email icon Email this citation


(Moral) Agency and International Society
Reflections on Norms, the UN, Southampton FC, the Gulf War and the Kosovo Campaign

Chris Brown

International Studies Association
41st Annual Convention
Los Angeles, CA
March 14-18, 2000



Politicians, leader-writers and informed public opinion are, quite characteristically, content to posit the existence of an ‘international community’ &-; albeit often not without some misgivings. 1 There is no generally agreed understanding as to what the term means, but it is clear that the international community is presumed to possess agency, the ability to act in the world. Moreover, this agency is explicitly moral, in so far as a characteristic usage is to suggest that the international community ought to do such-and-such – come to the aid of famine victims, protect the human rights of the East Timorese or whatever. Quite frequently the term is used in the context of (moral) failure – thus, the international community will be castigated for having failed to prevent the Rwanda genocide, of for failing to take the necessary measures to cope with environmental degradation. Even so, the continued use of the term even in a context of failure implies the existence of some kind of collective agency-possessing body, albeit one that frequently lacks the necessary will to do the right thing.

Scholars in the mainstream of contemporary international relations shy away from this conclusion. The (structural) realist approach to the world rests on the working assumption that the international system is generated by the self-regarding actions of its component states, and that while this system may indeed constrain the behaviour of actors it does not, itself, possess agency. The notion of an international community is a fiction and, more to the point, an unhelpful fiction, for two reasons: first, it is unhelpful because it draws attention away from the fact that states are the key actors in international relations – thus, when the international community is described as ‘acting’ it is actually states who are exhibiting agency whatever community-oriented explanation they may give of their action. Second, it is unhelpful because it implies that action can or should be taken on behalf of the common good, whereas the mainspring of international action is the interests of states, their desire to survive (or, perhaps, to dominate). Use of the term ‘international community’ implies the possibility of altruism and self-sacrifice on the part of states, but such behaviour is not to be looked for. Interestingly, many radical writers would agree, albeit with the twist that state-interest is shorthand for the interests of the ruling class. Thus, Noam Chomsky has developed a whole school of interpretation on the principle that international action by the United States is always driven by the needs of US capital, and, in Britain, John Pilger has established a regular leader-page slot in the Guardian devoted to unmasking the evil intent behind references to the international community – a recent, particularly fine, example being his suggestion that UN action in East Timor in the Autumn of 1999 was designed to preserve the province for Indonesian/American/world capital (e.g. Chomsky, 1994 & 1999: Pilger, 1999).

A certain amount of scepticism about the idea of an international community – although, perhaps, not as much as Pilger or Chomsky demonstrate - is obviously justified, but it would be rash to dismiss the term as altogether a matter of smoke-and-mirrors. This is a case where, as usual, it would be sensible to follow the method of Aristotle, who in investigating issues of this kind always began with ‘what people say’ about a particular topic, moving from there to a wider and more thoughtful interpretation of conventional wisdom, but an interpretation that can be related to its starting point – see, for example, Nicomachean Ethics Book VII, 1145b1 ff. (Irwin, 1985:173). In other words, the working assumption ought to be that if it is commonly thought (that is, if ‘people say’) that there is an agency-bearing international community, then it is unlikely that this is simply an illusion – although quite probable that when we look more deeply we will see that a great deal of refinement of the notion will be required.

It is obvious where this refining process must begin. The convergence of perspective of rational-choice realism and Chomskyan radicalism is hardly surprising because each in its different way stands opposed to the classical liberal internationalist – and perhaps, even, classical realist - perspective which is prepared to give at least some intellectual credence to a version of the notion of an international community. The notion of a ‘society of states’ or ‘international society’ is the master concept of the English School (ES) and clearly stands in some kind of relationship to the idea of an international community; it is here that we should look if we are to find a version of the latter idea which has some intellectual substance and is not simply a rhetorical ploy. The purpose of this essay is to examine the notion that a society of states might, in some way, possess (moral) agency. The hope is that, at the same time, something of interest might be said in general of the notion of an international society. The ES is, at present, experiencing something of a revival, with the possibility of some kind of quasi-formal research programme emerging (Buzan, 1999); moreover, the recent ‘constructivist’ turn in US international relations theory has, in some versions, clear and explicit affinities to the ES, including the employment of the notion of an international society (Reus-Smit, 1999: Wendt, 1999). In short, the subject is of academic as well as more general interest.


