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.