8 July 2013
Treaty-Making and International Relations
Professor Jack Spence OBE
"All then is to do is to publish the secret treaties. Then I will issue a few proclamations and then close the shop".
Leon Trotsky, Commissioner for Foreign Affairs (Bolshevik leader).
"Treaties are but the combat of the brain where still the strongest lose, the weaker gain".
May I begin by citing the kind lady who does the heavy lifting in our Herefordshire garden; she asked what I was writing and I replied that I was working on a talk on treaties. Her response was "Oh you mean the agreements that states make and then break!" I replied that that did happen at times, but I was more concerned to ask why they were kept".
Let me by way of preliminary emphasise that the literature on treaties is vast and I can only in the space of an hour's lecture skim the surface, though items on my bibliography might be read with profit by those who wish to take the subject further. This year marks the tri-centenary of the Treaty of Utrecht, the significance of which I will discuss shortly. Indeed, the decision by the organisers to host this lecture was, in effect, to illustrate the key significance of that agreement in the history of international relations.
First, a standard definition of a treaty: a written contract or agreement between two or more parties which is considered binding in international law.
Parties to treaties may be states, heads of state, governments or international organisations. They are normally diplomatically negotiated by plenipotentiaries on behalf of governments and are usually subject to ratification which is an executive act … treaties are an important source of international law …. (Evans and Newnham, pp. 542-3).
Every treaty and international agreement has to be registered at the United Nations (article 102 of the Charter of the UN) while in Britain, for example, all treaties have to lie on the table of the House of Commons for 21 days. This commitment is designed to promote accountability and transparency and was a reaction to the secrecy of treaty making, a characteristic of great powers before World War I and which critics argued was one of the main causes of the 1914-18 conflict. It was argued during the war that if European electorates had known what was being negotiated in their name they would have rebelled against the commitment explicit in those treaties. And the revulsion against secrecy was profoundly and publicly symbolised by the US President, Woodrow Wilson's call during the war for 'open covenants, openly arrived at' which gave powerful impetus for the demand to end secret treaty making.
At this point it might be appropriate to offer a definition of diplomacy. It normally refers to the business of negotiation of treaties (inter-alia) between states and has been well defined by M S Anderson as "the symbol of regulated and organised contacts which Europe had evolved … and which with all its faults was one of her more important gifts to the world". This diplomatic structure and process has rapidly spread beyond Europe's borders to Africa and Asia, for example, the governments of which have accepted the rules and conventions of this particular institution in international relations. Even the newly created Soviet Union – despite Trotsky's hostility to the bourgeois and capitalist nature of treaty making – had to accept that it could not turn its back entirely on the structure and process of orthodox international relations.
The significance of Utrecht and Westphalia
What then is the significance of the Utrecht Treaty? This agreement entered the long drawn out conflict of the war of the Spanish succession, but I do not propose to tell the detailed story of that war. (Incidentally, the best short and easily digestible account of that war and its important consequences can be found in a recent article in History Today by Professor Jeremy Black, a leading authority on this period of European history Black, pp. 23-25).
The treaty certainly reorganised the map of Europe (Gibraltar, for example, came under British jurisdiction in consequence of that treaty) and indeed it drew heavily on earlier precedents, notably the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which ended the Thirty Years War. As Professor Peter H Wilson has argued, the Westphalian Congress was the "first truly secular international gathering …. It drew on established protocol and negotiating styles" and, in effect, symbolised both in theory and practice – a major step towards the modern concept of an international order
based on sovereign states interacting as equals, regardless of their internal form of government, resources or military potential. The Congress established a new way to resolve international problems through negotiation amongst all interested parties (Wilson, p. 672)
And this assembly of the representatives of sovereign states called to end a protracted war set a precedent for similar gatherings such as those which negotiated the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), the Congress of Vienna (1815), the Paris Peace Conference (1919) and many others thereafter (Ibid., p.672).
