From “Intervention” to “Protection”: The Power of Discourse in International Affairs

Paper for a course on theories of power and policy (Chad Levinson)

From “Intervention” to “Protection”: The Power of Discourse in International Affairs

What is the relationship between discourse and power? Once an issue makes it to the agenda, how do its framing and the specific terms used to discuss it influence policy outcomes?

This paper will attempt at providing an overview of how discourse relates to power dynamics in international affairs by taking up in particular the concept of the responsibility to protect or “R2P” and how discourse on intervention preceding it shifted in the 20th century.

“Sticks and Stones … ” ?

Names matter. There is an ancient tradition of ascribing power to names and the naming process. In the Book of Genesis, God may be the almighty creator of everything, but the empowering opportunity to name “every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air” is given to Adam (Gen. 2:20). Plato’s Cratylus discusses two positions on names, referred to nowadays as “conventionalism” and “naturalism”. The former implies that all names and their referents are merely matters of convention, whereas the latter view takes as a principle that, “names belong naturally to their specific objects” (Sedley 2018). Names can thus be perceived as being inherent and essential. St. Olaf, the legendary king of Norway, turns a troll into stone by discovering its name (Vea, n.d.). Regardless of whether the point of view is one of religion, philosophy, or folklore, the terms of indicating and discussing an object or phenomenon are evidently important.

To give an example from more modern times, Jonathan Schell (2003) notes how the notion of “non-violence” was carefully approached by the leader of the independence movement in India. Since violence itself is taken to be a negative, the term “non-violence” could be a double negative – so a positive, to borrow from mathematics. “Yet in English there is no positive word for it. It’s as if we were obliged to refer to action as ‘non-inaction,’ to hope as ‘non-hopelessness,’ or to faith as ‘non-unbelief.’ It was in search of a solution to this problem that Gandhi coined his untranslatable ‘satyagraha.’” (286). Satyagraha can actually be translated from the Sanskrit, if roughly, to “insistence on truth” (Harper, n.d. a).

A contemporary of Gandhi devoted the major part of his life to confronting a new political phenomenon, that of the massacres of targeted populations on a scale rarely before seen in human history. Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-born Jew, was disturbed by the fact that individual murders were perceived as criminal, whereas, for example, the experienceof the Armenians in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire was considered within the rights of sovereignty. How could the difference in the number of people killed justify the same act? In response, Lemkin presented the new concepts of “barbarity” and “vandalism” at a legal conference in Madrid in 1933, defining them respectively as “the premeditated destruction of national, racial, religious and social collectivities” and “destruction of works of art and culture, being the expression of the particular genius of these collectivities” (Power 2002, 21). The notions of these new categories of crimes did not catch on, however, largely for political and diplomatic reasons. Under the shadow of the horrors of the Second World War that followed, Lemkin concluded that he might not have “adequately distinguished the crime he was campaigning against from typical, wartime violence. Maybe if he could capture the crime in a word that connoted something truly unique and evil, people and politicians alike might get more exercised about stopping it” (29). That word was “genocide” which combined Greek and Latin roots to imply “the killing of a race” (Harper, n.d. b).

“ … But Names …” ?

Alternatively, rhetoric may be considered as showpiece alone. It is easy to pay lip service, after all, and then carry on as usual – especially in political systems that do not rely on public accountability or the ballot box. Even more so in anarchic international affairs, then, where states may ultimately claim sovereignty to justify their actions, or else they may have enough of a hold on the flow of information to couch their conduct in an acceptable light. Finally, if a word or a term may swing emotions and reactions one way, other words and terms such as “national security” or “national interest” may have their own strong pull.

But that the pull exists is the very fact under scrutiny here. Rhetorical devices are created and invoked in order to influence political behaviour, not just as banal marketing tools. Gandhi took ownership over a civic and political phenomenon and empowered it by giving it an identity within local discourse. The coining of a Sanskrit compound word distinguished the phenomenon from any Western association and at the same time added a spiritual component to the term. That satyagraha has come to be so strongly and positively associated with Gandhi and his civil disobedience movement attests both to Gandhi’s power as a political activist as well as his public relations skills.

