When Russia invaded Ukraine, the “international community” stood back. But is there such a thing? What, if anything, can bring the world together?

The entrance to the United Nations in Geneva is obscured by the emblems of a dozen international economic and political organizations.

The entrance to the United Nations in Geneva is obscured by the emblems of a dozen international economic and political organizations. Illustration by News Decoder.

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In 2002 former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan wrote about a community with a shared vision for a better world for all people and a framework of international law, treaties and human rights conventions. It was one year after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

“Some people say the international community is only a fiction,” he wrote. “Others believe it is too elastic a concept to have any real meaning. Still others claim it is a mere vehicle of convenience, to be trotted out only in emergencies or when a scapegoat for inaction is needed,” he said. “I believe these skeptics are wrong. The international community does exist. It has an address.”

He meant the UN headquarters at 405 East 42nd Street, New York. But the United Nations with its membership divided by ideology, religion and values is not the same as the international community so often invoked in the context of global crises.

When war breaks out in some section of the world, or man-made or natural disasters hit some country or when refugees are being treated unfairly or human rights violated, “the international community” is called upon. The list is long, the invocations frequent.

This “international community” has become a standard phrase in diplomatic discourse, media reports, think tank essays and appeals by advocacy groups whenever there is a crisis in the world.

But is there such a thing?

A family of nations that rarely get along

The term is so amorphous that it merits rethinking its usefulness. Is it time to take it to the graveyard of overused clichés alongside the resting place of “the family of nations,” the equally vague and aspirational term that preceded the international community in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?

The term “international community” gained currency after the founding of the United Nations in 1945, seven weeks after the end of World War II, by statesmen who hoped the new institution would prevent future war.

But during the decades of the Cold War that followed, “the international community” became shorthand for the United States and its allies. In most cases, it still is.

Left out were the Soviet Union and its successor state, the Russian Federation, which didn’t use the phrase. Neither did officials and opinion makers under the Soviet umbrella or from the developing countries which account for the majority of the world’s countries and members of the United Nations as it grew from the original 51 to 193.

Then and now, the buzzword’s use made it easy to blame inaction of this “international community” for bloodshed, genocide and human rights violations in one part of the world or another and exaggerate global opinion on sensitive foreign policy developments.

The United Nations that isn’t so united

We are in September, the month that every year brings together the United Nations General Assembly that comprises all 193 member states and provides a forum for debates on international issues and matters of peace and security. The phrase “international community” will flow freely.

Even before the official opening of the 78th session of the General Assembly on September 5, “the international community” featured in a comment by Jake Sullivan, the U.S. National Security adviser.

He was questioned about reports that the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was planning to travel to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin and discuss weapons supplies to Moscow.

His response: “Providing weapons to Russia is not going to reflect well on North Korea and they will pay a price for this in the international community.”

That unspecified price means tighter economic sanctions on North Korea. It also highlights the inability of the UN to punish dangerous actions by uncooperative nations. Multilateral sanctions — those imposed by more than one country — were first imposed on North Korea in 2006 in response to the country’s first nuclear test. But these global sanctions failed to stop North Korea from continuing to develop nuclear weapons.

Kofi Annan

 

“Some people say the international community is only a fiction. Others believe it is too elastic a concept to have any real meaning.

….I believe these skeptics are wrong. The international community does exist. It has an address.”

— Former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan

 

A war that couldn’t be stopped

When Russia invaded Ukraine, hopes for action by “the international community” were dashed within days when the UN General Assembly failed to pass a resolution demanding the immediate withdrawal of invasion forces: five countries voted against it and 35 others abstained.

They included two of the five countries that have permanent seats on the UN Security Council. Any of those five countries can veto any joint measure even if the entire rest of the world is in favour.

But even as the UN failed to intervene in the Ukraine conflict in the role of “the international community” as it was perceived by many during the Cold War, a group of countries — led by the United States but including NATO and the European Union — have since supported Ukraine with billions worth of weapons and economic aid.

On an anniversary of the civil war in Syria, meanwhile, the advocacy group Amnesty International blamed “the international community’s catastrophic failure to act” for the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in that conflict. It was Russian air power that turned the tide of war in favour of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Assad might be a pariah in the West. But he was embraced by the Arab League in May. That’s a 22-member organization of nations in North Africa, West Asia and parts of East Africa. It had expelled Syria in 2011 for cracking down on anti-government protestors with a brutality so savage it was shocking even to an organisation with a poor record of concern for human rights.

If the United Nations is powerless because it can’t reach unanimity of its members and if Russia and its allies have different world views than the member nations of NATO and these views differ from the concerns of the members of the Arab League, what “international community” is there?

Democracy battles tyranny.

As for the shared vision for a better world visualized by Annan: is it becoming dimmer or brighter?

There is reason for pessimism. Around the world, democracy is in decline and authoritarian leaders, such as Syria’s Assad and Russia’s Putin, are literally getting away with murder.

Freedom House, a Washington-based non-governmental organisation that keeps track of global freedom and peace, says in its latest report that global freedom has declined for 17 consecutive years.

The United States was once considered a model for others to follow. But Donald Trump, in his four years as president, has encouraged authoritarian leaders. After he lost the presidential election in 2020, he attempted to halt the peaceful transfer of power.

Trump loathed international agreements and pulled the United States out of the International Criminal Court, the UN Human Rights Council, the global compact on migration and the Paris Climate Accords.

Every country in the world has signed the Paris agreement, making it one of the few actions that can be ascribed to the entire international community. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, signed the paperwork to bring the United States back into the Paris agreement on his first day in office.

Can regional organisations come together?

As far as the more routine use of the phrase is concerned, Richard Haas, long-time president of the New York-based think tank Council on Foreign Relations until he retired in June, once described the dilemma in unusually blunt terms:

“The problem is that no international community exists,” he said. “It would require that there be widespread agreement on what needs to be done and a readiness to do it. Banning the term would mean that people and governments assume a greater responsibility for what takes place in the world.”

In some ways governments are assuming greater responsibility, if not as one giant international bloc than by an alphabet soup of sub-groups. There is the G-7, an informal bloc of wealthy democracies (the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Italy and Japan). There is the G-20 of 19 countries and the European Union. There is ASEAN, the Association of 10 South East Asian Nations. There is the OAS, the Organization of American States. Finally, there is the African Union which brings together 55 countries across that continent.

In theory, they could work towards agreement on what needs to be done to make the world a safe, secure and prosperous place.

Much of their emphasis tends to be on economic matters, none more than BRICS, an acronym coined by Goldman Sachs banker Jim O’Neill for a grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Moves are underway to widen that group and turn it into a counterweight to the industrialized West.

Could all those groups, working on parallel tracks, result in a true international community? Perhaps the next generation of politicians and citizen activists will succeed where their elders failed.

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the number of members on the United Nations Security Council that can veto a joint resolution. The Security Council has 15 members but only the five permanent members have the veto power. 

Questions to consider:

  1. Can you think of a way to replace the phrase “the international community”?
  2. Do you consider your own country part of it?
  3. Can you think of cases where engaged citizens changed their governments’ policies?
bdebusmann

Bernd Debusmann began his international career with Reuters in his native Germany and then moved to postings in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and the United States. For years, he covered mostly conflict and war and reported from more than 100 countries. He was shot twice in the course of his work: once covering a night battle in the center of Beirut and once in an assassination attempt prompted by his reporting on Syria. He now writes from Washington on international affairs.

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DecodersDecoder: The myth of an international community