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Moral Agency and International Society


There is no body that has the legal right to exercise agency on behalf of international society (IS), even though the notion of “society” encapsulated in IS is, in principle, close to that conveyed by bodies such as clubs and associations that can be represented by, for example, a board of directors or governing committee. Some have argued that the UN or the Security Council can exercise agency on behalf of IS, but in view of the “underinstitutionalization” of IS in the UN, a more interesting possibility is that groups of states may authorize themselves to act on the behalf of IS as “coalitions of the willing.” However, the contrasting experience of the Gulf War of 1990/91 and the Kosovo campaign of 1999 suggest that the degree of ideological coherence of the coalition in question is an important variable here - in 1999, NATO was able with some plausibility to represent the wider international society because of its commitment to certain core democratic values, while in 1991 the Gulf War coalition could only act conservatively in restoring the status quo because of its diverse nature.

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1 See Chomsky Noam, World Orders, Old and New (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994) and The New Military Humanism (Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press, 1999); and Pilger John, “Under the Influence: The Real Reason for the United Nations' Role in East Timor Is to Retain Indonesian Control,” Guardian, September 21, 1999.

2 International society is the master-concept of the “English School.” See Bull Hedley, The Anarchical Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977).

3 The notion of an international society as opposed to an international system is explored in Brown Chris, “International Theory and International Society: The Viability of the Middle Way,” Review of International Studies 21, No. 2 (1995), pp. 183–96.

4 This distinction is set out in Nardin Terry, Law, Morality, and the Relations of States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983).

5 Blair Tony, “Doctrine of the International Community” (speech given in Chicago, April 22, 1999).

6 Krasner Stephen D., Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

7 Welsh Jennifer, Edmund Burke and International Relations: The Commonwealth of Europe and the Crusade against the French Revolution (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995).

8 Kaufmann Chaim D. and Pape Robert A., “Explaining Costly International Moral Action: Britain's Sixty-Year Campaign against the Slave Trade,” International Organization 53, No. 4 (1999), pp. 631–68.

9 Holbraad Carsten, The Concert of Europe: A Study in German and British International Theory, 1815–1914 (London: Longman, 1970).

10 Kissinger Henry A., A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh, and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822 (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1957).

11 The best discussion of this issue is Wheeler Nicholas J., Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

12 Habermas Jürgen, “Bestialität und Humanität: Ein Krieg an der Grenze zwischen Recht und Moral,” Die Zeit, April 29, 1999.

13 A representative realist position might be Gray Colin, “No Good Deed Shall Go Unpunished,” in Booth Ken, ed., The Kosovo Tragedy: The Human Rights Dimension (London: Frank Cass, 2001), also published as a Special Issue of the International Journal of Human Rights 4, Nos. 3 and 4 (2000). The present author's essay “A Qualified Defence of the Use of Force for Humanitarian Reasons” is in the same volume.

14 See Ignatieff Michael, Virtual War: Kosovo and Beyond (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000).

* An earlier version of this essay was presented at the workshop “Can Institutions Have Morals?” sponsored by the International Studies Association and the British International Studies Association and held in Cambridge, England, in November 2000. I am grateful to the participants—and especially to the organizer, Toni Erskine—for their comments.

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Ethics & International Affairs
  • ISSN: 0892-6794
  • EISSN: 1747-7093
  • URL: /core/journals/ethics-and-international-affairs
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