Humanising International Relations Amidst Realpolitik

The address by Jayantha Dhanapala, President, Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, on the 14th of June 2012, at an event to celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission in Sri Lanka

Continued from yesterday’s Midweek Review

There is a lot of work being done on human security in Vancouver in the Simon Fraser University by Professor Andrew Mack and others and I would like to quote from their report which said "We have argued that the demise of colonialism and the Cold War, removed two important causes of war from the international system and the impact of growing levels of economic interdependence, the fourfold increase in the number of democracies in an emerging norm of war averseness have reduced the risks of war still further." So we have, remarkably, come to a situation where there is a declining number of civilian deaths in conflicts, a declining number of conflicts in the world today, and in fact, military expenditure, which reached $1.7 trillion last year, has remained relatively static, probably caused by the great recession. Nevertheless there is a levelling off of conflicts. And that augurs well for the future.

Now of course, in spite of all this, in spite of the fact that we have the ‘responsibility to protect’ concept which is aimed at humanizing international relations further, we have in its application elements of realpolitik. Why talk about responsibility to protect in Libya and not in Bahrain and Yemen? Why talk about it in Syria and not in other countries? So there clearly are gaps. Just as much as the Charter of the UN had this combination of realpolitik and the idealistic aspect of humanizing international relations, in the practice of international relations we still have this dissonance that takes place. We have the persistence of the realist school. You have the protection given to Israel by some of these great powers in the Security Council which ensures that it has the protection of a veto; you still have nuclear weapons that are held especially by the U.S. and Russia - 95% of the nineteen thousand nuclear warheads are held by them - and we have about US $ 100 billion being spent on nuclear warheads and their modernisation by about nine countries. We still have big banks being supported by multilateral institutions like the IMF and the IBRD and in many ways neglecting the real needs of the people and we still have a situations where might prevails over right.

To come to a conclusion, what do we understand by all this? Let me identify two events. One is that on the 16th of May, five small countries known as the S-5 (Costa Rica, Jordan, Liechtenstein, Singapore and Switzerland) attempted to float a resolution in the General Assembly in order to ensure that certain rules apply in the way in which the veto was used in the Security Council. And they were shot down. They were shot down not only by the great powers who, of course, had their vested interests to protect but they were also shot down by many others who didn’t want too much reform in the Security Council because they were afraid that their regional rivals might get in to the UN. So there was this curious combination of forces and when the Legal Adviser of the UN said that it was necessary for a two thirds majority to approve this resolution and they didn’t have a two thirds majority, the S-5, the Small 5, had to withdraw that resolution. That is an indication of the limitations of the humanizing of the international relations in a big bad world where realpolitik still exists.

Secondly, next week, the nations of the world go to Rio, 20 years after the 1st Rio conference. Now it is very evident from all the reports of the International Panel for Climate Change that the problem is a very serious one. This serious problem affects everybody - not just the Maldives because they are likely to go under in a few decades hence, or Bangladesh, where again large parts of that country will be flooded. But it affects all Brazil, United States etc. There will be a gradual warming in the Arctic which will result in all manner of changes, good and bad. And it is therefore in our collective self interest to do something about it. But there are some countries so determined to stick to their lifestyles that they will not make the necessary adjustments; they will not make the investment in solar power, in wind power and other renewable forms of energy in order to help us collectively to get out of this situation. History has shown us that environmental reasons, environmental factors have led to the decline of civilisations and unless we therefore take heed we will not be able to get out of these situations ourselves. There may be band-aid solutions like the Kyoto Protocol some years ago, which was again not ratified by the United States, and there may be other temporary changes but a determined effort to humanize our approach to the climate change problem is unlikely to succeed next week when the nations of the world meet.

And so, let me say that although we face situations of a gradual progress in the humanizing of international relations, elements of hard realpolitik remain holding us back and holding back our progress. Now this can of course be argued by some as a protection of national interests. But can national interest be divorced from the human interests of individuals in nation states? That is a very important question. Let me end with a quotation from my favourite Secretary General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld, who once said, "Everything will be all right - you know when? When people, just people, stop thinking of the United Nations as a weird Picasso abstraction and see it as a drawing they made themselves."


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