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Internationalism and Beyond - the Most Revd Rowan Williams

Posted on: June 19, 2004 4:43 PM
Related Categories: Abp Williams, USA

Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Rowan Williams

Internationalism and Beyond

Speech on the occasion of a fund raising dinner for the Anglican Observer to the United Nations.


Connecticut, USA

In spite of what many think are menacing signs, we are witnessing a period of unprecedented opportunity for the United Nations - which is also a period in which the role of voluntary organizations in relation to the UN is becoming increasingly significant. The importance of our Anglican representation at the UN emerges more clearly than ever at a time when the UN is seeking to recover and to reinforce its moral authority; there is an urgent need for structures and relationships that allow a global moral perspective to be voiced more clearly. Trends in UN reform - as indeed in the reshaping of some other global institutions whose moral credibility has come to look rather shopworn in recent years, the WTO and the World Bank for instance - are driving towards the 'moralising' or civilising of the global economy and the world of international negotiation. Never has there been a time when the presence of religiously based voluntary groups has been of such moment.

If the United Nations did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. No-one can look back at the global situation in the years after 1945 without a strong sense of the need for a universal forum in which policies could be hammered out to respond to issues of reconstruction and reconciliation. The signal failures of the League of Nations in preventing conflict had concentrated minds and clarified some of what now needed doing. A setting in which national interests could be to some degree brokered and in which universal principles for a moral politics were universally owned was an urgent need in the wake of a war that had seen and brought to light systematic institutional disregard for human dignity on such a scale.  And it made some sense that a particular group of powers was entrusted with a sort of guardianship in circumstances of potential crisis, to avoid the dominance of one ambitious nation going wholly unchallenged.

If anyone is disposed to doubt the usefulness of the UN today, it is worth reminding ourselves of those concerns and asking whether today's concerns are actually so very different. We have not faced a single global war; but we have unprecedented global challenges that no state or transient coalition of states can finally resolve. The problems that the UN first faced in relation to refugees, poverty and health, brutal disregard of human dignity, and the imbalances of power among the wealthier and militarily better supplied nations are all painfully contemporary.  If the UN and its Security Council have failed to 'solve' these questions over the last half-century, that should not prompt us to dismiss the organisation as misconceived. Rather it should make us ask what those things were that prevented the institutions of the UN from addressing some of these matters at root, and how the deficits can be remedied. 

For today the refugee challenge is greater and more widely diffused, as the global economy touches every nation, and the prevalence of human rights abuse and what is ironically called low-level conflict guarantees a steady supply of the displaced. Despite the rhetoric around human rights and the presence of new international conventions seeking to set threshholds of acceptable behaviour, the gap between language and fact is often shocking; we have only to think of the persistence of torture in so many countries in recent decades. Health care for the poorest has made advances; but there is still an astonishing slowness among the wealthier nations in mobilising resources in the face of the HIV-AIDS pandemic, and the rising statistics for malaria and TB tell us beyond any doubt that we are losing ground. The Millennium development targets establish admirable goals, but the lack of resources and of political will in many nations means that their realisation looks remote.

Then there is the sensitive question of the nature of the US's sense of responsibility to the global community, which is - to put it as neutrally as I can - a matter of some dispute, not least when you think about the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto protocols. The period leading up to the recent war suggested strongly a measure of confusion in many parts of the international community about the need for international legitimation of military action. And in addition to all this, every piece of serious evidence suggests that the ecological crisis steadily approaching for decades has accelerated its advance dramatically: climate change is no longer a science fiction prospect, and - once again - no nation or group of nations can respond in isolation.

So what has gone wrong? If it is still worth defending the UN, and still worth having an Anglican Observer, what vision of the UN's future should be in our view? UN achievements have in fact been far from negligible in the last decade or so: we do not hear so much of conflicts successfully contained or reconciled, and there have been several such. Yet the consensus is that in this period the credibility of the UN has suffered enormously - belated and ineffectual interventions in situations like Bosnia and Rwanda and accusations of large scale bureaucratic corruption in relation to the oil-for-food scheme in Iraq - these are, so to speak, internal problems; but externally the confusion over rights of intervention in Iraq, over who has authority to confirm violations of UN resolutions, the suspicion that Security Council politics has to do with a good deal more than the search for long-term shared security, all this has left the organisation weakened, so that the pressure for reform is intense.  But the positive thing to emerge from this period is, I believe, that endemic weaknesses have at last been brought to light, and that we can now see a little more easily how the irreversible changes in global economics and politics have exposed the most vulnerable aspects of the post 1945 settlement.

