Questions from a Communitarian: Thinking About the International System

May 5, 2004
By Nikolas Gvosdev

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to take part in a panel (“The New Global Architecture: Moral and Value Foundations”) sponsored by the Swiss Foundation for World Affairs (http://www.swissfoundation.org), the first of two events devoted to the release of Amitai Etzioni’s new book, From Empire to Community: A New Approach to International Relations.

Those who style themselves foreign policy realists would find many points of agreement in this work (and in last night’s discussion). Etzioni questions the utility of forcible democratization and cautions against a big-bang approach to democracy-building. Instead, he stresses the need for a step by step approach to political liberalization—using the Buddhist metaphor of the Eight-Fold Path, he believes that a more productive policy would focus on constructing viable institutions in sequence that can sustain a democratic polity for the long haul. (He also calls attention to the need to pay attention to an emerging synthesis that balances the rights and autonomy of the individual with a desire for a workable social order—and, here, he criticizes some in the West, including in the United States, for ignoring the role of religion in providing societal norms in favor of a blanket secularization.) Realists would endorse his assessment of the “severe limits of social engineering,” especially in providing instant results.

And a step-by-step approach, starting with more basic goals, is one that is more realistic and thus more sustainable. “Enhancing safety, removing tyrants and opening a country incurs substantial costs, but they pale in comparison to what democracy and development or ‘reconstruction” require … keeping down the costs of ordering the world is a prerequisite for the taxpayers of a democracy to be willing to continue to foot the bill,” he writes.

It also helps to create a more realistic basis for conducting relations with other states. In an ideal world, Russia and China would be full-fledged pluralist democracies and open societies. But the fact that they may not be at present does not mean that we cannot live with these regimes or find ways to cope.

Compare Etzioni’s comments on China with those expressed by Dimitri K. Simes, president of The Nixon Center, from his article that appeared in the winter 2003/04 issue of The National Interest.

Simes wrote:

… most realists are well aware that China remains a one-party state with limited freedom of expression. Nevertheless, realists generally also appreciate that China has made remarkable progress in expanding both its citizens' well-being and their ability to control their lives. Realists further appreciate that China's influence in Asia is growing, particularly under Beijing's pragmatic new leadership, and that constructive relations with it are essential both to maintaining America's presence in the region without unnecessary conflict and to addressing the challenges of terrorism and proliferation, most notably in dealing with North Korea's attempted nuclear blackmail.

Etzioni, for his part, observes:

A self-restraint foreign policy best focuses on promoting whatever element that a given society is leaning toward building up (say, economic liberties in China) instead of insisting that the society has to make more or less equal progress on all three fronts at once (e.g., boycotting trade with China—undermining both engagement and opening up—because of a lack of sufficient progress in human rights, as some advocate).  … China’s respect for rights and democratic development are lagging and, indeed, it occasionally suffers a setback, but still it is progressing significantly beyond what it was when it first began scaling back command and control of the economy.

Being realistic—concentrating on opening rather than “democratizing” societies—is the hallmark of Etzioni’s critique of current neo-conservative and neo-liberal approaches to American foreign policy, for, as he concludes about a policy of democracy promotion the world over, “No earthly power is capable of changing the world to such an extent. To claim otherwise invites disappointment, breeds cynicism, wastes resources and generates a political backlash on the home front.”

Another point of dialogue is over the question of morality in international affairs and its role in helping to confer “legitimacy” on policy actions. “Normative principles are best treated as one significant factor among a handful of others especially important in determining what is considered legitimate,” he notes. Many in the realist camp would concur, albeit in a more qualified fashion. In the pages of this magazine in both its quarterly and weekly formats, a constant theme has been that the “morality of results” rather than the “morality of intentions” should be the guiding principle.

Where the engagement between “realists” and “communitarians” really gets interesting, however, is whether or not a “convergence of interests” among the nations of the world for coping with transnational challenges that are proving too difficult for any one nation-state to solve lays the foundation for an emerging global community. Etzioni argues that the anti-terrorist coalition that emerged after 9/11 lays the foundation for what he terms a “Global Safety Authority”; he makes the case that other challenges, such as SARS, points to the need for other “Global Authorities” that can take effective action. What makes his argument different is his contention that pursuit of the national interest will lead countries to take the steps toward forming effective supranational authorities. Global governance, in other words, evolves out of interests, not idealism.

Reasons of space do not permit me to go into greater detail, and I would be loath to provide a caricature of a significant portion of his book.

But it is of interest whether shared interests, over time, will produce community.  Pang Zhongying, writing in these pages in 2002, sounded a cautionary note about this question.

He wrote:

First of all, in assessing China's understanding of its international environment, it is necessary to draw the distinction between the concepts of "international community" versus "international society." "Community" implies that its components share many things in common, such as values, whereas "society" recognizes that, while actors may have shared interests, there is no overarching common power or universal standard. Former United Nations Secretary-General Butros Butros Ghali has been a leading proponent of the notion of "the international community." I maintain that, at present, one can use the term "international community" to describe something like the European Union, a community of nation-states sharing common values, institutions, and procedures, but I do not believe that Ghali's vision applies to the reality of world politics. Thus, in assessing China's international environment, I think that it is more useful to conceive of global affairs taking place within the parameters of an "international society" rather than an "international community." (http://www.inthenationalinterest.com/Articles/Vol1issue6/Vol1issue6Zhongying.html)

He agrees with Etzioni about the nature of the new challenges (“no country can unilaterally guarantee its own security in a globalized world”) and agrees that countries, including China, will pursue both regional and international solutions.  

But does such cooperation lead to “community?” And here I will close with a comment I made at yesterday’s forum. Many often speak of a “global village.” But let’s recall those medieval villages in northern Italy, or in parts of the Caucasus, where each family maintained its own fortress-tower. My sense is that, while countries will continue to pursue cooperative efforts which are in their own interests, and may even “throw open” the gates of their fortresses—no one is willing quite yet to raze their towers and give up the hedge of sovereignty.

In the short term, we may end up with what Yevgeny Verlin wrote about last week—a move from “the coalition of the willing” to “a concert of powers.” Whether concert becomes community will depend on whether it can successfully meet the transnational challenges before us.

 

Nikolas K. Gvosdev is editor of In the National Interest.