“The international community” is among the most commonly invoked and most frequently vilified phrases in world politics. As Tod Lindberg points out in a new CFR working paper, “Making Sense of the International Community”, the expression has become a verbal tic of sorts for U.S., foreign, and international officials. Thus, when the stability of post-election Kenya in 2007-2008 was threatened by violence, “the international community” sprang into action. When the repressive Burmese junta kept pro-democracy leader Aung Sang Su Kyi in confinement, “the international community” united in condemnation. When Bashar al-Assad shelled the city of Homs in 2012, “the international community” groped for an appropriate response. And so on.
For hard-bitten realists like CFR President Richard Haass, the phrase is simply silly—redolent of the soft sentimentality of utopian dreamers unable to see the world as it is: a Hobbesian state of nature, in which sovereign states compete mercilessly for power. For neoconservative ideologues, like Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, it is woolly-minded gibberish, propagated by liberal naïfs who refuse to recognize that statecraft is a Manichean game that only those with “moral clarity” can win. And yet the concept survives, indeed thrives, repeatedly invoked by U.S. and foreign policymakers to capture the ineffable solidarity that seems to bind at least some states, some of the time.
The debate over whether “the international community” exists—and if so what it consists of—matters. If it does not exist, its loose invocation is distracting and potentially dangerous, blinding us to the real forces shaping state conduct. If it does exist, we need to clarify its meaning and boundaries more precisely, or risk undercutting the emergence of a more humane framework for world order.
It takes considerable skill to shed meaningful light on such an elusive and much-maligned concept. Fortunately, Tod Lindberg of the Hoover Institution is up to the task. Although affiliated with a conservative think tank, he is not easily pigeonholed ideologically. He tends to take iconoclastic positions, like supporting U.S. membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC). He is also an elegant writer, having written for and served for years as editor of the recently shuttered Policy Review. Most importantly, Lindberg takes ideas—and the history of ideas—seriously. This leaves him well-placed to parse the evolving meaning and trace the practical impact of this influential concept.
Lindberg’s core argument is that the phrase “the international community” signifies something real. To be sure, it is often used and abused for narrow, instrumental purposes. But at its core, it embodies a classically liberal vision of an international order based on the universal application of moral principles. It reflects the commitment of nations—or at least some major subset of nations—to “a commonly held sense of the good.” To summon “the international community” is to recognize that shared norms, and not simply material interests, can and do inform the conduct of states.
Lindberg’s paper is a worthwhile read whatever your theoretical perspective, for he asks the right questions: Does an international community actually exist, and if so, who is eligible for membership? How sticky is the glue that binds its members, and is its expression to be found in existing international institutions, in accumulated international law, or evolving norms of international society? Finally, how coherent is this community, and who can legitimately speak in its name?
What follows are just a few of Lindberg’s main insights, as this author sees them.
International law underpins the “international community.”
For many realists and conservative nationalists, international “law” is nothing of the kind. Lindberg begs to differ. As the late legal scholar Thomas Franck observed, international law exercises a “compliance pull.” Though it typically lacks the force of sanction characteristic of domestic law, most countries obey it, most of the time. And when they do not—as in the NATO-led intervention in Kosovo taken without UNSC authorization—they offer normative justifications for their departure from the law. And the reason governments do so is that they value international law not only for its contributions to world order but for its embodiment of the community of nations.
The “international community” is bound by certain shared norms.
When one speaks of community, George Washington University professor Amitai Ezioni writes, we imply “a shared moral culture and bonds of affection.” The sense of community is inherently thinner at the global than the domestic level of course, given the diversity of national political and economic systems and values. Still, the notion of the international system as purely anarchic and populated by self-contained states (the “billiard-ball” image so beloved by neorealists) is woefully out of date. As British political theorist Hedley Bull observed decades ago, the world’s nations, for all their heterogeneity, constitute a kind of “society of states,” whose members share “a sense of common interests in the elementary goals of social life; rules prescribing behavior that sustains these goals; and institutions to make these rules effective.”
The “international community” is not inherently Western.
There is a strong temptation to depict the West, where the sovereign state system began, as the core of “the international community.” After all, shared values and transnational alliances, networks, and ties have so transformed politics among advanced market democracies that that war among them is today inconceivable. Lindberg rejects this position, after considering it. While the “Atlanticist community” may be “the most highly developed ‘transnational ethical community,’” he writes, “other transnational communities may gather and pursue common ends,” citing the Non-Aligneed Movement (NAM) and the Group of Seventy-Seven (G77) as examples. The main implication? Solidarity within “the international community” may often be thinner than among its sub-groups.
The “international community" remains open in principle to all.
Lindberg challenges those radical critics who consider the concept of an “international community” inherently exclusionary. Defining a “we” group, he insists, does not depend on a “they” group perpetually excluded from membership. All that is required to join the international community is to accept its fundamental norms and rules. This choice is of course most acute for today’s “rogue” (or in the current parlance “outlier”) states like Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Sudan, which violate fundamental principles and standards of behavior as they pursue of weapons of mass destruction or commit atrocities against civilians.
Lindberg’s essay does not provide ready solutions to specific foreign policy problems. But he does conclude with “a practical guide” to help officials decide when it is (and is not) appropriate to invoke the “international community.” His main counsel is to avoid using the term when international sentiment is deeply divided on matters of fundamental principle. Employing the phrase more judiciously could avoid a host of problems. At present, he warns,
“Our loose talk of international community comes at a price, in terms of sometimes inflated, sometimes diminished expectations about the ability of international politics to be brought into alignment with an evolving yet classically liberal moral order—whose political authority consists in its voluntary acceptance by growing numbers of people, even including governments.”