Obama, Iran and a meaningless phrase

June 25, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate— Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. —

It’s time to kill the international community. The phrase, that is.

Usually shorthand for the governments of “the West,” the phrase is over-used (a Google search produces 447 million hits) and under-thought. It is often misleading and sometimes plain wrong. As in President Barack Obama’s news conference remarks this week on Iran’s post-election crackdown on protest:

“The United States and the international community have been appalled and outraged by the threats, beatings and imprisonments of the last few days.”

Which international community? Certainly not one that includes the world’s most populous country, China, where there were no signs of outrage. Instead, the Foreign Ministry endorsed the disputed re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the choice of the Iranian people and expressed hopes for stability.

Stability in this context means an uninterrupted flow of oil: a month before the Iranian elections and the ensuing turmoil, Iran overtook Saudi Arabia as China’s top supplier of crude. Traders said it might be a one-month blip but the figures highlighted energy-hungry China’s dependence on Iranian oil.

The Chinese government enforced stability at home 20 years ago by gunning down hundreds of anti-government street protesters and sending in tanks to clear Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. To prevent public commemorations of the massacre’s June 4 anniversary, the government blocked Internet sites in a massive censorship operation.

Russia, the only country Ahmadinejad has visited since the disputed elections, showed no signs of being appalled or outraged. Does that mean that China and Russia do not belong to “the international community”? For purposes of international finance, they do — both belong to the G20, the group of finance ministers and central bank governors of the world’s most important economies.

“The Iranian people have a universal right to assembly and free speech,” Obama said. “If the Iranian government seeks the respect of the international community, it must respect those rights and heed the will of its own people.”

Again, which international community? Invoking the term is easier than defining it. If it means governments with an unblemished human rights record, most of the world does not qualify for community membership. If it means democracies, considerably fewer than half the globe’s nation states belong. If it means countries that value democracy more than stability, the community shrinks even further.

If it means, as it usually does, the United States and Europe, the community accounts for less than a fifth of the world’s population. If it means countries that actually take action to stop human disasters, the genocidal slaughter in Rwanda, for example, the record is appalling.


Ruth Westwood, a Yale law professor, has described “international community” as “a dangerous reference point for the naive” because, she says, its connotation of commitment invites unwise reliance on others by those who must ultimately fend for themselves.

By logic, the term should belong to the United Nations, whose founding charter, drawn up in San Francisco a month after the end of World War Two, spelt out a shared vision for a better world and pledged to prevent wars, observe fundamental human rights, respect international treaties and promote better standards of life.

But the label “international community” is almost never applied to the United Nations, whose 192 member states include the world’s worst violators of human rights and international law. Think Zimbabwe. Think Sudan. Think Myanmar. If the United Nations represented the collective will of the world, that will often runs counter to the United States, which sees itself as the engine of the “international community.”

In General Assembly votes on contentious issues such as the U.S. embargo on Cuba or Israeli settlements on the West Bank, the United States tends to stand virtually alone.

The “international community” usually erupts into outrage after people in the developed world see shocking images of man’s inhumanity to man on their television or computer screens. In China, it was the image of a lone protester in a white shirt standing in front of a column of tanks. In Iran, it was a short amateur video clip of a young woman, Neda Agha Soltan, bleeding to death in a Tehran street after being shot by a sniper.

So perhaps the term international community rightly belongs not to the United States and Europe, nor to an institution with an address on Manhattan’s East River, but to the global network of Internet-savvy citizens (and reporters) who circumvent government censorship at great risk to provide the information that sparks the outrage.

So, how to get rid of the phrase in its standard amorphous usage? To start with, media organizations could discourage it (some already do). As to politicians: there’s always the option to ask for clarification. Yes, there’s outrage, Mr. President, but exactly who is the international community?

You can contact the author at Debusmann@reuters.com.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Thank you. It gives me hope to see that their are intelligent people in this world that are able to see through the thinly veiled lies we are fead.
I get so depressed reading the news seeing the ignorance of masses and the unquestioning attitude of so many fellow citizens.

Your truly give me hope, that at least some people get it.

Posted by Sebastian | Report as abusive

A very nice and thoughtful article. The only part that I didn’t like was at the end of the first section. The choice of words “If it means countries that actually take action to stop human disasters, the genocidal slaughter in Rwanda, for example, the record is appalling.” don’t quite fit with the rest of the article. You had been talking about sizes, and then switch to records out of nowhere. It seemed like a point that belongs to a different discussion. I think a better way to phrase would be to say that such a definition shrunk the International Community to almost no one.

