Syria has raised several questions that pertain to morality, legality, and strategy in international relations. Discussed extensively on the Duck, Opinio Juris, The Monkey Cage, and elsewhere the situation in Syria has sparked a valuable debate on critical issues, both old and new. I would like to touch upon the implications of Syria for Cosmopolitanism. I think Syria has again highlighted the core dilemma of Cosmopolitan theory: the scarcity of politics. Protecting inalienable human rights requires applying normative cosmopolitan principles in practice. Application necessitates a departure from cosmopolitan normative theory towards cosmopolitan practice. And practice is inevitably political. Questions about when and how R2P applies, when intervention without Security Council authorization may be justified, and when a state looses its sovereign privileges when the government attacks its own people are about applied normativity. Cosmopolitan theory still offers relatively little on the politics of norm implementation.
At its, core, Cosmopolitanism asserts that there are “moral obligations owed to all human beings based solely on our humanity alone, without reference to race, gender, nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion, political affiliation, state citizenship, or other communal particularities (Brown and Held).” Taking the inherent moral worth of the individual as its starting point, Legal Cosmopolitanism calls for the institutionalization of key cosmopolitan normative principles. Versions of Cosmopolitanism abound. I bracket these debates for the time being and recommend Catherine Lu’s article for a useful and critically-informed review. But there is consensus among scholars that honoring and protecting the individual is the core principle shared by Cosmopolitans of all stripes.
From Cicero to Kant, Pogge to Taylor, a lot has been said about the promises as well as perils of Legal Cosmopolitanism. But as As Garrett Wallace Brown notes in a recent article, we still have not moved “from cosmopolitan normative theory to cosmopolitan legal practice.” I think this is one reason why Cosmopolitanism seems to have little to say on the implementation of R2P. Thou shalt not kill may indeed be a universal norm. Yet how it is applied in practice by people and institutions varies. Shibley Telhami noted that the U.S. should not expect a “thank you” from the Arab world for intervening. This does not mean the Arab public opinion supports the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations. But it does suggest that the Arab world has a different understanding of how civilians need to be protected and criminal actions punished.
Cosmopolitan theory generally has a hard time tackling normativity in practice. It talks about our obligations towards global compatriots and calls for reforming existing international organizations to institutionalize cosmopolitan ideals. Yet it does not always tell us what our obligations are in practice and how they relate to our other moral duties, including those to the nation. It also gives us little policy guidance on institutional reform and on the role of the state in cosmopolitics. And the political implications of applied cosmopolitanism for democracy, moral diversity, and individual autonomy, to name a few important issues, sometimes remain unexplored. Of course, progress has been made and there is growing interest in applied global normativity. But I think IR scholars could offer additional insights that will inform theory and facilitate empirical research. I will sketch out some of my thoughts in Part II of this discussion. (Image source: https://criticalworld.net/cosmopolitanism/M. Roberts)