Amended text of a talk I delivered February 11th 2014 at “Polis Talks Peace” for the LUU World Unite Festival.

My research assumes that the states of the world form an “international society” in that they believe themselves bound by common interests and values and share in the working of common rules and institutions  (Bull). So it’s the relationship between peace at the international level and Peace on the ground that I’d like to consider here, or peace with a  “small p” and a “capital P” respectively.

This framework of an international society is to be found in the ironically named English School of IR Theory. Ironic because its founders came also from Australia and South Africa, and because I myself am not from round here as the more observant of you will have noticed.

Before I proceed I’d like to unpack that definition a little more.

  • Interests – states have a common interest in the avoidance of war (peace with “a small p”) through the existence of regularised, predictable patterns of interstate behaviour which ensure that their independence is respected and guaranteed.
  • Values – if interests are instrumental and can change dependent on context then values represent that which governments regard as important irrespective of the situation as values should stem from culture and inform their world view. Consider for example the value attached to “juridical equality” in that all states, small or Great are afforded equal legal rights in the UN Charter  as part of what has been characterised  (by and large) as an “equalitarian regime” (Reus-Smit).
  • Rules –  if values can be shared or held in isolation then rules of behaviour tend always to be shared as they represent mutually accepted standards of appropriate behaviour. Some are codified in treaty; non intervention, diplomatic immunity, freedom of international waters. Others are customary, such as honouring treaties and the rotation of the selection of UN Secretary General by region and convention that none of the P5 will put forward a national candidate of their own. The existence of such rules serves as a reminder than international relations in general and international society in particular exists in a condition of anarchy and not anomie.
  • Institutions –  crucial distinction is to be made here between primary and secondary institutions (Buzan). That is to say, secondary administrative  institutions or organisations and non-administrative primary institutions in a sociological sense. The former, administrative institutions, are perhaps the most notable manifestation of international society (UN, EU, AU, OIC, OSCE, NATO, ASEAN, OPCW) and their existence depends in large part on primary non administrative institutions. These are best conceived of as complexes of rules that relate to one another such as; sovereignty, diplomacy, war, international law, the balance of power, Great Power Management (Bull). As well as; the market, equality of peoples, territoriality, environmental stewardship (Buzan).

What was it then that attracted me to this theoretical framework? My research was motivated initially by the ubiquity of the phrase “international community” and a query as to who that was and what it stood for, if anything.

By way of contrast, international society, as defined above, is the umbrella of all 193 recognised UN Member states (most recently South Sudan 2011) where as “international community” is more amorphous and reflects a tighter solidarity among a more selective group of states, often dependent of the issue at hand and therefore absent in the more pluralist “live and let live” international society. Simply put the 193 states of international society recognise that coexistence and cooperation are preferable to and more beneficial than boundless competition or conflict, and this amounts in my mind to a pursuit of peace with a “small p”. Where as the more solidarist “international community” will refer to a more exclusive grouping of states willing to coordinate their policies and responses around other “thicker values” – as Buzan has argued, building on Walzer – such as an expansive interpretation of The Responsibility to Protect.

Socially or communally, such interactions are “governed” (in an anarchic/imperfect sense) by inter subjective understandings as to what is appropriate/acceptable or  expected behaviour. I.e. what is normal or a “norm” – here is defined as something that is both regular but also valorized I.e. valued and so perceived as legitimate.

Building on Dunne (amongst others) I argue that international society is sustained by states acting in accordance with legitimate practices. Crucially this is not to say states always obey norms or even just that as Louis Henkin of Columbia School of Law remarked, “most states obey most laws, most of the time”. The key empirical fact is that state behaviour is always justified in relation to them. Even when they disobey the law, they don’t characterise themselves (or allow others to paint them as)  law breakers. Instead they argue for an exception, appeal to another higher law or dispute the facts (see Alex Bellamy for a more detailed framework here). In other words, international law is honoured even in breach, as diplomacy in the run up the Iraq war 2002-2003, the toppling of Gaddifi in Libya 2011 and the response to the civil war in Syria from 2011-present all reflect.

I accept that there is a debate about whether international law and diplomacy is causal as an “independent variable” (in the terminology of my quantitative colleagues) that affects behaviour, or simply “window dressing” an after the fact rationalisation provided by states for decisions already made. Anyone who wishes to consider this debate could do worse than see what Robert Jackson and Cornelia Navari have to say on the topic. My position, perhaps typical of the social science PhD is that it is not such a clear cut either/or distinction. I regard the processes of justification, persuasion, argumentation, contestation and legitimation as key to understanding how any social reality (in my case the international) is interpreted and understood by its members as well as observers such as myself.

