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Rediscovering the state. (Global Insights).

Simply put, our post-war institutions were built for an inter-national world, but we now live in a global world.

Kofi Annan

There may have been a time when both the theory and the practice of world affairs was too state centric, when the role of civil society, the private sector, and transnational regimes was little understood or appreciated. But that was a decade or more ago--before the end of the Cold War, the acceleration of European integration, and the promise of multi-lateralism led to a refocusing on the subnational, transnational, and international dimensions of political life. This reorientation has produced some valuable insights and a more nuanced feel for the multiple forces driving international relations. The pendulum, however, has swung too far. It is time to return the state to a more central place in our research and in our understanding of the purposes, workings, and potential of international organization, especially the United Nations.

For example, only 5 percent (seven) of the articles in Global Governance in its first six years have addressed the policies of specific states toward international institutions, and all but one of these have focused on the United States. Such articles are even rarer in International Organization; since 1995, two have addressed overall voting patterns in the General Assembly, one has addressed U.S. attitudes toward internationalism in general, and one has addressed why countries chose to join the International Monetary Fund (IMF). None has described or assessed the policies of a specific state or group of states toward the UN or other global organizations.

The relative neglect of those factors that make individual states unique--in favor of an assumption of generic motivations, values, and responses--has had distorting consequences for both the theory and practice of global governance. The academic discourse on international relations theory has been substantively rich and methodologically sophisticated, but it has focused more on regional integration than on global institutions and relied more on historical cases than on recent events. Ironically, each of the major competing theories acknowledges the centrality of national governments in foreign affairs; and the spirited intellectual debates are largely about what forces move them. Yet the very effort to build generalizable theories has discouraged analysis of individual differences. Research on such unfashionable topics as interests, geo-politics, history, domestic politics, and political culture has faded. As a result, there is less and less dialogue between scholars and practitioners. Neither their vocabula ry nor their agendas coincide.

Meanwhile, the dramatic strides toward regional integration and global cooperation have been accompanied by growing signs of dissonance and discord. Squabbles about global warming, arms control, the International Criminal Court, assessments, and who is going to sit on which intergovernmental bodies have been along East-West as much as North-South lines. Yet our models tell us little about why Washington and its allies see the basis for international cooperation so differently, why the U.S. Congress is so skeptical of multilateral impulses, or why U.S. attitudes vary so markedly from one issue to another. One reason may be ideological: the right and left ends of the political spectrum do not speak to each other any more in academia than they do in politics. On both levels, more conservative voices have followed a jarringly different score. In the chorus heralding global norms and means, however, there is little room for dissent. The Bush administration is seen as an unschooled aberration and, according to som e in Europe, the United States has become a "rogue state." Under such conditions, everyone's theories and assumptions are due for a reality check.

Besides, the United States has hardly been the only dissenter. Its bald and unapologetic stance has permitted smaller powers to free ride, while other large states, such as China, India, and Russia, have also expressed serious reservations about much of the new multilateral agenda. There have been divisive debates revolving around the nature of state sovereignty in the light of the universality of rights, humanitarian intervention, and the effects of globalization. Mandatory Chapter VII resolutions of the Security Council--invoked with numbing regularity since the end of the Cold War--have been flouted by a stunning variety of states, rebel groups, and regional organizations. Not only are member states slow to enforce them, but even traditional peacekeepers, like Canada and the Nordic countries, prefer to participate in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) operations than in UN ones. The limits and assumptions of global consensus are being tested in other ways as well. The reluctance of states to pay fo r international organization and the uneven compliance record of states, parties to global conventions, have brought into question whether there has been a true convergence of world values, a bandwagon effect, or a bit of both. Much more work is needed on determining the motivations and intentions of states signing on--or dissenting from--these conventions, on building national capacities for implementation, and on aligning global and national legal frameworks.

In this respect, it should be recognized that the recent emphasis on human security, though welcome, cannot be conceptually or operationally divorced from the parallel pursuit of national security. The latter may not be a sufficient condition to ensure the former, but it tends to be a necessary one. Secure states, it appears, are less likely to abuse their citizens or to permit others to do so than are insecure ones. In an age of intrastate and transnational conflicts in which civilian casualties are abhorrently high, it is generally where states are weakest that human security is most gravely threatened. In most cases, the first steps toward restoring human security will involve rebuilding or reshaping national institutions so that they are more capable, democratic, inclusive, responsive, transparent, and tolerant. Both international institutions and transnational civil society can play important supporting parts in these efforts--but again as supplements, not substitutes, for the state. For one thing, they can begin by acknowledging the need for stronger, not weaker, states.