As with Gandhi, Lemkin understood the power of words, but the European context of his experience offers an interesting etymological insight for its part. The notions of “barbarity” and “vandalism” recall classical Greek and Roman phenomena that point to the other, to outsiders. Barbarians were so referred because their speech was different (Harper, n.d. c). Vandals were in turn a people, a tribe that raided and plundered Rome in the fifth century (Harper, n.d. d). Judging the conduct of foreigners as wrong and uncivilised, it would be a natural extension of classical thinking to assess, say, Ottoman rulers as being Oriental and unacceptable in their behaviour. Instead, by coming up with a term that combines both classical languages, Lemkin brought genocide home, as it were, to a continent that had only just reeled under catastrophic destruction of its own creation. The word itself invited peoples of the West to be more introspective about the phenomenon.

The power of the term “genocide” continues to resonate. More than just a legal category, it has a rhetorical purchase unlike any other label for organised violence. It also has a measurable history, since the UN’s Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (written and spearheaded by Lemkin) was adopted over seventy years ago now, in 1948.[1] The word has been the crux around which Armenian advocacy groups around the world have agitated for public acknowledgement and commemoration of the massacres and deportations during the First World War, the ones that had first drawn Lemkin’s interest. As a counter-reaction, Turkish discourse has downplayed “the events of 1915”, as they are called, insisting that, however tragic the experiences of the time may have been, they could not justly be characterised as genocide.

Various groups and campaigns likewise insist on using the term for their causes, given both its rhetorical power and the possible legal consequences that might be invoked through it. The case of Darfur, for example, offered much back-and-forth and hemming and hawing by the US government which would have been under obligations were it to admit to a genocide taking place in Sudan in the early 2000s. It was the experience of the preceding decade, however, in Rwanda and the Balkans, that brought forth a larger question in the context of facing genocide: how do humane notions get translated into state conduct?

Intervention and Protection

The UN is at the forefront of global security and global discourse in international affairs. The horrific events surrounding the collapse of Yugoslavia and the genocide in Rwanda – and the lacklustre international response in both cases – were more than just an embarrassment for the international community as such and the UN in particular. “In September 1999, while presenting his annual report to the UN General Assembly, Kofi Annan reflected upon ‘the prospects for human security and intervention in the next century’ and challenged the Member States to ‘find common ground in upholding the principles of the Charter, and acting in defence of common humanity’. He repeated the challenge in his 2000 Millennium Report, saying that: ‘if humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica, to gross and systematic violation of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?’” (UN, n.d. a)

The government of Canada led the way in responding to this challenge by establishing the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which issued a report in 2001 with the seminal title, “The Responsibility to Protect”. It concluded that, although states have responsibility that comes with sovereignty, that responsibility is not only internal. In addition, “a ‘residual responsibility’ also lie[s] with the broader community of states, which [is] ‘activated when a particular state is clearly either unwilling or unable to fulfil its responsibility to protect or is itself the actual perpetrator of crimes or atrocities’” (UN, n.d. a).

Subsequent reports and resolutions at the UN have re-affirmed this idea. As a result of the World Summit in 2005, the General Assembly adopted a version of the principle of the responsibility to protect. Other institutional steps have also been taken to push forward “R2P”, as it is also called. In 2008, the first Special Adviser on the Responsibility to Protect was appointed by the Secretary-General. The first Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide had already been appointed a few years earlier, in 2004 (UN, n.d. b). Within a few years, then, Kofi Annan’s invocation of “our common humanity” had resulted in serious steps of institutionalising a relationship with the humane or humanitarian.

At the same time, the language on genocide prevention and responsibility to protect has not always been consistent over the past two decades. There has never been full agreement on the means of assessing whether or not a state is in violation of its responsibility to protect its own citizens or whether other states are under an international obligation to intervene in order to fulfill their responsibility in turn to protect the citizens of other states.

