“Literally the most astonishing day in British politics since yesterday”.

So have said many a twitter wag since the British electorate’s decision to leave the European Union was announced on the morning of June 24th – but for the record I give credit to @JamieDalton82. Fast forward to today (has it only been twenty odd days?) and @GavHutchinson surmised;

“Friend woken from a year coma? Ease them in with the relatively plausible Leicester romping the league by 10 points, then work up from there”

So we live in interesting times, that much is clear. So interesting in fact that an FT reporter observed on June 24th that It’s a rather strange day. The Prime Minister resigning is only our third most important story

But as interesting as Stock Market volatility, Article 50, a possible second Scottish independence referendum, mooted attempts to annul the June 23rd referendum, the leadership contests for the Conservative, Labour and UKIP and the publication of the Chilcot Report (!?) have been, it’s fair to say people have been somewhat astonished by the new Prime Minister’s appointment this evening of the Member for Uxbridge & South Ruislip as Her Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs.


New Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson welcomed to the Foreign Office by @SMcDonaldFCO (official photo) – Not pictured @DiploMog

At this point I am tempted to say that there has been a firestorm on twitter, or that it is having a field day, but when is it not? Clearly though in amongst the myriad references to Foreign Secretary Johnson’s legion gaffes and activities, some comic, others as dark as they are revealing, the prevailing view was that such an appointment was ridiculous and as such must have been forced on Theresa May.

Now full credit here to the more learned people that I follow on twitter as from them a contrary view soon emerged which I summarise below. *Remember it wasn’t me that spotted this* but rather I’m channeling @Peston and @FraserNelson – click their handles for their own analysis.

So Theresa May is keenest to immediately balance out the Brexit/Remain camps since she a Remainer (albeit quiet) is now leading Brexit Britain and there’s a clamour to ensure “Brexit means Brexit” and maybe even trigger Article 50 ASAP.

To wit of the Great Offices of state she’s got in place; Philip Hammond (Chancellor), Amber Rudd (Home) and herself (PM) i.e. three remainers. So she needs to keep Brexiters happy which she has done by giving top jobs to Liam Fox (International Post EU trade deals), David Davis (Secretary of State for Exiting the EU) and Boris Johnson (FCO is the last of the four Great Offices).

Away from this balancing act there is the “house of cards” politics of it all. Except here the view is not that Johnson has somehow dictated the terms of a deal with May. Recall that the evening of her appointment, Theresa May is at the height of her powers – just look what happened to George Osborne.

Instead there, consider May’s position. Appointing Johnson as Foreign Secretary will keep him out the country and overseas i.e. away from the grass roots (where he is famously/allegedly feted) as well as any plots. Then there’s the fact he’ll be jet lagged when he’s actually here. Although I suppose Whatsapp could be a way around this…

Some (Peston) have noted the similarities to Barack Obama making Hillary Clinton his Secretary of State in 2009 – this was a convenient/respectful way to deal with a vanquished rival. For all Johnson’s political capital seemingly collapsed with Michael Gove’s betrayal, as others have noted, his supposed idol, Winston Churchill also bounced back after a prolonged spell in the political wilderness albeit thanks to a particularly ugly gathering storm.

Lastly and most importantly there is the  role of Foreign Secretary  itself. The actual Brexit negotiations will be led by the new Government Dept. headed by David Davis (who was Europe Minister for three years under John Major) whilst the key EU summits (remember the UK is still a member) will be at a Prime Ministerial level where May herself represents the UK.

More broadly in terms of UK foreign policy it’s Downing Street and the PM who lead in a crisis. Otherwise, and although it’s not my own area of expertise (see my friends and colleagues Victoria Honeyman, Stuart McAnulla, James Strong, Tim Oliver for more) it’s a fair observation that strong Prime Ministers run their own foreign policy rather than leaving it to their Secretary of State.

So this leaves the Foreign Secretary as a sort of showman to talk up Brexit Britain and show Brexit was a positive choice where we turn away from the EU institutions rather than the continent and instead towards the wider world. The point here being (made most eloquently by Nelson) that this ideally needs someone who supported Brexit to sell it to the world. Even if the rumours abound as to whether Johnson actually truly supported Brexit.

So yes, being Foreign Secretary is an important job, but perhaps it’s more prominent than it is powerful in its own right. And of course with every gaffe Mr Johnson makes he becomes less of a threat to her leadership, and if he really screws up, well she could always sack him?

Now all of this (which recall I got from elsewhere) comes with a huge caveat. A caveat  in fact perhaps worthy of Vote Leave or British Intelligence circa 2002-3. Namely that this is a blog about international society and all that I’ve written above pertains to how Johnson’s appointment fits with UK domestic politics and the machinery of the British government.

Simply put, yes some of us in Britain may express a weary sigh if not wry smile at Johnson’s Have I Got News For You persona. But how will the rest of international society react to Britain’s new chief diplomat? I’m thinking here (purely off the top of my head) of his remarks about US President Obama’s “part Kenyan heritage” and the poem he authored abour Turkish President Erdogan. For the avoidance of doubt, the UK’s relationship with these two countries is what we academics refer too as of strategic significance.

Again, this is perhaps more an issue of foreign policy analysis (not my expertise) or indeed one for colleagues who assess how personal relationships between leaders – the presence or absence of trust – affect their dealings.

Alternatively the rejoinder could be made that even phenomenally popular state leaders cannot translate international goodwill into their favoured outcomes (see President Obama at the failed 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit to pick but one example). At the very least therefore another blog post beckons if not quite a PostDoc (without the EU funding of course).

But what I will say in closing for now is that the UK’s image on the world stage, its place in international society is being very closely watched, and the perceptions of our international peers (not least the rest of the P5) are of great import.

As I wrote on the morning of Brexit, in my view, Britain’s post war history has been the story of collectively assuming rather than critically interrogating, the fact we’re still the Great Power we were before the war.

Like Dean Acheson said back in ’62 we lost an empire but were yet to find a role. We’ve leveraged some crucial but essentially limited capabilities to maintain an enlarged role for these islands in international society.

