How should we make group decisions when the people in the group disagree? What do we do when the interests of the individual and the interests of society are in conflict? And, how do we figure out what society ‘wants’ in the first place? These are arguably the biggest questions that we can ask of human society. But, do we have the answers to all of them? Or at least some?
The political systems we devise—and the governments we create—are a record of the countless answers that people have given to these questions throughout history and around the world. And political science is the study of how people have done just that. Unfortunately, these questions don’t lend themselves to simple answers. Every political system involves sacrifices and trade-offs. No system is perfect.
In the international realm, countries face the same challenges that individuals do when trying to make collective decisions. A lot of solutions to international problems just don’t make sense unilaterally. One can’t form a trade bloc or sign an arms control agreement with themselves. They can cut CO2 emissions as much as they want, but if the rest of the world doesn’t follow suit, it’s not going to make an observable difference.
For these things to mean anything, countries need to do them as part of a group. Another way of putting this is that countries need to make collective decisions, even when they often have deeply divergent interests. Politics happens between countries every bit as much as it does within them.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Democracy and Its Alternatives. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Enforcing International Agreements
However, in international politics, there’s an added wrinkle.
There’s no world government, no one to enforce international agreements. Countries interact with one another in a state of anarchy. There’s no one to enforce international agreements. What’s more, countries are radically protective of their sovereignty. They just don’t like it when other countries get involved in their own domestic affairs.
And who can blame our leaders for being that way? Isn’t that what we, as citizens, want? We don’t elect our leaders to look out for the interests of other states; we don’t even elect our leaders to look out for the interests of the world. We elect them to serve us. And so, that makes it very hard for leaders to enter into international agreements that impose costs on their own citizens, even if those agreements serve a long-term global good.
These two factors—the lack of a world government and the inherent selfishness of states—combine to make international agreements very difficult to enforce.
And yet, they happen.
The Global Village
So, what keeps international agreements together? Who enforces international law? And why do countries obey it?
Well, it turns out that we can answer this question by going back to our earliest human ancestors: the people in those small, familiar communities that didn’t rely on the foundation of established government or law.
In a village—and in our ‘global village’—individuals and countries tend to behave themselves because those communities are small. In small societies, people care more about their reputations because those reputations are the only thing assuring that others know that they can be trusted. And people can operate on things like trust, as the trustability of others is easy to monitor, and the long-term benefits of cooperation are easier to see.
But as our societies and our world have got bigger and more complex, those relationships—between individuals and between countries—have started to break down. Norms and customs and reputations and social niceties don’t mean as much in large, anonymous communities, and they don’t mean as much among countries that are blindly beholden to their own citizens without an eye toward the global good.
Government: A Solution?
When human societies faced that problem, government was the solution: An institution that would provide security and dispense justice, and ultimately step in to fill the void that tradition used to provide. Some of those governments even endeavored, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, to derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed”. In other words, they gave ordinary citizens a significant say in making the laws to which they would be bound. Now, that form of government—and maybe even the idea of government itself—appears to be under strain.
In conclusion, it’s worth remembering that humankind has solved this kind of problem before, at least once in our million-year history. One should be optimistic and remain hopeful as in different places and all over the world, we’ve come together and figured out ways to make collective decisions in the past, even when we all wanted different things.
Common Questions about Collective Decisions and the Inherent Selfishness of States
In the international realm, countries face the same challenges that individuals do when trying to make collective decisions. A lot of solutions to international problems just don’t make sense unilaterally. One can’t form a trade bloc or sign an arms control agreement with themselves.
There’s no world government, no one to enforce international agreements. Countries interact with one another in a state of anarchy. There’s no one to enforce international agreements.
In small societies, people care more about their reputations, as those reputations are the only thing assuring that others know that they can be trusted.