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Richard Falk: Living Together on Planet Earth

Four logics that define the statist world order.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/osnabrück-westphalia-martin-m-miles.jpg
The Treaty of Westphalia, which codified the international state system, was signed in the German town of Osnabrück.
Image from Flickr user Martin M. Miles

By Richard Falk
By arrangement with Richard Falk

It is misleading to describe “world order” as consisting exclusively of sovereign territorial states. This misimpression is further encouraged by the structure of the United Nations, whose members are states, and only states. The UN was established in 1945 in the aftermath of World War II, reflecting a West-centric orientation that emerged at the time, quickly morphing into the Cold War rivalry between the two states that were geopolitically dominant and ideologically antagonistic: the United States and Soviet Union.

Even in the UN, however, this surface allegiance to statism is misleading. The geopolitical dimension was highlighted in the UN Charter by conferring a veto power on five winners in the recently concluded war, which amounted to the grant of a right of exception with respect to international law.

But there are differences in hard and soft power that make the interactions among states within the UN exhibit more inequality than is suggested by this still prevailing Westphalian myth of the equality among sovereign states. Some states contribute far more to the UN budget than others, and their views carry more weight; others are richer, bigger, more informed about some issues, are better at lobbying for support, and some play above their diplomatic weight by clever political maneuvers. And there are several kinds of non-states active behind the scenes that exert varying degrees of influence depending on the subject-matter.

Global policy is mainly shaped outside the UN by a bewildering array of formal and informal actors that participate in a bewildering variety of ways in international life. The world economy is substantially controlled by business oriented alignments such as the World Economic Forum that meets annually in Davos, Switzerland, or the gatherings of economically powerful states grouped together as the G-7, later becoming the G-8, and more recently the G-20 to accommodate shifts in trade and investment patterns, and give recognition to such new alignments as the BRICs.

The doctrinal ideas of territorial sovereignty continue to provide the basic organizing principle for the conduct of ordinary transnational relations.

As such, the shorthand designation of world order by reference to the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia that brought the Thirty Years War to an end serves as a convenient starting point for understanding the way authority and power are deployed in the world. Yet it must be supplemented by the recognition that the Westphalian framework has evolved through the years. Beyond this, it is not sufficient to rely on a statist logic to explain the main patterns of behavior that constitute world politics in the twenty-first century, which reflect the agendas of political extremist groups and transnational corporations and banks, as much as they do states. In fact, national governments are often subordinated to and instrumentalized by individuals and groups promoting the interests of business and finance.

Statist Logic: Despite these qualifications, states do remain the main political actor on the global stage, and the principal agent of diplomacy. The doctrinal ideas of territorial sovereignty continue to provide the basic organizing principle for the conduct of ordinary transnational relations. It is further important to realize that most political leaders and their chief advisors are “realists” who purport to act on the basis of maximizing national interests and accompanying values even when they are in actuality serving the interests of transnational capital to the detriment of their own citizenry.

The boundaries of the state shape the outer limits of political community for most persons living on the planet, but some states contain within their borders one or more specific ethnicity that deems itself a distinct people and nation, which if it perceives itself as the target of discrimination or even a victim of submerged identity, may regard itself as a “captive nation” that seeks a separate political existence that ensures the preservation of cultural memory and national pride. In this sense, the “nation” represented by such a phrase as “the national interest” may be profoundly misleading if understood to refer to the interests of an entire population within its borders rather than that of the dominant ethnicity or religion. Throughout the world there are many internationally unrepresented peoples seeking to form their own state in accordance with the right of self-determination, which if carried to extremes, threatens the unity of almost all sovereign states.

Sometimes, this process is a forcible one as with the establishment of Kosovo with the help of NATO in 1999, sometimes it is a consensual separation, as with the establishment of Slovakia. Democratic states may offer restive minorities the opportunity to secede by referendum as in the recent case of Scotland, but some forms of secession are resisted as was the case with American Civil War or more recently, the PKK efforts to establish in eastern Turkey a separate state of Kurdistan, as well as Spain’s treatment of the main separatist movement of the Basque people as essentially a terrorist organization.

