Constructing Global Civil Society

A new book asks why, from Iraq to Ukraine, Western politics is being played out everywhere but in the West.

James Heartfield

Topics Politics

Constructing Global Civil Society, David Chandler, Palgrave, 2004.

Secretary general Kofi Annan’s proposed reforms to the United Nations, issued this week, outline the much broader conditions for intervention in the domestic affairs of member states. ‘Come home America’ is as distant an echo today as Britain’s ‘domestic agenda’, with US presidents joining European chancellors and prime ministers hamming it up on the world stage.

Whether in Iraq, Ukraine, Palestine or an African summit, Western politics is played out everywhere but in the West. Of course domestic politics has had an international dimension since Cecil Rhodes declared that ‘imperialism is a bread-and-butter issue’. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a whole new era of ‘ethical foreign policy’ and ‘humanitarian intervention’ has come to preoccupy statesmen in Europe and America.

David Chandler of the Centre for the Study of Democracy explains in his new book, Constructing Global Civil Society, the impact that this new politicisation of diplomacy has had on the discipline of international relations (IR).

From the standpoint of today’s proponents of a ‘global civil society’, it appears that the old theories of relations between states – states pursuing their self-interest, governed by principles of national sovereignty – are hopelessly outdated at best, and apologies for despotism at worst. The clash between the old theories and the new realities has given rise to a feverish rewriting of IR courses and a wholesale redefinition of the discipline. Books on conflict resolution, state-building, international civil society, theories of the construction of national identities and normative interpretations of the international sphere abound.

But in this great expansion of the field of IR, there are few critical minds asking whether the new directions are positive, and so far Chandler is probably the only thinker in this field to get a hold of the problems – something that he demonstrates in his latest work.

Superficially, some of the new theories sound quite attractive. In emphasising the fluid and even transient character of states, cosmopolitanism over nationalism, the priority of ideals over grubby reality, and the role of human agency over traditional structures, the new IR sounds a lot better than the old.

Chandler alerts us, however, that the contemporary account of the old theory is bound to be a caricature: far from being a new consideration in diplomacy, moral imperatives were trumpeted throughout the Cold War, with deadly consequences. Today’s unrestrained moral egotism, though, is more destructive, as Chandler demonstrates with the example of the Kosovo war in 1999, when British prime minister Tony Blair rubbished legality in service of a higher ethical consideration.

The new IR theory reflects those changes in its emphasis on morality – but in intellectually chaotic ways. Theorists like Mary Kaldor and John Keane confuse the question of whether their study is simply a realistic recognition of the greater role of morality, or whether it is itself a normative discipline, meaning that it does not just reflect but advocates a specific world order. Chandler shows how the IR theorists – intimidated by their more philosophical colleagues in the politics departments – have drawn upon the German sociologist Jürgen Habermas’ idealised theories of non-coercive communication to build a dream-world, ‘global civil society’, in which all participants get along without any concealed interests or power politics.

This ‘new space’ separates itself off from ugly territorial squabbles, so that virtuous people, the aid workers and the rights activists, anti-capitalists and lawyers, can all get on with saving the world, free from selfish nationalists. Constructing Global Civil Society’s account of the self-regarding world of civil activism goes right to the practical impotence that underscores the high-handed declarations.

Chandler demonstrates how this dodging between what is and what ought to be actually undermines moral claims. Ironically, just as ethical considerations are given greater weight in the theory, the institutional power to enforce adherence to these ethics is downgraded. The more that the human rights activists insist that their charters are universal in their application, the more arbitrary is their observance. In a sense, this has to be so, since the new theory sets itself in direct opposition to the only actually existing centres of regulatory power: nation states.

In a chapter on the ‘Responsibility to protect’ report published by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, Chandler shows how this body took much of its argumentation from the new IR, and ended up legitimating unilateral intervention such as the war in Iraq. While the theorists of global civil society eschew violence, the enforcement of their ideas necessarily derogates the monopoly of force to the very institution that they have identified as pathological – the state.

Chandler shows that the appeal of theories that emphasise the way states are constructed rather than natural entities is that they allow scholars to revise the theory that took the nation state as its basic building block. Of course it is true that nation states are not the last word in human development, but rather an expression of the failure to universalise human civilisation evenly. But the conditions under which the claims of national sovereignty are being diminished are not those of a higher expression of human agency but the decay of national political institutions.

Chandler shows that the elevation of global civil society is not a transcendence of national boundaries, but a retreat from the real world, and more specifically from the recalcitrant publics who insist in seeing themselves in national terms. The appeal of the cosmopolis, it turns out, is in inverse proportion to one’s connection with the polis. In distinction from those radical critics who seek to expose the new humanitarianism as nothing more than a mask to disguise power politics, Chandler agrees with the new IR that something really has changed. But he does not think that it is the emergence of a new realm of freedom, so much as the institutional collapse of nation states, and their corresponding inability to articulate their interests and identities – except on the international stage.

Constructing Global Civil Society by David Chandler is published by Palgrave. Buy this book from Amazon(UK) or Amazon(USA).

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Topics Politics


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