Our influence is not just a product of material might (such as we have it) but also the regard (rightly or wrongly) we are held in. We’ve talked the talk but otherwise it’s been the emperor’s new clothes.

As such, to my mind, we’ve not had a conversation about what our role should be in the world as it is now, and not as it once was. Something tells me we’re about to confront the reality we’ve been dodging all this time, and is reasonable to ask what sort of role Foreign Secretary Johnson, can, will or should play in this most complex, overdue and important of conversations.

When friends and colleagues ask me what I think about such matters I often begin with or indeed entirely focus on what I’ve read and what I’ve made of this. Ask me what I think and I’ll tell you who I’ve read. It’s surely up there with answering a question by critiquing the original question. Clearly my friends and colleagues are patient and forgiving people.

Implicitly of course my choice of who I’ve read and what I’ve taken from them, tells you what I think, but i rarely begin by explicitly setting out my stall. This could be why my university debating career stalled, but it is definitely a function of my abiding suspicion of claims to certainty in a world of complexity.

David Mitchell comments on this same point today and Bertrand Russell beat us both to it when he said; “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.” Matt Frei’s similar (and perhaps less elitist) conclusion in the  immediate aftermath of the Paris attacks was that “nuance dies on days like these. What course then for the wise or nuanced? Hedley Bull suggested that; “It is better to recognise that we are in darkness than to pretend that we can see the light.”

But to be fair to David Cameron, unlike me who can get away with reading, reflecting (and occasionally even writing) about Syria, he is expected to do something about it. Syria is a moral and yes an academic issue for me. For millions on the ground (or on boats to Europe) it is a living nightmare and for world leaders it is a problem which we expect them to practically address irrespective of all the light, darkness, (un)certainties, knowns and unknowns. I can critique the murky reality of foreign policy. David Cameron has to navigate it…against the clock.

So do I think Britain should bomb Syria? Or to put it in more deliberate and less emotive language – Should Britain extend its anti ISIS air campaign from Iraq into Syria? Sadly as with our politics generally, public discourse here is organised around simplistic to the point of false and also gendered dichotomies – doing something as opposed to nothing, taking “tough action” rather than “being weak”.

I supported the 1999 Kosovo intervention in spite of the fact it had no explicit UNSC sanction. Something I excoriated Tony Blair for four years later in Iraq 2003, and then was particularly impressed by come Libya in 2011. However I am acutely aware of the riposte that reliance on the UNSC means Britain’s foreign policy is outsourced too/held hostage by the veto wielding powers (i.e. China and Russia) dependent as it is on an alignment of national interests or otherwise polite indifference.

Yet Council authorisation – for so long so central to the response of international society to Syria – of a sort now exists (although S/RES 2249 (2015) doesn’t invoke Chapter VII). So a legal case and thus international legitimacy as with Libya 2011 (in the early stages) are less in question now. Although here it would be wise to note there remains (as Ian Clark points out) the issue of whether legitimacy is purely the outcome of the Council’s decisions or whether it informs them. I.e. Council action is always legitimate, or the Council acts only where it is legitimate.

But away from the international diplomacy and these questions of legitimacy, should *Britain bomb Syria*? The concerns I have – and which lead me to agree with those who say we should not – stem from efficacy. The lesson of Iraq 2003 is not never to use military force (and so here I probably part company with the certainties of Stop The War) but rather that before we do so we must consider carefully our end objectives, our means and whether these are appropriate and in alignment.

Essentially when we use military force, what are we trying to achieve, why are we doing it, are either of these appropriate, how are we going to do it, is there a reasonable prospect for success and in so much as we can determine, what are the forseeable consequences of action/inaction? There’s probably a separate blog post on this combination of realist and just war reasoning alone, but this is not it.

The analysis I’ve read so far (including Stephen WaltDan Jarvis, Patrick Cockburn (here and here), Jason Ralph and Paul Rogers) suggests to me that the purported aims of British action (which Cameron has said must not be confined to just air strikes) are unfeasible, unrealistic and unclear if not counterproductive.

Unfeasible because the 70,000 coordinated  moderate ground forces who will take the fight to ISIS are proving elusive and somebody’s ground troops are needed yet none are forthcoming. As Rafael Behr writes this is “the weakest link in his [Cameron’s] chain – an expression of wishful thinking and heroic ambition as much as a credible argument.” Indeed the “global coalition” isn’t evenly sharing the burden of the existing air campaign as it is which is just one indicator of the vexing agency problem – who is acting in Syria and why?

Unrealistic as it speaks confidently of concrete signs of political progress at the Vienna talks to end the Syrian Civil War, yet for which there is precious little evidence. Some sort of compromise resolution of the Assad Question would do much to end a conflict which ISIS has been able to so effectively (and destructively) exploit, yet even where the West to amend its position, would the Syrian opposition?

Unclear if not counterproductive because there *a lot* of competing national, regional and sub national/sectarian interests at play in what is both an intra state and a proxy war. Beyond the usual “fog of war” (for which read Russian and Western air forces providing tactical support to opposing sides with all the risks this runs) are the multiple alliances of convenience which begs the question of what kind of Syria emerges and what will the consequences be for the region, its states, peoples and refugees.

Where does this leave us? Complexity is no friend of action but nor is it an excuse for inaction. I was struck by the comment in the days following the Aylan Kurdi tragedy that “we mustn’t do the wrong thing for the right reason”.

Likewise the Syrian Civil War and the threat posed by ISIS – both to The West but foremost Syrians and Iraqis – does mandate an international response but not I suspect this one.


Bitter truths on display at the Royal Armouries, Leeds

Recently I contributed to the rather excellent MUNPlanet blog where I wrote under the deliberately counterintuitive title: The United Nations: Where talking about the rules matters as much as enforcing them? This marked my second foray into *other* blogs after my April 2014 contribution to e-IR entitled Crimea: A problem of and for international society.

In response to my July 2015 UN piece, I was asked:

“What is your opinion on the veto-restraint and what could be a way forward in making a more prominent place for global interests in the narrow conceptions of national interests of the member states?” 

