignty is solely a legal one (and not based on population size or gross domestic product). Sovereignty is absolute; it cannot be reduced in any way other than it being totally taken away. Sovereignty is also qualitative; it cannot be expressed in percentage terms. Therefore, if a state signs a treaty, it is voluntarily reducing its freedom of action, but its sovereignty is not diminished in any way.
Sovereignty is often confused with other concepts. It is not the equivalent of formal power. It is also not legal freedom as a state can curtail such freedom, for instance, by signing a treaty. Even within the EU, which has supranational aspects, its members retain their constitutional independence, although their political independence and freedom of action may be curtailed. For the most part, the preceding – formal power, legal freedom, political independence and freedom of action – are quantitative measures, whereas sovereignty is qualitative. For example, Vanuatu is the equal of the US in its status as a sovereign state, even though it may not be its equal in terms of power or influence.
The EU has been dealing with NTS challenges since the 1990s through capacity building programmes such as training for police officers, judges and development workers. For example, the EU sets not only military headline goals (in EU jargon) but also civilian headline goals for crisis management, becoming involved in areas such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Congo, Iraq, Macedonia and Sudan. In examining the EU’s approach to tackling NTS challenges, Prof. Weber commented that its position is that if constitutional independence is not threatened, there is no reason to insist on political independence and non-interference. Thus, states may voluntarily curtail their freedom of action if they find it beneficial.
Institutional structures and decision-making processes in the EU are well-documented (John McCormick, 2008, Understanding the European Union: A Concise Introduction). Although the EU’s decision-making is subject to unanimity, it manages to avoid complete impasse or deadlock by having mechanisms such as ‘constructive abstention’, which refers to the ability to opt out, and ‘structured cooperation’, which means that those who are willing and able to be involved in particular operations can do so on behalf of the entire EU (i.e., there is no need for every member to participate). It took years for the EU to reach this stage, which was achieved through incrementally modifying decision-making rules to provide options, as well as a certain degree of flexibility, to members with regard to particular missions.
Similar to the Europeans, the approach of the Asia-Pacific countries to tackling NTS challenges in the post-Cold War era has been to reassess existing security provisions to determine how to address new threats. An example in the region is the creation of the ARF by ASEAN in order to maintain regional stability, which is heavily characterised by the ‘ASEAN way’ principles of consultation, consensus, non-interference and non-use of force. The ARF document outlines a ‘three-stage evolutionary approach’ to peace and security – from confidence building, to preventive diplomacy, and finally to conflict resolution. At the moment, the ARF appears to be at stage two, that is, preventive diplomacy.
Some efforts to modify the non-interference norm in ASEAN and to put tools in place to deal with NTS challenges were highlighted. In 1997, Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim promoted the norm of ‘constructive intervention’, and in 1998, Surin Pitsuwan (current Secretary-General of ASEAN) put forward the norm of ‘flexible engagement’. However, there was resistance within ASEAN as these norms were considered too intrusive. Then, still in 1998, a new norm, ‘enhanced interaction’, was introduced. Japan has argued that as long as preventive diplomacy measures are authorised by the states involved, their use would not violate the principle of non-interference. As a lack of consensus may hinder further progress in cooperation, Prof. Weber proposed the option of ‘ASEAN Minus X’ (a coalition of the willing), an arrangement similar to the one in the EU. However, it was her belief that this option would likely be rejected by most ARF members including China.
The recent development of norms in the Asia-Pacific emphasises the fact that norms are socially constructed and can evolve over time. Some studies suggest that sovereignty has transformed from resting with God to resting with the monarch and then the people. Also, from a normative perspective, sovereignty was created ‘in the wake of decolonialisation with the explicit purpose of preserving the nation state’ (Amitav Acharya, 2009, Whose Ideas Matter?, p. 149).
Both sovereign states and human beings are rights holders under international law. States have the right to non-interference and territorial integrity, and individuals have human rights. Thus, there is a need to scrutinise the relationship between the sovereign rights of states and the human rights of individuals more closely. In theory, state sovereignty and human rights are distinct and separate. However, in practice, they are connected in that the state not only has rights but also obligations; and states may surrender their rights and engage in cooperation if they see benefits in doing so.
Furthermore, in an increasingly interdependent world, the sovereign rights of states and the human rights of individuals can come into conflict with each other. For example, sovereignty and the non-intervention principle could be used by less powerful countries to deal with more powerful countries and as a shield against external pressure. On the other hand, there exist actors that hold the belief that human rights are universal, equal and inalienable, and on the basis of protecting individuals against human rights violations, seek a balance between the rights of sovereign states and human rights.