An underappreciation of the centrality of the state has also encouraged exaggerated rhetoric about the capacities and purposes of international organization and of civil society, as well as about the nature of their relationship. Most serious students of international organization, myself included, are also its advocates. As such, we need to take care not to confuse what we are seeking with what we are assessing. In our fascination with what is new in the world, we must not neglect the enduring importance of what is not. Nonstate actors matter, for example, largely because of the ways they influence the priorities and behavior of states. Likewise, international institutions play a critical role in many fields today precisely because we are still in the midst of the nation-state era. In a time of weapons of mass destruction and of economic globalization, the capacity of states for good or ill is such that the moderating influences of transnational civil society, global norms, and international organization ca n sometimes make a critical difference. But they cannot substitute for the state or for the domestic political processes that ultimately determine its policy choices. The powers of nonstate actors are derivative, their operational capacities limited, and their legitimacy compromised by their lack of accountability, sovereignty, and democratic structures.

International institutions have charters, secretariats, and sets of animating principles and purposes, of course, but the notion that they occupy a distinct space in world affairs apart from and even competitive with their member states has proven as damaging as it has seductive. This view has provided some sustenance for those critics, well represented in the U.S. Congress, who have accused international secretariats of having ambitions of supranationality. In the case of the UN, it has also fed the perverse notion that there is nothing wrong with the world body but its member states. Unfortunately, these states and the messy world that they occupy are the only ones with which the UN can deal. The extent to which it is successful in moving them toward effective cooperation in addressing the issues of the day, moreover, is the most apt standard for judging its success.

In that regard, to bemoan that member states often lack the political will to carry out the Secretariat's--or the Security Council's--best-laid plans misses the point. If those plans are not grounded in a sober evaluation of the priorities, interests, and capacities of key member states, then they are out of touch with political realities. To focus solely on what it would ideally take to handle the problem at hand, without equal attention to how the requisite resources are to be generated, is to work only one side of the equation. Certainly, secretariats, sympathetic governments, and civil society groups should do their best to convince national leaders to stretch their priorities and their perceptions of their country's interests. But such an advocacy process should be based on a keen understanding and unequivocal acceptance of the legitimacy of national political processes and preferences. It is futile, even counterproductive, for secretariats and their nongovernmental organization (NGO) allies to adopt a dismissive or disdainful attitude toward the domestic politics and preoccupations of key member states. While multilateral deliberations may point the way or prick the conscience, both the power of the purse strings and the elected representatives of the people are to be found in national capitals, not on First Avenue.

The plethora of case studies on NGOs and civil society in recent years has served to reinforce two points: first, that they are active and sometimes influential players in both national and global politics; second, that they are ill-suited for assuming governance roles on either level. For all of their invaluable contributions to the operations and deliberations of intergovernmental bodies, NGOs offer no alternative basis for global decisionmaking. In international forums, they represent expertise and a point of view, not populations or territories. The efforts of transnational NGO movements in spurring the conclusion of the landmines convention and the statute for the International Criminal Court, for instance, have been widely heralded. Less noticed, however, has been their failure to engage with equal vigor with the political processes in reluctant capitals--most notably Washington, D.C.--where groups with opposing views have largely held sway. In the long run, such unbalanced lobbying could weaken, rathe r than strengthen, the prospects for effective multilateral cooperation on these and other issues.

These cases suggest that, where national democratic processes exist, the first priority of NGOs should be to reinforce them through active engagement in public debate at home, rather than to bypass them in favor of joining with the like-minded in less representative global forums. Where democratic processes are inadequate or nonexistent, NGOs can be very helpful in repairing or building them, thereby enhancing the prospects, over time, for more democratic and responsive international institutions. The global stage may look more exciting and enticing than a local or national one, and coalitions of the like-minded may offer the path of least resistance. However, it is in national capitals where the keys to resources, policies, and democratic legitimacy lie. What is needed, in Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's words, is "peace between nations and democracy within them." (1) Likewise, international secretariats should recognize that banding with sympathetic NGOs to try to isolate powerful member state s is more likely--as we have seen--to compound the dissonance within the international system than to build a solid political foundation for future progress.

All of our theories, in one way or another, tell us that the state is central. Now we need to do the research. Recent work on norms, regimes, and civil society underlines that none of these factors can be properly understood without reference to the others. Yet how much do we know about the evolving attitudes of China, South Africa, Japan, Nigeria, Russia, India, Israel, or Brazil toward international norms and institutions? For all the study of European integration, how well do we understand its implications for global decisionmaking structures, for relations with the United States in multilateral processes, and for the autonomy of individual European Union members in world bodies? Until we fully understand and appreciate the essential building blocks--states--we are unlikely to make much progress toward a more secure and just international order or toward better global governance.


Edward C. Luck is director of a new center on international organization of the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

(1.) Address to the Millennium Summit of the United Nations, New York, 8 September 2000.
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Author:Luck, Edward C.
Publication:Global Governance
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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