Robert Jackson’s The Global Covenant is one of the most important books in international studies of the last generation. In it Jackson develops an “international society” approach that does not get the recognition in academic circles that it deserves. Here, in the introduction, he distills the procedural and prudential norms of “the global covenant.” (2122 words)
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The expression 'the global covenant' is . . . intended to emphasize that contemporary international relations is far more than a narrowly defined Machiavellian world of 'power politics' but is also far from an expansively defined Kantian 'community of mankind'. It is an intermediate world between these extremes: a world of dialogue between separate but recognized political others. The global covenant constitutes the only standards of political conduct which apply around the world and are acknowledged as such. It connects human beings everywhere through their membership in a sovereign state and regardless of any particular characteristics they disclose regarding their domestic way of life. . . .
The basic procedural norms of the global covenant are specified by the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the 'Helsinki Decalogue' to which signatories of the Helsinki Final Act (1975) committed themselves. They are listed by the OSCE in the following order: (1) sovereign equality, respect for the rights inherent in sovereignty; (2) refraining from the threat or use of force; (3) inviolability of frontiers; (4) territorial integrity of states; (5) peaceful settlement of disputes; (6) non-intervention in internal affairs; (7) respect for human rights; (8) equal rights and self-determination of peoples; (9) co-operation among states; (10) fulfilment in good faith of obligations under international law. These norms, especially the most important ones, are procedural in that they lay down ways and means of conducting inter-national relations that restrict activities. They are typical liberal-constitutional norms of a political world based on the principle of independent states, of international freedom.
These procedural norms are by no means confined to the states of Europe and North America that belong to the OSCE. On the contrary, they are at the heart of the global covenant and are prominent in the UN charter from which they were derived. Their order of presentation indicates the procedural hierarchy of international society that states are willing to commit to. It is evident that the six most important norms all pertain to the sanctity and preservation of equal state sovereignty and the regulation of armed force and peaceful settlement of disputes between states. Human rights became prominent in international discourse in the second half of the twentieth century but they have not achieved the same standing as the procedural norms of state sovereignty. The global covenant also incorporates additional significant norms, including peacekeeping, peace enforcement, international aid, and environmentalism, among others. Although they can only be mentioned in passing at this point, these latter norms may give an indication of where to look to discern the directions that international society might take as we move into the twenty-first century. But as yet these latter norms do not have the same standing as the basic procedural norms listed above. One could of course refer to many other procedures, such as those which pertain to the use of force in armed conflict as contained in the Geneva Conventions and other bodies of international law: jus in bello. . . .But the foregoing were the main procedural references for justifying international relations at the onset of the twenty-first century.
The cornerstones of this procedural arrangement are the doctrines of state sovereignty and non-intervention which express the underlying normative pluralism of modern international society. The most important procedural norm—grundnorm--of the global covenant is clearly expressed by Article 2 of the UN charter. Article 2(4) lays down the fundamental principle of state sovereignty: “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” That underlines the importance of the norm of uti possidetis juris according to which existing international boundaries are the pre-emptive basis for determining territorial jurisdictions in the absence of mutual agreement to do otherwise. Article 2(7) proclaims the companion principle of non-intervention: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”
The security and survival of states, and the society of states, is strongly evident in the basic procedures that apply to international peace and security. Chapter VI lays down articles for the 'pacific settlement of disputes' between states. Chapter VII gives the Security Council authority to employ armed force to defend international peace and security if it is threatened by any aggressor state. A central normative feature of the present international society is acquisition by the Security Council of many of the state's traditional rights to employ armed force across international boundaries otherwise than in self-defence. According to Article 24, member states “confer on the Security Council primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security, and agree that in carrying out its duties under this responsibility the Security Council acts in their behalf.” And they likewise pledge “to accept and carry out the decisions of the Security Council” (Article 25). Chapter VII of the charter contains the articles which specify the responsibilities of the Council 'with respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression'. The only right of war that remains in the hands of independent states is the 'inherent right' of self-defence (Article 51): 'Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inher-ent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.' That is an affirmation of the moral and legal sanctity of states as the building blocks of modern international society. These procedures define the jus ad bellum of post-1945 international society: the basic rules governing the resort to armed force in the relations of sovereign states. . . .
The foregoing procedural dimension of the global covenant is as interesting for the norms that are absent as it is for those that are present. There are several important norms of classical international society, noticeably present in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, that were either restricted or abolished in the twentieth century under the auspices of the League of Nations and the United Nations. Most noticeable is the absence of an expansive set of discretionary sovereign state rights regarding the international use of armed force: the right of war and intervention, the right of conquest, and the right of colonization. International society changed fundamentally as a result of the abolition of these historic states' rights. For example, the abolition of colonialism made possible the construction of a global society of states. It is surprising how little attention these important normative changes have received from international relations scholars.
