November 1, 2018
A foundational tenet of the current international system is the morality of self-determination: the idea that the highest moral good for a nation state is the ability to control all affairs within its borders, without the interference of outside powers. Developed from the religious and political conditions of Europe during the Middle Ages, this notion was expanded during the enlightenment through the moral philosophy of Kant, which similarly placed the idea of free will at the centre of its moral structure. But how does this tenet practically play out on the global stage, and how does it impact international cooperation?
The Paris Accords represented a glimmer of hope in the fight against climate change. Nearly every country in the world was committed to the agreement, which aimed to limit global warming to a 2 degree temperature increase. With the ascension of Donald Trump, however, much of the good will surrounding the agreement evaporated. Following the withdrawal of the US from the agreement, a more refined pessimism has set in, with many left wondering how climate change can be effectively combatted when climate sceptics line America’s corridors of power.
The picture became even bleaker when, in October of 2018, a report was released by the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) which described the effects of a global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees centigrade. The report stated that most of the worst economic and physical impacts of climate change kick in not at 2 degrees, but rather at around 1.5. This means that in the best case scenario – achieving the goals of the Paris Agreements – we will not escape the worst of the devastation that is to come.
The failure of international responses to climate change has backed us into a corner. It has forced us to make a trade-off between what has become two moral absolutes: the absolute need to protect life versus the absolute right to national self-determination.
The outlook for the next generation is not good. We face tremendous loss of life and property, and seemingly all because of the failure of one major nation to commit to a global effort. It is tempting to lay all the blame on Trump – and this would not be unreasonable – however we need to consider the system that not only enables such betrayal, but views it as morally acceptable. The failure of international responses to climate change has backed us into a corner. It has forced us to make a trade-off between what has become two moral absolutes: the absolute need to protect life versus the absolute right to national self-determination. A resolution must be found.
It is unlikely, however, that a meaningful resolution will be enacted in time to save our world from devastating climate change. The deadline is fast approaching, and we simply do not have the political foundations to begin to meet it. This failure should inspire us to reconsider the way our system functions, however.
The main reason for us to reform our international system is its enlightenment inheritance. The international system still bears all the hallmarks of the naive rationalism of the period from which it was born: religious concepts repackaged in the language of human reason. The nation is presented as an extrapolation of the individual, replete with doctrines of free will. This forces us to think of nations as an abstract kind of individual, as entities that exist apart from their populations or governments and against which moral transgressions can be committed. It is a conception that is the a product of language. As Michael Billig argued in his 1995 text Banal Nationalism, the language of the national system is so deeply ingrained in our psyche as to leave us unable to criticize or question it. The existence of this abstract ‘nation’ is a tacitly accepted fact, despite the reality that nations do not exist as an independent entity outside of our collective imaginings.
Of course there is the argument that sovereignty allows the democratic will of populations to be exercised. This argument, however, stands on shaky ground. The extent to which populations control the foreign policies of their governments, even in states where genuine diplomatic elections do take place, is debatable. Even if we take this to be true, populations face compulsion from governments at all times. If the compulsion is handed down from a body above the national government, should that render it any more or less moral?
In the wake of the Paris Agreements and the impending crisis of global climate change, it is time to begin asking ourselves hard questions about our international system and what we value. All systems of government involve an imbalance of power and compulsion. A United Nations with the power to enforce its resolutions would be no less morally acceptable than any other national government. Indeed, one may even argue that it would be considerably more moral, as an international organisation would be unable to sacrifice the lives and property of other populations in order to serve the short term interests of one specific nation.
– Joseph Beaden
Image credit: Time.com