Thus taken together, Westphalia and Utrecht established a pattern of state interaction via treaty making either by coercive diplomacy or preferably by compromise based on consensus. This process has endured and proved flexible enough to produce refinements in structure, process and treaty outcomes as circumstances have changed. In the past some political scientists have given Westphalia almost mythical status implying that the resulting new international order burst forth in one epoch making set of diplomatic deliberations. Historians, however, are rightly more cautious acknowledging that the process of secularisation and the "erosion of the medieval principle of hierarchy" (and by default the role of the church as a major actor in international relations was a "lengthy process beginning well before 1648 and continuing long after (Ibid., p. 754).
As for Utrecht, what is specially interesting about this particular treaty and its long term significance is that it was the first European example to specifically mention a balance of power as a device for "obtaining a general Peace and securing the Tranquillity of Europe" (Lauren, et al, p.15). As the King of Spain remarked supporting this view "the maxim of securing for ever the universal Good and Quiet of Europe by an equal weight of power, so that many being united in one, the balance of the Equality desired might not turn to the advantage of one and the danger and hazard of the rest" (Ibid, p.15). As Hedley Bull argues, "the preservation of the balance of power was elevated to the status of an objective consciously pursued (my italics) by international society as a whole; proclaimed to be this by the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 … and absorbed into the mainstream of international legal thinking" (Ibid., p.36). In time writers such as Phillimore "maintained that war or intervention to maintain a balance of power was lawful" (Ibid. p.36).
I shall say more about the balance of power as a regulatory institution in due course, but let me first offer some thoughts on international theory as background to the discussion of the role of treaties and the diplomacy required to devise them.
The academic study of international relations and indeed its practice has been dominated by the debate about the relevance, utility and morality of Realism as a means of understanding the 'booming, buzzing confusion' of global politics (this definition was coined by William James, the Harvard psychologist . The social scientist (and here I include the international relations specialist) attempts to impose an explanatory pattern and degree of ordered understanding on that 'confusion' Realism over the centuries has flourished as the paradigmatic explanation of the structure and process of international politics. And it has an impressive intellectual pedigree in Western political thought stretching back to through Thucydies' masterly account of the Peloponnesian War in fifth century Greece and his pithy description of the fate of nations: "the strong do what they can; the weak what they must".
Other texts in that particular tradition of political discourse which are obligatory reading for students of international relations include inter-alia, Machiavelli's The Prince; The Discourses; Thomas Hobbes' 17th century work The Leviathan and the classic 20th century work Politics among Nations by the American scholar Hans Morganthau.
Thus, as the latter argues "the struggle for power in international relations involves states in continuously preparing for, actually involved in, or recovering from organised violence in the form of war" (Morganthau, p.52). This unrelenting definition of realism echoes Hobbes vision of a "state of nature" where life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" and states are constantly on their guard against attack by other states – engaged in fact, in a war of "all against all".
This reading of international relations regards treaty making as having only limited short term value. Alliances may be made to deal with a particular threat, but will be dissolved once that threat has been eliminated by victory in war or – worse still - defeat. Morganthau accordingly downgrades the relevance and impact of international law; he argues that "considerations of power rather than law determine compliance with and enforcement". Similarly, 'national interest' – the intellectual bedrock of realism – is the crucial determinant governing states observance of "the great majority of the rules of international law … without actual compulsion, for it is generally in the interests of all nations concerned to honour their obligations" (Ibid., pp.295/6, quoted in N J Rengger, p.5).
Despite its dominance in both theory and practice Realism has in varying degree always had to contend with Liberal doctrine which emphasises the possibility of progressive change and reduction in conflict in international relations. Over the century its influence has waxed and waned depending on circumstances. In, for example, the aftermath of World War I – as we shall see - the realist view was challenged, namely that states and their publics were condemned to a never ending cycle of war, (disorder), precarious peace, followed by (order) and their repetition indefinitely into the future.