Prof. Weber also discussed the normative divide between how human rights is perceived in Western and Asian culture. Factors that influence this normative divide include history, culture and economic development. The Western notion of human rights mainly focus on civil and political freedoms, while in the Asian context, human rights are focused on group rights and economic, social and cultural rights. The Asian approach towards human rights has been criticised as misguided and perverse; it is argued that the focus cannot only be on economic, social and cultural rights. In reality, however, there is no consensus among the more democratic nations in Asia on the concept, and they have been reluctant to accept the ‘cultural relativism’ norm proposed by Singapore.
Prof. Weber suggests a few ways to carefully recalibrate sovereignty-related norms to improve human rights:
  • States could undertake a cost-benefit analysis to determine whether to curtail the freedom of action and to what degree such freedom should be curtailed.
  • States could voluntarily delegate competence under certain circumstances as long as there are some benefits in doing so.
  • Impasse could be prevented by providing the option to opt out and allowing for a choice of paths that can be taken.
Norm change which results in regional or local actors considering human security as a global public good worth defending should be actively promoted. In the Southeast Asian region, there has been progress with respect to the Responsibility to Protect (RtoP). All Asia-Pacific countries except for North Korea have endorsed RtoP and are trying to identify ways to implement it. However, RtoP is also seen as a ‘thorny normative issue’ especially in relation to Pillar Three of the norm which could imply humanitarian intervention involving armed force. RtoP is a permissive norm rather than a law; however, policymakers and academics often cannot agree on how RtoP should be implemented. Mikulas Fabry (2010, Recognising States: International Society and the Establishment of New States since 1776) suggests that countries may offer amicable assistance but are not entitled to impose a settlement on unwilling parties to a conflict.
The proponents of humanitarian intervention suggest built-in safety mechanisms to keep the norm from being abused. Prof. Weber opined that this could be useful in making the norm palatable to decision-makers. One of these safety valves is that humanitarian intervention must be multilateral – and not unilateral – to be legitimate. Other stipulations include: humanitarian intervention must be organised with the consent of the UN and that there must be impartiality on the part of the intervening forces.
Finally, Prof. Weber suggested that in order to make further progress on RtoP in the Asia-Pacific, ‘sovereignty’ should not be used as a semantic weapon. Anything that another state is doing or proposing that might have an effect on one’s freedom of action can – assuming that one is opposed to what is involved – be attacked by arguing that it impinges on one’s sovereignty. The main points to stress should be that no one is trying to take sovereignty in terms of constitutional independence away from any state, and that states can choose to exercise the option to voluntarily curtail their freedom of action if they see benefits from doing so. The promotion of norm change and a recalibration of norms would be steps in the right direction.
Recalibrating sovereignty-related norms requires an understanding that norms merely constrain a state’s behaviour, that is, norms are not fully determinative. Thus, it is important to look at other variables affecting the policy choices of states, such as security considerations, economic interests, etc. Each state may find it difficult to specify the relationship between security and normative or social forces.
The recalibrating of sovereignty-related normative norms is not about government; rather, it is about freedom of action. Thus, the questions which need to be addressed for future NTS development in the Asia-Pacific include the following:
  • Who is best situated to influence the process of norm change and decision-making with respect to RtoP in the Asia-Pacific; and who can help recalibrate sovereignty-related normative issues at the international, regional and domestic levels?
  • Which variables are most likely to impact the recalibration process?
  • How can the various actors be empowered and equipped with tools to address the various challenges?
  • What are the normative institutional or legal frameworks which exist to respond to NTS challenges in the region?
  • How can these frameworks be modified to be more effective?
  • What are the main impediments to implementing RtoP in the Asia-Pacific?
The assertion that the motivation of any intervention be based on protecting the population of particular countries (rather than for the purpose of overthrowing a government or advancing the national interests of intervening states, etc.) was discussed. It was noted that there may potentially be some convergence between the objective of protecting human rights in foreign countries and the national interests of an intervening country. Prof. Weber acknowledged that, in practical terms, it would be difficult to discern the underlying intentions, ambitions or motivations of states involved in intervention. Her view is that it is important that a variety of actors – civilian missions, organisations with multilateral backgrounds, different countries, etc. – are involved; the majority can then serve as a check against the few with ulterior motives. It was noted that EU peacekeeping activities occur largely outside the EU. In the case of the ASEAN region, however, neighbouring countries may be involved in peacekeeping activities, and such efforts could be viewed, or misconstrued, as attempts to interfere in national affairs.
The point was raised that, in order to judge whether an intervention is legitimate, some level of universality or commonality in terms of the kinds of violations that warrant intervention would be implied. However, in practice, there are profoundly different approaches towards human rights. On this concern, Prof. Weber again emphasised the importance of multilateral as opposed to unilateral approaches.
