CIAO DATE: 10/02

Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy

September/October 2002

What Is the International Community?


“We are supported by the collective will of the world,” declared U.S.President George W. Bush as he launched the war against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime in October 2001. For many people, that collective will has a name: the “international community.” This feel-good phrase evokes a benevolent, omniscient entity that makes decisions and takes action for the benefit of all countries and peoples. But invoking the international community is a lot easier than defining it. Foreign Policy invited nine notable thinkers, activists, journalists, and policymakers from across the ideological spectrum to survey the international community and tell us what they see. Does such a community truly exist? If so, who is part of it? Who isn’t? Whose values does it reflect? And perhaps most important, how does it work? How should it work?

Selected essays available:

Kofi A. Annan • Problems Without Passports

Noam Chomsky • The Crimes of ‘Intcom’

Ruth Wedgwood • Gallant Delusions


Problems Without Passports
By Kofi A. Annan1

Ours is a world in which no individual, and no country, exists in isolation. All of us live simultaneously in our own communities and in the world at large. Peoples and cultures are increasingly hybrid. The same icons, whether on a movie screen or a computer screen, are recognizable from Berlin to Bangalore. We are all consumers in the same global economy. We are all influenced by the same tides of political, social, and technological change. Pollution, organized crime, and the proliferation of deadly weapons likewise show little regard for the niceties of borders; they are problems without passports and, as such, our common enemy. We are connected, wired, interdependent.

Such connections are nothing new. Human beings have interacted across planet Earth for centuries. But today’s globalization is different. It is happening more rapidly. It is driven by new engines, such as the Internet. And it is governed by different rules, or in too many cases, by no rules at all. Globalization is bringing more choices and new opportunities for prosperity. It is making us more familiar with global diversity. However, millions of people around the world experience globalization not as an agent of progress but as a disruptive force, almost hurricanelike in its ability to destroy lives, jobs, and traditions. Many have an urge to resist the process and take refuge in the illusory comforts of nationalism, fundamentalism, or other isms.

Faced with the potential good of globalization as well as its risks, faced with the persistence of deadly conflicts in which civilians are primary targets, and faced with the pervasiveness of poverty and injustice, we must identify areas where collective action is needed—and then take that action to safeguard the common, global interest. Local communities have fire departments, municipal services, and town councils. Nations have legislatures and judicial bodies. But in today’s globalized world, the institutions and mechanisms available for global action, not to mention a general sense of a shared global fate, are hardly more than embryonic. It is high time we gave more concrete meaning to the idea of the international community.

What makes a community? What binds it together? For some it is faith. For others it is the defense of an idea, such as democracy. Some communities are homogeneous, others multicultural. Some are as small as schools and villages, others as large as continents. Today, of course, more and more communities are virtual, as people, even in the remotest locations on earth, discover and promote their shared values through the latest communications and information technologies.

But what binds us into an international community? In the broadest sense, there is a shared vision of a better world for all people as set out, for example, in the founding charter of the United Nations. There is a sense of common vulnerability in the face of global warming and the threat posed by the spread of weapons of mass destruction. There is the framework of international law, treaties, and human rights conventions. There is equally a sense of shared opportunity, which is why we build common markets and joint institutions such as the United Nations. Together, we are stronger.

Some people say the international community is only a fiction. Others believe it is too elastic a concept to have any real meaning. Still others claim it is a mere vehicle of convenience, to be trotted out only in emergencies or when a scapegoat for inaction is needed. Some maintain there are no internationally recognized norms, goals, or fears on which to base such a community. Op-ed pages and news reports refer routinely to the “so-called international community,” as if the term does not yet have the solidity of actual fact. I believe these skeptics are wrong. The international community does exist. It has an address. It has achievements to its credit. And more and more, it is developing a conscience.

When governments, urged by civil society, work together to realize the long-held dream of an International Criminal Court for the prosecution of genocide and the most heinous crimes against humanity, that is the international community at work for the rule of law. When an outpouring of international aid flows to victims of earthquakes and other disasters, that is the international community following its humanitarian impulse. When rich countries pledge to open more of their markets to poor-country goods and decide to reverse the decade-long decline in official development assistance, that is the international community throwing its weight behind the cause of development. When countries contribute troops to police cease-fire lines or to provide security in states that have collapsed or succumbed to civil war, that is the international community at work for collective security.