Yet in the period immediately after the second World War Liberal theory and practice had some achievements to its credit, perhaps the most notable being the establishment by treaty in 1950 of the European Coal and Steel Community, the original six members of which were France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg. Thereafter, for nearly five decades a process of evolution and regular treaty making culminated in the establishment of the European Union in 1992 via the Maastricht Treaty. This was perceived as a major step towards establishing over the long term an all embracing 'United States of Europe' following the commitment of the Rome Treaty of 1957 to the principle of 'ever closer union'.
In passing, we should notice the formative influence of a distinguished academic – David Mitrany – who was responsible for developing a theory of functional integration which argued that particular functions of the state could be operated on the basis of a European wide structure; hence coal and steel production – the sinews of war. Furthermore, it was argued that if such functional arrangements worked then confidence would accrue and further structures of this kind could and would be made – the so-called 'spill over' effect. Mitrany's work influenced a group of highly placed and influential technocrats in Europe at the end of the second world war who were determined to break the realist cycle of continual war followed by peace followed by war and in effect was designed to stop 'Germans killing Frenchman and vice versa' – a pattern of extreme violence that had persisted for centuries.
Indeed, the long term expansion of the Union to some 28 states illustrates yet again the interaction between Realism and Liberalism. The latter's impact was crucial in the design of the EU structure; the criteria for membership (namely, a functioning democratic polity and a free market regime – the so-called 'acquis' and a soft power role in international affairs.
Realism, on the other hand, also dictated 'closer union' if only to demonstrate a firm commitment to opposing a seemingly aggressive Soviet Union. There was also pressure from the United States to help in the massive task of containing communism behind the borders established between East and West in 1945.
Thus – despite spasmodic but nonetheless Liberal advances - Realism as a basis for organising state behaviour and survival persisted for organising state behaviour and survival and reached its apogee during the cold war. Many scholars writing at that time in this particular tradition emphasised that in the absence of a system of authoratative legitimate global governance, states exist in an anarchical society where self help was the only strategy for ensuring security. Hence the importance attached to sovereignty and the related principle of non-intervention as the basis for maintaining a precarious order. What sovereignty did was to give a state exclusive control over a specific chunk of territory and those who inhabited it. The assumption was that this would lead to the establishment of an international order, however precarious. Thus, for the orthodox realist, the protection and assertion of the national interest in survival is paramount and power – military, economic, political – has to be accumulated to provide security in a hostile world. This unrelenting definition of realism echoes Hobbes' 'state of nature' where life is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short' and states are constantly on their guard against attack from without.
One consequence of the cold war contest with the Soviet Union was the 'Realist' elevation of the principle of order over justice for the oppressed. Thus when revolution occurred in Soviet satellite states eg Poland 1953; Hungary 1956; and Czechoslovakia 1968. Western governments made plenty of 'liberal noise' about the oppressive policies of the Soviet Union in these countries, but did little else (apart from handling refugee flows) for fear of escalating the conflict from diplomatic disapproval and protest to military engagement and the prospect of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).
The English School
There is, however, a softer version of Realism described by some authors as 'enlightened or sophisticated'. This does allow for liberal aspirations for change in both the structure and process of international relations and seemingly progressive Liberal outcomes. This view, emanating from the so-called 'English School' of international relations, argues that Realism and Liberalism must not inevitably be seen as emanating from separate dimensions of political thought and practice. Thus, it is argued, both theories can and do intersect. Indeed, one magisterial account of this interaction can be found in Hedley Bull's Anarchical Society where he argues that
a society of states (or international society) exists where a group of states, conscious of certain 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 work of common institutions.
These are designed to regulate state behaviour in the interests of promoting a degree of international order however precarious (Bull, p.13).
What are these common values? To be precise: "life, truth and property". Thus to paraphrase Bull, "a commitment to the preservation of life – to ensure that life will be in some measure secure against violence resulting in death or bodily harm. Secondly … that promises once made will be kept, or that agreements [treaties] once undertaken will be carried out [pacta sunt servanda] … Third … that the position of things will remain stable to some degree and will not be subject to challenges that are constant and without limit" (eg the threat and act of intervention) (Ibid., p.4).
