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Dossiers and Documents : Discussion Papers : THE UN AND WORLD GOVERNANCE


Pre-eminence of the state
A narrow view of security



Arnaud Blin, Gustavo Marin ¤ 7 January 2009 ¤
Translations: français (original) . Español .

Pre-eminence of the state

When in the seventeenth century the imperial system that had dominated the Eurasian zone for centuries disappeared, the state, the modern state, became the key element of the international system. The state obtained a monopoly on organized violence, and from then on it was also to characterize all individuals with a “nationality” defining their rights, privileges, and status in the world. The almighty and legitimate (democratic) state alone is authorized to “manage” not only its own affairs but also those related to the regional, continental, and global community. The state is what stands against the anarchy of a system having no supranational government. To counter the “natural state” of the system, nation-states, through their representatives, sign peace treaties and define the rules of the international game. States are also those who are self-appointed to sign a social contract that binds them to other states through the UN Charter.

Since 1648, only states have been considered worthy to address the major problems of the world. Whether competent (for instance in 1648 for the Peace of Westphalia) or incompetent (in 1919, for the Treaty of Versailles), they have always been more or less capable of settling those problems. Now that the world dynamics have changed completely, states seem unfit to settle a whole range of problems that are beyond their jurisdiction or their willingness to do so, which is exactly where the contemporary world’s stumbling blocks lie. The environment, energy, health, water, finance, trade markets, fishing, and terrorism constitute the many complex problems, along with many others, that lie beyond the narrow framework of the state. In a word, due to their very nature—they are designed to defend national, not collective interests—states, even when bound by treaties, are incapable of addressing, and even of identifying today’s problems. States simply cannot handle the collective management of the planet. At best, they can jointly solve a few crises here and there, mood of the moment allowing. On no account do they seem able to get truly involved in a collective effort, where many of them believe they have something to lose. So although the UN exists as such thanks to the states that constitute it, today it is prisoner of its “statejacket.” Can it transcend its original status? There is no reason to think so. At best, it can define an agenda, as in fact it has done by identifying the major tasks for the twenty-first century. To take action, however, it would have to cross an uncrossable line, no matter what or how many reforms it imagines and implements. How can we move beyond this stage? How can we break out of this “statejacket”? What proposals can we make for a “post-state world”? These questions are at the core of world governance. First, it is high time and of the essence that other players come on stage—in fact, some have already done so. Then, the new players’ participation needs to be organized. In other words, it is also necessary to institute a control system for these players—the financial crisis is a cruel reminder in this area. However, the traditional regime of international relations is characterized of course by the absence of a true control system: the UN does not in any way constitute such a system and states obviously have absolutely no interest in setting norms that might limit their capacities to act.


The principle of sovereignty is connected to the principle of the modern state. It dates back to same period, the seventeenth century. As a response to the wars of religion that had ravaged Europe, the principle of “cujus regio, ejus religio” was instituted: the prince’s religion is the nation’s religion. In order to avoid devastating conflicts, it was then decided (again, in the Treaty of Westphalia) that no country should interfere in the affairs of another state (for instance, to defend persons practicing the potentially interfering country’s religion). This principle has governed international relations ever since—with the exception of conquests outside Europe through to the twentieth century—and is set in the UN Charter. This Eurocentrist vision can legitimately be criticized, but Eurocentrism is definitely what guided the establishment of modern international norms at a time when Europe was at the peak of its power while the countries and civilizations that had dominated the geopolitical chessboard until the sixteenth/seventeenth century had suddenly, at the same time and for various reasons, moved into the background. Nonetheless, the influence of non-European civilizations on these norms was not negligible, as cross-cultural exchanges in this area were more important than it was generally believed.

In the past years, the incompetence of certain governments and their abuse of power, the weakness and the negligence of political machinery here and there, powers struggles, old resentments among populations have provoked major humanitarian disasters that could have been avoided if the international community had been able to weigh intelligently on the affairs of certain countries whose ruling classes have been incapable of managing extremely serious problems or, even worse, have themselves been directly responsible for disasters.