“In practice … R2P remains an elusive goal … [due to] the philosophical and practical difficulties that bedevil [it]” – so note the editors introducing a series of essays in a special issue of Foreign Affairs dedicated to the state of debate on the responsibility to protect. The contributors offer a variety of ideas and conclusions, ranging from how the responsibility to protect is indeed slowly finding its feet as a norm, how “the legitimacy of R2P ultimately hinges on the procedures used to authorize international action”, “how the norm can be hijacked for cynical purposes”, and, finally, how “R2P merely provides great powers with a new justification for pursuing traditional military interventions” (Thakur and Maley 2016).

Two issues lie at the heart of the discussion.

One is the notion of state sovereignty – the very hallmark of what makes a state a state in the European, Westphalian model that has been adopted around the world over the course of the past few hundred years. This was the question that bothered Lemkin in the early 20th century and it continues to be the hinge around which the issue turns in the 21st. A key norm of diplomacy and international affairs is non-intervention by one state in the internal affairs of another state. How to accommodate both sovereignty and intervention as principles?

Especially if the intervention is through use of force. And that is the second issue. Since the establishment of the UN and the adoption of its charter following the Second World War, the use of force by one state against another has been prohibited (UN Charter, Article 2.4). The two exceptions are Security Council authorisation and self-defence with the immediate notification of the Security Council (UN Charter, Chapter VII). How to characterise or even justify use of force, then, in the name of intervention?

The response to the above two questions has been “humanitarian intervention”, a framing that accepts the fact of violating a principle, but inherently invokes humanitarianism as something greater. Indeed, it may appear strange at first glance that the collective term for rules and regulations of warfare is “international humanitarian law”. The point is that the human and the humane are the starting points. Soldiers and civilians have humanitarian needs. States that engage in warfare or use of force must recognise that fact and act accordingly.

Once again, it is not difficult to come up with cynical responses to such ideals. Wasn’t it altogether convenient for the Great Powers to intervene in Greece, in Syria, in the Balkans, and elsewhere in the name of humanity or Christianity while at the same time enjoying the spoils of dismembering the Ottoman Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries? There is a question of relativisation on the one hand (“one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”) and framing or, more crudely, marketing on the other. But there is at the same time the objective reality on the ground to be taken into consideration. Individuals and groups of people have indeed undergone horrific suffering due to misrule and individuals and groups and states have indeed lent genuine helping hands (Bass 2008). Distinguishing sincere efforts from cold-hearted political calculations may not always be easy, but it does not mean that either one or the other must only exist.

Rendering that distinction might be more straightforward through the change in terminology from “humanitarian intervention” to “responsibility to protect” Besides the notion of “intervention” eliciting wariness in the international community, the “humanitarian” part could arguably be too relative, too indistinct, too broad. Both “responsibility” and “protect” are more neutral words, and they have the potential to be couched more readily in legal terms. In addition, to protect might necessarily imply and include intervention. If sovereignty is a given for states and protection comes along with it, then a state’s lack of capacity to protect may be taken as surrendering an aspect of sovereignty, thereby allowing for intervention to take place. Finally, by shifting the humane, humanitarian, or human rights motivation behind intervening or protecting to a notion of responsibility, the focus shifts as well, going from, as it were, more nebulous individuals or groups who are suffering and need help to more concrete states and governments that are under an obligation to act.[2]

Theoretical Intervention

Two conceptual frameworks would be useful to consider in this regard.

In The Semisovereign People, Schattschneider (1960) offers an insightful understanding of political processes. He claims that any manner of organisation, any in-group or interest formation necessarily entails “some kind of political bias because organization is itself a mobilization of bias in preparation of action” (30). This formulation of “mobilisation of bias” presumes the existence of a bias – the interests, the worldview, the identity at hand, etc. of a given population or constituency. A discourse associated with that bias, then, may likewise be presumed. The mobilisation of discourse could be one of the ways in which the mobilisation of bias would manifest.

