Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Hobbes and the global Leviathan

Listening to an Open University podcast about the realist school of foreign policy, I heard one of the speakers make a remarkable point about 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

First, they explained that from the realist foreign policy perspective, countries exist in a state of anarchy. To understand, let's think about individuals. People in modern nation states have to obey the rule of law; if I attack my neighbour, the state's agents of justice will stop and punish me. The state maintains internal order, justice, and stability.

But outside the state there are not institutions strong enough to police countries, say the realists. While individuals living in states grow relaxed and trusting, knowing that the state will prevent their neighbours from predatory behaviour, countries remain insecure and feel they must doubt the intentions of their neighbours. They need to make sure they can survive if the neighbouring country cuts off trade, or even wages war. The one line I loved, a throw-away remark by the narrator, is this:
In Chapter five the analogy is made with Hobbes's idea of a state of nature. Internationally we have an international state of nature with competing sovereigns.
Hobbes's state of nature is anarchy, his idea formed during the chaos of the English Civil War that without a government all individuals would live in such insecurity and mutual suspicion as to be 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short':
In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Hobbes's solution for ordinary citizens was the state, but the projection of this concept onto a global stage is intriguing.

I have sometimes thought that West European countries have, like individual neighbours in a neighbourhood with high social trust and a sense of community, grown to drop their guards and lose their mutual suspicion and fear. I mean, the West European countries that had spent centuries fighting each other have gone in peaceful cooperation for long enough to greatly increase mutual trust. Just as trusting villagers can relax their guards and cooperate, share and save money that would otherwise be spent on security, these countries have become more comfortable with reducing internal border restrictions and increasing trade. Good.

This did not happen under a superstate (unless the EU counts?) but it did happen under the shadow of American military supremacy, and during a time when the West Europeans were united in fear of the communist East. Perhaps the dominant United States here serves a little like Hobbes's state.

So, back to Hobbes. His solution to the state of nature was government. But can - or should - we apply this to the whole world? I see bitter debates about the idea of a global government. It seems impossible now, with such vigorous cultural and economic divisions between peoples, and complaints about a democratic deficit in such supernational bodies like the EU. So we will probably continue to live in a state of nature, though maybe the overarching power of the US can keep down interstate wars between smaller allies. Perhaps Hobbes is too pessimistic, and countries have grown peaceful towards one another without the threat of justice from some higher superstate Leviathan.

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