What are these "common institutions?" First, the balance of power; secondly international law; thirdly diplomacy; fourth, the managerial system of the great powers; fifth, a variety of regional and international institutions; sixth, war. These can legitimately be described as institutions following the definition by Christian Reus-Smit as "complexes of norms, rules and priorities" (p.280) that following Robert Keohane's perceptive analysis "prescribe behavioural roles, constrain activity and shape expectations" (Keohane, 1989, p.3).
All these institutions are underpinned by treaties in one form or another; hence their importance as the glue which, via diplomacy, leads to their creation and binds the states of the international society together. Thus, the balance of power has on occasion been structured by treaty and made operational, for example by those opposing great power alliances made in the years before World War I. Certainly, wars of the sort – following the inevitable collapse of balance of power - that have littered European history for centuries were eventually ended by grand treaties such as those made at Vienna and Versailles in 1815 and 1919 respectively.
Another example, to stress the crucial role of treaty making, is the Charter of the United Nations, without doubt a grand treaty imposing an obligation on the five victorious great powers of World War II. These were given special and unique permanent status, charged with the responsibility of deterring, defending and enforcing the Security Council's will against aggression by a maverick state. This was legalised by the rules prescribed in chapters VI and VII of the Charter. And before invoking chapter VII involving forceful action, states in conflict were required to invoke chapter VI of the Charter with its clear moral content of obligation and constraint and urged to settle their disputes by peaceful and constructive means: for example diplomatic negotiations; good offices; arbitration; mediation, etc.
Again in this context Realism and Liberalism intersect in the Charter of the UN, the grandest and most exclusive treaty of all: accordingly with power (a Realist concept) goes responsibility (ie moral obligation) to observe this grand treaty and generally manage international relations. This certainly represented a considerable advance on the Covenant of the League of Nations devised in the aftermath of World War I. In that particular treaty any state threatening war or making it would – in terms of the Covenant's provisions – face an automatic coalition of states willing and able to take immediate action against an aggressor – hence the notion of collective security to be enforced by the entire international community.
But this device was impotent, not to say high minded in the extreme, although one recognises the pressures in 1919 to find ways and means of eliminating the scourge of war especially of the kind that the allies and their opponents had suffered in the five long years of World War I. Yet in the final analysis one really could not expect to find say Greece, for example, willing and enthusiastic to take up arms and carry the attendant risks of intervention in a war between say Peru and Bolivia. A Greek government in these circumstances would be unlikely to act upon the assumption that a war in distant Latin America represented an existential threat to its own national interests.
Finally, according to Shaw, by virtue of their contribution to provide a network of legal obligation for those who accept the obligation to act in good faith, … "Treaties are also a more direct and formal method of international law creation" (Shaw, 2003, p.810).
In this context we note too, the 1969 Vienna convention on the Law of Treaties … "which constitute the basic framework for any discussion on the nature and character of treaties" (Ibid, p.811). And here Shaw is again helpful in his argument that article 26 of the Convention "underlies every international agreement for, in the absence of a certain minimum belief that states will perform their treaty obligations in good faith, there is no reason for countries to enter into such obligations with each other" (Ibid, p.812). In other words the proposition 'pacta sunt servanda' reasserts itself and is often described as the "oldest principle of international law" and is reaffirmed in Article 26 (Ibid.,p.812). As two perceptive scholars have remarked:
treaties are landmarks which guide nations in their relations with one another. They express interests, promises and normally appear to contain reciprocal advantages to reduce the measure of uncertainty inherent in the conduct of international affairs … [they] … do not by themselves assure peace and security, but more often than not they have contributed to stability for a measurable and worthwhile period of years (Grenville and Wasserstein, p.5/6).
Thus the institution that most concerns the discussion of the role of treaties in international relations are international law and diplomacy with the latter best described as the 'master' institution responsible for the creation and continued maintenance of the others via periodic negotiation and refining their roles as circumstances change.