Examples abound of the international community at work, from Afghanistan and East Timor to Africa and Central America. At the same time, there are important caveats. Too often the international community fails to do what is needed. It failed to prevent genocide in Rwanda. For too long it reacted with weakness and hesitation to the horror of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. The international community has not done enough to help Africa at a time when Africa needs it most and stands to benefit most. And in a world of unprecedented wealth, the international community allows nearly half of all humanity to subsist on $2 or less a day.

For much of the 20th century, the international system was based on division and hard calculations of realpolitik. In the new century, the international community can and must do better. I do not suggest that an era of complete harmony is within reach. Interests and ideas will always clash. But the world can improve on the last century’s dismal record. The international community is a work in progress. Many strands of cooperation have asserted themselves over the years. We must now stitch them into a strong fabric of community—of international community for an international era.


The Crimes of ‘Intcom’
By Noam Chomsky2

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein advised readers to attend to the use of a phrase in order to determine its meaning. Adopting that suggestion, one regularly discovers that terms of political discourse are used with a doctrinal meaning that is crucially different from the literal one. The term “terrorism,” for example, is not used in accord with the official definition but is restricted to terrorism (as officially defined) carried out by them against us and our clients. Similar conventions hold for “war crime,” “defense,” “peace process,” and other standard terms.

One such term is “the international community.” The literal sense is reasonably clear; the U.N. General Assembly, or a substantial majority of it, is a fair first approximation. But the term is regularly used in a technical sense to describe the United States joined by some allies and clients. (Henceforth, I will use the term “Intcom,” in this technical sense.) Accordingly, it is a logical impossibility for the United States to defy the international community. These conventions are illustrated well enough by cases of current concern.

One does not read that for 25 years the United States has barred the efforts of the international community to achieve a diplomatic settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict along the lines repeated, in essence, in the Saudi proposal adopted by the Arab League in March 2002. That initiative has been widely acclaimed as a historic opportunity that can only be realized if Arab states agree at last to accept the existence of Israel. In fact, Arab states (along with the Palestine Liberation Organization) have repeatedly done so since January 1976, when they joined the rest of the world in backing a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a political settlement based on Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories with “appropriate arrangements ... to guarantee ... the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of all states in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized borders”—in effect, U.N. Security Council Resolution 242 expanded to include a Palestinian state. The United States vetoed the resolution. Since then, Washington has regularly blocked similar initiatives. A majority of Americans support the political settlement reiterated in the Saudi plan. Yet it does not follow that Washington is defying the international community or domestic opinion. Under prevailing conventions, that cannot be since, by definition, the U.S. government cannot defy Intcom, and as a democratic state, it naturally heeds domestic opinion.

Similarly, one does not read that the United States defies the international community on terrorism, even though it voted virtually alone (with Israel; Honduras alone abstaining) against the major U.N. resolution in December 1987 harshly condemning this plague of the modern age and calling on all states to eradicate it. The reasons are instructive and highly relevant today. But all of that has disappeared from history, as is customary when Intcom opposes the international community (in the literal sense).

At the time, Washington was undermining Latin American efforts to bring about a peaceful settlement in Central America and had been condemned for international terrorism by the International Court of Justice, which ordered the United States to terminate such crimes. The U.S. response was escalation. Again, none of this history nor similar episodes since bear on Intcom’s attitude toward terrorism.

Occasionally, Intcom’s isolation is noticed, leading to perplexed inquiries into the psychic maladies of the world. Richard Bernstein’s January 1984 New York Times Magazine article “The U.N. versus the U.S.” (not the converse) is an apt example. Further evidence that the world is out of step is that after the early years of the United Nations, when Washington’s writ was law, the United States has been far in the lead in vetoing Security Council resolutions, with Great Britain second and the Soviet Union (later Russia) a distant third. The record in the General Assembly is similar—but no conclusions follow about the international community.