Agency and the idea of an international society

Most sociologists are rather proprietorial when it comes to the noun ‘society’ and the adjective ‘societal’. A society is, from their point of view, a term with a very specific meaning and one of great portent: although they might disagree amongst themselves as to how it should be used, they agree it is not a term to be used casually. Thus, from the perspective of Parsonian analysis, and, more or less, that of Luhmannite modern systems theory, a society is the social system that encompasses all other social systems within itself. From this angle it is a moot point whether one could envisage a ‘world society’ or a ‘society of societies’ replacing national societies as the main focus of interest, but it is quite clear that a ‘society of states’ or ‘international society’ is a misuse of the term (Meyer et al, 1997: Luhmann, 1997).

Members of the ES, and other IR theorists who use the term will, of course, be unworried by this point of view – indeed they are unlike to be aware of it unless they find themselves (metaphorically) shut in a locked room with a group of modern systems theorists. To the ES, to refer to an international society is a way of drawing attention to the (posited) norm-governed nature of relations between states. The point of reference here is not sociological theory, but a comparison with the idea of an international system, which is understood to be the key concept of neo-realist thought, and is taken to refer to the set of essentially non-normative relationships between states which emerge simply as a result of the operation of power politics (Brown, 1995). The idea that a set of relationships constitute a ‘society’ simply by virtue of the fact that they are norm-governed would displease the average sociologist, but the latter has to understand that this is a term of art in the discourse of IR. For ES theory a ‘society’ of states could be termed an ‘association’ or a ‘club’ of states without any real loss of content, whereas this would be an impossible move for almost any sociologist.

The understanding of ‘norms’ by ES theorists deserves a little more attention, but first one rather important point about the implications of these two meanings of society for the issue of agency should be noted. From a sociologists point of view, the exercise of agency by ‘society’ is highly problematic. Everyday usage is instructive here – when we say ‘society is to blame’ for some particular event, the intention is generally ironic. Such formulations are widely understood as misplacing agency; this was what Mrs Thatcher intended to draw attention to when, with characteristic sensitivity, she made her (in)famous remark that there was ‘no such thing as society’, only individuals and families. Her point was that to blame ‘society’ for anti-social behaviour was to dislodge responsibility on to some amorphous ill-defined external force which, in practice, meant that no-one was to blame; social factors may be important in influencing behaviour, but society itself does not act.

On the other hand, clubs and associations do act. This is why the IR theorist’s understanding of international society does open up the possibility of a serious discussion of agency. Clubs may possess legal personality and are characteristically attributed with the ability to act. Thus, the sentence ‘Southampton Football Club yesterday appointed Glenn Hoddle as its new team manager’ makes perfect sense (although the actual decision may not): moreover, clubs are believed to possess the capacity to behave (im)morally – thus, again, it makes sense to say that the same club would have been ‘wrong’ to continue to employ its previous manager (who is facing trial for a serious criminal offence). 2 Now, everyone understands that Southampton FC is an abstraction that may possess legal personality but cannot actually perform the task of firing and hiring. Instead, this is done by a Board of Directors and a Chairman of the Board who act on behalf of the shareholders – although, actually, most of the voting shares are owned by the Board – and who therefore exercise agency on behalf of the club. So, when the fans, say things like ‘ the club should fire its manager’ they know and we know that this is shorthand; an expanded legally-minded version of this sentence would be that the Board should fire the manager, while a politically-accurate version would be that the Chairman, who has a plurality of the shares and is in effective control, should do the job. Is any of this relevance to the ‘society of states’ which, unlike Southampton FC, is not a legally-established public corporation, but a club in the looser sense of the term? Are there individuals (actors) who stand in relation to international society, as the Chairman and Board stand in relation to Southampton FC, even though there clearly are relevant differences between the two forms of association? This is the question this paper is attempting to answer – but before proceeding to the next stage, a digression on the norms of international society may be helpful.


What does it mean to say that the society of states is ‘norm-governed’?