For example, perhaps a new issue comes up which requires new terminology, catchphrases, or buzzwords. The “domino theory” of the spread of communism during the Cold War was countered in the Eastern Bloc with the rhetoric of imperialism or neo-colonialism being undertaken by the West. Also, an already-existing phenomenon may be re-framed. How the term “queer” was taken up and re-imagined by the LGBT community over the course of the 1990s and 2000s demonstrates the application of this concept. Evidently, the mobilised bias that is informing the discourse can work the other way as well. By mobilising discourse, the bias can be induced to shift one way or another.

It is useful to distinguish between mobilisation and persuasion as processes. If a bias already exists, then mobilising would imply calling upon those who bear that bias to act in a certain manner. But shifting discourse in order to induce action entails persuasion. There could be cases where the two processes might be indistinguishable: behaviour could change either because of the genuine internalisation of a norm or, to put it crudely, because of following a trend. In all events, the end result is the same, inasmuch as an identifiable transformation in behaviour is being enacted, whether at the personal level or in terms of state conduct.[3]

Power: A Radical View by Steven Lukes ([1974] 2005) discusses power itself more plainly and immediately. Lukes distinguishes among three faces or dimensions of power. The first is power in the direct sense of coercion or decision-making. The second is the more subtle agenda setting, involving both control over positive decision-making and being able to control the negative, that is, non-decision-making. The third is more subtle still, namely, a kind of acculturation wherein the desires and interests of parties are aligned, “involv[ing] inaction rather than (observable) action” and being “unconscious” (52).

It is in this third sphere that discourse plays the most impactful role. To be sure, in order to introduce or influence any discourse, a party would require significant capacities in the first face (resources) and the second face (access to institutions, including the media). But once a certain way of talking – and thinking – about an issue is set, the third face of power would be expected to dominate. For example, when LGBT issues were framed in moral or religious lights, it was easier to suppress or avoid any discussions on that matter – in fact, those terms were rather enabling for the first and second faces of power. Once LGBT issues became human rights issues, the legal sphere was acculturated into adopting that discourse. The legal rhetoric already existed. It was a move involving the third face of power to graft LGBT issues onto them – to mobilise the legal bias, as it were.

Questions on Research and Methodological Design

Can discourse be mobilised in order to create norms of state conduct? Can that process be traced and measured? If states are artifices and laws are written and ratified into being, is it the discourse alone, then, that governs that entire process? Or must that discourse have accompanying actions or background events buttressing it?

Once again, how do humane notions ultimately get translated into state conduct?

Providing meaningful responses to the above questions will be rather challenging. The fact is that only a part of any discourse is recorded and accessible. For the purposes of this paper, such establishments as the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect maintain documents related to R2P and possess data on how it has been invoked and used over the past two decades (Global Centre 2018). Other publicly-available documents, such as speeches and interviews by officials and articles and reports or books by journalists or academics or practitioners from the policy or non-profit world, for example, may serve as sources to note how the language on R2P was generated and how it shifted. Qualitative data analysis software may be used to come up with harder numbers on when and how and how often key phrases came up and were put to use.

Elite interviews could serve as another useful source. Who were the individuals behind the commissions and reports on R2P, in particular at the UN, but also in NGOs, humanitarian organisations, or academic institutions? They could serve to provide a record of their perspectives on how the notion came into being and was developed. Their insights could be particularly useful for aspects of the story that were never publicly documented.

Are there draft documents to the various resolutions or reports under investigation? They could also be used to indicate subtle changes of language or framing over time. However, arranging their availability to researchers could be problematic. Negotiations are often closed and sensitive, and difficult to cite, especially so soon after the fact.

