Duties Owed: Does the International Trump the National Community?

| December 2015
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In my previous post, I raised the question as to whether there is or is not an international community. This question matters even more as increasingly demands are placed on national communities to assume obligations or burdens which might not be perceived as serving the “national” interest but are put forward as necessary for the world as a whole.  Indeed, the use of energy sources and particular modes of development that propelled the countries of the Atlantic basin into the developed world are no longer going to be as permitted for other parts of the world given the damaging impact such methods have had on the planetary ecosystem. In addition, the outline of proposed settlements for the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria would require the populations in both countries to perhaps accept real limits on their democratic will and choices (such as for Ukraine to accept the reality of neutralization and not being able to join Western institutions as a price for keeping the peace; and for Syria a system that will not rest on majoritarian rule as the basis for stable governance).

A few years ago, Brazil explicitly made clear that it recognized no international right to supervise how it managed a key part of the global environmental commons—the rain forests; and that Brazil as a national government would undertake the necessary commitments but that the rain forests were part of its own sovereign territory, not subject to the intervention of other states. We have had similar issues raised with the Mekong or the Euphrates River, in terms of where the source originates and how the river is managed as it passes through the sovereign territory of different states.

So, if particular states are asked to assume burdens “for the good of all”—foregoing use of an energy source that might give to the citizens of that state a middle class lifestyle; and accepting limits on its foreign policy choices in order to preserve a regional balance—then what claim in return does that state have to make to be compensated by others who benefit? And how can the voters of other states be persuaded to accept making those contributions?

This is why I come back to the question of whether people accept that there is an international community to which duties and obligations are owed. Proclaiming that one exists when there are no real costs to be paid is easy. The debates in Paris over whether the accord would make countries do certain things or encourage them  to voluntarily meet the standards (the “should” versus “shall” problem) reflects this quandary.

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