Consider the notion of ‘sovereignty’ - a task made easier by Stephen Krasner’s recent and important study (Krasner, 1999). It is a commonplace that, at least since the Treaties of Westphalia, if not before, rulers have claimed to be sovereign, and that an international legal status is associated with sovereignty – thus, it is universally acknowledged that a sovereign state is, in terms of international law, a different kind of entity from a suzerain state or a protectorate. Moreover, it is also acknowledged that this is not a matter of military-diplomatic power as such; some states recognised as sovereign had/have no effective capacity to project power on even a local stage, while some suzerain states (in India at the time of the Raj, for example) possessed quite substantial military clout and a fair degree of diplomatic importance. The point was, and is, that sovereign states acknowledge no external legal authority while suzerain states, by definition, cannot make such a claim.

What does it mean to characterise this situation with reference to sovereignty as a norm of Westphalian international society? The claim is, presumably, that not only do states claim sovereignty for themselves, they recognise it in others, and they regard this mutual recognition as not simply a matter of the acknowledgement of a legal status, but as something to be substantially valued in its own terms. This mutual recognition is essential to the ES approach to a society of states because other norms, such as the norm of non-intervention flow directly from the proposition that the sovereignty of the members of international society ought to be respected. It is on the basis of the idea that sovereignty is normatively grounded that the ES distinguishes itself from ‘hard-line’ realism. The idea that sovereign states ought to recognise each other’s sovereignty is central to the idea of an international society; moderate realists might be able to agree with this proposition, but the ‘men of blood and iron’ as Wight put it, the adherents of old-style ‘power politics’, would regard this as a nonsense, as would, for different reasons, modern neo-realists (Wight, 1991).

Does it matter that, as Krasner demonstrates, rulers have never actually behaved towards one another in ways that would imply that they recognised each other’s sovereignty as anything other than an international legal status (Krasner, 1999)? He makes two points: first, as predicted by modern realists, in a self-help system, rulers do what is necessary for their own survival including interfering in the affairs of other states, irrespective of the alleged norms of the system and, second and rather more surprisingly, the so-called Westphalia system has frequently and repeatedly displayed breaches of the ‘norm’ of non-intervention for reasons which are not security related – from interventions on behalf of religious minorities actually sanctioned by the 1648 Treaties through the suppression of the slave trade and into the modern era. Sovereignty, suggests Krasner, is ‘organised hypocrisy’ – a so-called norm the flouting of which has been the actual norm (regular pattern of behaviour) of the period.

Two kinds of responses to this line of argument can be made in defence of the idea of a norm-based international society. One is that of Mervyn Frost (Frost, 1995). Sovereignty and non-intervention are settled norms of international society, ‘settled’ in the sense that even when they are breached, the wrongdoers do not deny their force – instead they try to explain that, for such-and-such a reason, the norm in question does not apply in this particular case, or for reasons of force majeure has had to be suspended on this particular occasion or whatever. Thus, in a paradoxical sense, the norm breaker testifies to the authority of the norm. One can see the strength of this position, and certainly in contemporary times a refusal to play the game is rather unusual – for example, one of the things that was distinctive and unusual about Iraq’s take-over of Kuwait in 1990 was the unwillingness of Saddam Hussein to resort to the usual excuses or evasions, a refusal that certainly contributed to the cohesion of the coalition that was formed against his action. However, if norms are consistently broken, even if defended in this way, are they still norms? At what point does the notion of a ‘settled norm’ become indistinguishable from ‘organised hypocrisy’?

A better defence of norms in international society employs some Wittgensteinian thoughts on game-playing and the rules of the game; Friedrich Kratochwil’s brand of constructivism is particularly relevant here (Kratochwil, 1989 & 1995). Sovereignty is a constitutive rule of international society, rather than something that regulates a pre-existing society of states. Without this rule international society could not exist, hence when actually intervening, one is obliged to explain how such behaviour can be understood in terms of the rules (e.g. as misunderstood, or as a justified exception) because failure to do so would, as it were, end the game – and thereby end the capacity of rulers to claim the status of sovereign since this status only exists by virtue of the existence of international society. Since rulers do not wish to surrender their claim to sovereignty they cannot simply declare that they could and would do anything they could get away with in order to further their interests. This is why such declarations do not take place, and why international society can be seen as rule (sc. norm) governed. This is a compelling argument, and Krasner’s response, which is, roughly, that the Westphalia system is not a game and therefore has no constitutive rules, misses the point of this kind of argument; the Westphalia system is a (Wittgensteinian) game because it is played as such, not because of some extra-game attributes observable in the ‘real’ world (Krasner, 1999: 229). On the other hand, this defence of the reality of norms in international society although successful in its own terms, is much ‘thinner’ in content than most ES scholars would wish. When Wight writes of non-intervention as a ‘Western value’ in international relations, it seems unlikely that he had in mind that this value could be defended only as a constitutive rule of the international society game (Wight, 1966).