We must also note the proliferation of functional agreements that promote a degree of international co-operation between states and their peoples at a variety of levels of social, political and economic intercourse. These agreements offer states and citizens alike a degree of security and/or social and economic advantage. These, from the course of the nineteenth century onwards, became more complex as industrialisation and the development of sophisticated technologies gathered pace. To harness these new pressures to good effect meant that states have been increasingly forced to recognise the need for systematic and sustained contact over a variety of activities linking states via an increasing degree of co-operation to institutionalise these links.
The result is a multitude of agreements defining institutional roles and the legal obligations involved: for example, the International Labour Organisation; the Universal Postal Union; the International Telecommunications Convention; agreements covering the work of the International Air Traffic Association; the World Trade Organisation and the various specialised agencies of the United Nations; these are, for example, the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation. And there are many more operating either on a regional or international platform. These structures are all the product of diplomatic negotiation (admittedly often highly technical); all have their original mandates expressed in their treaty which – as circumstances change – require constant refinement adjusting to the pressures induced by globalisation.
Diplomacy of this kind is often the responsibility of technical experts drawn from a variety of government departments and expert advisers from civil society. We, as members of the general public, take for granted the operation of these organisations. Every time, for example, we post a letter to a foreign country or fly abroad on business or vacation we assume, without thinking overmuch about the matter, that the letter will reach its destination in good time and that the plane will fly swiftly and safely to its destination. We assume that a landing slot has been negotiated between airlines, national and regional authorities. And all these technical agreements are functional linkages dependent on interstate co-operation and provide yet more evidence that Liberal values can and do inform state behaviour.
What, has emerged from decades of such co-operation is an elaborate network or spider's web of international agreements – political, technical, economic and social – legalised and legitimised by treaty making on a multi-lateral basis by the member states of international society together with representatives of regional and international organisations. In this context it is worth noting the role that non-state organisations can play in treaty making: for example, the 1997 Ottowa Convention on Anti-Personnel Land Mines in which a variety of NGOs played a key role in mobilising public opinion and the success of which was greatly facilitated by the strong support of the Canadian government. As one author has perceptively argued:
While such actors cannot formally enact international law, and their practices do not contribute to the development of customary international law, they often play a crucial role in shaping the normative environment in which states are moved to codify special legal rules, in providing information to national governments that encourage the redefinition of state interests and the convergence of policies across different states, and, finally, in actually drafting international treaties and conventions. This last role was first seen in how the International Committee of the Red Cross drafted the 1864 Geneva Convention (Finnemore 1996b: 69-88), and more recently in the role that non-state actors played in the development of the Ottawa Convention on Anti-Personnel Landmines (Price 1998) and in the creation of the International Criminal Court.(Christian Reus-Smit, op.cit, p.286/7).
To press home then the importance of treaties and agreements of all kinds in general in international relations, it is worth quoting Bull again at some length:
Without the negotiation of agreements, international relations would be possible, but they would consist only of fleeting, hostile encounters between one political community and another. Agreements are possible only if the interests of the parties, while they may be different, overlap at some point and if the parties are able to perceive that they do overlap. The art of the diplomat is to determine what the area of overlapping interest is and through reason and persuasion to bring the parties to an awareness of it (Ibid., p.164).
Thus for Bull, diplomacy's role was:
"Bound up with the extent to which states visualised foreign policy s the rational pursuit of interests which at least in principle t some point overlap with the interests of other states" (Ibid, p.164). And by rational we mean the capacity of governments to make cool-headed and prudent calculations of costs and benefits in the hope that their counterparts in negotiation will share their understanding of what constitutes a cost and a benefit.
And you may well ask what impels states to be rational in this sense? The only answer I can give is that states are conservative creatures and as such they all share common interests in survival and the continued maintenance of the international society of states of which they are constituent parts (Ibid, p.164).
The notion of a common interest in this particular context does, therefore, have moral content in the sense that states can collaborate based on shared Liberal values and resulting 'common interest' in the preservation of human life. This proposition, therefore, goes someway to diffusing and weakening the cold blooded Hobbesian realist view of an exclusively selfish notion of national interest based on a belief that international relations is nothing more or less than a war of 'all against all'.