With this in mind, my thesis research question consider what happens when states attempt to change the norms of contemporary international society and how such contestation over legitimate practice is not itself a threat to the sustainability of international society, since change is preferable to atrophy, but can be if it provokes a backlash which is then mishandled. It is this backlash and the failure to properly address the ensuing “legitimacy crisis” as Dunne et al define in International Politics, 44(2/3), which threatens the sustainability of international society.

Which brings me to the title of my talk.

“The Great Irresponsibles”, is a name borrowed (and now attributed) to English School scholar Hedley Bull in a 1979 International Journal article where he criticised the disorderly conduct of the USA and USSR and the risks such behaviour posed to international society. In conducting my research I focus on the United Nations Security Council as the place where normative contestation is publicly played out in defining and responding to threats to international peace and security, since it is the Security Council that is charged with the responsibility for maintaining international peace and security on behalf of the wider UN membership and therefore by extension the membership of our international society.

To be clear, international peace and security is classically conceived of  as managing interstate conflict, achieving peace with a “small p” through the absence of interstate war especially among the Great Powers. As students, academics and informed citizens, what we mean by “peace” is vitally important. It reminds me of a quote which I emphasise to students that “the job of clever people is to ask difficult questions, but the job of very clever people is to ask deceptively simple ones”.

What we mean by “peace”, a word so often used, is a case in point of a deceptively simple question. So what is “peace”? The argument goes that as bad as things are in our world they would be worse if there was a major war between the Great Powers, so all international society can  attempt (or indeed should do given other competing priorities and values) is ensure that such major wars are avoided and more generally that interstate wars aren’t the norm, which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) demonstrates has occurred since 1945 and especially the end of the Cold War.

This  is the “responsible” thing to do as reflected in the UN Charter, Article 24 of which confers primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security upon the 15 member Security Council, with its five permanent veto wielding members (“five to rule them all”  in the words of academic David Bosco) and ten non permanent members elected for geographical representation in blocs of five serving overlapping two year terms.

Such “small p peace” however doesn’t strike me as enough, or even a proper discharge of the responsibility “we the peoples” (to quote the first sentence of The UN Charter pre amble)  through our member states, invest in the Security Council. Pragmatic perhaps, so maybe I’m just idealistic, but the principal focus on the avoidance of Great Power conflict behind it seems to work in favour of the status quo and those of us fortunate enough to reside in the Global North or West (two crass oversimplifications I concede, but they’ll do for now if you indulge me).

For example, with reference to Syria I spoke at an event in Leeds in December 2012 where I cited the death toll at 36,000. As of January 7th 2014, Rupert Colville, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says they can no longer verifiably count the 100,000 plus death toll and as such have suspended issuing further figures. Putting to one side the proxy involvement of the Western Powers, Russia,  The Gulf States, Turkey, Iran and various state sponsored non state actors in the Syrian Civil War and the potential threat therefore to international peace and security, the slaughter of so many people contrary to long held norms of non combatant immunity is no peace that I can conceive of in clear conscience.

Essentially therefore, the tension I am exploring in my research is how states are trying and could try to adapt the rules of international society to more adequately promote not just “small p” peace but Peace in capital letters – the presence of justice as opposed to simply the absence of physical threat. The fulfilment of essential and basic human rights and a solution to intra state conflicts and civil wars. The responsibility on the part of the international community to protect all civilians and also prevent within reason mass atrocities such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity as was agreed in the 2005 UN World Summit Outcomes Document.

Given that such solutions could call for direct intervention, picking sides in a conflict and embarking in peace enforcement and possibly state building, never mind just peace keeping, it is easy to see the disagreements and fall outs among international society that such aggressive, invasive and preventive operations would engender. I’m particularly interested in the current norms of sovereignty; non-intervention and collective Security Council authorisation set against practices that would see action unauthorised by the Council in the face of what some deem “an unreasonable veto” or in the name of a “moral majority” and coercive democratisation (regime change) as an escalation of humanitarian intervention. My concern is that such practices regardless of intention will provoke a backlash and damage the consensus by which international society is sustained, leaving us all worse off, and crucially the peoples of Syria no better off, as a result.

Briefly to close I would like to highlight three points of view taken from a recent Security Council debate of October 2013 (S/PV 7052) on reforming the working methods of the Council. Although a mostly administrative debate that dwelt on innovations in the day to day running of the Council, the forty nine participating states also made larger points on the issue of the Council’s responsibilities under The Charter and how it required reform in order to meet these and better serve the needs of both kinds of peace.