The point of this digression is that the notion that what distinguishes international society from an international system is that the former is normatively integrated requires a fair amount of exegesis before it can be accepted – and even then it is only acceptable via an argument that delivers rather less substance than the canonical authors of the ES might have hoped. This in turn means that when we look into the idea that the society of states might possess moral agency built on its normative content, we should scale down our expectations of what we expect to find. It would not be surprising if the ideas of agency that emerge are very weak and insubstantial.


Agency, International Society and the UN

No collective body stands to the society of states in quite the way that the Board of Southampton FC stands to Southampton FC. The Southampton Board are a legally constituted body. Southampton FC Ltd is a publicly-quoted corporation whose Board are regulated by the UK Companies legislation; they have not only the right, but also the duty to act on behalf of the club in certain specific (and specified) circumstances. The club’s objective is to play professional football (or soccer, since this is, after all, the American ISA, although the Latino/Hispanic population of LA would not be confused by the British term) at the highest possible level – this is generally operationalised as staying in the Premiership – and thereby to make money for its shareholders. The Board is legally endowed with agency in order to act in pursuit of this objective. None of this is directly relevant to a discussion of the society of states but it may have some indirect resonance; international society also exists in the context of a body of (international) law, and it might be argued that the global body created under international law and tasked with maintaining international peace and security – the United Nations, perhaps more specifically, the UN Security Council – acts on behalf of the society of states, i.e. possesses moral agency. The rest of this section will examine this claim.

The attribution of a key role to the UN Security Council as the bearer of agency on behalf of international society rests on the UN Charter, the behaviour of its members, including the most powerful of them, and, to an extent, on public perception (‘what people say’.) Although the Charter of the UN is more confused about the relationship of the Organisation to international law than was the Covenant of the League of Nations – on this see Terry Nardin (1983) – the signatories of this international treaty do assign to the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, while retaining for themselves the right of self-defence (but only until such time as the Security Council has taken over the matter – Article 51). Does this transfer of the right to act from individual states to a collective body amount to the creation of an agent capable of acting on behalf of international society?

States sometimes – indeed quite frequently – act as though the UN Security Council (SC) does possess this capacity. Thus, during the Gulf Crisis of 1990-91, the US and its coalition partners went to considerable pains to achieve resolutions of the SC which legitimated their actions – e.g. by calling on UN members to use ‘all necessary means’ to bring about the withdrawal of Iraq from Kuwait, this turn of phrase being generally accepted code for the use of military force. That this was achieved appears to have been quite important in swinging key votes in the US Senate behind President Bush’s stand, and, more generally, in swaying significant parts of Western public opinion behind the action (which, incidentally, seems to suggest that the public at large at least sometimes correlates their notion of the ‘international community’ with the UN). Similarly, the lack of explicit SC authorisation for Nato’s action in Kosovo in 1999 was widely perceived as embarrassing; in this case the key phrase ‘all necessary means’ was not to be found in SC resolutions – although other phrases almost equally supportive of action were – and this lack certainly made it at least marginally more difficult to generate public support for this action.

As noted above, one reason for the desirability of SC legitimisation for action is that (Western) public opinion is keen that it should be present. More generally, a great deal of public rhetoric about the failings of the ‘international community’ are laid by the public at the door of the UN, which is deemed to have failed to act with sufficient speed or purpose in Rwanda, Somalia or wherever. The problem with this critique is that it is insufficiently sensitive to the complexity of the relationship between the UN as an institution and its members – a similar problem exists with respect to the attitude of the states themselves and is the main reason why the idea that the UNSC could act as the agent of international society is not satisfactory – or at least not entirely satisfactory.

The point is, the UN was not just created by states; its central agencies actually consist of states – fifteen in the case of the SC, five permanent. These states do not simply pursue the common good of the society of states; they pursue their own interests even in the case of a clash with the common good, or, perhaps, to get the political psychology right, they define the common good in such a way that it corresponds to their own interests. Moreover, they are, tacitly, expected to behave in this way; the voting provisions of the SC give a veto to the permanent five members on the, tacit, understanding that they will use it to further their own interests (Article 27.3 ), and the remaining ten members are elected with reference to ‘equitable geographical distribution’ rather than their capacity to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security – both criteria appear in the Charter (Article 23.1), but the latter has gone by the board.

So, when the SC gave authorisation to use ‘all necessary measures’ in the Gulf but not in Kosovo what we see is not the exercise of a discriminating moral agency, but, in both cases, the operation of political judgements based on calculations of interest. Seen in conventional moral terms, preserving the human rights of the Kosovo Albanians was a rather better cause than preserving the property-rights of the Al Sabah family in Kuwait (although, in fairness, it should be said that pre-1990 Kuwait was substantially less oppressive than would have been a successful post-conquest Iraqi government of the 'province'), but, for a variety of reasons, some good some bad, in 1999 Russia and the People’s Republic of China were not prepared to abstain in the way they had in 1990/91. A resolution to condemn the Kosovo operation was defeated in the Council by twelve votes to three, but the three included two permanent members which clearly indicated that a positive resolution in support would fail. There are, of course, very good reasons why the veto power exists – the experience of the 1930s demonstrated clearly that any attempt to force a Great Power to compromise its conception of its core interests by a Council vote was doomed to embarrassing failure, and the logic behind this position remains as sound today as it was then – but these good reasons also point to the disadvantages of regarding the UN or the SC as agents of international society. These are not bodies which have some kind of collective existence apart from their members. 3 In so far as they exercise agency on behalf of international society at all they do so hesitantly, and, much of the time, they will simply be unable to act.

The relationship between the UN’s members and its organs is rather different from the relationship between Southampton FC and its Board of Directors. In one (legal) sense the Board actually are the club whereas the UNSC clearly is not even legally the same thing as the society of states. In another sense, the Board are peripheral to the real activity of the Club which is playing football – their role is to provide the circumstances under which the players can reward loyal fans with success; the UNSC on the other hand, in principle, consists of the most important players along with some other regional representatives. Part of the difference here may lie in the goals the two bodies pursue. In Terry Nardin’s terms, Southampton FC are a ‘purposive association’, the Board, fans and team are united around a clearly defined purpose (usually avoiding relegation): international society on the other hand is a ‘practical association’ with no purpose other than to facilitate the co-existence of its members in peace and justice (Nardin, 1983). In the first case, the Board are expected to do – or try to do – whatever is necessary (within the rules) to achieve the goal; in the second case, in principle, it need not be necessary to do anything at all – the exercise of agency only becomes an issue when there actually is a threat to international peace and security, otherwise the system works perfectly well without anyone doing anything. The problem here is that whereas most of the time a very weak sense of agency is actually more than is necessary, when action is required, a much stronger sense is called for – and not provided by the SC. Moreover, pace Nardin’s position, it is by no means clear that preserving international peace and security is the only goal of international society; the development of the international human rights regime post-1945 suggests that nowadays the traditional practices of international society can no longer be understood as the sole basis for international peace and justice (as Nardin’s own account somewhat uneasily recognises). The attenuated ability to act that might have been sufficient in the old international society no longer seems to correspond with what is nowadays meant by the term – to use N.J. Wheeler’s formulation, a solidarist rather than a pluralist reading of international society seems to be increasingly favoured (Wheeler, 1992).

As the example of Kosovo cited above illustrates, the absence of SC backing does not necessarily prevent international action. Nato in the Spring of 1999 certainly considered itself to be acting on behalf of the international community even though this action was not legitimated by a positive vote in the SC. Their claim, set out very clearly in Tony Blair’s speech ‘The Doctrine of the International Community’ was that the unwillingness of the UN to act was a sign that something was wrong with that body, but that in the absence of UN approval, action could still be legitimate provided it met certain criteria (Blair, 1999). The criteria themselves bear some resemblance to the conventional criteria for a ‘Just War’ (albeit containing a reference to the interests of the states concerned in a way that such conventional criteria do not) but what is interesting in the context of this paper is the claim that a group of states could exercise agency on behalf of the international community without UN sanction. What is to be made of such a claim?


