Uniting the Nations

The term 'world community' (sometimes the 'international community') has now become the stock-in-trade of every Northern leader and political commentator and is frequently invoked in defence of the North's policies and actions. Jeremy Seabrook argues that in this innocuous-sounding phrase is to be read a de facto reconstitution of global power and the emergence of a realpolitik of the strong in the contemporary world.

FOR all the discussion of reform of the United Nations, the institution is already in process of being unofficially remodelled. Evidence for this may be seen in the recent emergence of something called 'the world community' (sometimes 'the international community'). In this innocuous-sounding phrase is to be read a de facto reconstitution of global power; it represents nothing less than a realpolitik of the strong in the contemporary world.

It first began to be used at the time of the Gulf War. We were told that an entity called 'the world community' was outraged; this meant a grouping of countries which could be relied upon to support the punishment of Iraq. 'World opinion' is the expression of the collective will of this community. Its resolve to act in defence, not so much of the interests of the world, as of the interests of certain powers within it, is its most remarkable feature.

It goes without saying that this runs counter to the idea of the United Nations. For this now-archaic concept implies great diversity in its composition. It implies forms of pluralism, difference, ideological antagonisms, the most violent nationalisms and the most intransigent systems of belief. Somehow, these had to be transcended for the sake of avoiding conflict which, given the intensity of the Cold War and the competitive accumulation of weapons of mass destruction, threatened planetary subversion and breakdown.

The world community will have none of this. The very idea of 'community' implies shared values, a lack of differentiation, an absence of conflict. It has always been the strength of 'community' to unite. But woe betide anyone who contests its values and beliefs.

The word 'community' is double-edged. It implies a commitment to a common purpose. It can be generous and inclusive. But it is also a powerful mechanism for the disciplining of recalcitrants and dissenters. At the level where it has real meaning - in the sense of the local, the neighbourhood, places where people are attached to each other by bonds of propinquity, kinship or shared experience - it will uphold and support the weak and vulnerable. But it can be merciless on those who transgress its norms.

Inflated to the global level, community is utterly meaningless. Its utility lies principally in the smuggled idea of punishing dissent. And it is in this sense that it is suddenly being deployed with such frequency and to such effect by the United States and its allies. In this sense, the United Nations, which suggested internationalism, has been superseded by the menace of the 'world community', which demands compliance and threatens 'sanctions' or worse against those who refuse to bow to whatever fashionable orthodoxy emanates from the US at any given moment.

Epic paradox

It is an epic paradox, that at the very time when global community is being invoked as a matter of high principle, local communities are everywhere under threat of dissolution, disintegration and decay, precisely as a result of the economic forces of which the bogus world-community is both an emanation and an expression. If the participants in it had ever been consulted; if it were a true interdependence, and not domination of the weak by the strong, if it were devoted to something other than the protection of privilege, then it is just conceivable that it might hold some meaning for the peoples of the world.

But - like so many other words in the abusive lexicon of 'development' - it means the contrary of what it states. In short, it is the latest synonym for a Western agenda for the future of the planet.

Those who believe that reform of the United Nations might shift the balance of power in the world are probably mistaken. For that balance has already been overtaken by the prevalence of a world community that cares as little for community in its excessive pursuit of individualism as it does for the world, which it aims to exploit to the limit. The very power of 'transnational' or 'multinational' companies has long since weakened the kind of sovereignties once thought to have resided in 'nations'. The ghosts of the East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company stalk the earth; only this time, there is no entity powerful enough to control them.

The United Nations may have become sclerotic, a monument to the circumstances in which it was set up after the War. It retained, perhaps, something of the contrition and remorse of the 'developed' world at the devastation it had wrought in the struggle against its own racism. It expressed something of the uncertainty of the appeal that socialism might have for the newly liberated colonial territories, and a genuine impulse towards pluralism.

But these have now become archaic concerns. 'World community' is the fiction created by a unipolar power which believes it can shape the destiny of every country on earth in its own image. That is not to say every country will become rich and powerful as America is rich and powerful: it is simply that each will take steps along the road indicated by the US, in imitation, in shadowy emulation. If this means abandoning traditional cultures, other ways of answering human need; if this means sacrificing everything to the industrial mega-machine, so be it. There is, of course, and can be, no guarantee that other countries will finish up enjoying anything like the wealth or prestige of the US. In a competitive world, there must be losers. And who can say what that will mean in a world of intensifying resource-depletion and growing social injustice?


It is likely that we shall hear more, much more, of the will of the world community. 'Sanctions' will be its weapon of first use; for in a global market economy, those who are denied both the goods and the money to pay for them, and whose capacity for self-reliance and food security has been painstakingly abolished, precisely in the interests of creating the world market and the world community, will be powerless indeed.

It is a sad comment that the sanctions against Iraq were set up ostensibly to ensure that Saddam's capacity to make weapons of mass destruction would be nullified. Well, in this context, what are sanctions if not a weapon of mass destruction? They have certainly destroyed the livelihood and the lives of no one knows how many Iraqi people. They have destroyed its infrastructure, its capacity to feed and care for its own people adequately.

What noble handiwork, this prototypical experiment with the will of the world community! Let the world - particularly those elements of the world that are not part of it - look and tremble. The United Nations will do little enough to help you when this version of the world community is roused, and is moved to vent its anger on any departure you may be contemplating from its idea of ideological propriety. (Third World Resurgence No. 93, May 1998)

Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance writer based in London.