The Historical Myopia of International Relations

Article excerpt

ALL nations are members of the community of nations and part of the international political system; each needs to deal in some measure with the other members. No one can stop the world and get off. We have to share the planet with each other, and the way in which we share it is what foreign policy is all about. Some nations depend a great deal on the international community for their security, their economic development and their way of life. Others may flourish in a more self-reliant or autarchic way.

The international system has been described by some writers as representing a billiard table, on which the 191 or so sovereign independent countries behave like balls which bounce off each other in an unpredictable fashion, seeking only their own national interests; much of the energy generated by these collisions gives rise to conflict and war. It is argued that there is no guiding hand, no predictable behaviour, no pattern or order; the key principle is survival of the fittest; violence and war are integral to the system.

At one extreme is thus pure conflict. It occurs when the interests of actors, such as states, or non-state actors, such as multinational corporations, are diametrically opposed: if one actor realises its goal, the other cannot achieve its objective. For example, in a conflict over territory, one state will gain the territory and the other will lose it.

At the other extreme, the system is painted as a cobweb of relationships in which states, in spite of their formal claims to sovereignty and to complete control over their own affairs, are in fact closely linked together in an interdependence they cannot escape. It is an interdependence based on common global needs of economic development, environmental protection, ideological convergence and the need to avoid war. In such a situation, actors have a common interest, and all benefit from the pursuit of this shared interest. Allies, for example, have a common interest in ensuring their common defence, or colonies often have a common interest in achieving independence, or trading partners have a common interest in maintaining beneficial trading relations.

For large and small states alike, survival and welfare depend on close cooperation. Violence and war are seen as aberrations, rather than the norm, since they destroy the fabric of the cobweb and everyone loses. Because of this, most states recognise that violence is more or less becoming counter-productive and that more and more of their sovereignty must be surrendered for the common goal. The cobweb represents an ordered framework of behaviour which the great majority of states adhere to for most of the time.

Most international interaction contains elements of both conflict and cooperation. Even in situations of extreme conflict, there is often an element of co-operation. For example, despite the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union over placing missiles in Cuba in 1962, both superpowers' interest in preventing the escalation of these conflicts into nuclear war and holocaust led to co-operation as their resolution.

Conversely, in situations involving high levels of co-operation, there is often an element of conflict; and even when actors share interests, there is usually conflict over specific interests and specific solutions. For example, all states may want to establish and maintain a stable international monetary system; but some of these states may prefer a particular type of monetary system, such as a fixed exchange rate or a floating exchange rate regime, which satisfies their more specific national interests. Thus, within a framework of common goals, as argued in 1992, in The Politics of International Economic Relations, by Joan Edelman Spero, states disagree over the best means to achieve their common end.

It is true to say that the way in which middle and small states come to terms with the system relies to a large extent on how their decision-makers evaluate it. …