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Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect

A New History

In 2011, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1973, authorizing its member states to take measures to protect Libyan civilians from Muammar Gadhafi’s forces. In invoking the “responsibility to protect,” the resolution draws on the principle that sovereign states are responsible and accountable to the international community for the protection of their populations and that the international community can act to protect populations when national authorities fail to do so. The idea that sovereignty includes the responsibility to protect is often seen as a departure from the classic definition, but it actually has deep historical roots.
In Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect, Luke Glanville argues that this responsibility extends back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and that states have since been accountable for this responsibility to God, the people, and the international community. Over time, the right to national self-governance came to take priority over the protection of individual liberties, but the noninterventionist understanding of sovereignty was only firmly established in the twentieth century, and it remained for only a few decades before it was challenged by renewed claims that sovereigns are responsible for protection.
Glanville traces the relationship between sovereignty and responsibility from the early modern period to the present day, and offers a new history with profound implications for the present.


“Luke Glanville provides a powerful corrective to the literature that sees sovereignty—and particularly the right of nonintervention—as a static norm in international politics, showing that there has always been an inherent tension between rights and responsibilities and that the ‘traditional’ meaning of sovereignty became predominant only at the end of World War II. Well-written and deeply rooted in the relevant literature, Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect makes a valuable contribution to scholarship in international relations.”

Stacie Goddard, Wellesley College

"In international relations, sovereignty has often been associated with the rule of noninterference. In practice, it has been used as a veil behind which abusive governments hide. In this brilliant new book, Luke Glanville explodes the myth that sovereignty grants states carte blanche to govern however they please. In meticulous detail, Glanville shows that the theory and practice of sovereignty has always entailed responsibilities as well as rights. Sovereignty and the Responsibility to Protect forces us all to rethink how we understand, practice, and teach others about sovereignty. As such, it marks an  important contribution to the field that should be read by newcomers and old hands alike."

Alex Bellamy, Griffith University, Australia

“Luke Glanville challenges international relations scholars to rethink conventional and sometimes simplistic accounts of sovereignty, and to subject this important baseline of global politics to deeper historical inquiry. His engaging account demonstrates that responsibilities have almost always been at the heart of both the justification for sovereign authority and broader understandings of its meaning and content. This book is essential reading for all those interested in sovereignty’s status and trajectory in international society and in contemporary efforts to implement the principle of the ‘responsibility to protect.’”

Jennifer Welsh, University of Oxford, special adviser to the UN Secretary General on the responsibility to protect

“Glanville shows that the idea that sovereign states should enjoy the absolute right of autonomous self-government and nonintervention was not present at the creation of the Westphalian system in the seventeenth century. He chronicles how, as absolutist rule gave way to liberal democracy and the nation-state spread to regions outside the West, profound shifts took place in the concept of sovereignty; only in the twentieth century did the idea of unconditional rights to self-government and nonintervention solidify, mostly owing to the efforts of non-European peoples who had suffered at the hands of Western colonialism.”

Foreign Affairs

“Glanville offers a brisk, well-written history of sovereignty. . . . [His] reading of the history corrects the mythical view of sovereignty after the Peace of Westphalia. He fills in the gaps between 1648 and the present, showing how rights to intervene were common. He challenges both critics and advocates of R2P to view their discussions in this larger historical context. This is one of the best and most important books in international relations in years. Both practitioners and theorists will benefit from the lucid and levelheaded analysis. . . . Highly recommended.”


“The conventional narrative of sovereignty used to be that it was established at or around the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and that for many centuries, its meaning remained the same. . . . The idea of the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) was therefore seen as a radical departure from the traditional interpretation of sovereignty, making it conditional on a government’s capacity and willingness to protect its own population.. . . Glanville’s book makes an important contribution, shedding light on a historical perspective that is often overlooked in the day-to-day debates about the R2P.”

Cooperation and Conflict

"This book offers an insightful and compelling corrective to the dominant discourse on sovereignty in international relations literature and much food for thought for R2P critics and advocates alike."

Australian Outlook, Australian Institute of International Affairs

Table of Contents

1. The Social Construction of Sovereign Responsibilities
2. Sovereignty in Early Modern Europe
3. The Rise of Popular Sovereignty 
4. Sovereignty and the Non-European World
5. Sovereignty after the Second World War
6. The Rise of the Responsibility to Protect


Choice Magazine: CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title Awards

Australian Political Studies Association: Crisp Prize

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