Posted by Drewbie | Report as abusive

The term “international community” is reasonable to the extent several countries are aligned if the basis is rooted in fundamentally accepted principles such as human rights. Every Western nation can be assumed to have some segment of its population in support of freedom and justice. So without taking a formal survey, it is reasonable to assume that Americans, Australians, Canadians, the English, French and Germans are at least sympathetic to the anti-government forces.

It is hard for me to understand how a nation that believes in freedom can allow people fighting against a dictatorship to be slaughtered. That might just be me. But even if we ignore all of the idealism, we are left with the specifics of this case, that this nation of Iran which has sponsored terrorism against the US for decades might be struggling under the weight of its oppressive regime. Excellent.

If you want to see what happens when you allow an ardently anti-American dictator with nuclear weapons to exist, check out North Korea. I’m not even saying we have to bomb Iran. We’re talking about the President making some negative comments in light of brutal murders. All of that having been said, there is precedence in US foreign policy to implicitly and indirectly support the anti-government forces in this situation. It’s self-serving, opportunistic and inexpensive. People shouldn’t pass up a bargain.

Posted by Don | Report as abusive

The term is indeed misused. Just as you never get universal and global agreement on anything, even laws passed i any country practicing democracy (or at least having mechanisms offering debate within the government) are passed according to majority consensus, and not universal approval.

Putting the facts (and policy opinions) on the table is the simpler way to go. A strong and ethical stands on its own merits, and doesn’t even require the rubber stamp “approval” of the “international community”.

Funny how our debates are open (and open to all) for even those who hate us to read…even participate in, but in Iran and nations supporting them, censorship and control are the law of the land.

Your take on the real state of the term is perfect: the “international community” is in fact the billions of people taking it upon themselves to know what is going on in the world, and communicate with others.

Until governments realize that those who view their own citizens as their greatest threat are doomed to fall, their “terrorists” who are in reality only everyday members of society wanting to escape tyrannical control will continue to be creative in finding ways to let the world at large (the real “international community”) know what’s going on behind the lies.

Posted by Brian Foulkrod | Report as abusive

Wait a minute are you saying a politician is using an empty phrase that sounds good and makes a nice sound bite? I mean, wow that’s a like world shaking revelation, I mean it’s not like in recent history we don’t have enough examples i.e. U S PATRIOT act, Operation Iraqi Freedom, TARP, etc. No offense but that’s what politicians do, they talk a good game but rarely follow up. I guess it’s a bit of a departure because the current administration apparently gets away with this on a regular basis with the mainstream media.

Posted by Edward M. Blake | Report as abusive

The big problem is the use of the definite article. There are millions of international communities. I’m a member of at least five different ones, although some of them are very small.

Then again, maybe it’s useful for “the international community” to be a movable feast. At the end of 2004, I recall a quite different international community was outraged when a people, urged by the world’s press and bloggers to elect a moderate reformer, quite naturally gave a collective two-fingered salute and elected an atavistic hardliner instead. If we hadn’t been allowed to call everyone else “the international community” then, we wouldn’t now be able to enjoy the ironical link between the two elections quite so much.

Posted by Ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

The phrase is another politically correct term foisted upon the public by the News media. they all need to go and er need to say it like it is. Why try and make the unpalatable palatable?

Posted by Harry Volberg | Report as abusive

Funny thing you should bring up Iran Don – Do you know that in the early 1950’s we overthrew the Iranian democratically elected government and placed a dictator -the Shah – in its place.

Let me repeat this – this nation that as you said believes in freedom overthrew a democratically elected government and replaced it with a dictator. THAT is why they don’t like us. THAT is why they don’t want us having anything to do with their affairs. Kinda puts it into a new light.

Not to mention the hypocracy of talking about a nation based on freedom when refering to the U.S. This nation was founded by a bunch of white people fighting for freedom from Brittish rule – and all of them had slaves! If that isn’t hypocracy I don’t know what is.

Posted by Sebastian | Report as abusive

Yes, the term “international community” is over used, in most cases it is used to create a façade that the speaker’s viewpoint is universally accepted. In the case of Iran I believe that it is better that our president stays out of the dispute. Our involvement or that of any other outsider will just give the Mullahs justification for their charges of outsiders causing the upheaval.
I recall in the late 80’s when the Berlin Wall came down; the people of Berlin brought it down without the help of outsiders. I believe that the people of Iran will change their government as well without the help or approval of the “international community”.

Posted by Craig Coal | Report as abusive

Do you think that simply re-defining the phrase is going to change the way the things are done in the world? This is just cosmetic serving no purpose. Yet another yapping boring the IC! i mean International Community!!

Posted by A.MOHAMED AYUB | Report as abusive

The thousands of U.S. servicemen who took part in everything from the Berlin airlift to year-in, year-out actions both public and never to be told would disagree that the Germans brought down the wall with no help.

Without allied presence, the wall wold have fallen, all right. Once the East Germans realized there was no need to fence people out or shoot them in the back for trying to flee (since the refuge of West Berlin would have been no more), the need for the wall wold have ended much sooner…and for much uglier reasons.

Posted by Brian Foulkrod | Report as abusive

As an Israeli lady said when asked about the settlements in the west bank ” he is not my president and i did not vote for him to become one”. As for me i would say ” he does not represent my government or my opinion”. i could go on, but i do not have the time to ridicule everything he says.

Posted by monica | Report as abusive

“International Community” is a virtual and subconscious concept induced by US to consciously engaged and interfere in the internal affairs of many countries. Reaping from the effects on global trade and economy, ‘globalization’ as another virtual scheme perpetuated by US has resulted to unfair trade agreements against developing nations (which US virtually considers as the larger composite of IC), is no different from IC. It only caused more chaos and instability elsewhere. The more the US exercise its heroic stance, the more that US becomes insecure and ultimately takes the lead in some freak reactionary dispositions in the name of democracy and peace. I am reminded of vultures.

Posted by Edge, Philippines | Report as abusive

True that Sebastion!

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Excellent point and well taken. We try to imply a strong sense of the ironic when we use the term. Basically, The International Community can be taken to be broadly the enemy of Mankind and its aspirations for freedom of opinion and religion. Instead, “International Opinion” has become a pseudo religion in its own right and the great fallacy here is that, the lowest common denominator is truly the lowest. The will of the majority, expressed in venues such as the UN “That August Chamber” is purely antagonistic to decency and humanitarinaism – the UN is a tool against Mankind. This is simply an observation, not a rant. We do good rants though.

Posted by Guran Walker | Report as abusive

The berlin wall collapsed on it’s own? How quaint.

It collapsed because of the Cold War. Because America aggressively pursued the USSR in a brinkmanship of economics, wars, espionage and political actions.

Then finally the USSR could not cope with the strain, and it collapsed.

And then all the people who spent the seventies protesting American actions suddenly look around. They see the Berlin Wall collapse and go “Alright man, we DID it! Peace and understanding brought down the berlin wall!”.

Now THAT is funny.

Posted by It makes you think | Report as abusive

It would be nice if you followed this up with a peace about “international law.” As you mentioned, there is some codified international law in the UN, but much of it (such as the strict interpretation of “proportionality” we heard so much about half a year ago) seems to be unwritten. A piece clarrifying this would be enlightening.

Posted by ZT | Report as abusive

The “International Community” means those people around the world, however few in number or power, who agree with the speaker. Period. It is a fancy, self-justifying synonym for “we”.

On Rwanda, we sat in front of our televisions and watched the French Government ship plane load after plane load of machetes to Rwanda, unloaded under the watchful eyes of the French Foreign Legion. We did nothing at all. Our Government, in particular, did nothing at all. This does not support arguments about moral leadership.

We have quite a blemished record as a country, and not just back from 250 years ago and not just white British men either. Our laws provide severe punishment for the bottom 80% of our population while letting the rich and powerful act with impunity. Our election system is unrepresentative and gerrymandered to the point that “elections” to the House of Representatives are a ridiculous waste of money that could be used to take care of our own needy. I mean, it is obvious when the voters return 98% of incumbents to office, you don’t really need elections. Everyone loves the Boss.

We have big problems here. We need to clean them up and introduce a bit of fear of punishment in the powerful who hold themselves above the law. We need some honest, plain speaking about our own system. No wonder our reputation around the planet is sullied.

Posted by Wilderness Voice | Report as abusive

Well written article Bernd. A little wordy and too soft spoken. You should have just come out and stated the President was misrepresenting and distorting the the positions and views of other nations in order to give legitimacy to his own politically necessary rhetoric.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

The term “international community” is high-sounding rhetoric for what is more accurately described as an amorphous chaos.

Posted by Robert | Report as abusive

Thought provoking and timely… The only thing the International Community has been completely consistent in; is the Elites assumption that they have the “right to do no wrong” and the masses are made to be “ruled” over.

Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny. – Edmund Burke –

Posted by Folklight | Report as abusive