Informal agency and international society

In principle, it might be thought that, in a time before the emergence of global organisations ostensibly devoted to the maintenance of international peace and security, states would be obliged to fend for themselves and, thus, would be unlikely to give a high priority to the interests of international society. In practice, the actual experience of the Westphalia system prior to 1919 was rather different. For a few examples, first, as Krasner demonstrates, collective action in support of societal goals (the protection of religious minorities) was actually provided for by the Westphalia Treaties (Krasner, 1999): at least part (although perhaps only a small part) of the motivation behind the various coalitions formed against the French revolutionary and Napoleonic state was the desire to protect the institutions of the ‘one great republic’ that was the eighteenth century society of states, as advocated by Edmund Burke (Fidler & Welsh, 1999): the suppression of the slave trade in the nineteenth century was a British project that eventually was taken over by the wider international society (Kaufmann & Pape, 1999). However, the most systematic attempt to give international society the capacity to act came in the Congress System that followed the Napoleonic Wars, and in its successor the more informal Concert of Europe (Holbraad, 1970).

The Congress System, as the name implies, was based on a series of Congresses at which the states of Europe, under the direction of the Great Powers (Britain, France, the Habsburg Empire, Prussia, Imperial Russia), rearranged the map of Europe in the interests of the restoration of peace under the old, dynastic, regime (Kissinger, 1957). The Congress System was relatively short-lived, essentially because the ideological consensus upon which it rested – the ‘Holy Alliance’ – was unstable. Britain declined to sign-up on (largely spurious) technical grounds 4 and, after the July Revolution in France in 1830, the pretence that the two ‘liberal’ powers were in agreement on international issues with the others was abandoned. Nonetheless, while the Congress System lasted it actually took positive action on behalf of its conception of the needs of international society, including authorising military interventions in Spain and Italy. The Concert of Europe was a more informal affair, based on the idea that in the face of a potentially dangerous crisis the major European powers should attempt to resolve matters acting together, that is, in concert. Although the overall impact of the Concert is debatable, some crises were actually resolved in this way – the Berlin Conference of 1878 on the Balkans being a kind of high-spot in this respect.

The Congress System and the Concert of Europe involved different levels of institutionalisation of the notion that the Great Powers of Europe had some kind of collective responsibility to ensure that the society of states functioned as smoothly as possible. These powers took this role upon themselves without the sanction of an international treaty (although Congresses and Conferences often led to the latter); their mandate was their power, their capacity to put into effect their collective will. They were the agents of international society because they declared themselves to be so, and because they could back up their interpretation of the needs of that society by force if necessary. There are, of course, two obvious drawbacks to this state of affairs. In the first place, it is most definitely not clear that the interpretation of the needs of international society agreed upon by the Great Powers will meet with the approval of everyone else – indeed, part of the normal functioning of the Congress/Concert when it did function ‘properly’ was the sacrifice of the interests of minor powers in the cause of international peace and stability; it is in keeping with this understanding that Richard Langhorne somewhere remarks that the last meeting of the Concert of Europe was in Munich in 1938. Second, in practice the more serious drawback to the actual operation of the Congress/Concert system was the lack of consensus among the great powers. It was only for a short period after 1815 that all the majors shared, at least to some extent, in the reactionary values of the Holy Alliance and it is no accident that this was the one period in the nineteenth century that effective agency could be attributed to the society of states – for a short time the Congress System worked (albeit contrary to the wider interests of humanity).

The Congress/Concert idea survives into the twentieth century in a number of forms: the composition and powers of the UNSC was partly influenced by the vision of what the major powers could do if they worked together in concert, and the more recent practice of forming Contact Groups to oversee diplomacy in some particular area (Namibia, Bosnia) is also reminiscent of the Concert/Congress idea. However, a more common late twentieth-century version of the concert idea is the notion of a ‘coalition of the willing’ – a group of states who take it upon themselves to act on behalf of international society, but who differ from the older idea because they do not necessarily involve all the great powers acting in concert. Thus in 1991 a coalition of the willing, built by and around the US, reversed Iraq’s aggression in Kuwait, with the approval of the UNSC and hence the acquiescence of Russia and China (but without their participation); in Kosovo in 1999 Nato was the focus for another coalition of the willing, which, tacitly, included some non-Nato members (Romania and Bulgaria, for example) but which was actively opposed by both Russia and China.

How are such coalitions to be understood? The models of the posse comitatus and the vigilante band have been proposed as heuristic aids – the former being an informal but legally-constituted body, the latter not being legally constituted but, at least in principle, being intended to enforce the law – and there is a certain amount of mileage to be gained from playing around with these categories (see inter alia Brown, 1999a). Certainly the idea of the US as an international Sheriff has become a cliché especially with critics of the US role in the world (who seem to forget that the Sheriff is a legal officer with authority to act and to recruit a posse, unlike the leader of a band of vigilantes). However, there are two points against the these understandings of the new coalitions of the willing – or perhaps the same point that takes two forms.

