“The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must” — stated Thucydides (460-395 B.C.), the Greek historian and Athenian general who sometimes is called the father of political realism, which holds relations between states to be based on might with little consideration for right. The still-snowballing controversy over industrial-scale global U.S. spying is not a bad illustration.

The ancient dictum has been subject to two trends whose lines are now intersecting. The first is a gradual but unmistakable hemming in of might by right over the course of human history.

From one point of view, the story of human civilization is the history of efforts to tame, contain and reduce the use of organized violence both within and across national borders. To reduce internal violence, states were given the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. To reduce international violence, the right of states to wage wars has been progressively restricted to continually tightening circumstances.

In a sweeping, much discussed book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011),” Harvard University’s Steven Pinker traces a steady reduction in societal, national and international violence from the hunter gatherer civilizations to modern times based on empathy, self-control, reason and moral sense as “the better angels” of human nature.

The second trend is the pendulum of history swinging back to the default position of China and India as major world actors. China especially has made rapid strides toward the historical norm. As part of its rising profile, many neighbors have felt the sting of its assertiveness in recent times. Philippines has taken its dispute to international arbitration under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But this has no enforcement mechanism, and if China loses the case, it could simply ignore the ruling. This is the U.S. attitude to international law and therefore what first-class powers do, some Chinese argue — another good example of the Thucydides dictum.

Yet there is also contrary evidence of China’s learning potential with regard to the first trend (just as some analysts exaggerate the virtuous part of Western powers’ legacy and ignore the darker side). Contrary to some depictions, China is not an absolutist defender of state sovereignty and has been trying for the past dozen years to engage with the responsibility to protect (R2P) principle. To be sure, in 2001, during the outreach consultations in China by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), many skeptical arguments were raised. The Chinese argued that humanitarianism is good, interventionism is bad, and “humanitarian intervention” is “tantamount to marrying evil to good.”

But a government affiliated institute did organize an international conference on “humanitarian intervention” in Beijing in 2001 that I attended.

The December 2001 ICISS report argued that the essential nature of sovereignty had changed from state privileges and immunities to the responsibility to protect people from atrocity crimes. If the state defaulted, the responsibility tripped upwards to the international community acting through the U.N. China’s official paper on U.N. reforms in June 2005 noted that “Each state shoulders the primary responsibility to protect its own population. … When a massive humanitarian crisis occurs, it is the legitimate concern of the international community to ease and defuse the crisis.”

The unanimous endorsement of R2P by world leaders in autumn 2005 added clarity, rigor and specificity, limiting the triggering events to war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity and so realigning the emerging global political norm to existing categories of international legal crimes. In a Security Council debate in Dec. 2006, China’s Ambassador Liu Zhenmin warned that the 2005 agreement was “a very cautious representation of the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity … it is not appropriate to expand, willfully to interpret or even abuse this concept.”

This is what seems to have happened in Libya in 2011. Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized the protection of civilians and civilian-populated areas. All the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) believe NATO exceeded the civilian protection mandate to pursue regime change and oust Moammar Gadhafi from power. China and Russia have been determined not to permit a similar authorization in Syria.

In addition, Brazil and China have tried to reposition R2P by reaffirming the principle but seeking to insert tighter safeguards to prevent future abuse. In November 2011, Brazil proposed “Responsibility while Protecting” with two key elements. First, agreed guidelines to help the Security Council in the debate before an intervention is authorized. Second, procedures “to monitor and assess the manner in which resolutions are interpreted and implemented to ensure responsibility while protecting.”

In mid-2012, Ruan Zonge, vice president of the China Institute of International Studies, wrote on “Responsible Protection.” The foreign ministry-affiliated CIIS organized an international conference on the subject on Oct. 17-18 with representatives mainly from BRICS countries. The concept has four facets. It acknowledges individual state and collective global responsibility for the victims of atrocities. The implementation of the protection agenda demonstrates responsibility to the international community. It accepts responsibility for the actions of those doing the protection; that is, it introduces the requirement for an international accountability mechanism.

Finally, it shows that China is a responsible stakeholder in a rules-based global order. In Ruan’s words, “China must have the courage to speak out and contribute ideas to the world.” The idea of responsible protection will help China build “a just and reasonable new international political order.”

Looking at the Brazilian and Chinese initiatives together, it is clear that the basis of a new consensus on R2P does exist. ICISS in 2001 and the high-level panel on U.N. reforms in 2004 had proposed five criteria of legitimacy: the gravity of threat (serious harm through atrocity crimes); right intention (civilian protection as the primary purpose amid mixed motives); force as the last resort, conceptually speaking; the amount and type of force being proportionate to the protection needs; and balance of consequences, with significantly more good than harm being the likely outcome. A potential review mechanism might lie in constituting “Friends of the Security Council President,” made up of relevant stakeholders, to monitor implementation without intruding into the Council’s prerogative.

The surprising omission from the list of major emerging powers trying to improve the implementation of R2P without questioning its underlying value is India, which has the longest democratic pedigree in the group. Its absence is more a comment on India than on R2P.

Ramesh Thakur, an ICISS commissioner in 2001-02, is director of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.

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