It’s a great question, and one I reflected on at length, engaging as it does what E.H Carr (provocatively) labelled the realist and utopian views of international politics, which the UN itself as a compact between power and ideals embodies…

Veto restraint is I feel superficially attractive and unlikely to occur. It is unlikely to occur because as I understand it only France of the P5 has adopted it and pushed it, notably in their 2013 General Assembly address. The UK position appears to be that we already do exercise veto restraint (last used in 1989) but in any case won’t sign up to the plans till the rest of the P5 do.

At the risk of undermining the piece, I don’t see the rest of the P5 – especially China, Russia and the USA – being sufficiently concerned about legitimacy costs to embrace restraint in principle let alone in practice. The P5 were very cool on the idea back in 2001 as part of original ICISS report, which is why it never made it to the relevant RtoP paragraphs of the 2005 World Summit.

That said however, as colleagues at the recent British International Studies Association conference speculated (particularly Benjamin Zala and Justin Morris) the disconnect between the rest of international society calling for restraint (led by the S5 and ACT) and the P5 refusing it, is a serious problem if we assume as I argue in my blog that international society is sustained by both axes of Clark’s consensus – that among the P5 but also that between the P5 and the rest.

I think veto restraint is superficially attractive because even were the P5 to agree to these proposals I fear that would simply shift their disagreements elsewhere; definition of mass atrocity and thus whether restraint applies, definition of their national interest and thus whether restraint applies. Thus, as with RtoP 2005, the creative ambiguities inherent in an agreement on restraint would become the new point of contestation. But then that’s *progress*.

Notwithstanding such implementation problems I fear that veto restraint in part at least assumes that with regards to RtoP/mass atrocities, more robust (i.e. Chapter 7) Security Council Resolutions  are the solution and that the obstacle to such a solution is the (P2) veto. Effectively this is the view that international society’s problem has been “in-humanitarian non-intervention” rather than the abuse of humanitarian intervention – which vetoes *supposedly* guard against.

Three problems in particular would be firstly how to successfully equip, deploy and sustain an intervention force (bear in mind the P5 not using their veto is not the same as their active support). In other words, more robust mandates could be included in resolutions but would they be enforced on the ground? Secondly there are limits to what interventions using force can achieve and thirdly there is the challenge of “after the intervention”. Whether you call this peacebuilding, nation building or the “responsibility to rebuild”, it would suggest international society having to exercise a trusteeship role in some cases in order to seek to prevent future violence, yet this is not a popular concept.

So whilst I am not quite engaging in a full throated defence of the veto I am warning that restraint raises as many questions as it may theoretically answer. The spate of Russian and Chinese vetoes of Syrian resolutions is somewhat exceptional and should be set against P5 cooperation on most other crises. So the use of the veto is perhaps less the root cause of problems and more the manifestation of them – restraint is unlikely to change this.

As for how to make a more prominent place for global interests in the narrow conceptions of national interests of member states – I like the positive framing of broadening the national interest to include the global as it is more often perceived as restraining or even denying the national interest to appease others. It is of course the job of diplomats and statespeople but it would help if they were to conceive themselves as “good international citizens” and thus define their interests and choose their actions according to this identity and with reference to that framework. And here, in closing it should be noted that use of the veto is actually often justified in such terms, as checking irresponsible, precipitate or destabilising action which is not in the international interest.  

As a post script I would add it is worth considering how resolutions are drafted, which countries do most of the drafting, and that the tabling of resolutions is subject to agenda setting and pre vetoing. See Security Council Report, Whats in Blue and PassBlue for more. 

For a more informed view why not read…

Thomas Weiss from March 2014

Aidan Hehir from August 2014 

Oliver Stuenkel from January 2015 

Stewart M. Patrick from January 2015 

UNA-UK from February 2015

I guess it could come in handy as a queue skip?

So I managed eleven official meetings and hopefully have four more phone interviews in the pipeline. I have yet to type up all my notes but one estimate would be that they come to 30,000 words.

All told I met with academics, advocates, policy experts and diplomats. Especially interesting was the mixture of anecdote and analysis whereby personal reflections and recollections marry with or elucidate official positions.

More than one interviewee had studied to an advanced level themselves, so it’s always nice to see life after the PhD, but on a more serious note this added something to the discussions in that they could better see where I was coming from and perhaps even interpret the questions better than I could, given their dual perspective.

You definitely grow in confidence over the course of conducting such research, you get used to some nuances and come to recognise different types of interviewee. Besides the dual academic/diplomat are those who offer expansive and varied answers, those who tend to repeat or emphasise a single theme throughout and those who are too senior to interrupt.

Whilst I am still typing up all my notes, one immediate recollection is that every interview contained at least one nugget or specific insight. Whether it was about Council dynamics; keeping on side of the P5; problems of institutional memory; open secrets; flawed processes or frank disagreements. Some of this confirms or corroborates what I’ve read elsewhere, others were more surprising.

It was also terrific to visit the Dag Hammarskjold Library and thank those in person who I have been emailing all year. True to form having innocently discovered some digest documents on Security Council activity for 2013 at an info desk (perhaps the world’s most informative info desk?), colleagues there were able to show me where to find them online. Then in response to my vague question about any good books to read for more information on the Council or interpreting resolutions, they excelled themselves with their recommendations. In general the library really gives the impression of an official authoritative source, if it isn’t there not only does it not exist but it doesn’t matter.

People have asked what it’s like wandering about the UN itself in what with it being a landmark but also a working organisation. What struck me on my 2009 visit was just how low key it was in places, that it had the look of a 1960s office complex in places i.e. lots of wear and tear.

Whilst some of this remains despite a lot of extensive (and ongoing renovations) this time as a visiting researcher and not just someone on a tour, I was struck more by the sense of purpose around the building. This was most notable not in the official settings such as the Council or General Assembly, both of which appeared to me quite choreographed, but in the Delegates’ Lounge, canteen, library and foyers.

