The Power of Two
It’s one of those phrases that trips lightly off the editorial writer’s keyboard: "The international community should consider…." "The international community should act…." But the phrase more often obscures than illuminates. It allows bien-pensants everywhere to propose optimal imaginary courses of action for the betterment of humankind to hypothetical enlightened actors. And the phrase makes ...
It's one of those phrases that trips lightly off the editorial writer's keyboard: "The international community should consider...." "The international community should act...." But the phrase more often obscures than illuminates. It allows bien-pensants everywhere to propose optimal imaginary courses of action for the betterment of humankind to hypothetical enlightened actors. And the phrase makes it easy to avoid hard thinking about who might act, out of what motive, and to what effect. Its use, incidentally, is banned from the editorial columns of the Financial Times.
It’s one of those phrases that trips lightly off the editorial writer’s keyboard: "The international community should consider…." "The international community should act…." But the phrase more often obscures than illuminates. It allows bien-pensants everywhere to propose optimal imaginary courses of action for the betterment of humankind to hypothetical enlightened actors. And the phrase makes it easy to avoid hard thinking about who might act, out of what motive, and to what effect. Its use, incidentally, is banned from the editorial columns of the Financial Times.
It is, nonetheless, a legitimate exercise to ask what lies behind the cliché. Why is it trotted out every time people ask themselves what is to be done in some conflict-torn or poverty-ridden corner of the earth? Is there an overarching international community — in terms of values, interests, or will — to which those suffering the ills of the modern global market can appeal, with some hope of constructive response?
At the most visceral level, I can name one such community that has asserted itself in recent years: the community of international opinion, generated by modern communications and the media images it can instantaneously transmit around the globe. As the British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently expressed, technology has created a sense of "one world, a global community." And without the vivid, public focus on faraway crises that this community can engender, it is hard to imagine that Western governments would have intervened in regional conflicts such as those in the former Yugoslavia.
Still, that definition remains fuzzy. It does not, for instance, explain with any precision how such interventions come about. And it does not directly touch the real actors and principles — the states and institutions — through which international affairs are conducted.
Perhaps then, the germ of true international community — the holy grail of "global governance" that so often rears its head in academic debates and at gatherings of the great and good — exists in current institutions and rules? Up to a point. The Bretton Woods institutions (the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund) and their lost cousin, the World Trade Organization, have created likely the closest thing to a set of rules governing the world economy. The United Nations, for all its faults and failures, remains a rules-based community of states in miniature. International law remains on the march, adding treaties and institutions to express the community’s newest priorities and passions, from the fight against global warming to the outlawing of biological weapons to the pursuit and prosecution of tyrants.
This system amounts to a powerful machinery through which widely held and in some cases novel community values can be expressed. It is the intellectual backdrop against which today’s liberal internationalists — people like British Prime Minister Tony Blair — set out their idealistic-sounding stall. It allows Straw, for example, to posit "four principles… to underpin the modern idea of global community," a system in which nations have global rights and obligations and in which the community has the right and duty to intervene in conflicts between and within states.
But this definition remains inadequate. The rules, for example, do not exist in isolation. They express the will of powerful international actors; they reflect hard bargains driven between players — mainly states — with coinciding or complementary interests. The institutions require the active engagement of those states and a constant sense that the institutions still serve their governments’ political self-interest.
By now, it is surely obvious about whom we are really talking. The true international community — the one whose health and togetherness will determine the course of world events — is the group of states that created the rules and institutions in the first place. It is, essentially, the United States and Europe.
It was the United States and Europe, working together after the last world war, that created the conditions for peace and growing prosperity in the ensuing five decades. It was their creation of NATO that contained the Soviet menace and brought security to the troubled European continent. It was their leadership of succeeding global trade rounds that spurred economic growth around the world, lifted millions from poverty, and helped capitalism overwhelm state socialism. And it was their common action at the end of the Cold War that maintained trans-Atlantic order and opened the way for expanded opportunity and stability to the east.
Of course, the world does not turn purely on a trans-Atlantic axis. But communities need leadership and values, and the international community of the last 50 years was created through the leadership and governed by the common values of the United States and Europe.
And how does that community stand today, more than a decade after the demise of the common enemy? It is in trouble — deeper trouble than the leaders of the community seem prepared to admit. The commonality of views that bound the United States and Europe together is fading. Since September 11, 2001, after a brief flurry of togetherness, they have been unmistakably drifting apart. The sense of a terrorist threat has initiated a profound transformation in U.S. foreign policy, but one that Europeans do not share and do not begin to understand. This misunderstanding is mutual. It affects all aspects of international relations, from mediation (or the lack of it) in the Middle East to cooperation (or the lack of it) in defense and from disruptions of trans-Atlantic trade to policy on weapons of mass destruction.
This state of affairs contains a hideous irony. There has never been a greater need for an international community than in the months since international terrorism exploded on New York and Washington. The calls for action to solve the problems of poverty and conflict have never been louder. But at this moment of greatest need, the twin pillars of the international community seem less able and likely than at any time in recent decades to act together.
The editorial writers and opinion formers would do well to set aside their appeals to an abstract international community and focus instead on the practical task of bringing the United States and Europe back to a shared global understanding. Without such an understanding, the "international community" will lose its last vestiges of meaning, as well as its capacity to act.
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