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Tuesday, July 31, 2001

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The limits of the state

By Supriya RoyChowdhury

WHEN STATES turn from aggression to diplomacy, typically a combination of factors account for this shift. The factors may differ greatly for the participants in the dialogue, and those factors may well have a degree of impenetrability. However, a mutually shared paradigm - in terms of objectives, however limited and specific, - and a minimum level of trust - which may well be confined to specific areas of interaction as well as time - typically underline diplomatic negotiations. The Indo-Pakistan summit was confusing, given the absence of both of these ingredients. In the end it seemed that the talks floundered in the absence of a shared perception as to what was to be talked about. This gap obviously stems from a conflict of perception, which appears to be irreducible: for the Indian Government, Kashmir is not disputed territory; for the Pakistan Government, no confidence-building measures make sense unless the Kashmir problem is addressed. In the face of this extraordinary conceptual impasse, to revert to the inertia of misunderstandings and skirmishes seems easiest.

The role of norms in international relations is complex. This relates not only to norms in the sense of abiding by given rules and regulations - such as respecting each other's territorial sovereignty - in the absence of a binding authority. It relates, more substantively, to the place of ethics in relations between nations. In general, both in scholarship and in practice, the concept of national interest has been prioritised, and the ethical concern has been confined to abstract and largely rhetorical levels.

Nevertheless, in recent years, scholars in international relations theory have introduced a set of entirely new concepts - such as forgiveness, and the need to give the enemy reassurances - which seek to bring in a greater degree of specificity to the idea of ethically oriented international relations. In international relations, the conceptual paradigm that preoccupies both statesmen and scholars is the sanctity of the sovereign nation-state.

The conflict of state interests with morality may stem from two major sources: the first is strategic, wherein, if state A refrains from using a nasty tactic, or aggression, but its opponent state B does not, then state A loses an advantage and perhaps a war. Second, if losing advantage results in some perceived harm done to the nation or to the citizenry, then to be moral itself becomes an act of immorality. In this sense, therefore, ethics and realpolitik, morality and the nation's self-interest, remain irreconcilable in substantive ways.

Ultimately, therefore, it is the perceived irrationality of trust, which may prevent states from taking a definitive step towards cooperation with an enemy. The particular definition of rationality with which states typically work - anchored strongly in the quest for security within the state's given boundaries - may limit the search for a more ethical, or more generous, definition of bilateral relations. Additionally, in the context of this opposition between trust and the state's rationality, states may find it difficult to substantively change the image of an opponent from enemy to friend. In that context, states may attempt to rewrite the future of their relations with an opponent without actually addressing the past, impossible as that task may be.

Thus, for example, in the runup to the recent Indo-Pakistan summit, an often-repeated official line in India was that the future would be written as a complete break from the past, and the underlying thought here seems to have been that the past can remain unaddressed. Yet the past came up in a variety of negative colours: Gen. Musharraf's assertion that Pakistan had not forgotten the 1971 war; from the Indian perspective, there was Gen. Musharraf's own role as the architect of Kargil, the unresolved nature of the Shimla and Lahore agreements. And on either side, there has been no definitive attempt to address living memories of disharmony and violence. It is common sense that fractured relationships can be rebuilt only by a sympathetic understanding of each other's actions in the past, by some degree of empathy and forgiveness. But where states are concerned, the abrasive nature of their quest for security sets them on a path of ``rational'' dialogue, without building the emotive foundation on which the dialogue could stand.

At best, therefore, morality, or a concern with norms is seen as a mildly restraining influence, limiting states' unlimited or unnecessary quest for power vis-a-vis other states or the most flagrant abuses of other states' interests. As such, one could assume that cooperation between nations would always only be contingent on finding a space of perfectly proportional mutual benefit, (or when the benefits of one nation does not directly or otherwise affect the status quo of the other). Beyond this necessarily limited area, the relations between nations, whenever there is a perceived conflict of interest, would be logically open to antagonism. The state's overtures towards a broader sphere of friendliness with (antagonistic) other states, therefore, necessarily remains imprisoned within this conceptual paradigm wherein cooperation is instrumental, morality is incidental, and self-interest is primary.

However, this situation obviously cannot detract from the urgency of the need for cooperation. We may, then, need to conceive of a system of international relations beyond the state. This is not to restate the case for a more effective United Nations, for that organisation, based on the logic of sovereign nation-states' membership, is again, only a mildly restraining influence, not a discursive structure which can overturn the constitutive meanings of cooperation. If normativism in international relations is defined as a commitment to eliminate collective suffering brought on by large-scale use of arms, the impulse to cooperation possibly needs to emanate from ordinary people, i.e., civil society, rather than from the state.

This is not to ignore the obvious fact that frequently wars are fought with large-scale societal support, (national pride), and that the sources of war making may be societies, rather than states, (as in ethnic insurgencies). Therefore, one cannot, in any event, romanticise the concept of civil society in this context. The centrality of civil society needs to be seen in three dimensions: first, the concept of human suffering brought on by wars has very little place in statecraft. The question of a normative stance against war is inextricably linked to the need to eliminate human suffering. As such, the starting point of a normative endeavor would have to be societies, where real people live and suffer as a consequence of war, rather than states where the national interest is determined in relative distance from the question of suffering.

Second, then, we must turn to the realm of culture. Culture in this context refers to the twin realms of accepted values and practices as also to dissenting discourses. We have seen a groundswell of resistance against war and nuclearisation, amongst local, national and transnational groups. If peace is the objective, there is a need to turn to this counter culture, to examine its substantive character and the reasons for its powerlessness in many contexts.

Finally, there is now an evolving, alternative universe, where human rights are claimed as individuals rather than only as citizens, where technology has enormously expanded the area of human experience and imagination beyond national boundaries, and where large scale migration is continually redefining the notion of communities.

This does not mean visualising the end of the state, but alternatives in spheres where the state system has failed. The nation-state is unlikely to go away in any foreseeable future. Nor can one discount the critical role of states, imperfect as they are, as instruments of such values as welfare and equality. Second, in large parts of the world national cultures are hardening as political identities become entrenched in religious, racist or other fundamentalist idioms. The evolution of ethical international relations is not likely to happen because of the disappearance of the state, but would be a function of the increasing influence that national and transnational political communities, committed to the concept of peace, are able to exercise upon the state.

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