Response to Roth, D’Aspremont and Fox

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I formulated the central thesis of this book at the height of the ‘liberal confidence’ that was witnessed during the Bush and Blair administrations. At that time it seemed that a new world order was emerging and that a serious attempt was underway to fundamentally reorganise the political and legal structure of the world order. In short, what we were witnessing was a clash of normative orders between associations of states that I refer to as the international society and the international community.

Obviously, matters have become much more complex in recent years – in light of the rise of international terrorism, the global economic downturn, the emerging multipolar world etc – and much of the hype and hubris that once surrounded Bush and Blair’s ‘liberal confidence’ during the 1990s has now substantially faded. But I argue that although the liberal project has changed in form it has not changed in substance, and I continue to stand by my central thesis – namely, that the contemporary world order comprises opposing normative orders (the international society and the international community) and that it is the interface between these associations that provides a convincing explanation for why violations of international peace and security occur.

In their reviews Fox and Roth are of the opinion that the bright lines I draw between the international society and the international community are far murkier in reality and that the political structure of contemporary world order is far more complex and nuanced than I give credit. In particular, Fox and Roth argue that there are many instances in the post-Cold War era where liberal states have failed to dismiss non-liberal states as illegitimate and, in actual fact, have enjoyed close relationships with them. Their argument is that discrete national interests of liberal states are sufficiently prominent so as to prevent them from transforming their grand political rhetoric relating to the normative supremacy of liberal democracy into practice, such as the desire to preserve beneficial economic or security arrangements. In light of this, Roth explains that my understanding of the international community is overly ‘bold’ and ‘straightforward’ and which pictures the scene far ‘too starkly’. Ultimately, Roth concludes that the account I offer is ‘premature’ and should be more ‘moderate’ in order to be convincing. Fox makes a similar point when he labels the framework I develop ‘reductionist’.

To a certain extent I accept this criticism. It is correct that in the post-Cold War era there are examples of liberal states engaging with non-liberal states in such a manner as to indicate that they are tolerant (and even respectful) of their non-liberal ideology and thus continue to recognise them as legitimate. Roth identifies the example of liberal states having ‘recently embraced non-liberal solutions’ in Egypt on the basis that it is ‘convenient to other agendas’.

It goes without saying that the social realities of the institution of recognition within the international community are complex and can take different meanings within a particular context. So I accept that factors other than a state’s political constitution can influence the way in which it is perceived by liberal states. However, my objective is not to construct an explanatory framework that accounts for every micro-aspect of international social reality. If it were then my book would essentially be a restatement of a mass of raw data. This may make for a robust book in descriptive/explanatory terms. However, it would be unimpressive analytically because it would fail to judge what data is significant causally to the world order and that which is less relevant.

In addition, it would also fail to identify what I still believe to be a convincing line of explanation; namely, that since 1990 liberal states have exhibited consistent trends and patterns of conduct in their interactions with non-liberal states. Thus, it is not my objective to provide an all-encompassing ‘theory of everything’ which can explain international relations in their entirety since 1945 or even 1990. Instead, the objective of my book is to identify salient empirical data and on this basis propose an explanatory framework that utilises ideal-types like the international society and the international community to elucidate generic transformations to the structural and normative configuration of the world order.

My claim that an international community of liberal states is now engaged in campaign for liberal development is obviously an empirical one and necessarily my book identifies various examples of liberal interventionism. Older examples include NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 and the numerous liberally orientated peacebuilding missions that have occurred in the post-Cold War era, such as those in Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan and Iraq.

In relation to Iraq Fox explains that the invasion of Iraq was ‘not to promote democracy’. This may well be true, but as I argue in the book post-invasion it is undeniable that the US and UK’s occupation of Iraq – and the huge resources that were dedicated to this project – revealed a clear attempt (whether this attempt has been successful or not remains to be seen) to reconstruct Iraq upon a liberal basis. Sure, there may be those that argue that the rhetoric of liberal democracy promotion was a disguise for less altruistic geopolitical strategy or prudential reasons.

This relates to d’Aspremont’s point about causation: how do we know that when a state justifies its conduct (for example in liberal terms) that this justification is genuine? This reminds me of Michael Ignatieff’s claim in his book Empire Lite that the reconstruction of Kosovo had little to do with promoting liberal democracy to Kosovo but instead to ‘bring stability to a combustible corner of Europe’ (p 32). The same explanation could be made in relation to the liberal reconstruction of East Timor; namely, that the reconstruction was not so much a benevolent exercise of liberal democracy promotion, but instead an attempt to impose order and stability and thereby stem the flow of refugees from East Timor that was threatening the security of Australia. The point is that it is very difficult if not impossible to prove causality in these circumstances simply because we only have access to what people say publically, and not what they say privately, and less what they actually think.

