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Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 13 June 18, 1968


Defence and foreign policy are being discussed from a viewpoint that is now decidedly old-fashioned and some of the conventions of this discourse urgently need to be revised or rejected. According to this viewpoint the world consists of a number of states, most of them nation-states, which are the units of action at the global level, cither directly or through intermediate groupings. Hence the term "international politics" and the presumption often underlying it that nations are and will remain the prime actors in global politics. (I don't like the word "global" either, but at least it is free of this particular connotation.) On this view the nation-state serves at the global level the role of the individual in domestic politics. Nationalism attaches sanctity to the sovereignty of nation-states. These ought to have freedom of action, unrestricted policy choices, governments based on consent (the only principle of legitimate authority), and equality in the world community. The latter is therefore a democracy: one state one vote. We have tiny Mauritius and barren Mauritania equated on this view with the USA and the USSR.

An extension of this view is that the United Nations is a world community of nation-states, a world democracy, marred perhaps by the absence of China. Within the UN are intermediate groupings which play a role rather like that of political parties in the domestic politics of party-democracies. These groupings include the British Commonwealth, the Communist bloc, the Afro-Asian bloc and the Western bloc (the actual terminology, of course, varies). There are also alliances, but these are on the whole bad because they tend to circumvent the objectives of the UN (Rousseau in modern clothes!) and they do not adhere to the principle of equality between states. The main causes of tension and threats of war arise from the inability of the Western and Communist blocs to sink their differences and get on with the task—the only task that matters—of bringing the poor countries of the world up to their level of affluence.

I could go on filling in details; but this is indication enough of the kind of approach to world affairs adopted by those who often hold the floor. I have not the time and Salient has not the space to explore all the misconceptions embodied in this approach. But one or two general points about the view of the world to which I object need to be stated. The first is that the notion of sovereignly—always a woolly notion—is more and more a fiction and therefore the moral values attached to it are incapable of being supported. The notion furthermore of networks of relations mainly channelled from within nation-states through their governments either direct to the UN or via respective blocs is a gross oversimplification. The notion of a nation-state, even, is hard to relate to reality.

Let us suppose, instead of this outmoded view, that the world community is a system broadly analogous to a system like the internal-combustion engine or a tree. There is a danger in this comparison, because the purposes or functions of these mechanical or biological systems and their components are fairly clear, whereas those of the world system are not. The latter, like the other systems, however, consists of parts or subsystems interacting and changing and may be studied from various perspectives and at various levels.

If we think of the world like this the first points we become aware of are that it must be a very complicated system and that it is changing fairly rapidly, the rate of change is accelerating, and the direction of change is not pre-ordained. The complexity is so great and our viewpoint is so limited that our conception of this system must be incomplete and uncertain and it must be affected by our own values or purposes. It is therefore a subjective conception and this, of course, applies to my own elaborations on it.

W. E. Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at Victoria University.

W. E. Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Political Science at Victoria University.