Can International Relations be modelled?

The Coming Crisis

It is with hesitation that I press on with a comment on contemporary international relations.  The incessant crises in the Middle East and the surrounding regions should daunt anyone.  The Russia-Ukraine conflict and then the Israel-Gaza events are not just appalling; they go beyond the expected coverage of diplomatic niceties, of analysis and explanation, and raise questions beyond answer within the normal range of discourse.  Further events in Sudan are resulting in yet more suffering.  I am not sufficiently expert to comment in depth on current events in the Middle East and the surrounding regions, so the remarks about the present wars or the preceding events must be interpreted in that context. 

Yet there are not infrequent events on the global stage that are seldom discussed as they ought to be.  Likewise there are soldiers who come back from wars and never refer in the rest of their lives to that experience.  So I press on.  The approach of the western powers to Ukraine and to Israel is unfortunate, if only because the underlyings are not disclosed or discussed.  There has been a need to challenge the excesses of western elites for decades now, but it must be on a selective rather than broad brush basis.

Recent developments in this region raise questions about the quality of western civilisation both in terms of history and in terms of ethics.  The Middle East is broadly acknowledged as the cradle of civilisation and so it has implications for us in the West.  Yet we also need to move on.  Not only is there a dimension resulting from class in these conflicts; there is also an ethical dimension and we need to make progress.  Yet conflict in the wider Middle East will not be easily resolved.  The German/Polish theologian Paul Tillich wrote a book entitled The Shaking of the Foundations in 1948 whose title is prophetic rather than reflexive.

For my view is that that phrase is better applied to the current situation than to the days when he wrote.  World War II laid down an absolute wrong in the Holocaust; and an absolute authority, that of the Allies, which was passed on to the UN Security Council.  That legacy has been challenged and questioned ever since but now a deeper layer of foundations is exposed in current events.

Later (1960) came Daniel Bell’s The End of Ideology.  Just look beyond the title for a moment.  He equates ‘ideology’ with ‘socialism’ or ‘Marxism’ and sees no ideology in the expositions, reports, polemics and indeed diatribes of capitalism whether in Economics itself, or in the newspapers and TV shows of the right.

Thirdly, Alvin Gouldner in 1970 wrote a book under the title The Coming Crisis in Western Sociology.  But the crisis he anticipated seemed more designed to reinforce established civilisation than to criticise it.  As he sees it, the earlier affinity of socialism with sociology, of the 1930s and 1940s, enabled Jewish refugees from Nazism, amongst others, to be recognised and valued as social commentators and critics; but this positive development has been whittled down as the supposed objectivity of university work was demolished by the interests of financial backers.  Today the lure of university status seems to annihilate altogether critical social thought.  Thus Gouldner’s study is a major attempt to delineate the dangers of social science research being ensnared by the enticements of office.  It is significant that both Bell and Gouldner make vital contributions to discussions concerning future social and political structures however flawed their arguments.  They expose the challenges that were at that date still to be faced.  They both indeed foresaw a crisis ahead.

Classical Diplomacy Limited

The first matter of interest is that models have changed.  19th century diplomacy focussed on half a dozen states within Europe in a balance of power with a blurred edge.  A code of conduct had been established and followed that had originated in classical Greece and developed subsequently through Rome, Constantinople and then medieval Italy and France.  It found its final form following the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 when the practices and standards familiar today were agreed in Europe: the Entente Cordiale came a bit later but, throughout, the Balance of Power was essential.  From the earliest days, that you do not kill a messenger even though he be from an enemy, was the first principle of diplomacy and it survives still in the acceptance of diplomatic immunity.  Yet in the extent of killing in current crises, one can scarcely say this principle of restraint is in good health.  Further one should note that the activities of imperialists in their empires did not fall within the scope of diplomatic protocols.

