Ethics & International Affairs


Moral Agency and International Society

Chris Brown*


There is no body that has the legal right to exercise agency on behalf of international society (IS), even though the notion of “society” encapsulated in IS is, in principle, close to that conveyed by bodies such as clubs and associations that can be represented by, for example, a board of directors or governing committee. Some have argued that the UN or the Security Council can exercise agency on behalf of IS, but in view of the “underinstitutionalization” of IS in the UN, a more interesting possibility is that groups of states may authorize themselves to act on the behalf of IS as “coalitions of the willing.” However, the contrasting experience of the Gulf War of 1990/91 and the Kosovo campaign of 1999 suggest that the degree of ideological coherence of the coalition in question is an important variable here - in 1999, NATO was able with some plausibility to represent the wider international society because of its commitment to certain core democratic values, while in 1991 the Gulf War coalition could only act conservatively in restoring the status quo because of its diverse nature.

Chris Brown, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics, is the author of International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches (1992), Understanding International Relations (1997/2001), Sovereignty, Rights and Justice (forthcoming 2002), as well as some three dozen book chapters and journal articles in international political theory. He is editor of Political Restructuring In Europe: Ethical Perspectives (1994) and (with Terry Nardin and Nicholas J. Rengger) International Relations in Political Thought: Texts from the Greeks to the First World War (forthcoming 2002).


* An earlier version of this essay was presented at the workshop “Can Institutions Have Morals?” sponsored by the International Studies Association and the British International Studies Association and held in Cambridge, England, in November 2000. I am grateful to the participants—and especially to the organizer, Toni Erskine—for their comments.