Given the parlous state of the European Union and the abject failure of UN even to formulate an agreed plan for Syria – let alone carry it out – it is natural to give up on any internationalist hopes such as many once had. The best we can aim at in dealing with the world’s growing stack of trouble spots from the Middle East to the Falklands to the south China sea is practical diplomacy, and even that looks hard to get off the ground. The twenty-first century world displays a strange mix of global economics, charity, travel, and cultural interchange with retreat into local and parochial concerns as international cooperation and its institutions struggle to keep even a ramshackle show on the road. Yet that mix has a vague consistency in its chaotic anarchism. Not only that: it also shows up where past efforts at peacemaking went disastrously wrong and still do so.
More than two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant’s prescription for perpetual peace already pointed up certain assumptions which have proved sadly in error. Kant recognised there was no chance of a world state or government, but he still set his project on the basis of a formal institution or ‘pacific federation’ probably more far reaching than the United Nations or League of Nations ever were. Moreover, Kant insisted that individual states should have a ‘republican’ constitution where the consent of citizens would be required to go to war. Of course, Kant assumed these two stipulations would fit together, but more recent history tells us that may not be so. It should already have been apparent from events after the First World War that reliance on formal institutions without drawing in consistent popular support is a sure path to failure. The very fact that some of UN’s best work carries on behind the scenes, cooperating with local administrations or charities, emphasises the point.
Since the 1990s, and especially the Iraq war, the ‘democratic peace theory’ has quietly walked away in disgrace. Even if megalomaniac dictators are fortunately rare, we cannot expect ordinary people in any country to support international institutions over and above their own homelands. The way the Olympic ideal of bringing countries together works in practice should make that clear. For this simple reason, any international peacekeeping, or still more peacemaking, effort must involve talking to ordinary people and taking their concerns on board. The European project, from its earliest inception in the 1950s, never did this. The natural result we now see is a set of institutions confronted with a long running crisis whilst unable to call upon reliable popular support in any member states – even Germany with its central position and the stark warning of its own history.
If internationalism and peacemaking could only be about formal institutions, I would dismiss it as a hopeless cause. Yet, despite popular loyalty and historical traditions, any idea of individual nation states being able to cope with any of the global challenges we face in the this century, from financial instability to migration to climate change to religious conflict, seems downright absurd. There has to be, and there will be, international cooperation on an informal basis driven along by other global players such as corporations and NGOs as well as the sheer demands of survival. But there is no reason to suppose that such informal internationalism will be democratic or democratically accountable. Only if ordinary people get involved and find peacemakers talking to them is there any chance of that.