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Chris Fox's Politics Section


My Views: International Relations

There can be no doubt that countries gain more by co-operating than by acting alone. They can defend each other's interests as well as their own, and can act collectively where they agree.

The question is about the form of an organisation established for this purpose. Should it be a purely deliberative body, a supranational layer of government, or something in between? And with what issues should it be concerned?

It would be an advantage for some powers to be exercised at supranational level, for example to allow international organisations to combat the abuse of power by multinational corporations or to fight international terrorism. But it does not follow that other powers should also be transferred to supranational organisations: issues should be considered individually.

One argument used in favour of supranational government is that nationalism leads to war. In fact, the real causes of war are fear, intolerance and the desire to increase one's own power at the expense of others. There is no contradiction between respect for other nations and cultures and allegiance to one's own. Furthermore, if people were to drop their allegiances solely to avoid using them to start a war, would it not follow that they would not start a war anyway?

The above points, incidentally, also answer the claim that religion causes war. There, however, there is also the point that religions do not have to say anything in particular. Even if a religion did preach war, people could decide for themselves whether to be members.

International organisations should indeed concern themselves with conflict resolution. The willingness of nations to co-operate depends on the quality of relations between them, which means any disputes must be resolved peacefully. However, the idea that political union guarantees peace is refuted by civil wars. Furthermore, political union is not necessary for peace. Peace depends on political and cultural tolerance, and on the ability to resolve disputes by discussion; neither of these things depend on political union. One way to further peace, therefore, is to promote human rights and tolerance, possibly in accordance with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights; tolerant people do not attack others solely for being different or for having different beliefs. Another is to provide a forum for conflict resolution, thereby allowing disputes to be resolved before war is considered.

It may be said that strong defences and military alliances help to preserve peace. This is a valid point: they enable countries to stand up to warmongers, thereby discouraging attacks from them. However, this does not refute the above: if people are tolerant and can resolve disputes peacefully, there is no need to use force against them. Additionally, while military prowess may prevent war, it does nothing to resolve grievances, and therefore nothing to improve relations.

Although NATO and the Warsaw Pact never fought each other, military alliances did not prevent World War I. It may be said that in the former case, the two sides were discouraged from fighting each other by the fact that both had nuclear weapons, weapons that would have made the consequences too great. But if the fear of widespread destruction is all that prevents countries from going to war, surely that strengthens the case for resolving disputes peacefully.

Strong defences and military alliances may discourage attacks from a conventional army, but do not deter terrorist attacks (or "inside jobs", as conspiracy theorists call them). There are people who believe they have a right or (in order to avoid taking responsibility for their actions) a duty to commit terrorism. It may be that we cannot convince prejudiced people that they are wrong, and therefore that we can only deal with the terrorists by force, albeit on a more local scale; but we can still seek to deprive them of support. The aforementioned objectives can be used here, too. Human rights and tolerance are both incompatible with terrorism, and providing people with a forum for conflict resolution makes it harder for the terrorists to convince them they must fight to get what they want. Showing solidarity with poorer peoples, by aiming to improve their quality of life, also makes it harder for others to convince them that the better off do not care about them and that the only way to gain anything is to fight for it.

Democracy aids both co-operation and conflict resolution. Co-operation because the involvement of ordinary people widens the scope for co-operation; conflict resolution because it allows grievances to be expressed through political channels.

My case for democracy is given in the article "My Views: Liberty and Democracy". But I will repeat three points here.

In a democracy, legislation and policies are ultimately decided by the popular will. If people want their views to be carried, they must convince others. This forces the arguments on all sides to be progressively strengthened. Furthermore, as almost anyone can express their views, a wider range of opinions is heard than under an undemocratic government; it may be that the viewpoint that is considered the best is one that would not otherwise have been heard. These two points mean that decisions are based on a comparatively strong argument.

Access to political power in a democracy depends on support. Untrustworthy politicians can therefore be removed peacefully from office. Furthermore, people can elect those who they believe would make good representatives and leaders. Because politicians need support to remain in power, they are forced to defend their actions and to at least listen to those they represent.

Decisions are considered more carefully if taken by the people they affect, as the decision-makers have to face the results of their actions. This applies by definition in a direct democracy. In a representative democracy, the legislature comprises directly elected representatives, and the executive is elected either directly or by the legislature, depending on the system. If politicians keep their promises, the people are indirectly responsible for legislation and policies. Even if promises are broken, people still have more control over their representatives than they have over an undemocratic government.

I would recommend that international organisations have democratic structures regardless of whether they hold governmental powers, at least so that its decisions are acceptable to the general public and therefore more likely to be supported. At the least, this means having an elected legislative chamber in which the number of representatives from each member country is directly proportional to its (voting) population. There could also be a second elected chamber in which countries have equal representation. Unless an organisation is to become a new nation state, it could require that the support of both chambers be needed to pass legislation and conventions. Democracy also requires that elected representatives have the right to table legislation and conventions.

In a democracy, by definition, power belongs to the people. It is therefore they who should decide how that power is exercised, and in turn whether powers are to be transferred between layers of government. It follows that a minimum prerequisite for closer political union should be majority support in a referendum in each and every participating country.

In the event that an organisation is given governmental powers, I recommend that it handle only those issues that cannot be handled at a more local level. One reason for this is that towards the local level, fewer people are covered by each authority, which means each person has greater influence over policies. Another is that decisions are best taken by the authority whose catchment area coincides with the area affected by those decisions: everyone on that authority knows the area and the effect of decisions on it, whereas most of those on a more remote authority would need to have this information given to them.

A third reason is that most, if not all, international organisations cover not a single culture but a diversity of cultures. The greater the diversity, the more interests need to be considered, which makes it more difficult to devise proposals that are acceptable to all groups.

Having covered the basic principles, I will now turn to the question of catchment areas. I will say at this point that I do not propose the abolition of any existing organisations, although some of them may disappear due to being merged or replaced.

At the global level, there is already the United Nations. The next obvious level is the continents. In the case of Europe, I favour a Commonwealth of Europe. Basically, a Commonwealth would be concerned with any issue of mutual interest to Europeans, and membership would be open to any country lying entirely or partly within Europe, but there would be no commitment to political union. A Commonwealth is proposed as an alternative to the European Union, but I do not believe it will completely replace the EU while there are countries who want political union among themselves; it is more likely to become an umbrella for the EU and other European organisations.

Cultural groups that cover several countries could also have their own organisations. The existing Arab League is one such organisation. Another is the proposed Anglosphere, which would cover the Anglo-Saxon countries.


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