The above sketch of diplomatic history follows Harold Nicolson’s discussion as set out in his four Chichele lectures of 1953.  I am particularly interested in his reference to De Callière’s study of diplomacy.  He cites the contrast that De Callière makes between trickery on the one hand and taking pains to establish good relations and trust in diplomacy on the other.  Other discussions of the balance of power relate to 19th century Europe as for instance Henry Kissinger’s study of diplomacy.  But they tend to ignore the fact that, in the aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia, Prussia took on a territorial identity and Poland was partitioned.

Even today after the Cold War, both Kissinger and conventional historians have approached International Relations in these terms and from this perspective, that is, in terms derived from European history and the balance of power.  The fact that the two world wars were global in scale scarcely affected this, though Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points initiated the opening of a new dimension in International Relations, namely that of an international authority in the form of a League of Nations subsequently to be recreated as the United Nations.  Then the Cold War came quickly to dominate these relations and that introduced a different framework.  The bilateral world had arrived and now it has waned.  The world is now multi-lateral.

But we are finding problems.  The conflicts in the Middle East go beyond the explicit codes of European diplomacy.  Yet these circumstances I believe are not intended to challenge the civilisation that preceded them but to reinforce and consolidate that past, however its structure may be modified.  In my view that prior civilisation is obsolete, failing, and needs to be challenged.  It was based on personal rule when personal rule already formed an inadequate structure.  Moreover, the structures used could not and cannot handle the complexities of a global world.  For the basic structures rested on faulty science – racism to create artificial division.  The structure founded on ethnography is better able to support government than the structure founded on race.  The reason for this is clear: ethnography takes into account all differences between humans, especially cultural and linguistic, and not just physical differences.

The objects – structures – in the political sphere can be variously described.  The paradigm is the nation-state of Western Europe.  The USA takes that model, even though the scale of the state is enlarged and the USA constitution has not responded well to that scale.  The recently independent nations follow the same model, perhaps also not happily.

There are also many tiny states, principalities sometimes called, whose identity as a nation state is problematic, if only on the grounds of scale.  Their status demands support.  Russia is full of contradictions – first an empire, then as a socialist union and then in a break up into separate states.  China might still be an empire if it were not a communist state.

International law is commonly referred to as authoritative.  But it is not, for a ‘rules-based’ order is so weak as to be defied even by those who speak for it.  Sovereignty lies in the independent countries of the world, in the states in membership of the UN, in the world’s nation-states.

The modern world is certainly multi-player but how many are present?  Bodies such as the G7 and G20 proliferate.  BRICS (Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa) started about 15 years ago as an investor’s label identifying states with comparable economic characteristics. But recently there has been expressed an interest in turning it into a body comparable to the G20; it holds annual meetings and its membership currently includes additionally Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran and UAE.  COP 26 is emerging on a similar programme aimed at climate management.  But Davos (officially the World Economic Forum) is an invitation or high-fee body open to CEOs and politicians of comparable status.  It is impossible to find a coherent pattern but there are many hints of separate patterns.  In addition to making some examination of the many states that do not fit into the classic western definition of nation-state, we need a policy with regard to the enormous number of international bodies created for particular purposes.  They are important not least because they are voluntaristic.  But they need explicit understanding and interpretation.

There are a number of major dimensions of International Relations – e.g. military, economic and commercial, cultural and of course migration is currently to the fore.  But basically a state seeks friends and seeks support.  And so deals with friends as for instance in supply chains.  Economic boycotts are relatively new, and in frequent, not occasional, practice.  They require organisation on an international scale which is trouble. 

In the past, international relations have been very particular:  Each relationship is ‘special’, as for instance USA with UK; or with South America under the name ‘Monroe Doctrine’.  But others are evident as for instance China with Russia or, on a different vector, with the UK.  Much is based on personal relationships which may cross over from the political and military spheres to the commercial very flexibly.

Creating models might be a very useful exercise.  Games theorists might blink before trying to model a 200-player game; yet multi-player games are emerging on the web.  This is not a trivial matter.  The early models of a dominant centralised authority or of major powers seeking imperialist expansion are of the past.  The differentiation, definition and separation of powers is an essential means of advancing, through institutional structure, current notions of international law or of ‘rules-based’ order.

