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.

Hedley Bull’s “The Anarchical Society” is a landmark text and one of my favourites. I recall buying it when I was a sabbatical officer with the intention of making up for only skimming it as an undergrad. I remember taking it to Japan to read on holiday, and again to Carlisle some years later having never quite gotten into it. Needless to say I did and I’m now doing post graduate research in the same field.

“A society of states (or international society) exists when a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions” Bull, H. The Anarchical Society : A Study of Order in World Politics (London: Macmillan:1977) pg.13

Bull’s thesis is that a society of sovereign states exists in our world today and that this “international society” is anarchical in form given the absence of a central orderer. However as the subtitle to the work indicates, there is most definitely a form of “order” in world politics to which international society contributes. Like many of the best authors Bull sets out not just the topics he will cover, but those that are related but not his focus, most notably justice (xiii). At various points he outlines the notion that order is a pre requisite for justice (86), however he acknowledges that unjust orders exist, and that in his belief justice should not be sacrificed in the cause of order as a “commanding value” (98) – “If international order does have value, this can only be because it is instrumental to the goal of order in human society as a whole” (22). Yet he recognises that the prospect for substantive change here is limited given “to pursue the idea of world justice in the context of the system and society of states is to enter into conflict with the devices through which order is at present maintained” (88).

The sweep of Bull’s writing encompasses philosophy, history and then contemporary Cold War international relations. Philosophically, he critiques the common reading of a Hobbesian state of nature, and the simplistic contrast between domestic hierarchy within states and international anarchy (46). What of Lockean cooperation in the absence of a leviathan he asks (48) or primitive stateless societies (62)? Bull argues that conforming to notions of acceptable behaviour is more important than the mere existence of rules and speculates on the reasons states conform. As one would expect from a founder of The English School he makes use of detailed historical comparisons, tracing the evolution of International Society from Christendom to modern Europe before engaging the 1970s Cold War context (113).

The Anarchical Society follows a clear structure over three sections and 320 pages, with Bull outlining the aims and conclusions of each of the 14 chapters. Part One discusses the nature of order in world politics, with Bull focusing on its purpose as the realisation of shared primary goals (53). Here the case is made for international, (second order) society in an abstract sense, as Bull outlines how such a “precarious achievement” is maintained in an anarchical setting in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. Part Two addresses order in the contemporary international system. In this, the section I most enjoyed, The English School is applied to the traditional notions of; the balance of power; international law; diplomacy; war; and the Great Powers. Although eventually concluding that the study of world politics is purely an intellectual pursuit (319), in Part Three Bull treats the reader to a consideration of alternative paths to world order. At first glance one may consider this a treatise or personal manifesto on Bull’s part, a political agenda not in keeping with his otherwise academic detachment. However he remains true to his aims by coolly assessing each in turn, offering criticisms of the unworkable and unlikely where they are due and refraining from any utopian impulses. Indeed as an advocate of The English School, he is naturally inclined to the reform of the states’ system rather than its decline or obsolescence.

Does Bull fulfil the task he sets himself? Does he prove the existence and utility of the anarchical society? His reasoning deconstructs the oft levelled comparison between international relations and domestic political arrangements. As the title of the work indicates, Bull agrees that anarchy is a defining feature of international relations, but he rejects hierarchy as the only path to order. Moreover he clearly articulates the contrast between the mechanical series of interactions that characterise an international system, from the mutually held value laden perceptions and interactions that are the hallmark of his international society. Indeed he addresses sceptics head on asserting “my contention is that the element of a society has always been present, and remains present, in the modern international system, although only as one of the elements in it, whose survival is sometimes precarious” (41). This is an important caveat within The English School. Theirs’ is a tripartite outlook of an international system, international society and world society simultaneously coexisting. Thus The English School accepts the role that Great Powers play in determining the values and processes of international society and settling questions of stability and change. Bull sees international society jostling alongside war, transnational loyalty and division as elements of international relations (51) (73). Where critics see war (especially by Great Powers) as contrary to international law and thus proving realism’s assertion that the national interest and self-help always predominates, Bull points to the significance of states at least alleging they have just cause for war, keen as they are to appear reasonable members of international society (45). He underlines this point in his consideration of the efficacy of international law as “a social reality to the extent that there is a very substantial degree of conformity to its rules; but it does not follow from this that international law is a powerful agent or motive force in world politics” (139).

