Tuesday, September 2, 2014
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What Is the International Community?

PARIS – Despite the frequency with which the phrase “international community” is invoked, its precise meaning – like its origins – is difficult to discern. And, as France’s recent intervention in Mali has shown, this ambiguity lies at the root of many of today’s most urgent foreign-policy problems.

For some, an international community simply does not exist. For others, the term refers, more pragmatically, to all countries when they decide to act together. Still another, more accurate definition encompasses all countries with international influence – that is, any country whose identity and sovereignty is recognized, and that chooses to participate in global discussions and decision-making.

Beyond semantics lies the more consequential, but equally ambiguous, question of the international community’s role and responsibility. Just as too broad a definition could undermine a country’s sovereignty, too narrow a definition – like that which seems to predominate today – allows violence and instability to proliferate.

For centuries, sovereign states have regulated their relations – from ending wars and demarcating borders to establishing diplomatic privileges and conducting trade – with treaties. Together, these official agreements comprise international law, which compensates for its lack of specific penalties by establishing strict and unambiguous concepts and one overarching sanction – universal blame for its transgression – that matters to everybody.

And yet, throughout these centuries of treaty-making, violence between countries persisted. So countries began to deepen and develop international law by building shared institutions.

The process began quietly, with the establishment in 1874 of the Union Générale des Postes (which later became the Universal Postal Union), and went virtually unnoticed by those in fields that lacked any need for global agreements. The devastation of World War I, however, highlighted the need for stronger international cooperation on peace-keeping, leading to the establishment of the League of Nations.

But the organization was weak and inefficient, largely owing to the United States’ refusal to ratify its charter. As a result, it failed to accomplish its primary objective of preventing another world war.

In the wake of World War II, a stronger and more influential institution – the United Nations – was established. The UN, which has a specialized agency for each aspect of a humane society, has successfully supported decolonization, helped to build states, and averted the spread of regional conflicts, especially that between Israelis and Palestinians.

UN efforts have also led to the eradication of many infectious diseases; the adoption in 1982 of the Convention on the Law of the Sea, the principal framework for handling maritime disputes; and the establishment in 1988 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose regular reports play an important role in assessing hazards related to climate change. But the UN was unable to avert the Cold War, wars in Algeria, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia, or genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda.

Contrary to expectations, the collapse of communism did not bolster international cooperation. On the contrary, all international negotiations – on global warming, financial regulation, and nuclear disarmament (despite the efforts of US President Barack Obama and former Russian President Dmitri Medvedev to conclude a bilateral nuclear-disarmament agreement) – launched since the end of the twentieth century have failed.

Another force – global public opinion – is needed to strengthen and expand the scope of international law. Indeed, global public opinion, galvanized by the actions of NGOs, has pushed governments to sign treaties, such as the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, and to establish international institutions, such as the International Criminal Court in 1998.

Global public opinion should be channeled more effectively in order to compel the international community to take responsibility in new areas. This will require a more acute collective awareness of the violence and chaos threatening territories and people worldwide, including in Somalia, Haiti, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and, most recently, Mali.

In January, France, which no longer has strategic or economic interests in western Africa, responded to a request from Mali’s citizens and caretaker leaders to intervene to prevent Islamist rebels from Libya and Algeria from overrunning the country. Four months after France’s military operation successfully expelled occupying forces from northern Mali, most French troops and equipment are headed home.

The intervention lacked the support of the international community, which, with the exception of the United Kingdom, failed to understand the sense of responsibility that underpinned France’s decision. But, with French forces on their way out and Mali desperately in need of rebuilding, the international community must adopt a new perspective and offer its support.

The UN, which carries the mantle for the international community, has already deployed a peacekeeping force to Mali. Moreover, in accordance with its regulations and practices, the UN has called for a presidential election, which has now been set for July 28. But, given that Mali lacks political parties with popular support, candidates who command respect, and a permanent polling-station system, an election held so soon would probably bring an international civil servant to power – an outcome that could reignite internal conflicts.

Restoring security in Mali requires dialogues between village and tribal leaders. Likewise, rebuilding the country’s infrastructure depends on talks between any remaining municipal authorities and village leaders. Both processes will take time, and neither can be completed successfully without external support.

A country that lacks a government cannot rebuild after a crisis without help. That does not mean forcing it to follow an unrealistic and potentially dangerous electoral ritual just because it is embedded in UN regulations. The international community should support Mali’s gradual process of renewal where it counts – on the ground in the country’s conflict-battered communities. And it is up to the global public to stand up for that idea.

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