Int. Herald Tribune
Globalism replacing nationalism? Don't hold your breath

William Pfaff

Paris, Tuesday, June 27, 2000


UPPSALA, Sweden - Globalism's enthusiasts commonly argue that national sovereignties are doomed by technological determinism. Globalized finance and industry are escaping state control and making national regulation obsolete and national sovereignty empty.

They are not the only ones to say that the Westphalian international system, which has governed international relations since 1648 and rests on the principle of absolute national sovereignty, is outmoded.

There is a political argument that says national sovereignty is giving way to regionalism and decentralization on the one hand, and to international institutions on the other. The case of the European Union is cited, even if this is the only one available.

An argument influential in academic circles says that nationalism is mainly responsible for wars, and that so long as there are nations, there will be deadly nationalisms. Remove the nation-state, and the problem of state violence would be solved.

The Swedish government convoked a meeting this month on the problems of preventing international conflict. The meeting included a large participation by nongovernmental organizations and people from the academic community with both theoretical and practical interests in conflict prevention and a "modern conception of state sovereignty."

In terms of existing international law, the United Nations is the only authority that can legitimately authorize violence to counter violence. This is limited, however, by the political exigencies of real life, as when the Security Council cannot reach a consensus on action or when a member of the council is responsible for the violence, as in Chechnya.

The United Nations has no independent democratic or moral standing, although the Secretariat has managed to establish a certain authority of its own, often against the resistance of some member states.

The United Nations acts in what it sees as the general interest, but who decides that? Ultimately the Secretariat is the instrument of the members, and the Security Council and the General Assembly are mere forums of nation-states.

The majority of UN members are not democracies. Nevertheless, it can be said that the United Nations is the best source of international authority we have because the overwhelming majority of nation-states have agreed to concede authority to it. They have conferred upon it a mandate to maintain peace and security.

In this situation, nongovernmental organizations have become an important force in the international community. Yet while they are high-minded and devoted to what the Western world sees as good causes, playing the role internationally that citizens' action groups play inside the democracies, they, too, are without a democratic mandate of their own.

The NGOs make difficult and honorable efforts to mediate conflicts and help the victims of violence, but the flaw in their claim to a political role in international affairs is that they have less of a right to speak for ordinary people than do national governments.

Even an undemocratic government has an intimate relationship with the governed, if only because they submit to its authority. They don't have to; rebellion or revolution is always an option.

The NGOs have worked successfully with sympathetic governments on a number of issues, winning international agreements to stop the manufacture and deployment of land mines and to create a permanent international war crimes tribunal.

They represent an international mobilization of liberal-minded people with a distinctive worldview. They want to stop the resort to violence in international conflicts, and increasingly have argued that the international community has a responsibility to intervene to prevent or halt not only international conflict but also violent conflicts inside countries, as in Kosovo and Somalia, or possibly in the Congo or Zimbabwe in the future.

One of the topical papers presented at the Swedish meeting said that we "must not resign ourselves to the thought that war is a permanent part of human nature."

The reader by now will have noted the diffidence with which I write about this matter. I admire the earnestness and goodwill that have been invested in the cause of conflict prevention, but I am put off by the academicism and high level of abstraction of much of these discussions (a disease caught from political science, no doubt) and by the focus on theory and bureaucratic structures.

A fundamental fallacy underlies the effort to go beyond pragmatic action to block conflicts or to educate people in techniques of accommodation and practical compromise. The fallacy has it that war and violent conflict can be abolished, and are not a permanent part of human nature.

Would that this were so. But the stock of evidence from the dawn of time demonstrates the contrary. The effort to limit conflict and improve international society is a noble one, but one must have modest expectations. It will give us better institutions, not a better human nature.



Original article