In his preface, Bull declares that The Anarchical Society is an opportunity to systematically bring together his thinking on international society and international order, where elsewhere he has only done so in “a piecemeal fashion”(ix). To do so he meditates on Hobbes, Grotius and Kant, whose worldviews are associated with the tripartite perspective which is the hallmark of The English School. Variously, Bull cites other notables in relation to their respective fields; Kelsen & Hart on international law; Gilpin & Hunt on the role of transnational corporations; Ali Mazrui  and Rajni Kothari on the Developing World’s justice agenda; and Richard Falk on the prospect of a New Medievalism. Ultimately this is Bull’s own work and the argument and analysis, both historical and political is his own. The Anarchical Society is written for an audience of academics and policy makers. For the latter are special lessons on the responsibilities of Great Powers; the risks posed by nuclear weaponry and the potential of institutions.  For the academic or student are definitions of concepts such as order; society; system; justice; war; balance of power and Great Power. Bull methodically contrasts related concepts with one another or details their components such as with the criteria for “socially effective rules” (56). Then there are his multiple levels of analysis, ranging from the international to both regional and global, and which through discussion of New Medievalism, countenance the role of non-state actors. Several times Bull directly addresses himself to his readers on some of the book’s most contentious topics and overarching questions. He highlights his refusal to justify order at the expense of justice, recognising this is the de facto position of The West (94). He criticises advocates of the nuclear peace, whilst directing readers to his writings elsewhere on the subject (126). He baldly rejects utopian cosmopolitan schemes as dreamt up by privileged Western elites and as such as patronising and ineffectual as they are impossible (85) (286) (304). In concluding, he chastens readers to accept that we remain in the dark about most things in spite of detailed research and it is foolish to pretend otherwise (320).

Written 40 years ago there are several interesting and insightful facts and observations one can gleam from a read of The Anarchical Society. It is readily apparent that talk of the rise of non-state actors and the phenomenon of globalization are not recent developments, with Bull tracing the globalization of European international society and the role of non-state terrorist actors. He speaks frankly of the post 1945 international society maintaining an order at the expense of equitable and proportionate notions of justice, telling the story of Walter Lippmann’s proposed post war regional Great Power management system as one mooted alternative (222). The greatest strength of the work is Bull’s careful treatment of concepts with which most international relations scholars are familiar and interested. He explores the paradox of how war is both a cause of disorder and thus a threat to international order/society and yet also an accepted instrument of state policy used to enforce international law or as a driver of change (91) (188). He separates discussion of the viability of international law from a focus on centralised coercion, arguing instead that self-help measures can ensure its application. Indeed he firmly identifies himself as a believer in law as “a social process”, rejecting “the idea of law as a ‘body of rules’ because they hold that this process of authoritative and effective decision-making does not consist simply of the application of a previously existing body of rules, but is shaped by social, moral and political considerations as well.” (128). Of particular relevance to my research would be Bull’s thoughts on how  an unjust order could be sustained (93); his analysis of how Great Powers legitimise themselves (229); and the strength of the cosmopolitan culture upon which international society rests (316).

What then is missing, what issues or questions are avoided by The Anarchical Society? Stanley Hoffmann, Adam Watson, Alan James, Kalevi Holsti, Kai Alderson, Andrew Hurrell, Yale Ferguson, Richard Little, John Williams, Edward Keene, Nicholas Wheeler, Tim Dunne and Barry Buzan are just some of those who have pieced over Bull’s legacy and reconsidered The Anarchical Society, now on its Third Edition. The have critiqued his separation of system and society, his moral vision, hesitant pluralism, methodological inexactitude and dismissal of economic integration or sub global developments. For my money, perhaps it is not the place, or it is best that he simply alludes to it, but a deeper (perhaps Gramscian) treatment of the values and institutions that define international society would be welcome. Although this work is picked up elsewhere in The English School. From a contemporary perspective the absence of religion/Islam as a theme is telling of its 1977 provenance. In terms of the existence of bias, as has been mentioned Bull’s voice is evident throughout The Anarchical Society, and he does address the reader deliberately whenever he picks sides in a debate, be it on nuclear weapons; cosmopolitanism; structural functionalism or natural law. As he sums up in a witty anecdote about being lost in Scotland, the present international society perhaps isn’t the best place to start from in search of world order, but it is here that we are, so it is here we must begin (295).

