All states, all nations, are internally policed (when not we regard them as failed), however the relations between nations recognise no such control or law. We accept for international relations what we would never accept within the confines of the nation state. With the result that international relations are still liable to plunge back into a state of affairs not unlike that of the school play ground, with smaller entities at the mercy of larger entities, the defacto reign of bullies. Conservative and left nationalist opinion alike work with a definition of self interest not far from that of theft, or brigandage and so urge passivity in clear cases of international humanitarian intervention. Or they countenance intervention only to help groups deemed similar, ‘same’, or in very clearly in ‘our’ camp, ‘our’ community (however defined). All features tat would be dispensed with, overcome (at least in their overt manifestations) by the rule of law on the national field of play.
Why this acceptance in the international realm of that which has been banished elsewhere (outside of those states deemed ‘failed’ or otherwise outside of the rule of law)? The notion of nation is still very much the default limit of community (still the notion of community most other communities and interest groups hide behind in their rhetoric). Amongst other candidates for the honorary notion of 'us' are language, religion, colour or class, shared gender bias or other 'strait-jackets' of exclusionary practices (or a sadly typical combination thereof). However they rarely trump the ace of national identity (one such is ‘Radical’ Islam). The idea of nationhood still provides a geographical base (‘home’) and a speech community (the language we feel ‘at home’ in). Together these constitute a shared identity within which we expect a (token) equality, or recognition, when compared with others (excepting perhaps the internal hierarchies of the tribe and the ritualised presence of internal 'others'). This is the place from which we look with a jaundiced eye at others.
The ideology of national unity (even for those who consider themselves unmoved by the national flag) just as in the case of honour codes, functions according to an economy of identity where those outside of the zone of mutual recognition (‘Us’) are to be left to their own devices, relegated to a unpoliced, uncivilised, jungle. This is a place where the survival of the fittest reigns and therefore a breeding ground for bloody dictators – a place where even humanitarian intervention is never free from national interest...
Identity might be defined as how we see ourselves (and whom it is we see ourselves with); the field is that of recognition, of identity exchange, of honour and self-projection onto a collective ground. This is an underrated pole of human behaviour often exceeding economics and material or political self-interest as a source of motivation and justification. As can be seen from unprofitable wars (of religion, for example) and the desire to accumulate beyond any possibility of consumption (even ‘conspicuous’ in its old sense of public performance). What is increasingly desired here is the advertising (precisely the image, the recognition) of the fact that one possesses x number of y (houses, cars, commodities, and dependants - people) and not their use value. Rather it is their sign value on the market or exchange of signs that is important (their use value is given by their sign value). We are all advertisers, advertising the fact of possession. The desire for commodities (and for commodified chunks of experience, be it of land, people, or even emotion) is therefore also fostered by the desire for recognition, the desire for a given identity, desires triggered by a given identity. Commodity exchange, the means by which we circulate objects and services, was thought to have turned gift (identity) exchange to is own ends; it rather appears that it is the latter which has simply adapted itself to a new form of generalised exchange, yoking it to its own ends. Finally, it is identity exchange that determines our international loyalties much as it does our national and other community affiliations.
And identity, unlike the pragmatic realities of economics, can be changed by the word.
To be part of a world community, partaking of a world identity (such as operates with environmental awareness, for example) what sacrifices would such an identity involve? For an identification with the interests of the world as a whole, an identification not grounded in local interest; a new universalism would be no step forward if it only promoted the interests of another (local) dogma. Nevertheless the sense of a new international community of goodwill, plural and tolerant, is one that attracts many disturbed by the daily eruption of inhumanity on our screens. Might not such an identity be preferable to the collective egoism of the nation state? But would this creation, of a body of world law, and more importantly a body to police it, not also be (as it was the solution to the incessant warring of the ancient Greek city states) a defacto world empire?
Copyright 2004 Peter Nesteruk.