The International Solution

April 23, 2020

By Patricia Sohn

Recent debates have opposed two poles in approach to the nation and the world, as though they are the only two options available.  These are: nationalism versus globalism.

Broadly speaking, nationalism is presented in this framing in terms of our old, early-20th century buddy (or anti-hero): isolationism.  Globalism, by contrast, is presented as the striving to eclipse and eschew all national boundaries in all contexts, be those contexts political, economic, cultural, or otherwise, under the pretext of multiculturalism, a common world order, and an eventually homogenizing sameness.

I would like to bring to the stage another old standard, apparently forgotten by some thinkers today.  That is: internationalism.

A focus on the international is not the same as the emphasis on globalism in this particular current framing of the debate.  The first, internationalism, seeks to remember and respect national boundaries, competing and cooperating interests across those boundaries, and other concerns when considering political, economic, cultural, and other issues.  That is, internationalism is a form of multiculturalism that emphasizes pluralism, where difference is allowed.  We respect and retain different cultures, genders, ideas, interests, and ideologies; and we meet to talk about those based upon mutual respect for our rights to those differences within commonly-accepted legal bounds (such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).  The second, globalism, is an effort to eschew national differences in which the effort at multiculturalism is one of melting pot, or, I would even go so far as to say, ultimately, homogenization.  (Homogenization has a negative ring to it within work on ethnicity and nationalism.  In that and other works, it smacks of forced assimilation; top-down, elite-driven social programming, and enforced cultural and ideological change; or, to make a Star Trek analogy, the Borg.) 

Which is better?  If you have read Ernest Gellner or Benedict Anderson on ethnicity and nationalism; James Scott on the totalitarian extents to which elites in national-states will go to enforce homogenizing social programming and control systems on their own populations; or if you have watched Star Trek on the Borg, you will know that I am suggesting that internationalism (a true multiculturalism) is a better option than globalization (a homogenizing, false promise of multiculturalism).  And, by extension, I am suggesting that isolationism (an inward ignoring of the world-wide political ecosystem that we naturally and necessarily inhabit, like it or not) is a dead letter; that is, it is no longer really a viable option.  We have to engage with the world, so we might as well do it constructively; of course to our best interests; and as peaceably as possible, also for our own best interests.

The proposition that there is not an international effort, a joint international effort, aimed at containing, curing, and preventing the continued life of the Coronavirus Covid-19 is ludicrous.  It willfully ignores international efforts in progress at many levels, scientific, medical-practitioner, medical volunteers, international relief, etc.  And, it ignores our participation in them.  In short, it is bizarre that such arguments are even out there at this moment.

I think it is worth taking the occasion to remember where our contemporary ideas about “the international” come from, historically.  Turn now to the controversial figure, at home, of Woodrow Wilson.  Some people in the American grassroots love him, some people hate him.  There seems, from my lived experience (I am not a scholar of American politics), a great deal of space between the two, and few seem to fall in the middle.  You either love him or hate him.  I have never understood quite why; but, then, I am an internationalist.  Perhaps it is because he helped to interject the U.S. into the international arena – if only by defining it for future generations, conceptually and institutionally – in an era in which isolationism predominated domestically in the U.S. in many ways.

The League of Nations was established in 1920.  Its draft covenant was debated for some years and culminated in the 1924 document that we know.  While it presents as a collective security agreement, the entire framework is based upon an acceptance of nations and “governments” (what we would now call states, or, taken together, nation-states); the sovereignty of those national states; the acceptance of social, cultural and other differences among them; and the obligation to defend all member states from intrusion against said social, cultural, political, and territorial autonomy and sovereignty (the document says “political independence,” which includes social and cultural autonomy vis à vis outside aggressors) within specifically accepted bounds.  

It is worth noting that the nation, the late-modern Liberal state, and certainly the nation-state system were all new at this moment.  The nation, while debated in Europe — where increasing examples existed over the course of the 19th century — was still eclipsed by empire until World War I.  Indeed, one of the goals of World War I was to end empire for good.  In many ways, the nation-state system was established through the League of Nations’ conceptualization of it, yet a thing that did not exist. Hence the League of Nations Covenant document using terms slightly differently than we do today (e.g., nations and governments, rather than nation-state, etc.).  Some give credit to the United Nations for the framework that was the original brainchild of Wilson and his (national and international) colleagues.

The League of Nations continued in its activities until roughly 1945, when it was replaced by the United Nations.  I have heard grassroots actors and national pundits, alike, say that the League of Nations never did anything (it actually did a lot, including a controversial Mandate system in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I).  Whether you like what it did, and whether you acknowledge what it did, one thing is certain: the League of Nations defined our contemporary international system.  The most important principle was one in which the sovereignty of every state in the international arena is guaranteed, and, hopefully, increasingly well enforced over time.  It created an institutional framework for the lofty ideals of 18th century European political theorists regarding popular sovereignty and nationalism, by which each state should be associated with a nation (at that time, the nation was defined ethnically).  And it organized that framework on an international level. 

