Blame and Complicity in International Relations: Making Non-intervention Morally Bearable

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On various occasions, states have condemned other nations or groups for mass atrocities they commit; but this rarely leads to any step to redress the untoward situation. This article therefore asks: What functions does blame serve when the blamers lack - or are reluctant to use - the power or authority to punish transgressors? Unlike approaches that focus on the effects of blaming on the wrongdoer, we argue that openly attributing responsibility for wrongdoings to another state or non-state actor has become a normative strategy to shape the way a government is perceived domestically and abroad. Specifically, international blame serves two main objectives: an immediate, communicative function, that is, to express moral protest, and a future-oriented purpose, that is, to dispel future indictment of complicity. We suggest that a corollary of this normative strategy is to make non-intervention morally acceptable. Thus, while in principle the blamer might stand up for the violated norm and value the victims, the strategic use of blame tends to legitimate inaction, by diverting attention away from blaming's deontic commitments. The article therefore warns against the instrumental use of blame as an act of supererogation (that is, an act that is not compulsory but whose performance is praiseworthy), and as a form of moral clearance (whereby the blamer acknowledges the issue but leaves responsibility for finding solution to the international society). Rather, while blaming ascribes responsibility for the act to an agent, we argue, it also puts the blamer in a specific moral situation: the necessity to take measures that interrupt the unfolding action. Our analysis leads us to put forward a plausible norm that broadens the scope of complicity in international politics: states become complicit in the wrongdoing of other actors (states or non-states) whenever they violate moral obligations that blaming demands. In other words, to blame is to commit oneself to act, though the exact nature of this action varies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)293-316
Number of pages24
JournalERIS - European Review of International Studies
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - 2020


  • blame
  • commitments
  • complicity
  • intervention
  • protest


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