  The Cold War brought International Relations down to two players.  But that was not quite all.  The UN continued even though in some quarters it has been denigrated ferociously.  Further, some states sought to create a non-aligned status which continues to play a role.  In effect the UN’s approximately 200 members define the sovereign players or entities of the modern world while, beyond and above that, the five members of the Security Council hold an exceptional status which is defined by their role in World War II.  Yet for a small administrative body the UN does a large amount of aid work in humanitarian crises and in conflict resolution.  Nonetheless the authority of the UN only extends to these very limited functions; it does not extend to the large body of international law which, broadly speaking, only commands partial consent.

We can certainly see that matters have changed today with the end of the Cold War and Soviet Union.  The world of international bodies; and there are many, hundreds, of them demands recognition even though, with the exception of the UN, none hold sovereignty.  International law is often cited and there are two international courts that pronounce verdicts.  But it is not today authoritative.  Only in the UN is there a skeletal but important sovereignty relating to the powers of the members of the Security Council and also to the member states in their Assembly deliberations.

Case Studies

Let me turn a little to look at some further particular matters.  Israel was created in the Partition Plan of the UN in 1947.  But Zionism had already emerged when anti-Semitism spread in late 19th century Europe.  With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War I, Jewish settlement increased by 100,000 fleeing persecution.  Thereafter it was the Holocaust that brought the issue to the fore.

There have been other major causes of loss of life.  From the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots in medieval France, the Armenian massacres of the late 19th/early 20th century; World War I itself; and the ensuing flu epidemic, they are widely found but not discussed.  Then on the eastern front in World War II, there were 25 million Soviet dead.  Germans died scarcely proportionately and certainly not in excess.  British and US soldiers in World War II scarcely died at all.  But the partition of the British-ruled territory India caused deaths exceeding a million.  In other recent situations of conflict, death numbers are not given, whether in Iraq or from famine in Africa or elsewhere.

I have suggested before that violence in western civilisation runs to excess.  But this consideration must be taken further.  It is not merely the excess of physical force.  There is also the excess of rule-breaking and a lack of regard for ethics.  Treaties are signed and then treated as worthless.  Norms exist in trade and cultural relations and then are disregarded or overthrown when convenient.  It is, beyond physical violence, the level of deception, fraud and double-dealing that needs to be questioned.  De Callière said so centuries ago; it all the more must be said again today.  A rule-based order is less than international law and a court with no means of enforcement has little authority.  Yet, to speak for ‘rules-based order’ is well and good; but you should not then disregard the rules when they challenge your power.

With regard to Europe, the idea of a regional bloc such as the EU is to my mind both outdated and inappropriate.  But that of voluntary associations or spheres of influence based on friendship and kinship patterns, or other shared interests, may retain great significance.  These collectivities may have a geographical basis but it is not necessary and may not be desirable.  In addition voluntary associations between states on the basis of common instrumental interests are important.  Today the focus is on common ecological pressures but other shared interests may arise.  Ethnicities that include harmful practices may be subject to legitimate ethical concerns and challenge.  The failure of Boris Johnson to build on Brexit is disturbing.  What did he think he was doing seeking to regress to 19th century autocracy?  Modern trends towards fascism are shocking for always the drive to the right results in excess violence.

From this perspective Europe remains a valuable partner.  But it is not a unified state and cannot constitute that.  Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and Scandinavia are each distinct areas with separate further connections and qualities.  The Brussels regime possibly modelled on Washington DC is a false trail and ill-adjusted to the unique characteristics of the separate states. 

Ethnicity whether interpreted at the level of national identity or in the micro level of kinship, family and clan is one great dimension of social structure.  The other of course is class.  Without these two major dimensions, social structure could not exist - it would degrade into some incoherent mess.  Kinship perhaps emerged very early on as the basis on which a proto-state to safeguard a person’s legacy might be created; for the family, property and inheritance underlie everything social and political.  But today the modern corporation has a structure that takes one far beyond this early origin and the ‘family firm’ has only a mythical place among the major institutions of society.  Yet the modern corporation is in desperate need of reconstruction while the family must be re-interpreted following patterns of extended kinship.

