Darfur's challenge to international society.

Author:Black, David R.

The human tragedy of Darfur has now lasted for nearly six years. As David Black and Paul Williams argue in their analysis of this shocking record, the story is one of 'self-interest and risk aversion masked by ethical posturing' on the part of all the key international players who might have provided leadership in response to this crisis. Why is it that major countries as well as international organizations failed to craft more robust responses in spite of their own often good intentions and the almost unprecedented pressure from organizations within civil society? In the context of a discussion of theories of international society the authors conclude that the widespread use of "responsibility to protect" language should not obfuscate the fact that international society remains wedded to the traditional principle of national sovereignty. Change may be coming, but not in time for the people of Darfur.

La tragedie humaine perdure depuis deja bientot six ans au Darfour. Comme l'evoquent David Black et Paul Williams dans l'analyse qu'ils font de ce drame, ce recit est celui , de la part de tousles principaux acteurs qui auraient pu faire preuve du leadership que cette situation exigeait pourtant. Comment expliquer que tant les pays les plus puissants au monde que les organisations internationales n'aient pu mettre au point des interventions plus energiques, et ce souvent malgre de bonnes intentions et une pression sans precedent de la part d'organisations de la societe civile ? Dans le contexte de cette reflexion sur les theories de la societe internationale, les auteurs en arrivent a la conclusion qu'en depit d'un discours imbu de la notion de la 'responsabilite de proteger', cela n'est pas suffisant pour faire abstraction au fait que la societe internationale choisit de demeurer assujettie au principe de la souverainete nationale. Cela pourrait bien changer, mais malheureusement trop tard pour la population du Darfour.

In April 2008, an international conference was convened in Halifax by the Halifax Branch of the Canadian International Council and the Centre for Foreign Policy Studies of Dalhousie University to assess the response of "international society" (the society of UN Member States and state-based international organizations) to this conscience-shocking crisis. Its participants focused on the time period up to the official start of the "hybrid" UN-African Union peacekeeping force (UNAMID) on 1 January 2008. This conference was part of the process of preparing an edited volume entitled International Society and the Crisis in Darfur. Participants in the conference are listed in the Appendix. Their insights have inspired these reflections.


It is now nearly six years since the current crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan broke in early 2003. Few if any humanitarian crises have achieved greater notoriety in the interim. The calls to 'do something' about Darfur have been persistent and pervasive; the amount of time and energy expended on the issue in diplomatic forums impressive, at least compared to other African conflicts. But what has this activity amounted to, in terms of the nature of the international response to the crisis? And what does it teach us about the current condition and trajectory of international society?

It is easy to be cynical and dismissive about the activity of key actors in international society. Taken together, their actions and inactions add up to a tale of self-interest and risk aversion masked by ethical posturing; of prevarication and procrastination in the face of a supreme humanitarian emergency; of skirmishing over responsibility and accountability in the international response rather than leadership; and of a fundamental lack of commitment and will to respond with an appropriate degree of resources and resolve. Notwithstanding the fact that international efforts have provided significant humanitarian relief and have saved the lives of thousands, hundreds of thousands more have experienced dislocation, extreme suffering, and death as international society has debated and delivered its various responses.

Yet it would be a mistake to overlook what is novel about this case and what it illuminates about both continuities and changes in international society. Compared with the international response to the Rwandan genocide of 1994, for example, much has changed in the shape of the debate and the use of the very term genocide, despite the tragic inadequacy of international efforts in both cases. It is important to analyze what Darfur teaches us about international society, and to assess what lessons it offers concerning the fundamental question posed by Andrew Linklater: How far can world politics be changed for the better?

We begin by laying out the key premises of the 'international society approach', or what has come to be known as the English School of International Relations. In short, who and what is international society, and how should its members be expected to respond to major humanitarian crises? We then draw out six themes highlighted by Darfur. The first is that 'international society' encompasses diverse regional social systems and their co-existence creates significant challenges for understanding and action. Second, in the interplay between 'pluralist' and 'solidarist' conceptions of international society, Darfur underscores the continued predominance of the more conservative pluralist tradition. Third, leadership and accountability have become harder to pin down in the current international context of normative ambiguity and institutional diffusion. Fourth, "good international citizenship" has too often been supplanted by what we call "good enough international citizenship." Fifth, Darfur represents a setback for the normative principle of the "Responsibility to Protect", which Canada championed. But sixth, despite the predominance of pluralist practices, solidarism has taken root in international society, and is leading us into uncharted territory.

International Society and 'Good International Citizenship'

The idea that states form a society is most commonly associated with the so-called English School of International Relations theory. As Tim Dunne has noted, it is based on two connected claims about the common interests and shared values of states. First, states are presumed to take into account the impact their decisions have on other members of international society. Second, international society can signify the presence of intricate patterns of social interaction that display the rules of the game for regular interaction, if not exceptional behaviour.

From this perspective, international society can be understood as the framework of rules, norms and institutions produced by the ongoing activities of those who act in the name of states i.e. political leaders, diplomats and other state officials. An international society is thus qualitatively different from notions of an international system in which interaction among the world's states is mechanically regulated by the anarchic structure of the system and the distribution of (military) capabilities within it. To use Hedley Bull's popular distinction, a 'system of states (or international system) is formed when two or more states have sufficient contact between them, and have sufficient impact on one another's decisions to cause them to behave--at least in some measure--as parts of a whole'. A 'society of states,' on the other hand, 'exists when a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive of themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions.'

Although members of the English School share a preoccupation with the society of states, they differ sharply on its nature and purpose. Is the purpose of international society to maintain interstate order (even if it is unjust) or to provide for the conditions of individual justice everywhere (ultimately the only basis for a stable order)? Historically, the most common justification for maintaining international society has been to preserve diverse political communities in a context of massive disparities of power between its members and where no consensus exists on the principles of justice. This has been the central commitment of the "pluralist" conception of international society. Pluralists like Robert Jackson are concerned with reducing inter-state harm by restricting the legitimate use of force to self-defence and when authorized by the UN Security Council, and by developing 'international harm conventions' that place limits on state conduct in both war and peace. In contrast, the "solidarist" conception of international society emphasizes an emerging consensus around the basic tenets of human rights and hence the promotion of individual justice as the soundest basis for ensuring a stable international order. Solidarists such as Nicholas Wheeler seek to advance this agenda by incorporating 'cosmopolitan harm conventions' designed to reduce harm done to individual citizens. They also seek to devise rules of conduct for the morally legitimate use of military force in cases of supreme humanitarian emergency.

These different conceptions of international society are relevant in both describing how the world works (when and where the pluralist or solidarist conception most accurately reflects the current nature of international society), and prescribing how it should work (that is, whether pluralist or solidarist ethics should be promoted). Pluralists and solidarists thus disagree on the type of foreign policy behaviour they endorse.

The debate on appropriate state behaviour is pivotal to how one thinks of "good international citizenship." As Linklater and Suganami have asked, what "principles of foreign policy ... can promote the moral ideal of the unity of humankind without jeopardizing international...

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