The plight of economic migrants and refugees fleeing combat zones suggests the humanitarian ordeal experienced by many people who are not securely connected to a state capable of providing the fundamental ingredients of a sustainable lives.

Many individuals depend on citizenship to avoid the acute vulnerability of “statelessness,” which is a status without rights or protection, and suggests the primacy of states in the life of most people, whether consciously realized or not. The plight of economic migrants and refugees fleeing combat zones suggests the humanitarian ordeal experienced by many people who are not securely connected to a state capable of providing the fundamental ingredients of a sustainable lives. Refugees may be citizens with rights in the country they escaped from, but generally find themselves victimized anew by the country within which they sought sanctuary. Some governments adopt humane and generous approaches to refugees and stateless persons, but it is voluntary and the affected individuals are not the recipients of effective rights even if “human rights” are based on being human, and not on citizenship or nationality.

Geopolitical Logic: As statist logic is premised on equality before the law and in formal diplomatic relations, geopolitical logic is premised on inequality and the right of exception with respect to that portion of international law concerning issues of war and peace, and what is called “national security,” or more broadly, “vital interests.” While statism is descriptive of the horizontal dimension of world order within the Westphalian framework, geopolitics constitutes the vertical dimension that has been present ever since the modern structure of world order emerged in Europe in the mid-seventeenth century. Various empires exhibited the formalization of this vertical dimension, as did European colonialism, which at its height after World War I, dominated much of the world. The anti-colonial movements of the last half of the twentieth century produced many newly independent sovereign states, universalizing the horizontal development of world politics.

In the post-colonial global setting of the early twenty-first century the vertical dimension of world order is disguised to some degree because it was weakened and discredited in the past hundred years. These disguises make reference to certain normative justifications for the imposition of political will by the strong on the weak. Among the most prominent of these legal and moral arguments favoring otherwise prohibited uses of force are “self-defense,” “humanitarian intervention,” “responsibility to protect” or “R2P,” and “nonproliferation.” In each situation, depending on the facts the rationalization may be more or less plausible as a cover for a strategically motivated geopolitical maneuver. It seemed somewhat plausible to liberate Kosovo from Serbia in 1999, given the threat of ethnic cleansing in the aftermath of the Srebrenica atrocity, but it was also clearly motivated by the interest in maintaining NATO as a useful instrument of coercion in a post-Cold War setting, a demonstration conveniently coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the alliance. Similarly, it seemed reasonable in 2011 to intervene in Libya to prevent a civilian massacre by Qaddafi forces in the city of Benghazi, although it was undoubtedly also true that the high quality oil reserves added a strategic incentive to the humanitarian impulse to protect threatened Libyan civilians. In contrast, without oil, the atrocities taking place in Syria produced a much weaker expression of international concern. Each of these situations is complex, opening the way for contradictory interpretations as to the humanitarian effects of action and non-action, as well as the assessment of the importance of the strategic interests at stake.

The geopolitical logic trumps statist logic in relation to international uses of force, and helps explain the marginalization of international law and the UN in the war/peace context. The constraints that are operative with respect to geopolitics derive from considerations of cost/benefit analysis, pressures exerted by group politics, prudential concerns about nuclear weaponry and avoiding casualties to its military personnel, and the sporadic anti-war restraints of public opinion (especially in liberal democracies). In the recent American-led coalition created as a response to threats posed by ISIS (“Islamic State of Iraq & Syria,” also known by other names), President Obama did not even bother to justify recourse to force by reference to either international law or the UN, and seemed concerned only that he had a legal basis within the American constitutional framework to act as he did. Significantly, as well, most of the domestic controversy focused on this issue of authorizing warlike behavior without any participation by Congress, showing no worries about acting contrary to international law and without a UN mandate for recourse to non-defensive force.

The challenge of the weaponry has been geopolitically degraded in the form of creating a nonproliferation regime that distorts priorities by conceiving of the main danger deriving from countries that do not have nuclear weapons rather than those that do.