A major contemporary theme is the normative revolution that Intcom allegedly underwent in the 1990s, at last accepting its duty of humanitarian intervention to end terrible crimes. But one never reads that the international community “reject[s] the so-called ‘right’ of humanitarian intervention” along with other forms of coercion that it perceives as traditional imperialism in a new guise, particularly the version of economic integration called globalization in Western doctrine. Such conclusions were elaborated in the declaration of the South Summit in April 2000, the first meeting of the heads of state of the G-77 (the descendant of the former nonaligned countries), which accounts for nearly 80 percent of the world’s population. The declaration merited a few disparaging words in elite media.

The 1990s are widely considered the decade of humanitarian intervention, not the 1970s, even though the latter decade was bounded by the two most significant cases of intervention to terminate horrendous crimes: India in East Pakistan and Vietnam in Cambodia. The reason is clear. Intcom did not carry out these interventions. In fact, it bitterly opposed them, imposing sanctions and making threatening gestures toward India and harshly punishing Vietnam for the crime of terminating Pol Pot’s atrocities as they were peaking. In contrast, the U.S.-led bombing of Serbia stands as the great moment of the new international enlightenment—no matter that such action was strongly opposed by India, China, and much of the rest of the world. Here is not the place to review the humanitarian intervention undertaken to preserve Intcom’s “credibility” and, for public relations purposes, to terminate the crimes that it precipitated. Nor is this the place to examine Intcom’s refusal to withdraw from its long-standing participation in comparable or worse crimes and what that implies about Intcom’s operative values.

Such topics do not enter the extensive literature on the responsibilities of the self-declared enlightened states. Instead, there is a highly regarded literary genre inquiring into the cultural defect of Intcom that keeps it from responding properly to the crimes of others. An interesting question no doubt, though by any reasonable measure it ranks well below a different one that remains unasked: Why does Intcom persist in its own substantial crimes, either directly or through crucial support for murderous clients?

It is all too easy for me to continue, though it should be recognized that such practices are no innovation of Intcom. They are close to historical universals, including analogues that are not pleasant to recall.


Gallant Delusions
By Ruth Wedgwood3

International community” is a dangerous reference point for the naive. Its connotation of sociability and commitment invites unwise reliance by those who must ultimately fend for themselves. Its diffusion of responsibility excuses countries that have no intention of lending a hand. The concept amounts to a moral hazard, inspiring imprudent behavior by leaders who expect that someone else will pull their fat out of the fire.

Some illustrations: Start with Bosnia in the years of Yugoslavia’s collapse. Sarajevo was urged to refrain from any precipitous move toward independence. Negotiations for a looser form of Yugoslav federation remained possible, and the Bosnian Serbs made clear that, push come to shove, they would cast their lot with Serbia, even boycotting Sarajevo’s national referendum on independence. A close advisor asked Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic how he would control the thousands of Yugoslav troops stationed within Bosnia, still loyal to Belgrade. Izetbegovic replied, “I will order them out”—wistfully supposing that the international community would back him up with military might. The 42-month Serb bombardment of Sarajevo began soon after. International peacekeepers delivered food to civilians and (de facto) to combatants, but this thin gruel did not prevent 200,000 civilian deaths or shorten the war. Even after the fighting began, Izetbegovic rejected more than one peace plan, still betting that the West would enter with guns blazing. The United Nations issued dozens of resolutions, but Security Council rhetoric did not intimidate armed militias. NATO’s belated involvement finally separated the parties, but today Bosnia remains in tatters.

Or consider Cambodia in 1992–93, scene of a massive U.N. peacekeeping operation designed to organize democratic elections. The Khmer Rouge leadership wouldn’t play, opting to exclude thousands of lightly armed blue berets and election organizers from the Khmer territorial redoubt. Vietnam’s protégé and former Khmer Rouge leader Hun Sen was defeated at the polls, but he ignored the ballot box and successfully demanded a joint prime ministership. An election notch on its belt, the United Nations promptly withdrew from Cambodia, leaving behind only a few human rights workers. Hun Sen later forced out coruler Prince Norodom Ranariddh and rebuffed a prolonged attempt to organize a joint war crimes tribunal. Hun Sen is now opening luxury hotels near Angkor Wat and running a corrupt economy.