That the welfare and security of the citizen can be enhanced by co-operation rather than all devouring ideological competition is well illustrated by the example of the cold war. This particular conflict combined elements of both competition and co-operation; the latter dimension was exemplified by the negotiation of formal and informal arms control agreements designed to strengthen deterrence and eliminate the option of the first strike – a nuclear posture which was clearly destabilising and weakened the admittedly precarious order provided by the prospect of mutual assured destruction (appropriately termed MAD) either by accident or design.
To summarise thus far: treaties are therefore important in the sense that "they are legally binding on the parties to them and must be performed in good faith" (Shaw, op.cit., p.811). They are all, in effect, the product of negotiation between the parties – whether unilateral or multi-lateral. Treaties are made on the assumption of an "overlapping interest" between the parties and the task of diplomacy is to establish by negotiation what that overlapping interest is and reach agreement ultimately by compromise and consensus.
Historical experience teaches us that successful diplomacy requires behaviour by protagonists based on shared values such as in Satow's famous phrase "tact and intelligence"; restraint; infinite courtesy; prudence; acknowledgement of one's opponents good faith in coming to the conference table; a healthy dose of pragmatism and ultimately a willingness not to press one's claims beyond a reasonable compromise. It is values of this kind which entitle us to define diplomacy – at its best – as a civilised and civilising enterprise.
The Impact of Treaty Making
Finally three related varieties of treaty diplomacy: punitive; restorative; ameliorative. First, its role in ending wars: some can be punitive witness the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which imposed harsh terms including massive reparations on the defeated Germany. Lloyd George, the British Prime Minister talked of "squeezing the Germans until the pips squeak" This 'Realist' punishment contributed to the collapse of the successor state, the Weimar Republic and ultimately the great depression of the 1930s and the rise of nazism and the second world war.
The treaty prescribed all encompassing grand solutions to end major conflicts between states through its construction of the League of Nations and the doctrine of collective security. This particular combination of realism and liberalism proved to be entirely inadequate as a basis for providing a durable international order witness the outbreak of the second world war just twenty years later.
Indeed, one reason for Realism's dominance during the cold war was the belief of Western governments that appeasement of the dictators in the 1930s (a quintessential Liberal doctrine) had failed to recognise the aggressive intentions of the Axis regimes. This was a mistake that cold war warriors were determined to avoid; hence the twin doctrines of deterrence and containment to deal with what appeared to be an aggressive Soviet threat.
Another example of a punitive treaty was the 1902 Treaty of Vereeniging which ended the three year Anglo-Boer war in South Africa. But the political outcome of that British victory was Boer resentment of the way in which British armed forces followed a scorched earth policy destroying villages and hamlets and thereby denying the Boer guerillas places of refuge and sustenance. This strategy, therefore, had a decisive military advantage but the experience of the concentration camps established to house the women and children forced from their villages and hamlets provided a potent symbol for the growth of Afrikaner nationalism and ultimately the establishment of the apartheid regime. Things, were made worse by the outbreak of disease and cholera, in particular, in the camps and not surprisingly there was strong Liberal Party opposition in Britain to what David Lloyd George called "methods of barbarism". It could, therefore, be argued that the British won the war but lost the peace because of misguided strategic decisions made during the war. As Beatrice Heuser has perceptively remarked quoting Sir Maurice Hankey:
The first aim in war is to win, the second is to prevent defeat, the third is to shorten it, and the fourth and most important, which must never be lost to sight, is to make a just and durable peace ... It must always be kept in mind that after a war we have sooner or later to live with our enemies in amity.
But success as Beatrice Heuser has skilfully argued depends on how the war is fought (strategy) and the extent to which ideological issues divide the actors involved. Certainly, the Anglo-Boer war had compelling ideological overtones: British imperialism versus Boer nationalism.
