Is Sovereignty Passé?

At the Brookings Institution this morning, Steven Kull, editor of released the results of a new global public opinion survey on the responsibility to protect. The results are pretty striking. According to the data, there is an emerging international norm that approves United Nations intervention in the affairs of a member state if that country is failing to protect its own population from widespread human rights abuses.

Back in 2005, heads of state signed on to the principal of the responsibility to protect. This survey shows that the idea has now been endorsed by the public–in very large numbers.

So what does this mean? For one, the data would suggest that the idea that sovereignty is the preeminent principal of international relations does not hold when it comes to genocide and large scale human rights abuses. This includes the publics of countries like China that have historically been among the staunchest defenders of the primacy of state sovereignty.

The survey also asked respondents from 10 countries about international intervention in Darfur. According to the report, “In all countries the most common response is that the Security Council has at least the right to authorize intervention in Darfur and many says it has the responsibility to act.” In many member states, this translates into a willingness to send troops to Darfur. 84% of the French public supports contributing French troops to an international peacekeeping force for Darfur. Remarkably, despite the experience of Iraq, 65% of the American public would support contributing American troops to an international peacekeeping force in Darfur.

Old assumptions that publics will only support military action when it is in their national interest, narrowly defined, seem to no longer hold. As Gayle Smith said in the discussion following Kull’s presentation, the idea of the responsibility to protect transcends national policies.