Is There an “International Community”?

| December 2015
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In the wake of the Paris climate accords, and with reports about migrants demanding that borders be opened to them to cross, it may be useful to revisit the question about whether there is an “international community.” Politicians and activists alike often make appeals for policies on the basis of political obligations that are owed above the nation-state—to the world community, humanity in general, and so on. The reality of globalization and the shrinking of distances between different communities of human beings (both in the physical as well as the virtual worlds) can contribute to a sense of shared belonging. We often talk about living in a “borderless” world. But have we—and particularly our sense of political ethics—accepted the consequences of such statements?

We hear the term “international community” so often that it becomes part of the background noise of political statements, but it may help to revisit the term and what it implies. I often refer my students to some of the caveats of Pang Zhongying, who a number of years ago argued that we should be careful in assuming that there is an “international community.” A community implies commonly accepted standards and norms and a shared approach to implementation. This, he argued, did not quite exist in the world. Certainly, there was an international society—nation-states and other institutions finding ways to co-exist, and an international system–an attempt to define regulations for interactions—but that this did not imply that a community existed.

An international system can indeed devise regulations for the passage of persons from one political entity to another—a system of passport rules, entry requirements, and so on. An international community, however, implies that persons enjoy both rights and obligations based on being members of the community at large. Thus, a migrant in Greece demanding that a border be opened to allow his passage is extending a claim based on an idea of an international community that should permit his passage—when restrictions on his movement and refusal of permission to enter another country are part and parcel of an accepted international system which sees the migrant as the member/citizen of one community who has no rights or claims in another community unless that community chooses to voluntarily accept such obligations (as a matter of domestic law or international agreement).

This discussion, of course, backs right into the current debates over “global governance”—another term which skirts the idea whether the world forms a single political unit or not. Roland Paris’s discussion in these pages touches on a critical matter—that of power differentials. No one country or set of countries has the power to impose community on the rest of the world by mandating standards and values—by force if necessary—on other parts of the globe.

The current crisis in Europe reflects the tug of war between the vision and imperfect codification of laws setting up an international community and the ability of members-states of the European Union to resume their position as arbiters of an international system. The new border fences sprouting throughout the continent are, in essence, a rejection of the idea of the EU as community in favor of the EU as system.

Similarly, the concluded talks in Paris used the language of community (what is owed to all as members of a single human community inhabiting the planet Earth), but couched requirements in systemic language (what specific countries are or are not obligated to do within the framework of their domestic law). Thus, the long nights spent arguing over the meaning of the terms “shall” and “should” as they would appear in the final document. A community has the ability to, if necessary, impose upon its members; a system can only work on the basis of consensus among its constituents.

A system can, over time, evolve into community. Indeed, part of Amitai Etzioni’s long-term vision in world affairs (the subject of a newly-published book) is that short-term cooperation among states to pursue security goals, for example, against terrorism) can begin to habituate them to cooperation in other areas and lay the basis to make the jump from system to community by finding ways to agree on common rules, standards and norms for operation.

As we move into 2016, will the climate agreement reached in Paris, the migration crisis, and the fight against terrorism provide such spurs?


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