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.