On one occasion in the canteen I overheard a particularly frank discussion out loud about the problems in Afghanistan, on another in the library I heard that “the Russians are very upset” but that someone is trying to “defuse” things, and in the Delegates Lounge I went to sit down only to have my chair taken thus nearly provoking a diplomatic incident.

There’s also something to be said for an organisation that manages to have Nobel Peace Prizes stashed away in obscure corners, an impressive array of murals and an exhibit on landmines which yes, I did accidentally stray into.

So going forward my immediate priorities are to contact all my participants as agreed in the consent process, hopefully get a few clarifications or additional questions answered (especially now that I have read all the participants responses); do some more research around the areas that cropped up and above all else get writing…

Day two of the interviews and if nothing else I seem to have got the hang of running between meetings. I am not using an audio recorder which is just as well given the security restrictions of some Mission premises, so am scribbling my notes as best as I can.

Today, before my twelve o’clock I figured I’d drop by the Security Council and have caught the start of 7314th meeting on “The situation concerning Iraq”

Having spent months of reading the transcripts of such meetings it’s certainly interesting to see one “as it happens” whilst in the room.

I’d take another picture of the full Council in session but there’s a guard standing next to me…


The UN Headquarters

Not the World Trade Center

It’s odd how famous places cease to be landmarks and end up places you navigate via as transit points. The World Trade Center is a case in point. Famous even before the tragedy of 9/11 but fixed in our generation’s imagination as our “where were you when you heard Kennedy had been shot?” , yesterday it wasn’t an iconic symbol that you deliberately visit but rather where I had to go to get somewhere else.

Today has been a day of phone calls (twenty two in total) contacting the Permanent Missions of the various states I’m looking to meet with during my trip. It’s an odd experience in that it is deceptively simple but the success of the trip lives or dies by who I speak too. All in all this is where you need the elevator pitch of academic lore. However, rather than trying to succinctly explain your thesis in less than three minutes, you’re trying to get the operator to connect you to the *right* person through a combination of clarity, kindness, seriousness and buzzwords.

The UN operates a directory called The Blue Book, it’s a phone book 394 pages in length produced by the heroic “protocol and liaison service” with all the contact information of accredited Permanent Mission staff. Whilst it tells you whether they work in the political or social section, and whether they are a Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary, Counsellor, Secretary or attache, it doesn’t tell you their brief. I’m looking for whoever deals with Protection of Civilians, Responsibility to Protect and/or humanitarian issues.

The idea of coming to New York came about after discussions with colleagues revealed the drawbacks of visiting embassies in London. The simple truth being that if your research is about discussions among states at the UN, and your documentary source material is the records of resolutions, statements and debates at the UN, then well you go and visit the UN.

I began emailing the Missions in September and yes you may well be surprised at how many use gmail (I remain a hotmail man myself). Delicate chase up emails followed, as did some communication with the London embassies asking for their assistance. Between all this and some academic colleagues I have a number of interviews penciled in already with the hope being that “snowballing” (getting recommended and vouched for by those you meet and interview in a chain reaction minus the explosion) and my phone calls today will get me more.

The countries I’m targetting selecting were picked for the following reasons

  • Have been, are currently or have just been elected to the Council 2010 – 2014
  • The Permanent Members – “five to rule them all” in the words of David Bosco
  • States bordering my notional case studies; Cote d’ivoire, Libya, Syria, for the regional perspective
  • Hmm maybe my case studies, why didn’t I think of that before?
  • States who have been vocal in open thematic debates or participate in informal working groups on relevant topics
  • South Sudan as the UN’s newest member (2011) and given their diplomatic input to RtoP as a concept in the mid 90s.

So between twenty odd phone calls (made from a discreet corner of the UN canteen) and dozens of emails sent over three months what have a I learned?

  1. These people are *busy*
  2. These people are *really busy*
  3. They all seem to be based in a tight radius of The UN Plaza, so I will probably be doing laps.
  4. Some of them have been seconded to The Ebola Task force – “who ya gonna call?”
  5. “Violent extremism, foreign fighters and international terrorism” have somewhat muddled my trip by changing the topic of the open Security Council debate I was organizing things around when back in my “ivory tower”
  6. Some missions are very small, like two or three people only
  7. Staff turnover is a challenging reality – “I’d love to talk but I will be gone by then”
  8. It’s alarmingly easy to be confused for someone from the British/Scottish government
  9. A poppy is a good conversation opener
  10. When calling someone because you haven’t had a reply to an email, 80% of the time you will be told to send another email
  11. It’s probably not a good sign when their voice mail inbox is full.
  12. When attempting to phone the five newly elected non permanent members of the Security Council it is probably not a good idea to call them whilst they’re all away attending a handover workshop together. Whilst this may work wonders for global governance and represents a welcome improvement in Council working methods it was *not ideal* from my perspective.
  13. In the process of writing up this blog I’ve realised I was using the March Blue Book and there’s a November one out now..
The Secretary General's Bulletin (ST/SGB/259) requires that bearers must wear their ID cards visibly while on United Nations premises

“The Secretary General’s Bulletin (ST/SGB/259) requires that bearers must wear their ID cards visibly while on United Nations premises”

It’s been five years since my first and last trip to New York where i visited the United Nations for a guided tour.

This morning I came to begin research interviews for my PhD with staff from the Permanent Missions complete with (temporary) security pass.

I am conducting 15-30 semi structured elite interviews, or informal guided conversations. The people I intend to talk with are insiders with knowledge and whilst they may not be decision makers, they are a defined elite who “do” and “see” the day to day practices of international society. In speaking to them I want to check/corroborate/falsify my understandings, allow for any bias on my part and check their “internal understandings” of my research i.e. what do they think about what I think.

Given that I am already reflecting on the reflections of others through document analysis, in asking them what they think of my reflections I appear to have entered the film Inception.

Essentially I am researching norms – intersubjective shared understandings – and these are the people who share them/contest them/deliberate with them on behalf of the society of states, so who better to talk to?

