Photo0945Two recent news stories caught my eye as highlighting International Society in their own ways. First as part of the winding down of the Afghan War/Insurgency/International Stabilisation, talks are due to be held in Qatar between the governments’ of America, Afghanistan and Taliban representatives.

Such talks were always going to be painful and there are myriad historical examples of the diplomatic finesse required in even getting enemies face to face in the same room, never mind agreeing the shape of the table they will sit around (as was famously the case at the Paris Peace talks to end the Vietnam War).

But before the talks even began, the Afghan Government was incensed when at the official opening of their Qatari office on June 18th, The Taliban raised a flag, played an anthem and put up a plaque reading “Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”. In the immediate aftermath the talks have stalled (if something can stall before it starts) and the offending plaque and flag have been removed.

Problem number two meanwhile is the smog engulfing Singapore as a direct consequence of illegal forest burning next door in Indonesia. Today marked day six of the crisis which according to Reuters may have cost hundreds of millions of dollars and has seen record pollution levels, prompting school closures and curfews across neighbouring countries.

In the case of Afghanistan we have a state jealously asserting its sovereignty by refusing to countenance any rival claims to legitimate political representation of the same population. The Afghan government does not recognise any such Islamic Emirate within its territory, styling itself as the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” by the way. A number of observations can be made here;

  1. Glib talk of the death of the state, is just that, glib. Around the world plenty of peoples and governments still aim for and covet statehood and the privileges that come from membership of international society.
  2. Politically this throwing of “the toys out of the pram” at such an inoffensive gesture could be just that, gesture politics that won’t get in the way of doing the deals that have to be done, but are part of parcel of diplomatic ritual and a way for the Kabul government to vent frustration…
  3. Or perhaps such a fierce reaction is proportional to how tenuous the Kabul Government’s claim to sovereignty is (see Bernard Bajolet’s April 2013 valedictory remarks). Surely given the decades of conflict, hundreds of thousands of casualties and billions of dollars, a flag shouldn’t get in the way of peace talks? And yet the weaker the government feels, the more caught up it gets over such (in)consequential symbols.

If the Afghan example marks a government caught up in the trappings of sovereignty, the problems of Singapore highlight the social and the limited nature of sovereignty. Yes state borders can be products in part of geography, but it is people who invest meanings in what are otherwise lines on maps and choose to respect or ignore them (notice how people who are literally killing each other in one place can meet and talk openly and safely because they’re somewhere else).

Sovereignty in the domestic sphere is predicated upon international recognition and reciprocation, and whilst intervention and interference are more normal than international law would have you think, as Singapore shows, nature  more often if not always trumps socially defined boundaries.