Ethics & International Affairs Volume 15.2 (Fall 2001): Book Reviews: The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States Robert H. Jackson [Full Text]

Nov 6, 2001

Catherine Lu (reviewer)

In an era of popular academic forecasts predicting the end of history,the nation-state, and the Westphalian model of international relations,Robert Jackson's The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of Statesoffers a spirited reminder of the continuing empirical and normative significanceof a society of juridically independent, territorially bounded statesorganized around the principles of sovereignty and nonintervention. Tosome, this book will seem like a reactionary defense of outdated conceptssuch as the national interest, the rule of nonintervention, and the international/domesticdivide. That reading, however, would miss the virtue of The GlobalCovenant, which is its comprehensive illumination of some of the thorniestproblems facing a state-centric world.

The main theoretical ambition of The Global Covenant is to revive,clarify, and develop the "English school" or "international society" approachto the study of international relations, forged most prominently by MartinWight and Hedley Bull. Jackson's recovery of the tradition's classicalhumanist approach is a welcome antidote to positivist-dominated international-relationsscholarship in North America. Indeed, the strength of Jackson's studylies in his use of military and diplomatic history, legal-institutionalscholarship, and political theory to expose the empirical reality andnormative logic of a societas of states. He is right to show thatthe language of sovereignty and nonintervention remains central to thenormative vocabulary of statespeople, and hence, in any conversation oninternational ethics. Defining international ethics as the ethics of statecraft,Jackson provides provocative analyses and arguments on some of the mostcontested theoretical and practical issues in world politics today, includingthe meaning of security in an era of globalization, the justificationof war, the dilemmas of humanitarian intervention, the existence of "failedstates," the moral significance of international boundaries, and the placeof democratic values in international society. His insistent conclusionis that anyone who wishes to explain, understand, and resolve these issuesmust deal first and foremost with the world of states and statespeople.

Jackson"s substantive aim is to vindicate the moral functions of thesociety of states that was born in the seventeenth century and has enduredthrough dramatic changes such as the scientific and industrial revolutionsand two world wars. Drawing from the conservatism of Michael Oakeshottand the value pluralism of Isaiah Berlin, Jackson defends a nonteleologicaland anti-monist conception of international society. There is no singulardirecting doctrine that everyone must follow, and there is no single commandingauthority that everyone must obey, and this, according to Jackson, isthe way it ought to be. The global covenant that has established a pluralist,anti-paternalistic international society constitutes a practical institutionaladaptation to the facts of human diversity and human imperfection. Atthe same time, the pluralist architecture of international society ultimatelyserves the moral value of freedom. Like Michael Walzer, Jackson drawsfrom the liberalism of John Stuart Mill to argue that the political independenceof states is the condition for the exercise of individual agency. An internationalsociety so conceived, according to Jackson, is the most morally defensiblepolitical "arrangement to uphold human equality and human freedom aroundthe world" (p. 43).

Jackson"s concern about paternalism in the new age of humanitarianismis not unfounded, especially when one remembers all the civilizing intentionsthat buttressed the theory and practice of colonialism. As a former studentof African politics, Jackson is perhaps more appreciative than most ofthe moral achievement represented by the establishment of a global societyof juridically equal and independent states. Such a society representsa refutation of the "standard of civilization" that, historically, wasused as a test of admission into the European society of states and, inpractice, legitimated exclusion of and discrimination against non-Europeanpeoples and civilizations. Perhaps preoccupied with the ghost of colonialism,Jackson rigidly defends the normative prohibition against intervention,and affirms the moral importance of sovereign consent as a criterion forlegitimate international intervention.

Yet I am reminded of television images from spring 1994 of Rwandan Tutsiswith their arms raised as if in surrender, appealing to a Western cameracrew to help them escape certain slaughter at the hands of Hutu extremists.Would it have been paternalistic for other states or the UN to interveneto rescue them from becoming victims of genocide? If human freedom andequality form the ultimate moral bases for international society, therules of state sovereignty and nonintervention are clearly imperfect instrumentsfor achieving these moral aims; too often, they serve as perverse instrumentsfor undermining them. No human institution or society can be morally perfect,but one that fails to prevent or halt genocide seems not merely imperfect,but grossly deficient from a moral point of view. Jackson acknowledgesthat a laissez-faire liberal international society leaves ample room forilliberal and even tyrannical domestic regimes, but he relies, like Walzer,on an inaccurate sociological conception of insulated political communitiesand an idealistic view of ordinary men and women winning their freedomby themselves. The hard question of how states can be held accountablefor abuses of sovereign power is one that is disappointingly absent inJackson"s discussion, despite recent developments in international societyand law toward a conception of retributive justice for victims of stateviolence. I suspect that the contribution of a society of states to theadvancement of human equality and freedom will depend on its ability toinstitutionalize effective mechanisms of moral accounting for abuses ofsovereign power.

One final issue I must take with Jackson"s study involves his assertionthat it "is not the role of academics to promote values" (p. 83). Positinga distinction between the academic whose job is to provide a coherentinterpretation of the political practitioner"s world, and the politicianor activist whose role is to promote certain values, Jackson argues thatan academic orientation must aspire to disinterested and detached study.Yet just as George Orwell once observed that the idea that literaturehas nothing to do with politics is itself a political statement, I wouldsuggest that the view that academic research can be so dissociated frommoral and political concerns and values is an illusion that no distinguishedscholar ought to foster. Even constructing a definition of the subjectof international ethics cannot be a wholly impartial intellectual task,as it involves normative assessments of the agents and structures of internationalrelations that are partly based on the investigator"s hierarchy of humanvalues.

The Global Covenant may be viewed as a vindication of a societasof states; to this reader, however, it succeeds far better in revealingthe moral quandaries and inadequacies of that society than its moral strengths.Still, The Global Covenant will likely gain prominence as an unabashedcontemporary voice for the "international society" tradition in its continuingdialogue with realist, cosmopolitan, and other ethical traditions of internationalrelations.

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