Thus, each people had the right to popular sovereignty, and each people should thereby have its own state.  The primary goal of this framework was to replace the system of empires, which had predominated in Europe and in many parts of the world, prior to it.  Empires were encouraged to disband into smaller nation-states around the world, including a number of important cases across Asia and the Middle East.  Some have criticized this move as an effort to decrease any accumulation of power to be found in empires outside of Europe and the Americas, as Europe’s empires fell.

So, the framework that the League of Nations created can be criticized by isolationists at home because it thrust the U.S. into the international arena and obligated it to a covenant of “collective security.”  It can be criticized by non-western powers because it took existing accumulated power, in empires, away from centers outside of the West. 

What it did that remains, whatever critiques brought against it rightly or wrongly, is create the framework for an international system based upon the sovereignty of individual different states in which difference is allowed, and in which we are expected to communicate, coordinate, and coexist within and across those differences.  Whatever homogenizing expectations it may or may not have had have failed or been effectively curtailed by post-colonial processes and critiques.  That is, it was never an effort at globalization, at homogenizing the world into McKingdom or one great McEmpire (on related terms, more below).  Differentiated states with differentiated societies, cultures, and interests were always part of the underlying rationale for the international state system envisioned, and based upon sovereignty of individual different states, which was the abiding goal of the League of Nations.  In that way, the League of Nations achieved its goal.  It moved the world, institutionally, from empire to nation-state, and to a nation-state system based upon mutual respect of the sovereignty of individual, separated, distinct, and different states.

One can argue whether an international system of states, organized on the basis of nationalism and the sovereignty of nation-states, is a better system than the system of empires that predated it. 

What I am comfortable taking a position on is this:  the homogenization impetus inherent in the globalization effort, as framed in the current debates regarding Coronavirus Covid-19, is a terrible option.  That is, there are not only two options: isolation or global sameness, where global sameness means us subsumed by them, or us subsuming them.  It is an opposition that invites abuse on both sides.  I have already suggested the isolationism, in a realpolitik sense, is no longer an option.  Global sameness (e.g., mass homogenization) would be a travesty of international human rights, and, particularly, the right to difference: different cultures, norms, institutions, values, philosophies, and frameworks for organizing our varying societies – again, within our commonly accepted legal norms as set out in international documents to which most countries, including the U.S., are co-signatories. 

That is, I am not suggesting difference to the point of anything goes, and hear-ye-to-the-old/new-Troglodyte-societies-and-cultural-norms-among-us.  I am not suggesting relativism: cannibalism should remain a crime at the individual, communal, societal, national, and international levels.  I make this statement not in jest and thinking about serial killers whose norms and values we must and need not accommodate in our efforts at pluralism (some present day political ideologies in the public sphere smack of going that far).  The shared laws and norms that we hold dear matter, substantively and in other ways.  But the allowance of difference within those norms is a matter of human rights: freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and other norms and laws that we hold dear – and must retain.  This entire framework, this way of thinking and organizing the lines between acceptable difference and shared international laws and norms is institutionalized first in the League of Nations.

It is, ironically, globalism that seeks McEmpire and McWorld, by which I mean no reference to the world-historically successful and fascinating food chain but rather to something more closely related to a concept such as the McMansion; that is, turning the world into one giant McEmpire/McWorld.  Run by whom?  That is the question.  One assumes that the writer or speaker supporting such an end gets to define and rule said empire and world from the top level of choosing elites to the bottom level of grassroots cultural values, norms, and practices.  So, in both practical and philosophical terms, unless that person will be me, I will have to say no to that option.

The international state system – the brainchild and life goal of Woodrow Wilson and his domestic and international colleagues – while it may be criticized, it is a better option than McEmpire and McWorld.  Personally, I would prefer to go back to the old system of empires before foregoing the vast and beautiful difference among us as human societies.

I think we should not accept assimilation and homogenization at a global level.  Nor am I advocating cultural relativism.  I am not suggesting, suddenly, that Cain got it right and Abel got it wrong.  In the arena of difference – outside, again, those areas already aptly defined by our international legal human rights instruments – I am suggesting that the average person could not identify either Cain or Abel accurately on a Friday, Saturday, or a Sunday.  So, better to keep human freedoms and differences intact – within our commonly accepted bounds – respect them, and stop fighting over them. 

So far, so good….


Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is an associate professor. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of courts and politics, religion and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society.

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