True, in 1907 Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal Prime Minister of the day gave the Boer Republics responsible self government which was described by Jan Smuts, a key Boer War general and subsequent Prime Minister of South Africa, as a "magnaminous gesture", but this came too late to weaken the subsequent appeal of an Afrikaner nationalism profoundly and perpetually hostile to the British connection and determined to keep the black majority subservient to white needs and aspirations.
An example of restorative grand treaty making via diplomatic negotiation was the 1815 Treaty of Vienna. This as it attempted to restore the monarchical principle as the mode of governance for the states overrun by the French revolutionary wars and those waged by Napoleon in the early years of the nineteenth century.
An example of an ameliorative treaty would be the one in 1866 which ended the six week war between Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For Bismarck, the Prussian Chancellor, was careful to offer the defeated Empire reasonable terms in the expectation (and he was proved correct) that the Empire would at least be neutral if not an ally in any future war against France, Germany's great rival for supremacy in Europe.
Another example of an ameliorative treaty might be those which over time created the European Union. It is perhaps not too fanciful to argue that these treaties in effect were in part substitute for the lack of one ending the war between Germany and the Allies in 1945. Germany, after all, welcomed these treaties as they were, in effect, a vital symbol of that country's re-entry into respectable international society after the horrors of World War II.
We note too, the role of treaty making given the emergence of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). Are we entering a new world order based on a balance of power between say half a dozen major powers competing with the United States and likely, therefore, to lose its hegemonic role as the dominant super power? If so, diplomacy and treaty making might well be as important as ever enhancing the need for inter-state co-operation to deal with the pressures of globalisation, crisis management and the plethora of so-called new security threats for example international terrorism; climate change; forced migration; international crime; cyber penetration, etc.
Perhaps new structures – early warning systems and complex peace keeping and peace-making arrangements will be necessary and treaty making to cope with these developments will be vital. On the other hand, will the new balance of power resemble its nineteenth century counterpart and create a network of opposing alliances and in the process create a degree of precarious order. Clearly maintaining that balance of power will require a capability for leadership and risk taking analogous to the decisive role played by nineteenth century statesman of the calibre of Bismarck, Metternich, Palmerston, Disraeli, etc.
Negotiating with Non-state Actors
Can one, should one, for example, negotiate with terrorists? The simple answer is that with some you can and with others you can't. The distinction usually made is between so-called 'instrumental' terrorists who have reasonably limited objectives and at least the prospect of achieving them (eg self determination or redress of grievances in authoritarian states) and 'absolutist' or 'apocalyptic' terrorist groups who wish to transform radically a society and who have varying degrees of popular support. The Baader-Meinhoff gang in West Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy in the 1960s are examples of the latter, the IRA in Northern Ireland and the ANC in South Africa are often cited as examples of the former category.
The outcome is not an orthodox treaty, but rather an agreement to seek an 'overlapping interest' based on mutual recognition that both sides are locked in a stalemate that neither can effectively break and earn victory over the opponent. Diplomacy has a crucial role here offering impartial mediation by a contact group of external actors or some prominent, trustworthy and able individual such as Senator Mitchell of the USA who showed considerable diplomatic and mediatory skills in the Northern Ireland case.
We note too, the track two diplomacy of Western diplomats who played a crucial role in speaking privately and secretly to the various protagonists in the South African drama. As for negotiating with 'absolutist' terrorists, let me quote Hedley Bull's observation that "the pursuit of that at times elusive common interest is impossible when one is dealing with those who for one reason or another wish to promote 'the true faith against heretics' (shades of Al Quaida indeed!) – or when ideological division is profound. (Bull, op.cit., p.164).
Conclusion: What of the Future?
We have noticed that treaties and the diplomacy that underpin them have increased given an ever expanding network of linkages between states combining realist self interest and a Liberal concern for improving the quality of life for the world's citizenry. True, its benefits are unevenly spread across a rich north and poor south, but what is significant is the attempt to build a universally recognised structure and process of good global governance by increasing the range and substance of functional relationships between states.