Is there a record of discourse on a comparable concept? Sometimes there is a clear pedigree of when, say, the high-level positions for “war” in governments around the world began to be ministries of “defence” or “security” instead. How that process played out might serve as a useful analogue in terms of where and how the discourse changed, if it was an elite-driven process, if there were comparable global events, and so on.

Finally, it would be worthwhile to hone in on perspectives and attitudes of the United States on R2P. As the world’s premiere power when it comes to all three faces, how has the discourse been in US policy circles and in public rhetoric when it comes to the responsibility to protect? The country has a history of interventions (and pointed non-interventions), so it would be useful to record the framing of smaller-scale operations such as Grenada in 1983 or more significant ones such as Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and Syria – the latter four occurring within the same context as the development of the notion of R2P itself. Has US military involvement been talked about in humanitarian, material, cynical, liberal, responsibility to protect, legal or other terms, or combinations thereof? When and by whom?


I would like to ask how discourse in general affects policy, and how humanitarian discourse specifically affects such a key element of statehood as sovereignty.

I hypothesise that states in fact remain quite jealous of their sovereignty, but that they are susceptible to rhetoric. It can even be called surprising how seriously states take, say, the wording of documents or the applications of labels. The notion of responsibility to protect has come up successfully as a label, but it does not yet have as strong an affect as, say, genocide.

Alternatively, states may simply be glad to display rhetorical bluster or reactions as tools of public relations and image management. They may follow their interests primarily or solely with little regard to discourse – until it serves their interests. The fact that states engage so readily with the discourse at all, though, is telling, one way or another.

What does this phenomenon reveal about the nature of political power? As mentioned above in citing Schattschneider and Lukes, power is multi-faceted, multi-pronged – while also being multi-directional. That is, recognising that states use discourse or are adept at rhetorical tools in carrying out their policies is one thing. It must also be acknowledged that discourse can cut both ways, that words and framing can have very subtle effects on policy for their own part.

Finally, testing the claim and tracing the process of the establishment and development of discourse is rather tricky. Sometimes a path is clear and publicly-accessible, sometimes not. In the case of R2P, given its newness and given the availability of technology, it may not be too difficult to come up with sufficient data to record its rise and use over the past two decades. But it may be too soon to tell in which direction the discourse may be heading.



Bass, Gary J. 2008. Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention. Knopf.


The Bible. “Genesis 2 :: King James Version (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible.


Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. 2018. “UN Security Council Resolutions and

Presidential Statements Referencing R2P.” Last updated April 1, 2019.


Harper, Douglas. n.d. a. “satyagraha (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed April 30, 2019.


———. n.d. b. “genocide (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed April 30, 2019.


———. n.d. c. “barbarian (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed April 30, 2019.


———. n.d. d. “vandal (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed April 30, 2019.


Lukes, Steven. (1974) 2005. Power: A Radical View. Palgrave Macmillan.


Power, Samantha. 2002. “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide. Basic Books.


Schattschneider, E. E. 1960. The Semisovereign People: A Realist’s View of Democracy in America. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.


Schell, Jonathan. 2003. “The Logic of Piece.” New England Journal of Public Policy, Volume 19, Issue 1, Article 16.


Sedley, David. 2018. “Plato’s Cratylus.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).


Thakur, Ramesh and William Maley. 2016. “Theorizing the Responsibility to Protect.”

Foreign Affairs, January/February, 2016.


  1. n.d. a. “Responsibility to Protect: About.” United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. Accessed May 7, 2019.


  1. n.d. b. “The Office: Mandate.” United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. Accessed May 7, 2019.


UN Charter. n.d. “Charter of the United Nations.” United Nations. Accessed May 7, 2019.


Vea, Marit Synnøve. n.d. “Legends about St. Olaf.” Avaldsnes. Accessed May 7, 2019.


[1] I am indebted and grateful to my colleague Ryan Craig for this point.

[2] I am indebted and grateful to my colleague Sayed Ghannam and to Prof. Levinson for these points.

[3] I am indebted and grateful to Prof. Levinson for this point.