This article introduces the special issue and identifies three key contributions. First, RtoP advocates are right to mark the progress that has been made, but that should not – and generally does not – lead norm diffusers to rest on their laurels or to fall into a complacency that sees moral progress as inevitable. Second, the burden of concrete protection practices – whether they be reflected in contributions to peacekeeping missions or the granting of asylum – is being unfairly distributed across international society. This hierarchy is potentially destabilising and it demands that the great powers – or those laying claim to that identity – recognise their ‘special responsibility to protect’. Third, the great powers do have an important responsibility to reconcile the demands of human protection and international peace and security. It is difficult to reconcile these if we look narrowly at the former in terms of intervention, especially military intervention. Reiterating RtoP to remind states that other prudent options are available – such as receiving refugees – is an important step, especially in the current context.
This article explains why R2P failed to motivate action to protect vulnerable Syrians in the first two years of the crisis. We focus on the United States and argue that official discourse ‘localised’ the meaning R2P by grafting it on to preconceived ideas of America’s role in supporting democratic revolutions, which is how the situation was understood. American ‘exemplarism’ demanded the US support democracy by calling on Assad to go while not corrupting the ‘homegrown’ revolution through foreign intervention. The call for political and criminal accountability aligned exemplarist democracy promotion to R2P, but it did nothing to protect vulnerable populations from the conflict that ensued. This refraction of the norm complicated the United Nations sponsored peace process, which provided an alternative means of protecting the Syrian population. We address a gap in the literature by examining Western localisation and draw policy lessons, namely the importance of examining national predispositions when implementing R2P.