This process is admittedly haphazard, often with unforeseen consequences but it does at least represent the possibility of real progress in the affairs of mankind. What is, however, certain is that this enormous undertaking will require diplomacy and treaty making in abundance to regulate the variety of outcomes that result from such complex inter-dependence.
Indeed, some point to the example of the European Union as a model on the assumption that other regions will functionalise their relationships as the EU has done by a series of epoch making treaties. We may, therefore, be entering a world of regional blocks interacting with each other under the benign or otherwise leadership of a hegemonic power. But further discussion of these matters is beyond the scope of this paper.
As Christopher Joyner observes, the scope and substance of treaty making and observance is demonstrated by the fact that some 45,000 had been registered at the UN by 1991. This number is correspondingly greater in 2013. Their importance in terms of producing security, welfare and a decent respect for human rights is profound. As Joyner comments and I certainly concur, "treaties provide the legal sinews for international relations" And, indeed, much more besides!
Perhaps one way of distinguishing between realism and liberalism is to consider both the terminology employed in decisions on international relations: realists are concerned with 'order', 'power', and the 'national interest', liberal internationalism by contrast discourses on 'peace' and how best to obtain it via, for example, collective security legitimised and co-ordinated by international institutions thereby underpinning and sanctifying the role of the values of co-operation and the interdependence of states. Thus realists are Westphalians fiercely attached to the principle of sovereignty, sceptical about the doctrine of liberal interventionism and defending the claim that the state is the key actor in international relations.
Liberals, on the other hand, are sceptical about the notion of absolute sovereignty; they regard it as an outdated doctrine to be brushed aside when gross dereliction of human rights occurs. Realists in support of the doctrine of state primacy point to its role in agenda setting in debates – whether on trade, multi-lateral intervention, or climate change – in international organisations. In its mature form, the state, it is argued, maintains a capacity for providing security, welfare and a sense of identity for its citizenry. By contrast, the liberal stresses the value and sheer necessity for the emergence of a system of global governance to regulate the complex relations of states at a variety of levels – political, economic, social, technological and legal. Indeed, in arguing this view, liberals often claim that the notion of autonomous statehood is a declining asset as governments increasingly have to contend with the ever-increasing pressure of globalisation.
Of course, I accept that by defining realism and liberalism in this way I am indulging in the creation of ideal types implicitly suggesting that there is a permanent unbridgeable gulf fixed between the two doctrines. Yet in both theoretical and practical terms they can and do interact, borrowing intellectual baggage from the other. After all, in mature democratic states (I exclude those which are ruled by corrupt autocrats out for what they can get) political debate is inevitably couched in moral terms: decisions – whether domestic or international – have to be justified according to some version of morality – liberal, socialist or conservative. Political debate is, therefore, essentially about the need to achieve outcomes which benefit the majority of the citizenry. (Minorities may lose out, but so liberal theory holds – their time will come – after the next swing of the electoral pendulum).
And the liberal has this advantage over his conservative counterpart that he is able to stress the moral incentive for change rather than the constraints that inhibit a 'good' outcome. To admit publicly – as the sceptical conservative might – that some problems have no short term solutions, that the best that can be hoped for is a rather unsatisfactory compromise between aspiration and achievement is hardly a message likely to win votes. Similarly, to offer the excuse that intervention in other countries often does more harm than good, is perceived s a confession of weakness and again one not likely to endure the politician to his/her electorate and especially if the counter-argument that such action is required to cope with terrorism acquires a degree of persuasive logic. The realist would stress that moral choices are not simple ones between right and wrong action but very often involve choosing between evil courses of action. The trick is to choose that course of action which does the least harm to the fewest acknowledging all the time that harm will be done to some individual or group or state for that matter.
The author would like to thank Ms Lindsey Dear and Dr Valerie Shrimplin, for inviting him to give this talk. Sincere thanks also go to Ms Charlotte Crooks of The Royal College of Defence Studies, for providing crucial material in the production of this paper.
© Professor Jack Spence, 2013