But we must remember that theories are not designed to prove, conclusively and definitively, particular causal relations, and should not be judged against such a standard. Instead, the purpose of theories is to enlighten us to the salient processes operating in world affairs and on this there is room for legitimate disagreement. In this sense, theories compete with other theories in order to be the most convincing and persuasive. My book identifies patterns of conduct of liberal states and in light of this I argue that our understanding of these trends can be better explained (our understanding enlightened) by deploying concepts such as the doctrine of the international community. Readers will legitimately differ in their judgement of how convincing this theory is.

I argue that the explanatory strength of the doctrine of the international community is enhanced by the international community’s reaction to the Arab Spring. D’Aspremont’s earlier work on liberalism formed the intellectual foundations of my book and he is correct in his review that that I felt a sense of ‘outrage’ when in 2011 he changed his approach and rejected the doctrine of the international community. I would be interested in hearing how he (and the other reviewers) explains the support offered by liberal states to the pro-democracy demonstrations that swept across North Africa and Middle East in 2011. As I reveal in my book the international community provided considerable support to the demonstrators by encouraging authoritarian regimes to embrace liberal democracy and by condemning their use of violence to supress these demonstrations. Indeed, where the human rights abuses were particularly severe the international community did not just denounce this conduct as unlawful/illegitimate but also sought to intervene.

In Libya for example the international community de-recognised Gadaffi’s authoritarian regime and instead recognised the National Transitional Council on the basis that it was the legitimate representative of the Libyan people. Furthermore, with the human rights situation in Libya worsening and the threat of a civilian massacre in Benghazi NATO, acting under Security Council authorisation, resorted to military force. In Syria the international community again de-recognised the Assad regime on the basis of its violent repression of pro-democracy demonstrations and recognised the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people (on the de-recognition of the Gadaffi and Assad regimes see Capps’s article in (2014) Public Law 230-244).

As we know, members of the international community came very close to using military force to ameliorate the humanitarian suffering in Syria and campaigned hard to acquire authorisation from the Security Council, only failing because of the Russian veto. Interestingly, the UK government expressly stated its preparedness to use military force against Syria for humanitarian reasons even without Security Council approval, but did not do so because of the UK Parliament’s reluctance to authorise the use of force.

I would suggest that the international reaction to the Arab Spring supports my claim relating to the existence of the international community. Of course it is always possible to find exceptions and caveats to any explanatory theory, and this is what the reviewers have done. But in light of the consistent practice of liberal states that I identify, perhaps it is a case of the exception proving the rule?

The final issue that I would like to address again pertains to the central objective of the book. As I explain at length in the introduction the book seeks to explain contemporary events through the doctrine of the international community. I certainly do not attempt to defend (from a normative perspective) the conduct of the international community. Roth seems to recognise this when he explains that the book should not be tested in jurisprudential terms but instead whether it is ‘an accurate account of events or not’. However, at another point he notes that my ‘characterisations leave no doubt as to [my] enthusiasm for the trajectory’ of the liberal peace project. This resonates with d’Aspremont’s contention that my explanatory framework is grounded in a preconceived framework and that ‘the limit between explanation and prescription sometimes grows thin’.

Re-reading the book, I can see where this comes from, and at times I use language that seems to reflect the liberal confidence that I am seeking to explain. But this does not detract from the fact that in methodological terms my objective is explanatory rather than normative. If I intended to engage in a normative project then I would have had to discuss issues such as whether, for example, liberal democracy is a universally desired system of governance or whether liberal states do in fact forge a zone of peace. This would require the writing of a completely different book. At some point I may take up this task. But first we must explain and understand events before they can be understood as a positive or negative development.

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Heiko Recktenwald says

November 20, 2014


But wasnt this competely crazy?

Heiko Recktenwald says

November 20, 2014

I tried to quote: "In Syria the international community again de-recognised the Assad regime on the basis of its violent repression of pro-democracy demonstrations and recognised the Syrian National Coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people (on the de-recognition of the Gadaffi and Assad regimes see Capps’s article in (2014) Public Law 230-244)."