Next is East Timor in 1999. This extraordinary period featured the U.N.-brokered plan for a national referendum on independence—a plan pushed by Portugal and accepted by Indonesia’s remarkable President B.J. Habibie. Aware that Jakarta-backed militias in East Timor were planning retaliatory violence, the U.N. secretariat still felt unable to make any plans to summon deterrent military commitments, fearful of deriding the word of a sovereign state that pledged to maintain order. The anti-independence militia ran amok, razing the infrastructure of an already poor country. No one was available for peacekeeping until after the damage was done.

International organizations accomplish many fine things. The United Nations writes treaties, monitors human rights, and delivers development assistance. It helps form customary international law and provides a discreet place for negotiations without preliminaries on the shape of a table. But the United Nations, almost as a temperamental matter, has eschewed the use of robust force. It provides a multilateral aegis to states willing to contribute to collective security, but it cannot offer help on its own authority.

So, too, an innocent account of the “international community” can invite giddiness in international lawmaking. Some nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) seem eager to speed up history and bury Westphalia, announcing that the legal bedrock of state consent is but a distraction in international norm setting. Europe has joined this bandwagon, embracing a “human security” agenda and supposing that delegating sovereign functions to supranational institutions looks the same worldwide as in Europe. Much as 16th-century Protestant theologian John Calvin preached the election of saints, some multilateral treaty conferences have become all-or-nothing showdowns, where ngos and “like-minded” negotiators oppose any concessions that accommodate individual national problems or any exceptions to holistic treaty texts. One either joins the accelerating pace of world spirit or must be content to live as a rogue.

The United States frequently encounters this view in multilateral settings. In the land mines debate, for instance, NGOs successfully urged some states to refuse even a temporary allowance for the use of mapped boundary land mines on the Korean peninsula. Europeans and others were uninterested in the bellicose behavior of North Korea, even while U.S. soldiers faced Pyongyang’s divisions on the 38th parallel.

In a similar spirit, the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee has debated whether to claim the authority to disregard national legislatures’ reservations to human rights treaties—even when those reservations are rooted in a national constitution, such as in norms of free speech. The committee stepped into even more contentious territory by issuing an interpretive “general comment” claiming the right to measure state conduct against the unaccepted parts of a treaty, ignoring reservations and holding a country bound regardless of its consent. Some human rights lawyers and NGOs argue that such treaty exceptions are self-serving and that there is no harm in holding each country’s feet to the fire. Gradualism, it appears, is for sissies. But the result is that the nays may win after all. In the eight years that have passed since the Human Rights Committee’s comment, the U.S. Senate has declined to take up any major human rights treaty.

International law isn’t a Sunday morning sermon. Treaty and customary law need teeth supplied by states committed to enforcement. NGOs have served gallantly as relief agencies in hazardous settings. They monitor human rights abuses and give voice to overlooked local groups. With the media, NGOs help focus the world’s attention. But contrary to the prediction of U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louis Fréchette, NGOs are not the world’s new superpower. Only states can uproot a rogue regime that threatens nuclear terrorism. Only states can exercise the police authority necessary to dig out al Qaeda. Only states can provide protection in a border refugee camp otherwise misused by an armed militia as a base to mount cross-border attacks. Only states can rescue a threatened population from genocide.

Laws are not self-enforcing. The world’s truly heedless regimes don’t care what others think of them. The lawless scoff at an international community whose words have no supporting cannon fire.



Note 1: Kofi A. Annan is secretary-general of the United Nations and recipient of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize  Back

Note 2: Noam Chomsky is institute professor and professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of, most recently, 9-11 (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2001). A collection of his essays and lectures is available in Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky (New York: New Press, 2002), edited by Peter R. Mitchell and John Schoeffel.  Back

Note 3: Ruth Wedgwood is professor of law at Yale University and the Edward B. Burling professor of international law and diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University. She is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and editor of After Dayton: Lessons of the Bosnian Peace Process (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1999).  Back