The state’s obligations to protect are specified under international human rights law and the UN Declaration on Human Rights and other treaty texts, which protect the rights of individuals in areas such as economic well-being and freedom from political persecution. This obligation is enforceable by the UN Security Council for the most part or by the international community through sanctions. Whether these rights and obligations are enforced depends in part on what happens on the domestic front.
To meet NTS challenges, a grassroots approach would be required, with civil society and academics contributing to changing the ‘preferences’ of state actors who determine policymaking, using whatever mechanisms are available to them. In an ideal situation, an individual in a position of some power would see the merits of their arguments, stand behind their efforts and push for the issues to be pursued on the regional stage.
It would be difficult to draw a direct comparison between the EU and countries in Asia; there are obviously dissimilarities as well as similarities. Prof. Weber clarified that the purpose of comparing the EU and Asia is to transfer some of the tools that the EU is using to Asia and other regions, for instance, Asia can examine the usefulness of the EU’s more flexible decision-making structure, its approach to peacekeeping missions and capacity building, and how it uses other tools. These tools need not necessarily involve military intervention.
In the case of RtoP, the EU and the ARF differ in how they are organised. The modality of the ARF is based on consensus building, without any provision for opting out. It is more difficult to reach a consensus within the ARF as the power dynamics within the grouping favour the larger players such as China and India. It was observed that the ARF has moved from soft diplomacy, to trust-building, and then to carrot diplomacy. It has made some progress in addressing NTS issues using these approaches. However, further progress could be impeded if some countries are opposed to certain changes and do not want to go forward. Therefore, it is important to explore other approaches, such as creating a coalition of the willing.
It was suggested to Prof. Weber that it would be more apt to compare ASEAN (rather than the ARF) and the EU on issues such as voting, sovereignty and intervention, particularly since the dynamics are clearer in the ASEAN context. It was noted that, in terms of sovereignty, the EU works by pooling sovereignty. Although there is a similar movement in ASEAN, progress on that has been quite slow, perhaps due to the fact that not all ASEAN members have the same understanding of sovereignty. One advantage of using ASEAN as a point of comparison is that, while it may not be as comprehensive as the EU, it does include NTS in its agenda. Furthermore, the ARF is in fact not institutionalised; the existing institutions within the ARF have been built on bilateral cooperation. Moreover, since the ARF is only a forum and not an organisation, it might be difficult to push an idea to the wider community through the ARF.
ASEAN Plus Three could potentially be a tool for addressing NTS issues and encouraging normative change. For example, when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, ASEAN played a more effective mediating role than the international community. ASEAN Plus Three has the advantage of having fewer members than the ARF, which could be helpful in terms of reaching a consensus. It does, however, include China, which tends be one of the more hesitant players in this context.
The recalibration of norms in ASEAN requires the formulation of a strategy as it is currently not the subject of much debate in the region. Some considerations would be the context in which norms are situated, the actors and their responsibility, as well as an understanding of the drivers. The guiding objective should be to identify the norms that need to be changed in order to address NTS challenges. It remains difficult to see which actor is able to push NTS issues in the region, and thus norm recalibration could in fact develop in a rather ad hoc manner especially through the solving of transnational issues such as the haze problem which involves Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. As for recalibrating norms to deal specifically with NTS challenges, this should not be limited to humanitarian intervention or peacekeeping issues; it should also encompass practical issues that involve broad sovereignty considerations. It is observed that norms may be less of a priority for ASEAN member countries as economic growth is still the main development goal. In this respect, the ASEAN Chair can play a role in boosting regional cooperation on norms and NTS issues.

About the speaker:

Katja Weber (PhD, University of California, Los Angeles) is Associate Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. Her research interests centre around institution-building in Europe and the Asia-Pacific, varying conceptualisations of sovereignty, non-traditional security challenges and German foreign policy. She is the author of Hierarchy Amidst Anarchy: Transaction Costs and Institutional Choice (SUNY Press, 2000), co-author (with Paul Kowert) of Cultures of Order: Leadership, Language, and Social Reconstruction in Germany and Japan, (SUNY Press, 2007), and co-editor (with Michael Baun and Michael Smith) of Governing Europe's Neighborhood: Partners or Periphery? (Manchester University Press, 2007). She has also published a number of articles in the Journal of European Integration, Journal of European Public Policy, International Studies Quarterly and the Journal of Politics, Issues and Studies. In addition, Prof. Weber has received research support from the SSRC (Social Science Research Council) Berlin Programme for Advanced German and European Studies, the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation/Ford Foundation, the American Political Science Foundation, and the European Commission, among others. During the fall of 2008, she was Visiting Research Scholar at the Graduate School of Law and Politics in the University of Tokyo, and later this fall she will be a Visiting Fellow at the EU Centre in Singapore at the National University of Singapore/Nanyang Technological University.


Posted on: 29/11/2010 3:00:00 PM  |  Topic: Internal and Cross-Border Conflict

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