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Internationalism and the Individual

Bishop Hill is a blogger who I kind of like, even when I disagree with him, because although sometimes his analysis is slightly eccentric, it is usually trenchant.

However one rant recently did catch my eye recently on Internationalism.

Following up on a blogger debate between Tristan Mills and the Nameless One at Devils Kitchen , the Bishop argues that because Liberal Democrats say they are Internationalist, they are in favour of World Government.

"Hard as it is to believe, internationalism embodies a belief that we need more government. That if we can just come up with some political structure to agree the correct course of action, out problems will be over. No matter that some of us might disagree with the chosen course - in a world of superstates it's hard or sometimes impossible to vote with your feet. We will be forced to go along with what our political masters decree.

It's not that internationalism is hard to reconcile with individualism. Internationalism is individualism's antithesis."

Now there is a major error of logic here. It suggests that "all Internationalists are in favour of World Government"- which is not in fact true. A subset of Internationalists may well be in favour of this pretty hypothetical possibility, just as several million people still believe that Esperanto is the next global language. However that is certainly not what Liberal Democrats mean when we talk about Internationalism.

October 2nd is the anniversary of the adoption of the Geneva Protocol , an agreement made by most of states of the world not to use chemical weapons. Given that my Great-grandfather was gassed at Ypres and died before the Protocol was signed, I do feel a certain involvement here. This was not an act of legislation by a global government, it was treaty between sovereign states.

It has generally been followed, with Saddam Hussein's use of gas in the war with Iran a major exception and of course the key factor in the idea that "WMDs" would indeed be found in Iraq. Iraq had signed the protocol in 1931, but they broke their word when they used gas against Iran, which had also signed the protocol in 1929.

To be Internationalist is not to advocate world government; it is to accept that treaty obligations are binding, even on sovereign states. This is why Liberal Democrats opposed the war in Iraq, because we had not completed the procedures that would have allowed the United Nations to sanction the invasion under the provisions of the United Nations charter . A further United Nations resolution was still required, and was not obtained, or even requested. This was a clear breach of our obligations to comply with the United Nations charter that we had freely signed in 1946. As has been shown all too clearly since, the war was ill-conceived from the start, and the failure to gain UN approval demonstrated how miscast the project was ab initio.

The failure of Iraq to comply with its obligations under the Geneva Protocol was a substantial part of why a war was launched against them, the failure of the United States-led coalition to gain UN sanction for invasion was a mistake with continuing ramifications.

The point is that the UK should only sign treaties that it intends to keep, but that the UK regards treaty commitments as fully binding- notwithstanding any short term advantage in bending the rules. A state that can not be trusted to keep its word internationally can not be trusted to keep its contract with its own citizens either. So Bishop Hill is wrong- and it demonstrates the dangers of relying too much on Wikipedia.

Internationalism, by setting limits to the freedom of action of the state, is very much part of the individualist agenda of modern Liberalism.


Internationalism is a vague term. It can, as Nameless One points out, mean a World Government, but it can also simply mean opening the borders for immigration, trade and capital, which means more freedom from the individual. Like in the case of the EU, internationalism can thus mean both good and bad things from a liberal point of view, so one shouldn't either idealise or demonise the word itself, but be constructive and look behind what is really advocated in its name in each case.

The boarders can be open with international agreements or also unilaterally. Incidentally, Samuel Brittan wrote recently an interesting piece about unilateralism for CentreForum.
Bishop Hill said…
As I pointed out in the comments on my original post, the definition of internationalist I use is Wikipedia's. If you mean something else by it, I suggest you need to make yourselves clear.

And anyway, as EU enthusiasts, you Lib Dems are in favour of supranational government, aren't you?
Anonymous said…
Bishop Hill, Wikipedia is hardly the ultimate source of the objective truth.

I suggest, that you also read the comment of John Locke's Ghost above.
Cicero said…
Nice try Andrew! Internationalism and supporter of World government are indeed different, and the EU is not likely to be a government, even if it were required, for a long long time...

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