In view of the fact that today, as opposed to yesterday, sources of conflicts and instability come from within countries and that the humanitarian crises that ensue can take a toll of millions of victims, it is imperative that the international community be able to intervene, at least to save populations from death. What international community? Beyond international public opinion, this community actually exists only in people’s minds, which is why it does not react. For it to be able to do so, it is therefore necessary to strive to make it real. How? At least to start with, by identifying players likely to have an impact, by becoming aware that the problems at hand require concerted action among these players, and by organizing this action effectively. The UN has a role to play in this area, and so does civil society. For an “international community” to become reality, enduring and sustained efforts will be required in a battle far from being won: the rules of international politics so far have pushed selfishness to its paroxysm, and it will be difficult to let go of this selfishness.

Why not also institute systematic intervention conditions for civil wars, or even for when a state resorts to abuse of power in order to crush its populations (as in the case of Zimbabwe, for instance)? This is obviously a burning subject that is difficult to deal with, knowing how complicated the political situations are of the countries suffering from these difficulties. The duty-of-intervention idea that came forth these past years is no coincidence. Although in the seventeenth century absolute respect of national sovereignty constituted great progress in Human Rights, today the opposite is true. It is high time to put this principle on the floor—as certain people have, such as Bernard Kouchner when he was head of the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières—rather than to remain set in our ways, which today are feeding into a backward-looking, or even criminal attitude when we are dealing with man-made humanitarian cataclysms, or even those subsequent to natural disasters. In this area, UN action is ambiguous because on the one hand, it defends a principle written into its charter, and on the other hand, it parades as the first rampart against Human Rights abuses. To act, it will be necessary either to sidestep the UN or to challenge some of its principles, starting with that of absolute respect of national sovereignty. The members of the Security Council have a considerable role to play in this area. They will only move, however, under pressure from public opinion. Here, well-orchestrated campaigns could produce significant effects.

A narrow view of security

The UN has done a lot in the past few years to expand the concept of security to a concept of “human security” that involves not only physical security but also includes security against hunger and cold weather, disease and poverty. The UN was established, however, when the concept of security was understood in a narrow and restrictive way. Consequently, the UN’s structures, its charter and its mechanisms were built in terms of this view of security, that of 1945, which made perfect sense after two world wars. The gap between the rhetoric of UN leaders and practical reality is therefore, here too, considerable. In terms of implementation, the UN’s resources simply do not match its ambitions. The first reason for this is the member countries’ absence of will. Security in its traditional sense is easy to grasp and is related to the short run. Human security is a more complex concept, not very well known, which is mostly related to the long run. Politics, we know, is mainly concerned with the short run. This is a flaw in politics in general but mostly, we have to admit, in democracy. Here again, not much can be expected from states.

The UN as an institution (mainly the Secretariat), by promoting this new concept of security, shows that it is a pillar of thinking on new world governance. As a body at the service of its Member States, on the other hand, it often proves to be incapable of implementing its own ideas. There are therefore two solutions to consider: either the UN accepts its limits and refocuses its activities, for instance on the general field of thinking, ideas, and discussion, or it puts its money where its mouth is, which, as we have said, depends on the will of its Member States. By advocating actions it is incapable of carrying out, the UN loses on both counts: the potential impact of its recommendations is basically defeated by its inherent inability to implement them.


The UN was founded in a context that favored “geopolitics,” in short, the exclusively political relations that countries could maintain among themselves in the traditional fields of international relations. Geoeconomic and geoenvironmental aspects were either minimized or completely dismissed. Today it is evident that all these dimensions are important in themselves, and also that they are interrelated. The UN was however mostly constructed as a geopolitical building. The various economic, environmental, and other crises that have begun to shake the planet demonstrate that the UN, in these fields, is very poorly equipped to intervene in any way whatsoever to settle crises, not to mention prevent them. Here again, the UN structure is built in such a way that it is difficult to transform it in depth: possible reforms can only be minimal, and in any case insufficient for the United Nations to truly weigh upon these domains. So what can be done? Be content with minimal reforms, which is admittedly better than nothing at all? If the house is flawed and cannot be completely refurbished, it might however be better to build another one (or several others), even if that means keeping the first one but assigning it fewer ambitions.

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