Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Growing Instability of International Politics

James Skillen


November 4, 2002

On October 26, the United States, Japan, and South Korea issued a joint statement, warning North Korea's Kim Jong Il that "his relations with the international community" depend on the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear weapons program. This statement implies that there is an "international community," and it thus represents a change from the Cold War era when the prospects of such a community were dim in a world radically divided between a communist bloc and a non-communist bloc of nations.

However, to presume that an "international community" exists today is to presume too much. The normative basis for such a community is up for grabs. National sovereignty is the first principle of the United Nations system. Consequently, a claim by one or more nations to have a right to force a change of regime in another sovereign state must be challenged as a matter of principle, unless, of course, national sovereignty is to be relinquished as the first principle of the UN. The UN cannot resolve this dilemma, which is constitutive of its identity. So it depends on Security Council decisions to legitimize forceful international intrusion into member states. Most Security Council attempts fail, however, because member states stymie the process or ignore the outcomes. That is what Iraq has done. And the U.S. is now using, or will decide to bypass, the Security Council to get its way with Iraq.

With the end of the Cold War, the intensification of international terrorism, and America's rise to world dominance, the UN system now appears to be too weak to serve as the vehicle to move states claiming sovereignty to a higher level of international community. Consequently, a destabilizing free-for-all is emerging, leading countries as different as Iraq, North Korea, and the U.S. to pursue their own interests as far as their respective powers will allow.

Having recently articulated a new American security doctrine, the Bush administration seems confident that America's current global hegemony will be sufficient to define and uphold a new international order (if not a community) maintained by U.S. power. But can the U.S. win and maintain support for an international order whose rules function above all to support the American empire and are enforced above all by American power?

The Bush administration showed disappointment following the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) summit in Mexico October 25-27 because Mexico's president, Vicente Fox, did not agree at the time to support America's proposed Security Council resolution against Iraq. Yet, why should the U.S. have been surprised at Fox's reluctance when many of Bush's promises to cooperate in the reform of U.S.-Mexican relations remain unfulfilled? If countries like Mexico, France, Germany, and China perceive U.S. actions to be against their interests, then they can and will find creative ways—either separately or in cooperation—to dig in their heels to frustrate U.S. aims, regardless of the extent of American power.

The world in which the U.S. now holds hegemony is no longer the domain of a few European empires or of half a dozen North Atlantic victors over Nazism and Communism. The U.S. is part of a shrinking world in which there is growing need for an ever stronger and more justly constituted international community. That community does not yet exist, and the UN system does not appear capable of creating it. If the current and future American administrations want a more just world in which American safety, interests, and constitutional principles are respected over the long term, they will help to build an international community in which even American sovereignty will be subject to transnational norms of justice.

—James W. Skillen, President
    Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”