Cosmopolitan Logic: Partly as a result of economic globalization and partly due to the impact of global challenges associated with nuclear weapons and climate change, there is an emerging appreciation that neither statism nor geopolitics can protect overall human wellbeing and survival aspects of what might best be called the human or global interest. Despite decades of aspirational language, there seems to be no prospect in the immediate future of freeing humanity from the looming threat of nuclear catastrophe. The challenge of the weaponry has been geopolitically degraded in the form of creating a nonproliferation regime that distorts priorities by conceiving of the main danger deriving from countries that do not have nuclear weapons rather than those that do. The 2003 aggressive war undertaken by the United States and the United Kingdom against Iraq was mainly rationalized as a counter-proliferation undertaking, epitomizing the subordination of cosmopolitan interests in getting rid of nuclear weapons to the geopolitics of managing their control and dissemination.

A similar dynamic is present in relation to climate change, and the failed effort to contain the emission of greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide. The UN mechanisms for lawmaking treaties have been unable to agree upon an obligatory framework that takes account of the scientific consensus on the need for strict regulation of the buildup of carbon in the atmosphere, and the resultant harmful effects of global warming. As a result the situation worsens, and irresponsibly the growing burdens of adaptation are shifted to the future.

Without the formation of a political community of global scope it is unlikely that cosmopolitan logic will have any significant impact on behavior that reflects strong national interests and geopolitical priorities. The preconditions for such a development do not seem present as nationalist ideologies continues to maintain the dominance of statism and geopolitics despite their dysfunctional implications for the future of the human species. This persistence raises some deep questions about whether there exists a sufficient species will to survive. Until the advent of the Anthropocene Age such an imperative did not exist, and survival threats as they occurred were directed at particular societies or civilizations, that is, posing sub-species threats, but not endangering the species itself. What distinguishes the Anthropocene is the impact of human activities on the fundamental balances that have allowed life and social development to proceed.

There have been past cases where cosmopolitan concerns have been addressed because competing logics were not seriously engaged: public order of the oceans, prohibition of ozone depleting technologies, ecological preservation of Antarctica. Until the atomic attacks on Japanese cities in the closing days of World War II the cosmopolitan horizons of human activity were treated as matters of idealistic and spiritual concerns, but not relevant to issues of bio-political persistence. Even Woodrow Wilson’s dream that the League of Nations would cause the institution of war to fade away was never taken seriously by the political leaders of the day, especially in Europe, who well understood that their privileged position of vertical control (that is, colonial system) rested on an atmosphere of permanent war to ensure that “the natives” would not get uppity.

Civil Society Logic: The perspectives and activities of civil society occupy a broad and diverse spectrum of concerns, and contain elements of the other three logics that together compose world order. The normative motivations of transnational civil society actors do establish an existential constituency disposed toward the realization of human and global interests. These actors have been active in relation to the promotion of human rights, environmental protection, nuclear disarmament, and climate change. That is, civil society perspectives often merge in these venues with cosmopolitan perspectives, and present unified critical responses to statism and geopolitics. The counter-conferences at global policy events illustrate such encounters, and are likely to intensify as the awareness of global crises grow and the experience of the seriousness of unmet global challenges deepens. A distinctive feature of civil society logic is engagement with values and change, and a certain distrust of detached thought that presents itself as “neutral.” The spirit of civil society was expressed unforgettably for me by a graffiti written on a wall in the city of Vancouver: “Thought Without Action Equals Zero.”

In a larger historical sense, the question before all of us is whether civil society can become an agent of historical transformation in relation to cosmopolitan logic, thereby joining thought with action. Only such a reconstituted political imagination has any chance of producing policy and behavioral adjustments that make the human future a brighter prospect than now appears to be the case.

Hope to balance despair depends on our according unrealistic confidence in the capacity of civil society movements to achieve transformative results, what I have called in the past “the realism of a politics of impossibility” or “a necessary utopianism.” Nothing less seems responsive to the magnitude of the civilizational challenges already having a negative impact on human wellbeing. I have little doubt that those “realists” we rely upon as dutiful, taxpaying citizens are leading us down a path heading toward doomsday. It is time we shifted our allegiances and energies to the citizen pilgrims among us who are pointing us toward a humane and sustainable future for life on planet earth.

Richard Falk is an international law and international relations scholar who taught at Princeton University for forty years. Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

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