Why an 'International Community' Does Not Exist | Opinion

When Bosnian Serb forces unleashed their genocidal violence against Bosniaks in the early 1990s, Bosniaks appealed to an "international community" for help. For three and a half years, these leaders sought to marshal the support of said community to their cause to no avail. There has hardly been a conflict, crisis or mass display of violence over the past three decades in which a beleaguered nation or ethnic group did not appeal to the world's community at-large to come to their aid. Who exactly do these persecuted parties appeal to?

In appealing to the international community, a suffering party projects its hopes onto an imagined or real set of actors and expects them to undertake steps in their favor. The international system consists of states and non-state actors but there is no community. In reality, an international community does not exist. It is no more than an imagined global community—to use historian Benedict Anderson's term in a different context.

An international community is not grounded in theory or practice when applied to international relations. Major international relations theories do not ascribe any significance to such a concept. Realism is focused on states as key actors in the international sphere. According to this theory, states establish international institutions to promote and achieve their interests. Realists are skeptical as to what these institutions can achieve without the support of states that established them in the first place. Through this lens, a community at the international level is nonexistent.

Unlike realism, liberalism looks more favorably at international institutions and considers them relevant actors on the global stage. Theorists of liberalism are more optimistic about international cooperation but ultimately there is no international community to rely upon.

People walk past the art installation "The World Turned Upside Down" by Mark Wallinger on September 7, 2020, in London, United Kingdom. Leon Neal/Getty Images

Constructivism as a theory is focused on ideas, values and identities and how they shape the behavior of actors in international politics. Perhaps constructivism comes closest to accepting the notion of a community in international relations. Political scientists Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett wrote about the existence of security communities while Hedley Bull elaborated on the presence of an international society. However, even this theory does not directly account for the existence of an international community—much less does it consider this community as an actor that a group or a party can appeal to.

The notion of an international community is also problematic due to its instrumentalization and imprecision. When instrumentalized, the term international community is used tactically to bolster a given policy position and provide it with a universalist imprimatur. In other words, political leaders package their national interests and present them as aligned with the global community's position to further their policy objectives.

When used imprecisely—purposely or not—the notion of an international community is a convenient vehicle to avoid assigning specific blame for a specific action or misdeed. For instance, the statement that, "the international community did not stop the genocide in Rwanda" fails to point the finger at who exactly is to blame for the 1994 atrocities. Is the U.N. to blame? All U.N. member states? U.N. member states with military capabilities? Does that include France? Here, imprecision serves to take a seemingly principled position without offending any actor.

It is also possible that appeals to the international community can be the result of a failure to understand the subtleties of how international relations function. For more than two decades, a variety of NGOs in Bosnia and the Balkans have called on the international community to assist in post-war state-building. By appealing to an imagined global community, these NGOs have failed to grasp the differences in mandates, interests and objectives of the multitude of international actors present in the region.

The international community remains an abstract concept and perhaps an ideal but certainly not a specific actor that appeals should be directed to. Pleas to said community are rhetorical tools which produce no tangible result. This rhetoric provides a false sense of hope that domestic political leaders have done their part in tying to mobilize international support.

Former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger famously quipped, "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?" In today's language, the rhetorical question would be: "What is the phone number of the international community?"

Hamza Karčić is an associate professor of political science at the University of Sarajevo. His Twitter is @KarcicHamza.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.