Fall 2014 (28.3) Review

The Vulnerable in International Society by Ian Clark

The Vulnerable in International Society, Ian Clark (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 190 pp., $99 cloth, $34.99 paper.

In 1977 the Australian international relations scholar Hedley Bull published a seminal work, The Anarchical Society, an exploration of the sources of international order. While acknowledging that international politics are characterized by Hobbesian, liberal, and Kantian elements simultaneously, he argued that underlying them are elements of order, by which he meant a pattern of activity that sustains the elementary or primary goals of the society of states, or international society. The goals are the preservation of the system of states, the preservation of the independence of its members, and that members of the international society see peace as the normal rather than exceptional condition of their mutual relations.

Bull’s work became a foundation of the English School of International Relations, challenging the dominant Realist perspective of international studies in the postwar years. Realism characterized the international political domain as embedded in security dilemmas, arms races, conquest, and the constant preparation for, conduct of, and recuperation from war. In contrast, international society is constituted in part cooperatively to manage problems of a global scope. While international society is primarily an analytical concept, in this new book Ian Clark argues that it is also an agent whose decisions, rules, and regulations have a significant impact on the lives and fortunes of people around the world.

International society is hierarchical, meaning that most of the rules and regulations it institutes through multilateral treaties and international organizations reflect the interests of its most powerful members. How does international society contribute to the human ecology of endangerment? It does so by the ways it defines, categorizes, and establishes regulations to manage global problems.

Clark examines four policy domains— violence, climate change, human movement, and global health—to demonstrate how international society creates and amplifies human vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are not distributed equally, but usually disadvantage the poor and weak. Taken together, these differential impacts represent “the central normative problem of our age” (p. 33). The choices that international society makes, the categories it creates, and the rules it attempts to apply are deeply immersed in moral reasoning and value contestation.

Take the example of climate change. The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) created categories such as “developed” and “developing states” and “large” and “small emitters”; these have led to political paralysis and hence no significant amelioration of the problem. Moreover, the UNFCCC and subsequent international agreements have emphasized that no regulations or remedial measures should compromise economic development. The current stalemate is not neutral for the distribution of vulnerability; those affected most severely by climate change live primarily in poor societies.

Tensions and contradictions are also hallmarks of these international regimes. Clark points out that while the UN High Commissioner for Refugees places great importance on the principle of asylum, states also make great efforts to ensure that refugees never reach the territory of the state where they could receive protection (p. 100). Few of today’s 50 million refugees and displaced persons will ever be granted asylum. Sovereignty thus trumps the principle of free movement of the vulnerable.

Clark does not apply a consciously ethical analysis to the various issue areas; rather, his purpose is to demonstrate how all actions, decisions, concepts, and categories developed to manage these global problems are intrinsically about moral choices. Clark places blame for the inequalities of vulnerability primarily on international society. He acknowledges that it is difficult to distinguish between the agency of international society and the actions of its member states (p. 164), but justifies his focus as necessary to demonstrate that vulnerabilities are not just the consequence of nature or the actions of individual states but are collective creations mediated through international society. But how much responsibility truly lies with international society? Clark offers little systematic evidence to allow a judgment. Readers will wish they were given a better grasp of the magnitude of vulnerabilities and how they have changed over time.

There are also some conceptual problems. For example, Clark is critical of the World Health Organization because it singles out communicable threats (most of which originate in poor societies) while ignoring chronic diseases and infant mortality. Nor does international society protect poor countries from the “infections” brought to them by tobacco, junk food, and other lifestyle threats originating in the wealthy countries. But surely the threat to all is much greater in the case of ebola, AIDS, SARS, and the like than is the threat coming from Big Macs. Moreover, domestic legislation can help solve these problems, as in India, where tobacco use has declined dramatically without international regulation. The threats of communicable and chronic diseases are not really comparable.

The discussion of international society’s attempts to minimize civilian war casualties also contains difficulties. Efforts to protect the vulnerable in World War II did not prevent massive attacks by all belligerents against civilian targets. The perpetrators on the losing side were hanged; those on the side of the victors were awarded honors. The victims of contemporary wars of secession, civil wars, genocides, and collapsing states have been mostly civilians, so the international regime constructed to protect them has not been effective. However, numerous international war crimes indictments and trials must act as at least a partial deterrent. Would the world be better off without the imperfect Geneva Conventions and the International Criminal Court? Afghanistan has lost about 18,000 civilians from coalition military operations since the war began thirteen years ago; the Allied bombing raid on Dresden in 1945 killed that many in several hours. Such vast differences are explained partially by the Geneva Conventions.

Clark does not address remedies to international society’s inequitable creations, but argues that the first step is self-awareness. This is his major contribution. His book is, in a sense, a consciousness-raising exercise. He brings to our attention the consequences at the grassroots level of international efforts to manage global problems, underlining that while some of the problems may appear technical, in fact the solutions sought all involve moral choices. Sometimes they lead to win-win situations, but more often, as the case studies demonstrate, the consequences—intended or not—actually enhance rather than ameliorate human vulnerabilities.

The book’s second major contribution is demonstrating how the issue areas are all interconnected. One cannot successfully approach the global health problem without reference to the international trade and investment regime. The entire web of norms and regulations referring to refugees has to be overhauled to incorporate the problems of population movement resulting from climate change.

Clark’s volume also expands the intellectual horizons of the English School. Order is much more than balancing, deterrence, diplomacy, peace, and war. How international society and its component organizations manage global social and economic problems is and should be of major concern to all of us. Clark, who has mastered a large technical literature on these issues, is to be applauded for shedding light on the darker side of international cooperation.


The author is University Killam Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia.

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