A Visible Power for the Commonwealth

When do words possess authoritative quality? At what point can we differentiate a simple promise from a formal contract? These are just some of the questions that arose when I thought about the “social contracts” that Thomas Hobbes mentioned in his book, the Leviathan. The portion of the Leviathan that I will be referring to is titled “Of the Causes, Generation, and Definition of a Commonwealth” (Chapter 17). The arguments and philosophies presented in this chapter were intended by Hobbes to describe the necessity of sovereign institutions for peace and security. Hobbes insisted that a visible power(s) needed to be exist in order for humans within their regions to be free from the condition of war. The condition of war is a term coined to describe the natural state of humans to preserve their own lives against his/her enemies; in this state, all other beings are considered enemies. A consequence of this state would be that no person would have security no matter how adept they were.

Original copy of the Leviathan. Credits to Wikimedia Commons.

Luckily for us, we live in a world where sovereign, authoritative bodies exist. In our world, we have governments, criminal justice systems and organizations that promote public safety and peace. I wanted to tie all of this into my International Studies 401 Advanced Seminar: Norms Diffusion. In the course, I learned about the global peacekeeping organization of the United Nations (UN) and saw how ineffective they were at enforcing norms. Norms, with regard to international relations, are defined as policies or actions that are customary or widely accepted. For example, a common norm that most countries support is world peace. Efforts to strive for global unity is the goal of intergovernmental organizations such as the UN. However, the major problem with the UN is that it cannot necessarily enforce such peace.

The United Nations General Assembly. Credits to Wikimedia Commons.

Hobbes and many other philosophers/politicians claim that, in order to enforce peace, the central body of influence (in this case, the UN) needs to back their enforcement with powerful authority. Hobbes states, “And covenants, without the sword, are but words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.” Although the depiction of the sword as force is a bit extreme, in essence, he is saying that, without a potent military force, an organization like the UN will have limited policing ability. The UN currently relies on the phenomenon of norm cascades to encourage countries to adhere to their policies regarding peace. The way this works is that prominent countries in the UN agree and adopt policy regulations regarding human rights and public safety. Once a majority of influential countries accept such universally accepted peace policies, a certain level of international legitimacy is achieved that can persuade countries that have not yet accepted such regulations. Although this global pressure can be effective, there are cases where some countries are reluctant to compromise their sovereignty over their land.

Flag of the United Nations. Credit to Wikimedia Commons.

Hobbes explicitly states that there are two ways to attain centralized power: natural force or voluntary submission to an assembly of men (in this case, countries submitting to the UN). As of yet, the later suggestion of submitting to the assembly has been the primary practice. The other, less popular option is to assert a certain level of force. Personally, I believe that a peacekeeping intergovernmental organization such as the United Nations should refrain from using force at all costs (since doing so would be paradoxical). However, if they do not have any means of enforcing their ideals, the optionality of the statutes would cause noncompliance. Fortunately, there are other ways to incentivize cooperation. For example, if a country rejects a normative policy that most other countries in the UN accept, then that one country may lose economic opportunities with its trading partners. The country rejecting popular peace policy may also lose credibility in the political sphere; their considerations could become less reliable by international audiences. It is evident that there is a lot at stake if you go against the gradient. However, this is still not a foolproof system because these factors alone might not be enough to make countries comply. I believe it is completely necessary to allow the UN to have a stronger military force in order for them to properly administer peace policies rather than simply suggesting them to the world. *If this topic of effective peacekeeping interests you, I would highly recommend that you take a look at Virginia Page Fortna’s book, “Does Peacekeeping Work? Shaping Belligerents’ Choices after Civil War” (2008).*

  “For by this authority, given him by every particular man in the commonwealth, he hath the use of so much power and strength conferred on him, that by terror thereof, he is enabled to form the wills of them all, to peace at home, and mutual aid against their enemies abroad.” – Hobbes