The UN Charter, including the role given to the Security Council, represents a situation in which the priority is brokerage between sovereign nation states. It thus takes for granted concepts of sovereign independence that pull sharply against any idea of common accountability, even though this common accountability is stated or implied in many of the instruments of the UN, especially the Declaration on Human Rights. As a result, the UN has never been able to present itself or to be viewed as a transnational entity; it is in the strictest sense international. Its member states have been constrained by their own electoral mandates and their own national interests; and the interference of an international body in the internal politics of any one state has been regarded with deep unease as doubtfully compatible with article 2(4) of the Charter. Philip Bobbitt (The Shield of Achilles, p.472) has spoken of 'crimes shielded by sovereignty' as characteristic of the post-1945 situation. From a radically different political and strategic standpoint, Ian Linden (A New Map of the World, pp.120-1) speaks of 'the failures of a global social contract'. Some might say that the Charter itself had never provided a true contract of the kind he envisages; but the basing of a new global body on the will of 'the people', of humanity as such, remains a very important fact, and was indeed deployed in argument about Charter revision in the wake of the Kosovo conflict.

But in this era of standoff between sovereign states, the changes in transnational relations have been extraordinary. Sovereignty in the classical sense has been challenged by economic globalisation; no state can now determine its own economic fate in the way that might have been possible fifty years ago. And the development of intermediate alliances, regional coalitions, shared currency regimes and so on has begun to introduce a sort of 'pooling' of sovereignty strictly understood (hence the continuing debates in the UK about the European constitution and entry into Europe's currency arrangements). The result as far as the UN is concerned has often been to ring-fence certain aspects of sovereignty at a time when the reality of sovereignty has been tacitly and irreversibly altered; and those aspects that have been thus protected have been those which would be most problematic in the light of a genuine commitment to shared accountability in the area of human rights.

Respect for the sovereign integrity of a state has been invoked in discussion of the Iraq conflict when described in terms of regime change. Hence some paradoxes, if not contradictions, in much of the argument about this conflict. Those hostile to the war could take their stand on one interpretation of the UN Charter, arguing that the presumption against initiating regime change in a sovereign member of the UN must override other considerations. Those in favour of the war claimed the inalienable right to determine whether Iraq threatened their sovereignty and/or security, and to act accordingly, in independence of specific UN authority. Yet the former could accept weapons inspections and consequent sanctions, and the latter invested great energy in trying to secure specific authorisation for military action. And the underlying problem about the UN's moral and political authority was starkly expressed by those who pointed out that a Security Council vote was bound to be determined by the vagaries of highly self-interested national politics. Furthermore, the expectation in some quarters that the UN would be actively involved in 'nation-building' after a successful intervention, while quite explicable in terms of ideals about the UN as guardian of the legitimacy of a regime, were very imperfectly thought through in terms of what resources and lines of command could deliver such an involvement.

At present, thanks to a very proactive and serious Secretary-General, reform of the UN is the subject of several substantial proposals, especially as regards the Security Council. In spite of the very recent resolution on Iraq's future which restored some unity of purpose to this group, the problems lie deeper than disagreements between the US and other nations. The current proposals mean that a fossilised structure which made some sense after World War II but increasingly appears anachronistic is likely to be opened out so that nations both poorer and more populous will have a place: permanent seats for nations from the developing world are envisaged, as well as membership for Japan and Germany. However, as I shall explain shortly, I don't think that enlargement alone will deal with the difficulties of the Security Council; and I dare to think that in this context it may be important to look to religious communities for some orientation about a positive basis for reform, as well as some practical assistance in realising it. Hence my belief that this is indeed a propitious time to put energy and resource behind our Anglican presence at the UN.

Why won't enlargement alone bring about the changes needed? Partly because of the unprecedented significance of those institutions that are variously called CSO's or NGO's, civil society organisations or non-governmental organisations (the designation 'sovereignty free actors', suggested by J. Rosenau in 1990, is tempting but misleading). The role of 'global civil society' has grown steadily as classical sovereignty has dwindled.  In the face of economic globalisation, the need has been felt for transnational voluntary agencies to keep firmly in view those issues of human welfare and human cost that are pushed to the edges by both national interest and multinational business.  Who is it who looks out for questions of fundamental human dignity in the gaps between national issues and the adventures of global capital? The current concern for global civil society represents very vividly just that moral dimension of the transnational vision which moved the signatories of the Charter to put themselves under the judgement of certain clear principles about what is owed to human beings as such.   