France remarked that;

“The Syrian crisis has highlighted the impasse that the Security Council has come up against in dealing with the use of the right of veto. A few weeks ago, the President of France spoke in the General Assembly on the importance of creating a code of conduct for the permanent members that would establish guidelines for the use of the right of veto. The Minister for Foreign Affairs also spoke on the subject. What would be involved would be for the five permanent members of the Security Council to collectively and voluntarily suspend their right of veto when a situation involving crime on a massive scale is considered to have occurred.

Clearly, the criteria for such self-management must still be defined by the Council’s permanent members themselves. A voluntary step such as this would not entail revising the Charter of the United Nations…The Security Council should take this opportunity to thoroughly review its working methods in order to meet the challenges of the twenty- first century. The world is changing and the threats have changed. Let us be the actors who are willing to deal with that change and show that we are capable of innovating in order to be more effective but also more just.”

Russia responded;

And, of course, such fundamental positions as the right of veto have nothing to do with the working methods of the Council. The suggestion that weakening the right of veto would help to improve the Security Council’s effectiveness is deeply deluded and would in fact have the opposite effect. The result would be the rubber-stamping of points of view reflecting the opinions of only one group of States. That is not why the United Nations was created.”

Saudi Arabia concluded;

“The international community’s attention is focused on the Council more than ever before. Innocent people throughout the world yearn for the Security Council to save them from the scourges of war by implementing its mandate for the maintenance of international peace and security without further delay, which will make the world a safer place. On that basis, the process of reforming the Security Council and its working methods must be inclusive, comprehensive and designed to strengthen the Council’s ability to fulfil its mission, reflect contemporary realities and the diversity of the international community, and take into consideration the interests of the entire United Nations membership.

The change in the Security Council’s structure should reflect the current situation, as well as new developments in the international arena. It should reflect the equitable geographic distribution of Member States and preserve its ability and effectiveness in fulfilling its duties, including in preventing conflicts and international disputes before they escalate and lead to grave consequences.

What observations can be made about these three different statements (of the forty nine made) in regard to the question of peace and the responsibilities of the Security Council?

France’s comments represents an attempt at “norm entrepreneurship” (Finnemore & Sikkink) as they suggest developing a new practice or customary rule without going to the lengths of re writing the actual UN Charter. They suggest that for all the change in normative expectations of what peace means and how a responsible Council and by extension its permanent members should behave, a work around solution is more feasible than substantial reform.

Russia’s objection to any such reform of the veto speaks not just to the significance of the national interest, but also about the role of what Bull called “Great Power Management” as an institution of international society. I.e the recognition that some states are more powerful than others and that in return for performing certain roles (such as America and Russia getting in a room an dealing with Syria’s chemical weapons) they get afforded special rights such as the veto. Paradoxically the existence of Great Powers both challenges and affirms the existence of international society. Challenges, because of the potential threat of hegemony if not outright hierarchy, and yet also affirms because being a Great Power with concomitant rights depends as much on recognition and perception as mere material might.

Finally Saudi Arabia criticises both the failure of the Council to discharge its responsibilities and is sceptical of any reform that fails to deliver better outcomes or recognise that the world of 2013 is not that of 1945. Indeed, such were their stated concerns that they took the unprecedented step of turning down their elected seat on The Council despite a hard fought lobbying campaign to secure it. Reading their statement with this in mind, France’s suspension of the veto among the existing P5 is not enough, and nor do they accept Russia’s advocacy of “five to rule them all”. Yet at the same time as arguing that The Council must be made more representative, they also call for it to maintain its “ability and effectiveness in fulfilling its duties”, something critics say would be harder, not easier under many of the plans for Security Council membership reform, never mind calls for it to attend more to conflict prevention, and so be responsible for Peace with “a capital P” as opposed to a simpler focus on international peace and security with “a small p”.

So what we see in this selected exchange between three of the forty nine speakers that day is contestation both of the problem of peace and the nature of the institutional solution I.e. who should be responsible, for what kind of peace and how.

Next year marks the seventieth anniversary of the founding of The United Nations and a special General Assembly Summit looking to consider both the post Millennium Development Goal development framework, and also once again, the vexing question of Council reform. Whilst much of the debate will doubtless link reform to occasioning more responsible behaviour, my final observation would be that just as, if not more important than the question of who shoulders responsibility and how, is the question of how international society defines responsibility and to what norms of behaviour they are beholden.