At 2 hours and 47 minutes I will recommend my students watch this 1992 Noam Chomsky documentary more in hope than in expectation.

If I recommended just one excerpt then skip to 1:52:25 about TV debate, which incidentally reminds me of a presentation to the 2013 ESSL PGR conference by my colleague Kate Wicker at Leeds School of Sociology & Social Policy on “what makes an expert” and how they achieve the authority to appear on the news.

Anyway I remember watching Chomsky for the first time on VHS (!?) a number of years ago courtesy of my eldest brother who went on to tease me with the provocation that “the Cold War didn’t happen”. Incredulous at the time, I’ve since then read through Hegemony or Survival and Understanding PowerThe New Mandarins, cited appropriately enough at a 2013 BISA Roundtable on Telling Truth to Power, has made it onto my Amazon Wishlist.

Besides admiration for Chomsky’s range of expertise, defence of free speech and prodigious output, simply put I get uncomfortable when I read him, which is of course exactly what he wants. The gist of “manufacturing consent” is that propaganda is to democracy what violence is in a dictatorship, and the very use of the term propaganda exhibits one of his central arguments. Namely that the media, politicians, academics and other public figures, by framing issues and selecting stories bound the debate beyond which any discussion, opinions or indeed terminology such as “propaganda” appear extreme, fringe or ridiculous. Indeed Chomsky was one the first people I read to criticise the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, “the good war”, and thus speak beyond such boundaries, and has not confined his critique to the classroom as his police record testifies and academics opposed to the Trident nuclear deterrent at Faslane Naval Base would applaud.

Such “unpopular truths” about “necessary illusions” are often deemed “conspiracy theories” to be rightly dismissed by the well informed. So how do I get from unpopular truths to uncomfortable reading? After all it can’t simply be the violent realities and true costs of foreign policy exposed for all to read (see Chile, 1973 the other 9/11), for Chomsky’s books have no monopoly on these, save highlighting ones of which we are not aware or would prefer to ignore.

No the discomfort is because Chomsky’s world view is at odds with what I know I’m supposed to think, what a responsible member of the political class is supposed to do, and thus is comfortable with. His interpretation of international relations is at odds with the theories with which most academics are comfortable, that international society and the liberal rights order are a form of American hegemony if not empire. That The Persian Gulf War of 1991 was not a multilateral endeavour with precision weaponry. That containment by sanctions of Saddam Hussein in the 90s wrought horrific consequences. That the state, our accepted political unit of choice and the reference point upon which IR depends, is in fact the problem to which anarchy is the solution and not as we would have it, vice versa.

And this is what the excerpt at 1:52:25 gets too. My discomfort stems from the concern that when we debate intervention in Syria we do so within bounded terms using the correct language and expressing the appropriate talking points or “conventional pieties”. Bad enough when we do this in the pub, or to inform our voting, but it gets worse when we have a direct responsibility to others say by editing a student newspaper or by being a Teaching Assistant, both of which I have done with varying degrees of effectiveness…

The purpose of a university education should be to foster independent critical ability rather than rehash conventional wisdom, inculcate acquiescence or promote an agenda. But all too often this critique can come across as the stereotypical propagation of dissent, ripe for dismissal, simply because it attempts to question the consensus and thus make the listener uncomfortable about their complacency.

Five minutes into a typically thunderous speech, with which it has to be said I pretty much agree, Galloway hits upon a key question – who gets to decide what the international community is, who it includes and who it doesn’t?

