Commonwealth and Covenant: from Liberal ‘Dialogue’ and Unilateral Sanctions to the Cooperation among Civilisations

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

1. Introduction

In my previous essay, I argued that liberal ‘dialogue’ fails to promote peace, tolerance and mutual understanding and can even foment both conflict and war. I also discussed the difference of genuine, robust debate and the need to recover the best traditions that grew out of the Axial Age – the strangely coincident fusion around the second century BC of philosophy with theology that centred on a theoretical and practical critique of predominant norms of absolutist power and its foundation upon an irreducible polytheism. Arguably, the advent of critical thought and political resistance was from the outset inextricably intertwined with an appeal to (highly diverse forms of) plural unity connected with religious transcendence – whether in Plato, Buddha or Confucius.

In this essay, I want to show how the notions of commonwealth and covenant can help us re-envision proper cooperation among civilisations whilst preserving their own integrity and irreducible diversity. My argument is that the concept of commonwealth describes multi-national forms of associations that share risks, rewards and resources and that are bound together by substantive ties rather than merely formal, abstract standards (as for liberalism). I also suggest that the concept of covenant is key as it indicates a fundamental concord among the people, often inspired by religious traditions of covenantal ties between God and creation.

Before I can make this case, I will briefly focus on the way in which liberal ‘dialogue’ is inextricably intertwined with a punitive regime of unilateral sanctions that perpetuates conflict and is therefore wholly at odds with the purported liberal commitment to de-escalation and the resumption of cooperation.

2. Liberal ‘dialogue’ and the punitive regime of unilateral sanctions

There are a number of reasons why sanctions hinder not help in defusing a crisis and bringing warring factions back to negotiations and compromise. First of all, sanctions tend to be unilateral and adopted based on the sole will of the national executive of each participating country. No parliament is usually allowed to take a sovereign view on them. The sanctions are certainly legal, but one can question their wider legitimacy. Since they will inevitably affect the people, the people’s representatives should at least be consulted.

Second, sanctions tend to hurt ordinary people most of all. This can alienate public opinion and harden the stance of the political leadership on which sanctions have been imposed. And in line with the old diplomatic principle of tit-for-tat, unilaterally decreed sanctions lead to retaliatory sanctions. Quite what good this does for de-escalation remains a bit of a mystery.

Third, the effectiveness of sanctions is ambiguous at best. Experts like to cite sanctions against Libya as an example of bringing a rogue state back into line, but we all know the fate of Col. Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic. Liberal interventionism and the neo-conservative crusades have a disastrous record – whether on the Balkans, or in Afghanistan, or in Iraq, or in Libya.

Fourth, some commentators such as Antoine Arjakovsky have recently compared sanctions with the old religious practice of excommunication whereby there is a clear route to repentance and a re-joining of the Christian communion. However, this fails to recognise two points: one is that sanctions are purely punitive whereas excommunication is not. Indeed, those who impose sanctions do not attempt at all to give the other side a face-saving way of the crisis or to offer ways of agreeing new terms of cooperation. The other point is that excommunication assumes that one is in communion in the first place, whereas countries hit with sanctions are painted as pariah states that deserve no better. Crucially, the dominant thinking is that there is simply no wider polity of which the other could be a part– except for some vague reference to the ‘international community’ that lacks any substantive identity other than the procedural and formalistic standards of the hegemon.

Fifth, the sanctions are likely to achieve one thing, and that is to exacerbate alienation, anger and permanent division. In this manner, sanctions tend to rise to a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby the punished country was never part of the ‘international community’ and was always going to oppose the fundamental values of the global order dominated by a hegemonic force.

As with liberalism more generally, the liberal sanctions regime more and more produces the confrontation that was its own presupposition. But this does not thereby prove that presupposition, because it is only the practice of unilateral sanctions that has produced in practice the circumstances which it originally and arbitrarily assumed in mere theory.

Sixth and finally, sanctions reinforce siege mentality and a sense of rampant revanchism that exacerbate divisions and fuel the flames of conflict. Nor is this altogether surprising. History documents the extent to which external threats and unilateral actions tend to reinforce internal support of a regime and a hardening in popular attitudes. If the aim really is to bring countries back into the fold of the ‘international community’, then sanctions are among the most counterproductive measures on offer. In their current configuration, they merely whip up the nationalist mood that tends to grip a country that has been subject to draconian sanctions.

