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  • Commentary on a Communitarian Approach to International Relations
  • Amitai Etzioni (bio) and Derek Mitchell (bio)

I strongly agree with Nikolas Gvosdev's observation that we have reached the age in which a communitarian treatment of the international system is particularly called for. We have become so tired of the cliché that there is a global village, and its exaggerated formulations, that we tend to overlook that we are in fact moving slowly, haltingly, two steps forward one back, toward it—that is a global community that has an increasingly important set of shared values, norms, and institutions.

At the same time, it is much too melodramatic to suggest that we are moving from a world composed of states to one global state. Nations will continue to play an important role in the evolving global community, the way states do even in highly integrated nations such as the US and Germany. However, nations will increasingly become parts of a more encompassing whole; they will share sovereignty and loyalties with higher level, supranational entities. The EU is the greatest experiment thus far for movement in this direction. Eventually, combinations of regional building blocks, each composed of nations, will likely form the foundations on which a global state may be erected.

The central question here is whether the global state will evolve along similar lines to those of the nation state, as I predict, or follow some other form. A nation, I take it for granted, is defined as a community invested in a state; a community is best defined as a social entity whose members share bonds of affinity as well as a measure of commitment to a set of shared values, norms, and meanings. There are some very preliminary signs of developing transnational bonds, values, norms, and institutions. For instance, such bonds are being formed through the many thousands of transnational NGOs (the so called global civil society) that have sprung up in the past decade. However, as Gvosdev points out, the formation of a global state will likely be driven primarily by the same force behind the formation of nation states: the quest for security. In effect, since 9/11 the world has developed — under the urging, cajoling, pressure, and provision of economic incentives, but without the use of force — what amounts to a global police department, or Global Safety Authority (GSA). (I call it authority because unlike the invading force of Iraq, it has wide support. Like most, if not all, police forces, it does commit excesses, e.g. rendition and secret prisons, but efforts are made to rein them in. For more discussion see From Empire to Community1 ). The transnational collaborations in curbing terrorism and above all the proliferation of nuclear arms, have drawn wide participation, and have the support of the UN (See UN Security Council Resolutions 1373 [2001] and 1540 [2004]). Indeed, the GSA is expanding its missions to encompass not only security measures but also other sources of direct massive threats to life, such as bird flu.

Gvosdev emphasizes that these forms of collaboration based on shared interests can serve as the means of building shared values and thus community. He terms this approach "communitarian realism" and defines it as "a foreign policy strategy that maintains that the emergence of a global community will come about through the voluntary coordination of the activities of nation-states to combat transnational threats." In contrast to neo-conservatives who favor imposing US values by fiat and realists who hold to the supremacy of state sovereignty and national interest, communitarian realism argues that global community and supranational authorities will emerge from a convergence of national interests. However, Gvosdev concludes that although it is clear that nations do increasingly collaborate to face common threats, there is no guarantee that this will lead to the formation of community. Nations may jointly recognize the existence of a threat, but "there is as yet no mechanism for how to move ahead with common action if different states have vastly different assessments of the situation." Without concerted action and close engagement, Gvosdev questions whether common interests alone can provide enough convergence to foster community.

Gvosdev is correct in pointing out the shortcomings of...


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pp. 22-23
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