First, posses and vigilante bands are static bodies who are (formal or informal) agents of the existing legal order. They have no capacity or authority to change the norms they are enforcing; in so far as they act as the agents of international society they do so on the basis that they are enforcing an agreed body of law, an existing normative consensus. The problem with this is that the norms of international society are currently undergoing quite substantial change; the emergence of an international human rights regime post-1945 poses a challenge to conventional understandings of sovereignty and non-intervention (although, as noted above, conventional understandings are themselves open to interpretation and revision) and the need to negotiate a safe path between these two, apparently conflicting, norms requires a degree of flexibility that informal coalitions of the willing are unlikely to possess. The point here can be made by way of a contrast between the Gulf in 1990/91 and Kosovo in 1999 – in the former case the well established principle of non-aggression had been challenged and the idea that a posse was formed to meet this challenge has a certain amount of plausibility; the fact that the coalition acted under, perhaps rather distant, UN authority reinforces the analogy of the posse. In Kosovo in 1999, on the other hand, new ground was being broken; the sovereignty of one UN member was being challenged by others in the name of the human rights of a minority population – as, noted above, following Krasner, the protection of minority rights is not unprecedented under the Westphalia System, but in a modern context this has to be seen as an example of a coalition of the willing attempting to generate a new norm, without the backing of a UN Resolution and without the degree of consensus needed if new customary international law is to be created. It is difficult to see how a self-constituted and self-legitimated group of states could act as the kind of agent who would be needed in order to carry out this act of norm-creation.

Second, or perhaps another way of making the same point, the terminology of a posse or a vigilante band empties the idea of a coalition of any substantive content – they are simply groups of states who have come together to enforce a particular norm, or bring about a particular result; they have nothing (much) else in common. Again, the Gulf in 1990/91 fits this description better than Kosovo in 1999. The Gulf War coalition included traditional Arab states, one radical Arab states (Syria) and a selection of Western liberal democracies; what these states had in common was a mix of distrust of Saddam Hussein, respect for the UN Charter and allied status with the US – they was no ideological consensus among them, which was why the goals of the coalition were tightly defined, and, for example, ruled out a serious attempt to directly topple the Iraqi regime. In 1999, on the other hand, the coalition consisted of Nato and a few East-central European friends, all of whom were (nominally at least) democracies, and the actual states that fought the war and subsequently occupied Kosovo, the US, France, Britain, Germany, and Italy were established liberal democracies, with broadly similar institutional structures, and long-established links which predated this particular issue (unlike the 1990/91 coalition). In the nineteenth century the Congress System was at its most effective when it represented the society of states from a position of ideological consensus; the members of the Holy Alliance had a clear (reactionary) sense of what ought to happen in the world, an interpretation of the needs of international society which was substantive and not just formal – thus, a figure such as Metternich did not simply wish to see existing law obeyed, he was clear that the interests of international society would be best served by intervening in the domestic affairs of its members to ensure that disruptive forces could not get a foothold. Can we see the Kosovo Coalition as, in some sense, a modern equivalent to the Holy Alliance, but committed to a substantively humanitarian conception of the needs of international society, as opposed to the reactionary goals of the earlier body?

The analogy is far from perfect. The Holy Alliance, at least for a short period, contained all the major powers, and represented the interests of a great majority of the minor sovereigns of Europe (as opposed, of course, to their peoples). The Kosovo Coalition obviously did not have the support of two of the UNSC’s permanent five, and it is very much moot whether minor states in the UN actually shared the coalition’s conception of what it was doing – many states and peoples clearly believed that the Kosovo campaign was simply an expression of US power. On the other hand, as suggested above, it may not be too fanciful to see the Kosovo Coalition as the agent of a new conception of international society based on a substantive understanding of the requirements of humanitarianism. Jürgen Habermas has analysed this claim in his account of a war fought ‘on the borders of justice (Recht) and morality’ and is rightly somewhat sceptical of the ability of Nato to authorise itself to act (Habermas, 1999). 5 Nonetheless, in the face of the current ‘under-institutionalisation of the law of global civil society’ (Die Unterinstitutionaliserung des Weltbürgerrechts) he does not dismiss their claim to represent a nascent democratic-humanitarian consensus even without a UN mandate, nor regard as wholly out of place the view that their action can be seen as a step along the road towards the transformation of the classical law of nations into the cosmopolitan law of a global civil society.



