The international community was called upon to act and was also deemed responsible for a failure to act in the past. What exactly does the “international community” refer to? What does the academic literature say about this concept? Does it exist?
The problem with the concept of international community is twofold. First, the very existence of what we refer to as the international community is disputed. The main theories of international relations and key theoreticians do not attribute much importance to this concept.
Realism focuses on states as key actors in international relations, and states establish international institutions through which they aim to achieve their interests. The effectiveness of international institutions is criticized by realists. Advocates of liberalism deem international institutions, in addition to states, actors in international politics and are much more optimistic as to the effectiveness of institutions. Institutions, according to them, can shape the behavior of states in international relations.
Constructivists focus on ideas, values and identities as factors that shape behavior. The main actors are NGOs and transnational movements and networks. The concept of community is perhaps most closely related to the work of Hedley Bull, who wrote of the international society that results from the common interests and values of certain states. Bull uses the term “international society” and not “international community.” It can be concluded that the concept of international community does not have a solid foundation in academic literature on international relations. Hence, the “international community” is much more of an ideal. Second, the concept of international community is problematic due to its imprecision, which can be the result of instrumentalization or unintentional imprecision.
Instrumentalization in the context of the term “international community” is the strengthening of a certain policy position and conveying an impression of universality of the policy. It can also be used to avoid apportionment of specific responsibility, as in, “The international community did not intervene in Rwanda,” where the object of criticism is not defined. (Is it the UN as an international organization, all UN member states, member states that had the capability to act? Or are the objects of criticism various regional organizations?). On the other hand, there is the possibility of unintentional imprecision with respect to the usage of this term. In this case, this terminological imprecision could be the result of a belief in the existence of the international community, which leads to the question of how this community is operationally defined. It is also possible that the term is simply used as a catch-all term for different and differing international institutions, whereby the differences in goals, mandates and interests of varying international institutions are neglected for the sake of linguistic expediency.
Apart from the lack of a basis in the academic literature, the problem with this concept is also the lack of an acceptable definition, which paves the way for different understandings, meanings and expectations. Henry Kissinger’s rhetorical question, “What is the telephone number of Europe?” could be reformulated in this context as, “What is the address of the international community?” This dual problem with the concept of international community calls into question the validity of the usage of this term in public discourse.
*Hamza Karcic, Faculty of Political Science, University of Sarajevo.