Now, as we have seen, a UN that is essentially (human rights or no human rights) a negotiating forum for nation states is always going to have difficulty in giving teeth to genuinely transnational concerns. Unless one were to look for a system of international law that was in some sense the law of a supranational executive, a world government, certain things will depend for their enforcement on the highly variable political will of actual states.  And there is little enthusiasm (rightly, I'd say) for a supranational executive, even if it were a remotely achievable goal. If, therefore, there is a commitment in the UN to some sort of attention to these moral questions, questions of human dignity and welfare, there will always need to be a robust and dependable means by which the civil society groups may have a voice in UN deliberations. As things stand, this depends quite a bit upon the willingness of individual national missions to engage; some do so quite effectively. And in many UN bodies and agencies, of course, the role of NGO's is prominent and obvious. But is there more that could be brought into play, specifically in relation to matters of peace and security?

Any sort of NGO membership of a body like the Security Council would mean radical change in the Charter, and would bring its own difficulties. But there is a reasonable question to be asked as to what co-ordinated representation could and should be made on a guaranteed basis - what right of audience the institutions of global civil society should have. It may be that some sort of standing commission is needed for this; and while it may be unrealistic to suggest that it should have a right of veto over Security Council recommendations, I don't think it is excessive to think about its having a stated right to comment on proposals or to be heard in sessions.

The mention of veto raises one of the very hard questions around the future of the Security Council. The exercise of this right on a repeated basis by some members of the Council has done nothing for its credibility; the question has to be posed of how there may be in a body like the Security Council a reasonable expectation that national concerns will not simply be overridden by majority vote without simply allowing carte blanche to the contingencies of a particular government's interests, anxieties and potential embarrassments. One way forward could be by way of the encouragement of more sophisticated organs of policy based in a region of the globe, or indeed non-regional coalitions with common concerns (as is already happening to some extent). This might in turn involve a shift - formally or informally - to a system of required consultation drawing in the (transnational) interests of the region affected by a Council resolution.  Regional views would be sought by a reformed Security Council, which would also be consulting a range of voluntary organisations, and the rational for the veto in its present form might be less obvious. Particular nations in the UNSC would be speaking in the light of priorities established by a more collective local process. The entire discussion might be less likely to be reduced to a matter of conflicting strategic interests between specific individual states. It is a possibility scouted by Bobbitt, among others, as a sort of halfway house between unmediated self-interest on the part of certain powers and an unworkably strong doctrine of transnational executive liberty.

But this regional element will still be caught in the web of negotiating specific local concerns unless it is in some way supplemented by regional and transregional commitments to a moral democracy. Once again, writers from very different backgrounds have argued forcefully for this. In a particularly powerful essay published last year ('On the Political Relevance of Global Civil Society', in Making Globalization Goodthe Moral Challenge of Global Capitalism, ed. John H. Dunning, pp.280-300), the American jurist, Richard Falk, outlined what might be involved in a process of 'globalisation from below' - the process by which institutions of global civil society, pressure groups, NGO's, faith communities, persuade states to accept the main points of a common vision about healthy democracy. Interestingly, his account of such healthy democracy includes the commitment to non-violence as a means of problem solving and a definition of 'public good' that takes in transnational issues about capital flow and environmental justice. He suggests, for instance, that taxation of financial transaction or international air travel could be used to fund projects to do with local and transnational public good.  In other words, this account of democracy looks for both restraint on multinational corporations and a qualification of old-style sovereignty in the name not of any sort of superstate but of agreed moral goals beyond national interest (pp. 294 ff.).  Similarly another American writer on international affairs, Jonathan Schell, in his recent book, The Unconquerable World, speaks in a memorable image of 'delaminating sovereignty' (i.e. accepting, in some circumstances, divided or parallel jurisdictions and legal identities) within the context of a 'democratic league' committed to the defence of human rights. Admission to this league would be dependent on strictly defined internal accountability and public order; and the pooling of aspects of sovereignty within such a coalition would be a sound moral basis for challenging the sovereignty of another state that was abusing the dignity of its people. A state like this, Schell argues, would have lost the right to claim that it represented its own populations, and could properly be the object of 'police' action by the kind of league he envisages. Already there are some signs of regional coalitions considering how they could work for common security; what Schell's suggestion adds is a clear commitment to certain shared principles.

What is interesting in all this is that it assumes a future in which voluntary interstate alliances will monitor the moral agenda of international affairs and keep alive those issues already noted (health, ecology, capital flow) that cannot be handled by national governments alone.  It assumes, in other words, that classical sovereignty can be successfully supplanted, not by 'world government' but by contract. It also assumes that the definition and handling of transnational issues will depend upon lively and articulate civil society organisations whose voices are guaranteed a hearing in national and regional government. Governmental willingness to be held to the democratic compact envisaged by Falk and Schell will need to be reinforced and at times challenged by the voluntary bodies closest to the issues in question. This is not to say that national interest is essentially submoral, or that any and every transnational movement is a positive phenomenon; one has only to think of drug cartels and indeed of terrorist networks. But the issue is whether we can give adequate room to voluntary agencies with humanitarian priorities that are sufficiently independent of merely local concern (and official funding) that they can speak on behalf of what a state itself acknowledges as a system of shared values applicable to more than just its own citizens.

