Is There Really an 'International Society'?

By Sam Roggeveen
110315 flags.jpg

As you might have seen from James's introductory post, I want to use this wonderful opportunity to talk about two areas of interest: international relations and political conservatism. I won't spend a lot of time explaining my precise views on the latter, since those who are interested in this topic will probably be aware of Andrew Sullivan's take. I have a broadly similar sensibility. I don't share Andrew's interest in religion, but like him, I studied the mercurial English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott, who is a major influence.

I also share Andrew's scepticism toward the ideological conservatism that now so dominates the US right (it has always been there to some degree -- Irving Kristol once turned down an Oakeshott essay for Encounter on the grounds that it lacked the "creedal mentality" preferred by American conservatives), and I continue to be alarmed at the various ways this doctrine harms US foreign policy.

Neo-conservatism is the obvious culprit here, but there's another brand of conservative who identifies with what is known as foreign policy "realism." In fact, it's this strict division between idealism (because neo-conservatism is an idealist ideology) and realism that I want to take on, and argue that conservatives belong in neither category.

Let me start with what seems to me a basic proposition about conservatism, by the English philosopher Roger Scruton:

Conservatism presupposes the existence of a social organism. Its politics is concerned with sustaining the life of that organism, through sickness and in health, change and decay

For conservatism so described to have any relevance to international politics, we must first agree that the international realm is a "social organism" in some respects. It isn't that we need to prove international politics is exactly like domestic politics; merely that they share some important characteristics.

Realists are sceptical of this claim. Realism and conservatism have much in common: prudence is both a conservative and realist virtue, and they share a distrust of utopianism. But realism argues that the international realm is categorically different to the domestic one because the former is lawless, the scene of a perpetual Hobbesian war of all against all. "International politics is the realm of power, of struggle, and of accommodation," said the noted realist Kenneth Waltz. This he distinguished from domestic politics, which is "the realm of authority, administration and of law."

But why should we believe that the international realm is purely a lawless venue for perpetual war, when we can so easily identify so many elements of a society? We have law-making bodies such as the UN and WTO, globally recognised norms such as "sovereignty" and "non-interference," even an international diplomatic culture with its own rituals and lexicon. This international society has its roots in European statecraft but is now so widespread as to represent what the scholar Robert Jackson calls a "global covenant":

For the past half century there has been a political conversation of humankind conducted by means of international society. All independent governments can dialogue with each other through the system of diplomacy, and they can make normative sense of each other's conduct and normative judgments about it by making reference to international law. They can communicate within international organizations to which they now have sovereign right to belong. Justification and condemnation of the foreign policies and international activities of national governments throughout the world is coherently feasible because it can be based on the norms of the international society to which all such governments subject themselves as sovereign states.

But, say the realists, these institutions, traditions and practices have no independent significance; they merely provide the stage to wage metaphorical war whenever that war is not being conducted with actual weapons. Or, they are a veil, politely drawn around the brutal realities of the international power struggle.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

The Man Who Owns 40,000 Video Games

A short documentary about an Austrian gamer with an uncommon obsession

Video

The 86-Year-Old Farmer Who Won't Quit

A filmmaker returns to his hometown to profile the patriarch of a family farm

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

More in Global

From This Author

Just In