3. Commonwealth and Covenant

The only alternative to both chauvinist nationalism and abstract cosmopolitanism is to re-envision various civilisations as something like a multi-national association that shares risks, rewards and resources. This could be a voluntary agreement amongst participatory nations to offer minimum provisions in both the economic and the social realms and also to meet certain shared standards of ‘subsidiarity’, or of decentralised control and responsibility. Part of that arrangement could be a pooled promise of financial assistance under inspected control, if any nation found it hard to meet such standards. A true commonwealth of nations would reflect a relational covenant among peoples where social and cultural ties shape our identity more than entitlements and contracts.

Such an extended covenant for social and economic justice could indeed be a way to revive and rethink countries as diverse as Russia and the UK as something like a multi-national association. An association where social and cultural ties shape our identity more than entitlements and contracts. A version of the same idea could make supranational arrangements such as the EU, Mercosur, ASEAN or the Eurasian Economic Union work for and not against nations, regions and individual people. And might it not even be a new way to reinvigorate the legacy of Christendom?

By this I mean not only that Europe’s polity is characterised by hybrid institutions, overlapping jurisdictions, polycentric authority, multi-level governance and multiple membership in different institutions. But more fundamentally, the legacy of Christendom in both East and West is to blend the principle of free association in Germanic common law with the Latin sense of equity and participation in the shared civitas. In this manner, European Christianity has defended a more relational account (in terms of objective rights and reciprocal duties, not merely subjective individual entitlements) that outflanked the dialectic of the individual and the collective that we owe to the American and the French Revolution.

Ultimately, Europe’s unique legacy of faith and reason provided the basis for European claims to an ‘organically’ plural universalism. The mark of this variant of universalism is that it avoids both moral relativism and political absolutism by offering a free, shared social space for religious and non-religious practice – the ‘realm’ of civil society that is more primary than either the central state or the ‘free’ market. As the ‘corporation of corporations’, the European polity rests on common civic culture and social bonds that are more fundamental than either formal constitutional-legal rights or economic-contractual ties (or some sinister fusion of both).

Crucially, we need to link to the notion of commonwealth the notion of covenant. Indeed, covenants are fundamentally different from contracts because they are relational rather than the agreement of two separate wills. Indeed many of the stories in the Biblical legacy and other monotheistic faiths are stories of covenant – from Abraham through Moses to Jesus and Mohammed. Thus to the story of covenant, we can add the inner content of covenant which is mutual sharing. Religion has told a positive story about how human beings have made an agreement with God to agree amongst ourselves to celebrate each other and to share in justice the good things of life.

Taken together, the notions of commonwealth and covenant enable us to re-think international relations away from the predominance of centralised states and global markets towards the ties of peoples and nations. Peoples and nations, partly under religious inspiration, are covenanted with each other in the interests of mutual benefit. People and nations aspire to wealth in the sense of an improved and shared material and spiritual well-being for all.  Peoples and nations also aspire to good public services – to increased interpersonal care and greater democratic participation. Finally, peoples and nations aspire to be a beacon to the rest of the world and to collaborate with other nations towards the same, shared ends. In this way a more imaginative approach to international relations can allow us to recover and redefine a covenantal destiny.

4. Conclusion

Amid the current crisis of liberal ‘dialogue’ and unilateral sanctions that fuel conflict, we need a novel approach to international affairs. Such an approach would call to abandon false and dysfunctional either-ors in favour of strangely possible paradoxes. Not Pacific or Europe, state or market, religion or the secular, or nationalism versus globalisation. Instead, intimate reciprocities in ever-widening circles from your street to the planet can dimly reflect a family of nations and peoples in which states and markets serve the needs of persons, communities and associations within and across state borders. Compared with the logic of abstraction that underpins realist, liberal, and cosmopolitan ideas, such an alternative would link political to economic and ecological purpose in the name of mutuality, reciprocity and social recognition.

Based on the enduring legacy of Christendom in East and West, the wider West (including Ukraine and Russia) could begin to build a multi-national association of peoples – a new commonwealth. Linked to is the notion of covenant – people, partly under religious inspiration, who are covenanted to one another in the interest of mutual benefit. Far from being utopian, relational covenants can balance the freedom and dignity of the person with mutual obligations and interpersonal relationships. Against the impersonalism of state and market, covenantal arrangements enable people to partake of both power and wealth in the sense of greater democratic participation and a shared material and spiritual well-being for all.

Different civilisations can either fracture and split permanently, abandoning international relations to either unipolar hegemony or multipolar anarchy. Or else they can try redefine their own covenantal destiny – aspiring to be a genuine beacon to the rest of the world and to cooperate with other nations towards the same, shared ends of virtue, honour and mutual flourishing. Faced with nationalism and cynicism, only a blend of realism and idealism can save the best traditions from destruction.