And this is the point at which we turn again to the UN's task. In a world where regional and democratic co-operation were advancing in the way outlined, the role of the UN would in many ways be less prominent - that is to say, some of its functions would be locally devolved; its 'franchise' would be dispersed.  But in other respects it would be of unprecedented importance. It would be the global guarantor for local compacts of the sort we have been thinking about, the moral point of reference which made it clear that international co-operation properly took this form and not another in a world where assent to the Declaration of Human Rights was universal on the part of states. Its enforcement role would be largely localised in practice through the local coalitions of covenanted states; but a reformed Security Council might have more authority if its resolutions could be both prompted by and executed by local democratic coalitions - a concrete example of UN structures acting as a moral longstop, responding to local perception of crisis and backing specific interventions or policies to contain the crisis. The consultations with NGO's and legal advisers that would be built in to new protocols for the Security Council would offer a perspective on crises and conflicts that was not restricted by national interest, so that the challenge of a 'rogue state' would not be left either to opportunistic individual neighbour states nor to a distant executive. What is more, the point of a process of consultation bringing in local groupings, NGO's and the membership of a global security body would also be to assess just and proper means of intervention or pressure. In the climate envisaged of a presumption against violent intervention, there should be fuller consideration of alternative strategies, and of longer-term policy in respect of a state whose legitimacy was in question.

It will be very plain that I am not trying (and am not competent) to draft in detail a new structure for global security. But I am attempting to draw attention to some striking convergences among recent writers in thinking about security and global justice. If there is one theme that emerges with absolute clarity in the thinkers I have been mentioning, it is the importance of 'global civil society', the voluntary and transnational 'trusteeship' of moral accountability beyond the often chaotic and transient interests of national governments.  Without wanting entirely to subscribe to the way some have written about an interreligious 'global ethic', I agree that there are substantial possible areas of shared action and concern in relation to those issues that are not limited by national politics and electoral self-interest, and that the concerns and visions of faith communities are an indispensable part of the process of clarifying these and realising them. Every religious tradition concentrates upon what is good for human beings as such, not upon what is good exclusively for a nation state or even an empire. We all know how this has been distorted by self-interest in the past, but we all know equally how religious traditions renew themselves self-critically, so that they become agents of constructive critique in their social and national settings. It is at best an open question whether secularism can deliver a robust sense of general accountability for the common human good. Despite the divisive potential of many kinds of religious thought and practice, the positive element of focus upon a good that is not local and merely short-term, the sense of being answerable for all and for the whole of a limited material environment is not easily to be found where the religious perspective is systematically ruled out (think of the ecological record of the twentieth century's most thoroughly anti-religious regimes, for example). Hence the importance of religious representation at the UN - and specially, if we can presume to put it in this way, representation that guarantees a voice which can draw on long and sophisticated traditions of moral and political reflection.

To summarise, then: the role of the UN remains indispensable, but if it is to function as it needs to in our present context it will need the sort of reshaping tentatively begun and outlined already in the plans that have been advanced in the last couple of years. The Security Council has to recover credibility and enlarge the scope of representation. But the main point that recurs in discussion of the future of international affairs and transnational justice is that the UN will need to incorporate more clearly the voice of NGO's, of 'global civil society', because, in the globalised economy and the globalised information network, the mere brokerage of the interests of individual states is unlikely to deliver long term security. There are too many issues facing us that demand something beyond 'international relations', from terrorism to ecology to epidemic disease. But the brokering role of the UN comes in, perhaps, in encouraging and resourcing leagues or coalitions of states which are ready to relinquish certain aspects of sovereignty in forwarding a global democratic agenda. In such a context, without any attempt at imposing a regime of international law as if it were the law of a superstate, contractual reliance on aspects of international law would gradually build up.  In a sense, what is proposed is not unlike a translation into governmental terms of the 'Global Compact' initiated by the UN in 1999 to encourage politically and environmentally responsible policies among multi-national enterprises. Only a morally robust UN can, realistically, draw up and help to realise the elements of a democratic compact.  For this, the contribution of religious communities will be essential - though it is also a challenge to those communities to develop with appropriate rigour a theology of democratic accountability and environmental care.

In short, this is a moment of immense significance for the UN and so for the possibilities of serious transnational work towards justice, security and sustainability. Our hope as a Communion is to make whatever contribution we can for the sake of these things. We are privileged to be welcomed as conversation partners in the UN structures; I hope and pray we shall know how best to use these opportunities for the sake of honouring God's image in all and resisting the various and grievous oppressions that currently torment our world.             

©Rowan Williams 2004