At this point any Chomskyan (or realist) who has not yet given up in disgust will be horrified by this characterisation of the ‘new military humanism’ - and with some reason (Chomsky, 1999). There is very little evidence to support the view that the Kosovo War was deliberately provoked in the interests of American imperialism – what little there is relates to the lack of impartiality on the part of the US at the Rambouillet Conference, which was explicable, surely, in terms of President Milosevic’s record over the previous ten years in Bosnia – but there are very good reasons to be worried by the idea that a coalition of liberal-democratic states is likely to engage in a crusade to spread humanitarian values throughout the world, claiming to be acting as the agents of a new moral consensus. Apart from the political disorder such a crusade would generate, it has to be emphasised that ‘humanitarian war’ is a profoundly ambiguous idea. It may, in certain circumstances, be legitimate to refer to the causes of a particular war as humanitarian, but the conduct of the war itself is another matter altogether (Brown, 2000). The Kosovo campaign may have been ‘virtual war’ for the Nato military forces but it was very real for the Yugoslav army and for Yugoslav and Albanian civilians (Ignatief, 2000). If this is what is involved in the proposition that the Kosovo Coalition represents the future for the idea of agency in international society then there is very good reason to be apprehensive.

Fortunately – or, perhaps, unfortunately from the perspective of future victims of state terror – it is very unlikely that the Kosovo campaign will constitute this kind of precedent. Although, at the end of the day, Nato appeared to achieve its immediate objectives (and without being obliged to fight a ground war) none of the Nato leaders give the impression that they want to see any kind of re-run in the event of a similar crisis emerging in the future. If the Kosovo action was indeed the expression of an emerging moral consensus, then this emergence is likely to take a very long time. In any event, whatever lessons are to be drawn from Kosovo have to be seen in the context of the general perspective on agency and international society set out above. To re-iterate the message of the first half of this paper,(i) the ‘social’ element in international society is minimal amounting to no more than the assertion that relations in the society of states are normatively grounded; (ii) norms in this context can only be given a fairly ‘thin’ content, hardly enough to justify the notion that international society is a normatively integrated social system; and, (iii) there is no institution that stands to the society of states in the way that the board of directors stand to an institution such as a football club. Moreover, to return to the starting point of this essay, it seems very unlikely that when politicians, leader-writers and the general public employ the term ‘international community’ they are intending to legitimate a liberal democratic humanitarian crusade.

In short, as hinted at above, the world is more likely to suffer from the effects of the lack of (moral) agency associated with international society than from a surfeit of good intentions on the part of an emerging liberal-democratic consensus. Possibly such a consensus will eventually emerge – such at least is the liberal optimism expressed by writers such as Habermas – but if and when it does a wider transformation of the nature of international relations than can be incorporated under the category of ‘international society’ is to be expected. It is at this point – if it is ever reached – that notions such as ‘cosmopolitan democracy’ and the ‘transformation of political community’ will cease to be premature expressions of political values that at the moment have no home, and become instead the building blocks of a new order in which questions of agency will take a very different, perhaps unrecognisable, shape (Held, 1995, Linklater, 1998).

London, February 2000





Note 1: This paper follows on from an earlier, unsatisfactory, attempt to address the same issue (Brown, 1999a); although it draws somewhat on this earlier failure, and a subsequent essay (Brown, 1999b), it is, in substance, a new paper. Nonetheless, I am grateful for the many comments I received on the earlier draft, especially from fellow panel members at ISA in February 1999, and the participants in the Research Seminar in IR Theory at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth in the Summer of 1999.  Back.

Note 2: It should be noted that the author, although not a fan, lives in Southampton and is therefore more or less up to speed with the dramas of the team.  Back.

Note 3: This is not to deny that the diplomatic representatives on the SC and the UN bureaucracy may develop a certain esprit de corps and sense of common purpose.  Back.

Note 4: Because of the madness of King George, Britain was reigned over by the Prince Regent who (allegedly) could not sign a treaty meant to be an alliance of sovereigns.  Back.

Note 5: I am grateful to Lothar Brock for this reference.  Back.