For me, this question goes to the very heart of the study of politics. The discipline is about more than merely the practice of government, party competition or inter state relations. Lasswell got closer when he suggested it is about who gets what, when and how. Morgenthau was correct to focus on power as the currency of politics, but let us not forget those who are powerless or acted upon rather than doing the acting. And it is here for me that the nub of politics resides, who gets to decide what is normal? Who gets to decide which states are in the international community, what they may or may not do, who the rogues are and how they’re to be punished?

You don’t have to be Noam Chomsky to suspect the term “International community” is a malleable rhetorical device applied to legitimise whatever action The West is taking. But even Bush Jr had to make do with a “coalition of the willing” because language can stretch only so far. Meanwhile a cursory search reveals the term is beloved by non-Western states too. However that could simply be because no one wants to be against “international community” in the same way that no politician comes out against “hard working families”.

Meanwhile in IR land. which although not necessarily an ivory tower, is somewhat more relaxed and rarefied than the real world, I would argue that The English School does draw a distinction between the international society of states and an international community. Where the former includes all 193 UN members, the latter reflects a closer knit association, which is, to tweak Nardin’s distinction, both practical and to some extent purposive, reflecting as it does an attachment to more substantive norms (more on these in a future post).

At the risk of oversimplification (the bane of academia) it could be said that international society is a largely pluralist entity where states agree to accept one another’s pursuit of the good life within their own borders and recognise that difference over values if not interests stands in the way of anything other than coexistence. Thus the animating purpose of society is to regulate interstate conduct by maintaining procedural rules of interaction such as non intervention, a balance of power, diplomatic exchange and respect for treaties.

Solidarism, as the name suggests sees both the possibility and reality of solidarity among states based not just on common interests but also values held in common. These in turn, be they free markets, free trade, minimum standards of human rights, opposition to slavery, condemnation of racial discrimination or expectations of good governance inform cooperation and coordination among states to realise joint projects by the community. This could take the form of the regional integration, pollution controls, banning certain weapons of war or agreeing to limit (but but not eliminate) the use of force.

If a pluralist international society is one in which states see only “far away countries of which we know little”, the supposed hallmark of a solidarist international community is the collective enforcement of international law. A place where law can be based not just on consent, but consensus and so yes, Syria can be held to account in line with a Chemical Weapons Convention that it has not signed but which 189 other states have.

Back then to the Honourable Member for Bradford West. In the early days of the UN, when membership sat at around 50 states, the likes of China, India and Russia delighted in pointing out that though outnumbered in the society of states, they made up most of the world community. But of course whilst Russia and China represent 2.5 billion people, do their governments really represent them?

If the international community represents a normative project, then I argue that project is one that is animated by the self styled community of democracies and by this criteria, Russia and China fall short of the mark. A mark I hasten to add before Chomsky rebukes me, that many Western states don’t exactly excel at – does “Not in my name” circa 2003 ring any bells?

Ian Clark writing in 2005 sums up the best response to Galloway’s question, “International Society speaks with several voices, and we should listen more attentively to the voice that speaks with a democratic accent”. In other words, it’s quaint but daft to imagine all states are of equal legitimacy, which in any case we know is false in terms of materiel, influence and power.

Indeed the whole point of the UNSC veto and the concept of Great Powers rests on this widely held assumption that some states are required to do the heavy lifting, and that in return for this role and the rights that flow with it to be recognised by international society they must discharge certain responsibilities, such as acting to maintain “international peace and security”. But even accepting this material fact alongside the value judgement that all states are equal, but some states are more equal than others, even by defining the more exclusive community within the society, Galloway’s critique still stands.

As I survey Syria (mercifully from afar) I am struck by the sense that something must be done and that we (the international community) have a responsibility to protect. I am struck by the simplistic (there it goes again) notion that there have been good interventions and bad ones, and that the international legitimacy denied to the Iraq War by the lack of second resolution, could still yet be present in Syria despite the lack of a second resolution.

Now the debate as to the efficacy of intervention belongs in another post, my concern here is that the putative international community cannot exist without an international society and that society is jeopardised by the exclusion and disregard for Russia and China which will thwart not just our ambitions but that which we presently take for granted.

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.