 One must support ethnicity but equally one must put a stop to cruel and harmful practices sanctioned by tradition and required as part of ethnic identity.  Natural differences between ethnic groups should be recognised.  Positive discrimination has a real but limited value.  While ethnicity is scarcely a basis for a state, an ethnic group generally shares a language and territory and is an important social construct.

Amongst other factors, these considerations have implications for our concerns.  Migration as an issue is today to the fore.  Migration threatens and challenges the nation-state by creating mixed identities.  Today migration exists on an enormous scale and in this feature is relatively new.  It forms a new dimension of international relations.  But though the search for work is encouraged by capitalism and freedom from tyranny fundamental, it challenges national and ethnic identities and this is unacceptable.  Yet here in migration we are beginning to see the raw materials upon which social classes, the other great dimension of the social system, with their search for justice, are founded.  For migrants depend on the integrity of their work to survive and past recruitment values like kinship or political patronage must be discarded.

Another element of structure namely sovereign assets or sovereign debt is problematic – especially when held by emerging states.  A state with debt exceeding its income (GDP or foreign earnings) is in trouble, unless it is the reserve currency.  But if this debt is wholly or in part the result of market forces, or is politically motivated, the sovereign state is not wholly to blame.

The practice whereby a powerful state can subject a small state to exploitation by using markets to keep aggregate payments for crops and minerals low in proportion to the price levels of the large power’s exports, is unacceptable.  This is not the competition enabled by markets; it is exploitation by the means of manipulative trading practices.


The implication is that sovereignty should contain substantial authority.  Protection of sovereignty is essential and some state assets should be unassailable.  That status is in effect defined today by UN membership.  The task now is to specify its elements more fully, for small states are excessively vulnerable.  There is much talk in some quarters of failed states and similar problems.  But, while this may just be a lead into re-colonisation, for military and financial pressure can push any state into this category, there is a responsibility on the leaders of states to ensure the structures of their state function well.  Conflict between states is not inherently undesirable.  The challenge to the British state in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s was not out of order.  The Algerian war of independence was costly in lives on both sides; that too was an appalling conflict but it had its purpose.  On the present troubles in the Middle East and the adjacent areas, I must refrain from further comment.  The issues at stake are deeper than is presented in current reporting and that poses a limit.

In the broadest terms, it is equally essential to build up common ties and interests between sovereign states.  To forward this aim, we have to look for new models of international relations beyond those familiar from the past.  The calculus that historically focussed on armed conflict needs expanding and the emergence of economic warfare, as seen in trade and financial boycotts, demands attention.  Further, telecommunications and the digital world pose a different challenge to old international orders.  Within this arena of knowledge and capability, the extensive and under-acknowledged underground worlds challenge us all: beyond organised crime and the drug trade, the dark side of the internet, and crypto currency in particular, tend to make nonsense of old orders.  Covert operations, however thoroughly concealed, lie within the meaning of aggression.  One must conclude that constitutional and formal authority demand re-thinking.  Excess of violence pervades all these categories of action and that must be questioned.  You cannot right a wrong by an even larger wrong.

The conflicts today in the Middle East force into our minds the severity of all these challenges.  In particular the calculus of violence requires reconstruction as a calculus of conflict.  Foreign intervention in elections may be an aggressive act as is increasingly recognised for instance by Georgia and the EU’s president.  The use of market forces to bankrupt a state likewise ls an aggressive act.  These facts need to be recognised.  Further, it should be acknowledged that too much violence by western powers is on a ‘first strike’ basis, as enunciated in the NATO Charter.  This pre-emptive use of force cannot be justified.  It is an assertion of power and superiority that contradicts the moral beliefs professed by these elites. 

Some say conflict must always come to a resolution; but if that is achieved by superior power, it is likely to result in suppressed opposition that may endure for centuries.  This should not be allowed to happen in the Middle East.


July 2024.



I can find no trace of phrase ‘greed is good’ in Adam Smith.  The phrase came into circulation only recently.


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