Intervention in a 'Divided World': Axes of Legitimacy


In the post-2001 era, many fear that the ‘international community’ that had been developing in the years after the Cold War is becoming irremediably divided. Challenges to the ‘international community’ have come from such radically disparate quarters as US unilateralism and Islamicist attacks on ‘Western’ internationalism. Many worry that such divisions will severely hamper the ability of the international community to intervene in local crises, whether for humanitarian purposes or to stop ethnic conflict. This article challenges the major assumptions upon which this common view is based. First, it rejects the notion that the ‘international community’ ever had the kind of unity that is retrospectively attributed to it. Secondly, it rejects the notion that such an illusory unity is necessary for the legitimacy of international interventions even of the boldest variety. Rather, by examining recent fears in light of the history of bold international action since World War I, it develops a complex schema for evaluating forms of international legitimacy and forms of critique of that legitimacy. In light of this analysis, it shows how legitimacy can be achieved, even if only provisionally, even under the most fractious international conditions. In particular, it shows how the achievement of such legitimacy depends on distinguishing actions in the name of internationalism from seemingly similar actions that lie in international law’s discredited colonial past.

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