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Peace-building in a post-Westphalian age: geopolitics on the species scale - by David Hoghton-Carter, UKDF Research Associate
Back in 2009, I considered here on Defence Viewpoints how we might look to different ways of building international consensus as traditional views of sovereignty are challenged by the rise of non-state actors and new kinds of power. Indeed, the rules of the international game have changed over the last few decades, deeply but quietly, and no-one is 100% certain what they are anymore.
The writing is on the wall: international humanitarianism, increasing economic globalisation, climate change, the rise of cyber-warfare, Al-Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, proxy conflicts of various shades, these are other evolving issues in international security highlight ever more the need to revise the rules of the great game. We need to rethink how we conceptualise our place in the world and act, as nation-states, in order to better accommodate modern changes in the practical functioning of sovereignty if we're to ensure peace. The understanding of what it means needs to catch up to the facts on the ground so we can figure out the best way forward.
So, I'd like to lay out a different approach to sovereignty (continued on next page)
As Fred Halliday has pointed to, we need to look towards international consensus-building which respects sovereignty as the cornerstone of democracy, nationhood and citizens' rights, while enabling the role of the nation-state in international security to go beyond a mere 'national interest'. Yet, as Halliday's analysis of Strange and Polanyi highlights, power in our current international system is diffuse, perhaps too diffuse to be utilised positively and effectively by any entity which hasn't been able to hoard a lot of it, which in turn calls into question the relevance of sovereignty itself.
That means we must be able to account for multiple interconnecting frameworks of interdependence, from the regional level to the global level, while keeping the concept of the nation-state intact to ensure that there is something to pin citizenship, governance and human rights to which is intelligible to citizens and connects to existing notions of 'self'. Simultaneously, we need to account for the influence of political actors exercising hard and soft power which are not tied into a specific state, its governance or citizenry, and may act below, above or otherwise beyond the state structure. In a way, this is as applicable to multi-national corporations as it is to Al-Qaeda or ISIS.
This can go one of two ways. There are already voices arguing, loudly, for security and defence retrenchment and policies based largely on populism, jingoism and paranoia, far beyond anything conceivable at the height of Cold War rhetoric. An "I'm alright, Jack" approach to international policy, which abrogates responsibility for international participation and excuses doing so based on flawed (or even deliberately disingenuous) views of fiscal scarcity and the proper role of a patriotic nation-state. Even advocates of humanitarian, open societies have climbed on this bandwagon, taking approaches to pacifism to such an extreme that it amounts to the exact same genus of political ostrich behaviour.
No nation can bury its head in the sand and expect the world's problems to just go away, or bypass it entirely, or for other nations to suddenly forgot the historic harms and conflicts. And no nation can expect that leaving it to others to solve whatever problems might arise will result in positive outcomes which chimes with its needs and values.
Option number two involves thinking about international security as the security of the international community, together. Geopolitics conducted on the humanity scale - policy which recognises the need for nation-states, but puts 'national interest' as it's normally defined on the back-burner in favour of addressing common, existential threats to humanity. In effect, thinking and acting beyond definitions of national interest that focus on nationhood alone and delinking the concept of national interest from the projection of force and power by individual nation states in isolation or as part of any ad hoc coalition.
That in turn requires a radical, innovative rethink of what sovereignty means, creating an approach that can be built on by nation-state governments to leverage progressive change and, in the context of the UN, to bring the rest of the community of nations together around a common conceptualisation of security.
So, it's important to both recognise that sovereignty is conceptually and practically essential to how the international states system is constructed, but recognise that traditional modes of handling have limited the ability to build consensus around emergent threats. As a part of such a grand redesign of international norms, sovereignty must instead be leveraged to help build consensus, based on an open recognition of shared modern needs and a mesh of multilateral quid pro quo treaty arrangements.
Yet, even in an idealistic reading of the future of the international security landscape, peace-building requires a significant element of hard power and the capacity to project force. Put prosaically, evil persists when good people stand by and do nothing. Any nation which wishes to claim a leading role in the great community of humanity must be willing to actively support systems which live up to that role. We have seen too many genocides, too many civil wars, too many nations fall into a security vacuum, unwillingly playing host to non-state threats or destabilised to the point of persistent anarchy. If the history of the last hundred years has taught us anything about international security, it's surely that there must sometimes be someone to say, "enough!", and show a willingness to stand between good people and harm. Someone who damn well better have a bigger stick than the bad guys, whoever they may be.
We're already seeing defence chiefs in the UK tripping over the foggy international framework, leading to failures in international security engagement. And we're already seeing how that contributes to the failure of nation-states to counter developing threats. And, of course, we need not belabour the sequence of threats and events which has led to the rise of ISIS, which is 20-20 hindsight to any analyst worth their salt these days.
Turning any of these ideas into something concrete will be difficult. But there is a starting point, in my view. What would be most helpful is a United Nations with teeth.
The caveat, however, is that the UN must first be fundamentally reformed. As it stands, it's often little more than an instrument of policy for one or more of the world's most powerful nations, to be leveraged as needed. And there's a clear problem with the UN's framework, systems and processes being circumvented or subverted for less than noble purposes. A directly force-projecting UN, operating within the current framework, would be a disaster; certainly a proxy for the national interests of some major states, and at worst a source of greater division and conflict. So, the first step must be to heavily reform the UN to ensure that that it functions independently from any nation-state, accountable to all, beholden to none.
That's easier said than done, of course, but I think there are ways to make it happen, and the first step must be to create a will towards it. We can only do that through support very intensive, open, transparent diplomacy and international consensus-building.
Some solid, practical (but radical) first steps for such a grand project in international diplomacy would have to include:
- A new 'international social contract', effectively a multi-lateral Treaty which recapitulates the principles of the United Nations and takes them further, to provide practical autonomy of governance to those entities, and only those entities, which fully accept that there are new kinds of responsibilities they must adhere to and obligations they must meet in return for the right to exercise power in a deeply interconnected world;
- Real democratisation of the UN Security Council, dispensing with permanent membership and increasing the number of seats at the top table;
- Full and universal recognition of the International Criminal Court, along with a bolstered legal framework which enables the Court to hold both nation-states and non-state entities fully and openly accountable for any act against the common security and interests of the international community;
- A radically restructured UN security framework, including an internationally-independent standing army, with the ability to project force that doesn't rely on individual nation-states, based on a very strict set of rules overseen by the ICC;
- New international norms which properly address non-state actors and evolving threats, ways to build international consensus around any such threats, and the trigger points for UN action when an evolving threat becomes a clear and present danger to multiple nations and citizen communities;
- A radical overhaul of existing international treaty structures, to better account for modern needs.