Transnational Institutions and Sovereignty

Prompted by David Rieff’s article in October’s issue of Prospect magazine and his talk at the RSA this last week — both on the subject of an alleged crisis of legitimacy in the United Nations — here are a few notes on transnational institutions and the redefinition of state sovereignty.


I am no expert on international affairs. What little I know is what I glean from Prospect, the RSA and a few books. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, then here are four risky premises that form the backdrop to my views.

  • There is an unstoppable increase in issues that require transnational solutions (environment/climate/energy, migration, trade, terrorism, communications infrastructure/security). Any book on the future will probably back this up, but I was particularly influenced by the diverse collection of essays in Visions for the 21st Century (edited by Sheila Moorcroft, Adamantine Press, 1992).
  • Citizens who may feel the impact of these issues understandably might want to have some say in the governance of the issues.
  • At the same time, many of these issues are profoundly complex and their effective governance depends on the advice of experts in arcane fields that are not readily accessible to public debate (meteorological projections and the architecture of Internet protocols are relatively non-contentious examples).
  • The conservative (big or small ‘c’) stance that the traditional structures of sovereignty and intergovernmental collaboration are, and will remain, the best means for addressing the issues and for citizens’ stakes to be taken into account is, putting it generously, questionable — and sometimes seems absurd.

My conclusion from these statements is that we need more and better transnational governance systems. If that means rethinking our ideas about sovereignty and accountability to citizens (the legitimacy questions), then that’s what we’ll have to do.

That conclusion is not the same as saying that the EU and UN, let alone the WTO and the World Bank, should be supported. It just means that they must be constructively engaged with, because they hold the ring at the moment, and to pretend that a mature state could challenge their legitimacy without replacing them with entities of similar scope is a bit daft.

With that backdrop, here are my notes from last Thursday’s lecture and discussion (these do not refer directly either to David Rieff’s article or Edward Mortimer’s reply). It will be worth checking to see if a more detailed record becomes available on the RSA Lecture Texts page, but there’s nothing there at the time of writing.

Definition of UN and its moral authority

The event was chaired by Sir Marrack Goulding, a former head of Peacekeeping in the UN Secretariat. In introducing David Rieff, he identified four possible uses of the term United Nations, presumably to warn us that Rieff might be prone to conflating these uses:

  • the organisation in New York, based on the UN charter established after the Second World War;
  • the wider UN movement;
  • the constituent nations of the UN;
  • the UN Secretariat.

After the talk, Sir Marrack estimated that Rieff had used the term UN to refer to the Secretariat about 40% of the time, but very rarely had he used it in connection with the constituent nations.

Rieff seemed to accept that his definition of the UN might not be clear and fixed, but countered with the argument — see below — that there was equally no such thing as the “international community.” He asserted that it is fair to use a definition of the UN that sees its legitimacy as resting on its moral authority. Conversely it is not good enough to talk of good intentions, and Rieff said that serious people within the UN recognise this. Bosnia was, for him, a case of moral failure of the UN, in putting the rules of peacekeeping ahead of common sense, and similar mistakes were made in Rwanda (more details in the Prospect article).

“International community”

David Rieff’s assertion that there was no such thing as the International Community provoked at least a couple of questions, one of which suggested that it was just as spurious as the “there is no such thing as society” canard. But Rieff wasn’t willing to accept the equivalence (rightly, I think). He argued that, for there to be community, there has to be a set of normative values and behaviours that are shared more often than they are disputed: without such a qualifying condition, referring to the “International Community” is just the same as saying “there are a bunch of states out there,” and used as a simple collective noun it does not have much meaning.

Rieff pointed out that almost all states have signed the Declaration of Human Rights, the Genocide Convention (including Rwanda) and similar international protocols. But in practice there is much contempt and desuetude of international law (he cited Western Europe as the only possibly exception to this generalisation).

All that Rieff would concede is that it may be meaningful to talk of an International Order, which is currently unipolar and revolves around US power.


Until earlier this year I don’t think I’d heard of the Treaty of Wesphalia (having done no history at school past the age of 13, which I regret), but it came up at the last Prospect debate I attended, where the latest war in Iraq was presented as the first serious breach of the sovereignty of nation states that was enshrined in that treaty. David Rieff was blunt: “the Westphalian conception of sovereignty has gone by the board.” And Sir Marrack had suggested some sympathy for this view in his introduction, saying that there has been an erosion of the absolute notion of sovereignty since the end of Cold War, and that it may no longer be relevant.

Both speakers referred to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), and its report The Responsibility to Protect. This report addresses instances where breaches of sovereignty may be justified to protect human rights within a state (i.e. protecting the citizens of the state that is breached). It does not, as far as I can see, cover the more questionable area of intervening to preempt a perceived risk outside a state’s borders (i.e. protecting the citizens of the state[s] that is doing the breaching). Rieff noted that the report was silent on the question of who intervenes. He was scathing about states like Canada (which hosted the ICISS) that pronounce on the rights and wrongs of intervention at the same time that they have been progressively scaling back massively on their capability to intervene. (For a similar attack on Canada, that takes in Old Europe as well, see Mark Steyn’s article in this week’s issue of The Spectator.)

Prospects for the UN and its legitimacy

One of the questioners who argued that the International Community notion was at least desirable, if not a reality, wanted to say that if such a community exists, there has to be a vehicle for it. Even this does not follow, to my mind. The anarchist in me says that the conditions where there are real shared values and behaviours, and applicable legislation to regulate deviance, are exactly the conditions when the last thing you need is an extra layer of intervention.

I like Richard Feynman’s conception: “The government of the United States was developed under the idea that nobody knew how to make a government, or how to govern. The result is to invent a system to govern when you don’t know how.” (From The Meaning of It All, where this is elaborated at greater length.) Wouldn’t it be nice if we could conjure a system of global intervention that catered for the fact that no-one knows how to manage or direct such intervention?

But David Rieff said very clearly that he is not in the business of suggesting solutions, only stating problems (in taking this stance he was anxious to be clear that he didn’t want to be seen as lending support to neo-conservative UN critics such as Richard Perle and John Bolton). Rieff is resolutely pessimistic on a number of counts.

  • He anticipates ongoing resistance to the legitimacy of the UN, allowing for the recent questions over its moral authority and the historical resistance of nation states to transnational arrangements that appear to impinge on their own sovereignty and freedom to act (most importantly, given the current International Order, Americans see no legitimacy in laws other than US law, which is absolutely sovereign in their constitution).
  • He does not see much promise in aims to reform the UN, by, for example, changing or enlarging the Security Council. Such reforms could make it harder to reach consensus resolutions, which might frequently leave a choice between “illegal war” and “immoral peace” (as was the conundrum in Kosovo).
  • In answer to a question from an ex-member of UN staff, Rieff responded that the fact that the UN does now discuss wars around the world — in a way that it did not discuss, say, the Vietnam War 35 years ago — is not necessarily an indicator of progress. His reading of the history of international relations suggests that the establishment of norms of discourse will not necessarily lead to emergence of the desired behaviours by states.

Rieff’s correspondingly downbeat concluding assessment was that the UN would continue to be “in crisis” for the foreseeable future, and that, when it comes down to it, a weak UN suits the major powers (US, Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China) just fine. Sir Marrack Goulding wasn’t charged with giving a full response to Rieff, but in his closing comments he observed that, on several of Rieff’s criteria of crisis, the UN had been in crisis since its inception, so perhaps the prognosis was not as alarming as it seemed. He also observed that maintenance of peace and security is not the only purpose of the UN: there are plenty of non-military threats, which the UN may be well-suited to tackle.

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