At their most literally juridical the procedural norms of the global covenant are embodied in the charter of the United Nations, the Helsinki Final Act of the OSCE, the Charter of the Organization of African Unity, and other treaties, protocols, accords, conventions, declarations, resolutions, and formal undertakings between sovereign states. We might conclude that the global covenant consists of these international organizations and especially the UN. That would be an erroneous conclusion. The global covenant is not by any means identical with the UN. It grew out of historical practices and institutions that predated the UN by several centuries. It is properly conceived as the pluralist and anti-paternalist ethics that underpins the UN: it is the underlying moral and legal standards by reference to which relations between independent states can be conducted and judged. . . .
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The normative approach of this study can perhaps be summarized as follows: on the one hand international ethics consists in the obligation of every state-leader to obey international law. This ethical requirement is the same for all states regardless of any further particulars about them: whether they are large or small, rich or poor, powerful or weak; whether they are located in the northern or the southern hemisphere; whether their citizens are Christians or Muslims or followers of any other religion; whether their domestic constitutions are democratic or non-democratic, and so forth. Procedural international ethics is thus a general ethics which focuses on rules and largely ignores particular circumstances.
On the other hand, the practical ethics of world politics cannot ignore the fact that states differ enormously in their particular characteristics and capacities and allowance must be made for those differences. States have many distinctive features which are morally relevant and with which they must come to grips in their relations and transactions. The territory, population, size, military strength, economic development, culture, and social structure of every state is different. A great power has fundamental global capabilities and responsibilities that minor or medium powers do not have. Every state has its own governmental organization which defines and structures its highest political offices in its own distinctive way. Each state has at any one time a particular collection of political leaders who occupy those offices. Every national leader looks out upon the world from a particular vantage point—a territorial site—which may be similar to that of other leaders but is never identical. The view from London is not the same as that from Washington—even if it is similar on many issues. Every state has its own history and is thus moving through historical time in its own orbit—even if that orbit is part of a larger world history.
Every state has its own national interests which flow out of that particular situation and which may coincide with those of other states but need not. The national interest is not some kind of impersonal mechanism or process which automatically asserts itself in the relations of states—as positivist international relations theory implies. It is a moral idea governing the conduct of statespeople: the idea that the nation and its population are a treasure which they have the responsibility to safeguard in the conduct of their foreign policies. Defending the national interest discloses the virtues of prudence, patriotism, public-spiritedness, and other civic virtues, which are the virtues of republicanism and are perhaps most clearly evident in the political discourse of the United States. . . .
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The procedural and prudential norms of the global covenant are a response to the fact and implied value of political diversity on a global scale. They disclose the endeavour to recognize and respect the reality of different local experiments in political living in different parts of the world. They represent the quest for unity in diversity.
The society of states solution to the search for unity is very different from the historically far more usual approach, namely the search for unity in conformity with the dictates and demands of an imperial state. Because the global covenant can accommodate human diversity on a world-wide scale—not without considerable awkwardness—it has proved to be an acceptable or at least a tolerable basis on which national leaders can conduct relations with each other from their different locations on the planet. In principle those leaders represent humanity in its full heterogeneity: all the races, ethnic groups, nationalities, languages, civilizations, cultures, religions, ideologies, forms of government, geo-graphical particularities, historical memories, and the rest. The normative basis upon which they conduct their relations obviously has to be somehow divorced from that world-wide local particularism while at the same time respecting it.
The global covenant enables stateleaders to relate to each other, to co-exist with each other, and to cooperate with each other without sacrificing their political independence and the domestic values and life-ways upheld by it.
Thus, as indicated, the global covenant is a response to the pluralistic reality of the variously constructed and differently lived human condition around the world: its fundamental underlying ethos is pluralism. It is positive evidence that human beings across the planet can not only recognize each other as locally sovereign fellow human beings, and deal with each other on that basis, but that they have entered into a historical pact with each other which contains specific standards of conduct to which they all submit by the act of mutual recognition and reciprocity as sovereign states. Furthermore, and this is the most remarkable feature, that international arrangement exists despite the absence of a common underlying culture or civilization comparable to the one that supported the European society of states in times past. . . .
[A]lthough the global covenant is historically rooted in a particular civilization, that of post-medieval Europe, it is no longer associated exclusively with Western civilization as it still was as recently as 1945. It now serves as a bridge between the diverse cultures and civilizations of the contemporary world. It provides a channel for normative discourse and dialogue between the approximately 190 independent states that are rooted in those different cultures and civilizations.
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Robert Jackson, The Global Covenant: Human Conduct in a World of States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 16-25.