In our shared office we have a whiteboard which operates under the assumption that the best way to author a journal article is to begin with the title and work backwards. Make of this what you will, meanwhile of course events in Crimea are not remotely funny at all if you live there, or as it turns out now anywhere in Eastern Ukraine if not the rest of the country.

The Baltic states are concerned that the fates of Crimea,Transdniestria, Abkhazi and South Ossetia may soon be theirs. Commentators if not scholars are musing over a new era, the end of one, or whether the previous 20 years were an illusion. Ukraine has been compared to Finland, Austria and Georgia and has managed to put Czechoslovakia back on the map (literally). NATO is either struggling or revitalised. Russia is either reacting to Western strength or Western weakness.

Economic interdependence is either already working its magic and applying pressure on Russia, or preventing meaningful sanctions from being enacted, and that’s assuming you think sanctions should be applied. The EU is either an inspiration or to paraphrase the U.S Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, a cack handed foreign policy actor unable to apply its vaunted soft power.  Elsewhere China is twisting its principles, playing realpolitik, noting the precedent or maybe even doing all three. And The UN, well The General Assembly said one thing and The Security Council said nothing.

This is just a selection of some of the commentary that has been available since November last year, but what is the discerning IR scholar to make of it all?

  1. Don’t get caught up in the hype of the moment, or as it it better known as, 24/7 media
  2. Don’t forget that there will be a lot going on behind the scenes that we mere mortals aren’t privy too.
  3. Don’t reach immediately for the most convenient event from history aka “The Sudetenland Syndrome”
  4. Remember that sovereignty matters in International Relations but probably not in the way that you think it does…
  5. Apply a theory rather than picking some facts to back up your world view – those alleging the crisis is a product of American weakness are particularly egregious offenders here, picking a series of otherwise disparate events to suit their narrative, which is of course set to war drums…

You’ll get no predictions from me, if only because I remember opining that Libya would be largely unaffected by the Arab Spring…

Amended text of a talk I delivered February 11th 2014 at “Polis Talks Peace” for the LUU World Unite Festival.

My research assumes that the states of the world form an “international society” in that they believe themselves bound by common interests and values and share in the working of common rules and institutions  (Bull). So it’s the relationship between peace at the international level and Peace on the ground that I’d like to consider here, or peace with a  “small p” and a “capital P” respectively.

This framework of an international society is to be found in the ironically named English School of IR Theory. Ironic because its founders came also from Australia and South Africa, and because I myself am not from round here as the more observant of you will have noticed.

Before I proceed I’d like to unpack that definition a little more.

  • Interests – states have a common interest in the avoidance of war (peace with “a small p”) through the existence of regularised, predictable patterns of interstate behaviour which ensure that their independence is respected and guaranteed.
  • Values – if interests are instrumental and can change dependent on context then values represent that which governments regard as important irrespective of the situation as values should stem from culture and inform their world view. Consider for example the value attached to “juridical equality” in that all states, small or Great are afforded equal legal rights in the UN Charter  as part of what has been characterised  (by and large) as an “equalitarian regime” (Reus-Smit).
  • Rules –  if values can be shared or held in isolation then rules of behaviour tend always to be shared as they represent mutually accepted standards of appropriate behaviour. Some are codified in treaty; non intervention, diplomatic immunity, freedom of international waters. Others are customary, such as honouring treaties and the rotation of the selection of UN Secretary General by region and convention that none of the P5 will put forward a national candidate of their own. The existence of such rules serves as a reminder than international relations in general and international society in particular exists in a condition of anarchy and not anomie.
  • Institutions –  crucial distinction is to be made here between primary and secondary institutions (Buzan). That is to say, secondary administrative  institutions or organisations and non-administrative primary institutions in a sociological sense. The former, administrative institutions, are perhaps the most notable manifestation of international society (UN, EU, AU, OIC, OSCE, NATO, ASEAN, OPCW) and their existence depends in large part on primary non administrative institutions. These are best conceived of as complexes of rules that relate to one another such as; sovereignty, diplomacy, war, international law, the balance of power, Great Power Management (Bull). As well as; the market, equality of peoples, territoriality, environmental stewardship (Buzan).

What was it then that attracted me to this theoretical framework? My research was motivated initially by the ubiquity of the phrase “international community” and a query as to who that was and what it stood for, if anything.

By way of contrast, international society, as defined above, is the umbrella of all 193 recognised UN Member states (most recently South Sudan 2011) where as “international community” is more amorphous and reflects a tighter solidarity among a more selective group of states, often dependent of the issue at hand and therefore absent in the more pluralist “live and let live” international society. Simply put the 193 states of international society recognise that coexistence and cooperation are preferable to and more beneficial than boundless competition or conflict, and this amounts in my mind to a pursuit of peace with a “small p”. Where as the more solidarist “international community” will refer to a more exclusive grouping of states willing to coordinate their policies and responses around other “thicker values” – as Buzan has argued, building on Walzer – such as an expansive interpretation of The Responsibility to Protect.

Socially or communally, such interactions are “governed” (in an anarchic/imperfect sense) by inter subjective understandings as to what is appropriate/acceptable or  expected behaviour. I.e. what is normal or a “norm” – here is defined as something that is both regular but also valorized I.e. valued and so perceived as legitimate.

Building on Dunne (amongst others) I argue that international society is sustained by states acting in accordance with legitimate practices. Crucially this is not to say states always obey norms or even just that as Louis Henkin of Columbia School of Law remarked, “most states obey most laws, most of the time”. The key empirical fact is that state behaviour is always justified in relation to them. Even when they disobey the law, they don’t characterise themselves (or allow others to paint them as)  law breakers. Instead they argue for an exception, appeal to another higher law or dispute the facts (see Alex Bellamy for a more detailed framework here). In other words, international law is honoured even in breach, as diplomacy in the run up the Iraq war 2002-2003, the toppling of Gaddifi in Libya 2011 and the response to the civil war in Syria from 2011-present all reflect.

I accept that there is a debate about whether international law and diplomacy is causal as an “independent variable” (in the terminology of my quantitative colleagues) that affects behaviour, or simply “window dressing” an after the fact rationalisation provided by states for decisions already made. Anyone who wishes to consider this debate could do worse than see what Robert Jackson and Cornelia Navari have to say on the topic. My position, perhaps typical of the social science PhD is that it is not such a clear cut either/or distinction. I regard the processes of justification, persuasion, argumentation, contestation and legitimation as key to understanding how any social reality (in my case the international) is interpreted and understood by its members as well as observers such as myself.

With this in mind, my thesis research question consider what happens when states attempt to change the norms of contemporary international society and how such contestation over legitimate practice is not itself a threat to the sustainability of international society, since change is preferable to atrophy, but can be if it provokes a backlash which is then mishandled. It is this backlash and the failure to properly address the ensuing “legitimacy crisis” as Dunne et al define in International Politics, 44(2/3), which threatens the sustainability of international society.

Which brings me to the title of my talk.

“The Great Irresponsibles”, is a name borrowed (and now attributed) to English School scholar Hedley Bull in a 1979 International Journal article where he criticised the disorderly conduct of the USA and USSR and the risks such behaviour posed to international society. In conducting my research I focus on the United Nations Security Council as the place where normative contestation is publicly played out in defining and responding to threats to international peace and security, since it is the Security Council that is charged with the responsibility for maintaining international peace and security on behalf of the wider UN membership and therefore by extension the membership of our international society.

To be clear, international peace and security is classically conceived of  as managing interstate conflict, achieving peace with a “small p” through the absence of interstate war especially among the Great Powers. As students, academics and informed citizens, what we mean by “peace” is vitally important. It reminds me of a quote which I emphasise to students that “the job of clever people is to ask difficult questions, but the job of very clever people is to ask deceptively simple ones”.

What we mean by “peace”, a word so often used, is a case in point of a deceptively simple question. So what is “peace”? The argument goes that as bad as things are in our world they would be worse if there was a major war between the Great Powers, so all international society can  attempt (or indeed should do given other competing priorities and values) is ensure that such major wars are avoided and more generally that interstate wars aren’t the norm, which the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) demonstrates has occurred since 1945 and especially the end of the Cold War.

This  is the “responsible” thing to do as reflected in the UN Charter, Article 24 of which confers primary responsibility for maintaining international peace and security upon the 15 member Security Council, with its five permanent veto wielding members (“five to rule them all”  in the words of academic David Bosco) and ten non permanent members elected for geographical representation in blocs of five serving overlapping two year terms.

Such “small p peace” however doesn’t strike me as enough, or even a proper discharge of the responsibility “we the peoples” (to quote the first sentence of The UN Charter pre amble)  through our member states, invest in the Security Council. Pragmatic perhaps, so maybe I’m just idealistic, but the principal focus on the avoidance of Great Power conflict behind it seems to work in favour of the status quo and those of us fortunate enough to reside in the Global North or West (two crass oversimplifications I concede, but they’ll do for now if you indulge me).

For example, with reference to Syria I spoke at an event in Leeds in December 2012 where I cited the death toll at 36,000. As of January 7th 2014, Rupert Colville, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says they can no longer verifiably count the 100,000 plus death toll and as such have suspended issuing further figures. Putting to one side the proxy involvement of the Western Powers, Russia,  The Gulf States, Turkey, Iran and various state sponsored non state actors in the Syrian Civil War and the potential threat therefore to international peace and security, the slaughter of so many people contrary to long held norms of non combatant immunity is no peace that I can conceive of in clear conscience.

Essentially therefore, the tension I am exploring in my research is how states are trying and could try to adapt the rules of international society to more adequately promote not just “small p” peace but Peace in capital letters – the presence of justice as opposed to simply the absence of physical threat. The fulfilment of essential and basic human rights and a solution to intra state conflicts and civil wars. The responsibility on the part of the international community to protect all civilians and also prevent within reason mass atrocities such as genocide, ethnic cleansing, war crimes and crimes against humanity as was agreed in the 2005 UN World Summit Outcomes Document.

Given that such solutions could call for direct intervention, picking sides in a conflict and embarking in peace enforcement and possibly state building, never mind just peace keeping, it is easy to see the disagreements and fall outs among international society that such aggressive, invasive and preventive operations would engender. I’m particularly interested in the current norms of sovereignty; non-intervention and collective Security Council authorisation set against practices that would see action unauthorised by the Council in the face of what some deem “an unreasonable veto” or in the name of a “moral majority” and coercive democratisation (regime change) as an escalation of humanitarian intervention. My concern is that such practices regardless of intention will provoke a backlash and damage the consensus by which international society is sustained, leaving us all worse off, and crucially the peoples of Syria no better off, as a result.

Briefly to close I would like to highlight three points of view taken from a recent Security Council debate of October 2013 (S/PV 7052) on reforming the working methods of the Council. Although a mostly administrative debate that dwelt on innovations in the day to day running of the Council, the forty nine participating states also made larger points on the issue of the Council’s responsibilities under The Charter and how it required reform in order to meet these and better serve the needs of both kinds of peace.

France remarked that;

“The Syrian crisis has highlighted the impasse that the Security Council has come up against in dealing with the use of the right of veto. A few weeks ago, the President of France spoke in the General Assembly on the importance of creating a code of conduct for the permanent members that would establish guidelines for the use of the right of veto. The Minister for Foreign Affairs also spoke on the subject. What would be involved would be for the five permanent members of the Security Council to collectively and voluntarily suspend their right of veto when a situation involving crime on a massive scale is considered to have occurred.

Clearly, the criteria for such self-management must still be defined by the Council’s permanent members themselves. A voluntary step such as this would not entail revising the Charter of the United Nations…The Security Council should take this opportunity to thoroughly review its working methods in order to meet the challenges of the twenty- first century. The world is changing and the threats have changed. Let us be the actors who are willing to deal with that change and show that we are capable of innovating in order to be more effective but also more just.”

Russia responded;

And, of course, such fundamental positions as the right of veto have nothing to do with the working methods of the Council. The suggestion that weakening the right of veto would help to improve the Security Council’s effectiveness is deeply deluded and would in fact have the opposite effect. The result would be the rubber-stamping of points of view reflecting the opinions of only one group of States. That is not why the United Nations was created.”

Saudi Arabia concluded;

“The international community’s attention is focused on the Council more than ever before. Innocent people throughout the world yearn for the Security Council to save them from the scourges of war by implementing its mandate for the maintenance of international peace and security without further delay, which will make the world a safer place. On that basis, the process of reforming the Security Council and its working methods must be inclusive, comprehensive and designed to strengthen the Council’s ability to fulfil its mission, reflect contemporary realities and the diversity of the international community, and take into consideration the interests of the entire United Nations membership.

The change in the Security Council’s structure should reflect the current situation, as well as new developments in the international arena. It should reflect the equitable geographic distribution of Member States and preserve its ability and effectiveness in fulfilling its duties, including in preventing conflicts and international disputes before they escalate and lead to grave consequences.

What observations can be made about these three different statements (of the forty nine made) in regard to the question of peace and the responsibilities of the Security Council?

France’s comments represents an attempt at “norm entrepreneurship” (Finnemore & Sikkink) as they suggest developing a new practice or customary rule without going to the lengths of re writing the actual UN Charter. They suggest that for all the change in normative expectations of what peace means and how a responsible Council and by extension its permanent members should behave, a work around solution is more feasible than substantial reform.

Russia’s objection to any such reform of the veto speaks not just to the significance of the national interest, but also about the role of what Bull called “Great Power Management” as an institution of international society. I.e the recognition that some states are more powerful than others and that in return for performing certain roles (such as America and Russia getting in a room an dealing with Syria’s chemical weapons) they get afforded special rights such as the veto. Paradoxically the existence of Great Powers both challenges and affirms the existence of international society. Challenges, because of the potential threat of hegemony if not outright hierarchy, and yet also affirms because being a Great Power with concomitant rights depends as much on recognition and perception as mere material might.

Finally Saudi Arabia criticises both the failure of the Council to discharge its responsibilities and is sceptical of any reform that fails to deliver better outcomes or recognise that the world of 2013 is not that of 1945. Indeed, such were their stated concerns that they took the unprecedented step of turning down their elected seat on The Council despite a hard fought lobbying campaign to secure it. Reading their statement with this in mind, France’s suspension of the veto among the existing P5 is not enough, and nor do they accept Russia’s advocacy of “five to rule them all”. Yet at the same time as arguing that The Council must be made more representative, they also call for it to maintain its “ability and effectiveness in fulfilling its duties”, something critics say would be harder, not easier under many of the plans for Security Council membership reform, never mind calls for it to attend more to conflict prevention, and so be responsible for Peace with “a capital P” as opposed to a simpler focus on international peace and security with “a small p”.

So what we see in this selected exchange between three of the forty nine speakers that day is contestation both of the problem of peace and the nature of the institutional solution I.e. who should be responsible, for what kind of peace and how.

Next year marks the seventieth anniversary of the founding of The United Nations and a special General Assembly Summit looking to consider both the post Millennium Development Goal development framework, and also once again, the vexing question of Council reform. Whilst much of the debate will doubtless link reform to occasioning more responsible behaviour, my final observation would be that just as, if not more important than the question of who shoulders responsibility and how, is the question of how international society defines responsibility and to what norms of behaviour they are beholden.

Hedley Bull’s “The Anarchical Society” is a landmark text and one of my favourites. I recall buying it when I was a sabbatical officer with the intention of making up for only skimming it as an undergrad. I remember taking it to Japan to read on holiday, and again to Carlisle some years later having never quite gotten into it. Needless to say I did and I’m now doing post graduate research in the same field.

“A society of states (or international society) exists when a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions” Bull, H. The Anarchical Society : A Study of Order in World Politics (London: Macmillan:1977) pg.13

Bull’s thesis is that a society of sovereign states exists in our world today and that this “international society” is anarchical in form given the absence of a central orderer. However as the subtitle to the work indicates, there is most definitely a form of “order” in world politics to which international society contributes. Like many of the best authors Bull sets out not just the topics he will cover, but those that are related but not his focus, most notably justice (xiii). At various points he outlines the notion that order is a pre requisite for justice (86), however he acknowledges that unjust orders exist, and that in his belief justice should not be sacrificed in the cause of order as a “commanding value” (98) – “If international order does have value, this can only be because it is instrumental to the goal of order in human society as a whole” (22). Yet he recognises that the prospect for substantive change here is limited given “to pursue the idea of world justice in the context of the system and society of states is to enter into conflict with the devices through which order is at present maintained” (88).

The sweep of Bull’s writing encompasses philosophy, history and then contemporary Cold War international relations. Philosophically, he critiques the common reading of a Hobbesian state of nature, and the simplistic contrast between domestic hierarchy within states and international anarchy (46). What of Lockean cooperation in the absence of a leviathan he asks (48) or primitive stateless societies (62)? Bull argues that conforming to notions of acceptable behaviour is more important than the mere existence of rules and speculates on the reasons states conform. As one would expect from a founder of The English School he makes use of detailed historical comparisons, tracing the evolution of International Society from Christendom to modern Europe before engaging the 1970s Cold War context (113).

The Anarchical Society follows a clear structure over three sections and 320 pages, with Bull outlining the aims and conclusions of each of the 14 chapters. Part One discusses the nature of order in world politics, with Bull focusing on its purpose as the realisation of shared primary goals (53). Here the case is made for international, (second order) society in an abstract sense, as Bull outlines how such a “precarious achievement” is maintained in an anarchical setting in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds. Part Two addresses order in the contemporary international system. In this, the section I most enjoyed, The English School is applied to the traditional notions of; the balance of power; international law; diplomacy; war; and the Great Powers. Although eventually concluding that the study of world politics is purely an intellectual pursuit (319), in Part Three Bull treats the reader to a consideration of alternative paths to world order. At first glance one may consider this a treatise or personal manifesto on Bull’s part, a political agenda not in keeping with his otherwise academic detachment. However he remains true to his aims by coolly assessing each in turn, offering criticisms of the unworkable and unlikely where they are due and refraining from any utopian impulses. Indeed as an advocate of The English School, he is naturally inclined to the reform of the states’ system rather than its decline or obsolescence.

Does Bull fulfil the task he sets himself? Does he prove the existence and utility of the anarchical society? His reasoning deconstructs the oft levelled comparison between international relations and domestic political arrangements. As the title of the work indicates, Bull agrees that anarchy is a defining feature of international relations, but he rejects hierarchy as the only path to order. Moreover he clearly articulates the contrast between the mechanical series of interactions that characterise an international system, from the mutually held value laden perceptions and interactions that are the hallmark of his international society. Indeed he addresses sceptics head on asserting “my contention is that the element of a society has always been present, and remains present, in the modern international system, although only as one of the elements in it, whose survival is sometimes precarious” (41). This is an important caveat within The English School. Theirs’ is a tripartite outlook of an international system, international society and world society simultaneously coexisting. Thus The English School accepts the role that Great Powers play in determining the values and processes of international society and settling questions of stability and change. Bull sees international society jostling alongside war, transnational loyalty and division as elements of international relations (51) (73). Where critics see war (especially by Great Powers) as contrary to international law and thus proving realism’s assertion that the national interest and self-help always predominates, Bull points to the significance of states at least alleging they have just cause for war, keen as they are to appear reasonable members of international society (45). He underlines this point in his consideration of the efficacy of international law as “a social reality to the extent that there is a very substantial degree of conformity to its rules; but it does not follow from this that international law is a powerful agent or motive force in world politics” (139).

In his preface, Bull declares that The Anarchical Society is an opportunity to systematically bring together his thinking on international society and international order, where elsewhere he has only done so in “a piecemeal fashion”(ix). To do so he meditates on Hobbes, Grotius and Kant, whose worldviews are associated with the tripartite perspective which is the hallmark of The English School. Variously, Bull cites other notables in relation to their respective fields; Kelsen & Hart on international law; Gilpin & Hunt on the role of transnational corporations; Ali Mazrui  and Rajni Kothari on the Developing World’s justice agenda; and Richard Falk on the prospect of a New Medievalism. Ultimately this is Bull’s own work and the argument and analysis, both historical and political is his own. The Anarchical Society is written for an audience of academics and policy makers. For the latter are special lessons on the responsibilities of Great Powers; the risks posed by nuclear weaponry and the potential of institutions.  For the academic or student are definitions of concepts such as order; society; system; justice; war; balance of power and Great Power. Bull methodically contrasts related concepts with one another or details their components such as with the criteria for “socially effective rules” (56). Then there are his multiple levels of analysis, ranging from the international to both regional and global, and which through discussion of New Medievalism, countenance the role of non-state actors. Several times Bull directly addresses himself to his readers on some of the book’s most contentious topics and overarching questions. He highlights his refusal to justify order at the expense of justice, recognising this is the de facto position of The West (94). He criticises advocates of the nuclear peace, whilst directing readers to his writings elsewhere on the subject (126). He baldly rejects utopian cosmopolitan schemes as dreamt up by privileged Western elites and as such as patronising and ineffectual as they are impossible (85) (286) (304). In concluding, he chastens readers to accept that we remain in the dark about most things in spite of detailed research and it is foolish to pretend otherwise (320).

Written 40 years ago there are several interesting and insightful facts and observations one can gleam from a read of The Anarchical Society. It is readily apparent that talk of the rise of non-state actors and the phenomenon of globalization are not recent developments, with Bull tracing the globalization of European international society and the role of non-state terrorist actors. He speaks frankly of the post 1945 international society maintaining an order at the expense of equitable and proportionate notions of justice, telling the story of Walter Lippmann’s proposed post war regional Great Power management system as one mooted alternative (222). The greatest strength of the work is Bull’s careful treatment of concepts with which most international relations scholars are familiar and interested. He explores the paradox of how war is both a cause of disorder and thus a threat to international order/society and yet also an accepted instrument of state policy used to enforce international law or as a driver of change (91) (188). He separates discussion of the viability of international law from a focus on centralised coercion, arguing instead that self-help measures can ensure its application. Indeed he firmly identifies himself as a believer in law as “a social process”, rejecting “the idea of law as a ‘body of rules’ because they hold that this process of authoritative and effective decision-making does not consist simply of the application of a previously existing body of rules, but is shaped by social, moral and political considerations as well.” (128). Of particular relevance to my research would be Bull’s thoughts on how  an unjust order could be sustained (93); his analysis of how Great Powers legitimise themselves (229); and the strength of the cosmopolitan culture upon which international society rests (316).

What then is missing, what issues or questions are avoided by The Anarchical Society? Stanley Hoffmann, Adam Watson, Alan James, Kalevi Holsti, Kai Alderson, Andrew Hurrell, Yale Ferguson, Richard Little, John Williams, Edward Keene, Nicholas Wheeler, Tim Dunne and Barry Buzan are just some of those who have pieced over Bull’s legacy and reconsidered The Anarchical Society, now on its Third Edition. The have critiqued his separation of system and society, his moral vision, hesitant pluralism, methodological inexactitude and dismissal of economic integration or sub global developments. For my money, perhaps it is not the place, or it is best that he simply alludes to it, but a deeper (perhaps Gramscian) treatment of the values and institutions that define international society would be welcome. Although this work is picked up elsewhere in The English School. From a contemporary perspective the absence of religion/Islam as a theme is telling of its 1977 provenance. In terms of the existence of bias, as has been mentioned Bull’s voice is evident throughout The Anarchical Society, and he does address the reader deliberately whenever he picks sides in a debate, be it on nuclear weapons; cosmopolitanism; structural functionalism or natural law. As he sums up in a witty anecdote about being lost in Scotland, the present international society perhaps isn’t the best place to start from in search of world order, but it is here that we are, so it is here we must begin (295).