Is There Really an 'International Society'?

By Sam Roggeveen
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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.

For example, realists would argue that international borders are respected because their integrity is backed by threats of force. A conservative, by contrast, would argue that national borders are grounded largely on custom, with force playing a role only where custom breaks down.

In fact, the conservative would argue that the traditions and institutions of international society, far from being a veneer, form the core of international political life. Most human activities exist because of shared rules and traditions of behaviour, which define and shape the activity. Enforcement of rules tends to be required only in exceptional cases, and for the most part, they are observed out a sense of shared norms and because not doing so would lead to chaos. This is true even in the international realm, where rules are largely unenforceable and where judicial oversight is weak; the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is a useful example, but there are countless others.

My argument, then, is that there is such a thing as a social organism in international politics. The existence of this "international society" means there are enough similarities between international and domestic politics to make conservatism -- an intellectual tradition commonly discussed in the context of domestic politics -- an intelligible and compelling response to the contemporary international scene.

The traditions, laws and institutions which conservatives regard as critical to the functioning of their own societies need to be nurtured and protected in the international realm too. With the rise of new powers and the end of American unipolarity, this task is more urgent than ever. More on that in a follow-up post.

Photo by Flickr user pinke_olive.

Sam Roggeveen is editor of The Interpreter, the blog of the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy.