Obama, Iran and a meaningless phrase

By Bernd Debusmann
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.


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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 -