Can Philosophy Help Us Understand International Relations? Interview with Frédéric Ramel

Philosophie des relations internationales Book cover

Frédéric Ramel has just published a third edition of the reference that now constitutes the anthology he coordinated, Philosophie des relations internationales . By offering privileged access to great authors and texts, this anthology helps us to better understand the apparently tenuous links between philosophy and international relations. This new edition, expanded with additional authors and texts, with a revised general introduction, is presented by Frédéric Ramel in this interview.

Your book Philosophie des relations internationales, une anthologie, is “a compilation of extracts from a number of Western works going back to medieval times”, as you write in the Introduction. How, in a few words, did you select what to include? Did you seek to shed light on little-known works, to provide an alternative reading of canonical texts, to make certain central and difficult writings more accessible to non-philosophers? What was your rationale?

My work on this text started more than twenty years ago. At the time, the French publishing market did not have a didactic tool that would allow broad access to the fundamental texts of the field. Clémence Mallatrait, Emmanuel Vianès, David Cumin and I proceeded in two stages: selecting the “major” philosophers for the analysis of international relations—a delicate undertaking—and opening up to secondary references that are nevertheless necessary for the intelligibility of certain concepts, such as that of balance of power. Moreover, unlike other anthologies, this book aims to aid readers by offering a concise introduction that presents the essential context, both historical and intellectual, of the philosophers. It also includes a series of bibliographical references devoted specifically to their interpretations. The selection presented in Philosophy of International Relations remains attached to a “modern” reading, since we start with the Middle Ages. For reasons relating to the size of the book, we have not been able to make neither a historical (going back to the Greeks, the Romans, and the early Christian era) nor a geographical (including non-Western sources) extension. The geographical extension is in fact currently on the research agenda of French-speaking colleagues, who will provide valuable contributions at a time when the world is increasingly affected by the demands of emerging countries and, more broadly, of the countries of the South, in favour of decentring the analysis of international relations.

Who is this anthology for?

The anthology is aimed first and foremost at students, whether at the undergraduate or graduate and at the Master’s level, when the issues of international relations have not yet been approached through the prism of ethical and moral lenses. The primary objective is to allow readers to become familiar with some of the key texts in the field, bearing in mind the Western temporal and spatial frameworks already mentioned. Nothing beats reading them directly. At a time when the world is accelerating, to use Hartmut Rosa's expression to qualify late modernity, taking the time to read these pages is a form of stepping back to better address current concerns. Machiavelli, in his letter to Francesco Vettori in 1513, spoke of changing his clothes to read the classics, which he described as an “ancient sanctuary”. We wouldn’t expect such reverence today… But the process of “transporting oneself entirely” as close as possible to these writings remains very present. Beyond the educational setting, anyone interested in current issues of international relations will be able to find their own way through these varied texts.

What does this third edition add to the two that preceded it?

Following the request made by the director of the Presses de Sciences Po (this third edition is the fruit of her initiative and for that I thank her and my collaborators), this volume is characterised by two types of additions, beyond the updating of the bibliographical references attesting to the vivacity of this type of study in international relations. First addition: among the six new figures included, half are women, including Simone Weil, Judith Shklar, and Martha Nussbaum. This expansion seemed to us essential both to contribute to a form of rebalancing and because these contributors bring, respectively, very stimulating elements on the concept of sovereignty, on the relationship to the universal, and on the properties of cosmopolitanism and development. The other three philosophers added in this edition are Peter Singer, Raymond Aron, and Pierre Hassner. The first because he has inspired a vast debate on distributive justice on a global scale since the 1970s, the second because of his contribution to the establishment of a philosophical reflection on international relations, and the third because of his constant mobilisation of the classics to decipher the world of the Cold War and the one that has emerged from the dislocation of bipolarity. Secondly, the choice of Weil, Aron, and Hassner is in line with a desire to highlight French-speaking references that we consider essential. For Pierre Hassner, whose entire career was at CERI, an additional reason must be underlined: his recent passing. It was also a form of tribute to select some of these texts. This third edition is dedicated to his memory.

"Surely the world is growing better" (1913)
Will Crawford (1869–1944),

Precisely, you quote Pierre Hassner in the introduction, p. 14: "it is no accident that, in the history of philosophy as in that of ideologies, international relations occupy a very discreet and somewhat embarrassed place, even sacrificed to the victims of fate. In Hobbes and Locke, as in Plato and Aristotle, they intervene almost as a postscript, but a postscript that often, by the author's own admission, risks calling the whole enterprise into question" (La violence et la Paix, p. 28). Can you comment on this quote?

Pierre Hassner highlights here the tension between the inside and the outside when it comes to understanding the political. Inside cities, states, or empires (any polity, for that matter), we seek the good life. In relations with the outside world, the only possible perspective seems to be that of survival, i.e. maintaining the existence of the polity. In Plato (and to a lesser extent in Aristotle), the ideal is that of autarky: avoiding contacts to avoid the torments of Atlantis, victim of its own excessiveness through the deployment of its imperialist policy. In Hobbes, if the social contract puts an end to civil war between individuals who place themselves under the authority of the sovereign, there is no thought of establishing a second contract on a global scale that would be drawn up between all the states to put an end to the violence that animates them as gladiators. Security is guaranteed within a territory whose existence must be protected from external threats. The logic of the social contract thus stops at the borders of Leviathan. I often use another example that seems to me to be very significant of this “postscript that risks calling the whole enterprise into question”: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Social Contract is an unfinished work. It is too often forgotten that the initial project was entitled Political Institutions and that the second part should have been devoted to war, peace, and, more broadly, relations between states. Rousseau did not succeed in transposing his logic of the general will to the global scale. This general will within republics becomes a particular will with respect to others. How then to ensure inter-state order, or even peace? This would only be partial through the establishment of confederations of small republics capable of articulating the quality of the ancient democratic cities admired by Rousseau with the robustness of monarchies from the point of view of the mobilisation of military means against foreign invaders. He had the example of Switzerland in mind, but it appeared to be exceptional. Transferring this idea to other societies (Corsica but especially Poland in the philosopher’s other writings) proves difficult. Fortunately, the various manuscripts have survived. Their reading allows us to outline Rousseau's main orientations for thinking about foreign relations, whether on the origins and modalities of war or their relationship to cosmopolitanism. But these orientations do not lead to the construction of an international political order that is consistent between internal and external affairs...

This somewhat emaciated character of the theme can be found in the bestseller Sophie's World written by Jostein Gaarder. There is no treatment of international relations, even though Sophie's father is himself a Blue Helmet and the presentation of Kant elicits a major criticism from the narrator: his Project for Perpetual Peace is not mentioned. So there is a tendency to dodge in this educational novel...

You speak of the "wisdom of international relations" as a kind of quest for the Holy Grail. A few months ago, you publishedLa bienveillance dans les relations internationales ( Benevolence in International Relations), which was the subject of an interview published here. What link do you make between these two notions at a time when the events we are facing (war in Ukraine, climate emergency insufficiently taken into account) give us the impression that we have achieved neither wisdom nor benevolence in international relations?

International relations, or rather the “espace Mondial” (which I tend to prefer as a label because it takes into account a plurality of actors beyond states), seems at first glance to be resistant to the very idea that a form of wisdom could be cultivated within it. However, the anthology shows that there is a constant formulation of an ideal of regulation and order, with peace as the horizon. Huge variations and even controversies emerge as to the scope of these terms as well as the principles on which they are based: the search for (purely mechanical) equilibrium between states, the major influence of the nature of political regimes, the call for global solidarity. This wisdom is sometimes limited to the adoption of what is considered to be “good” foreign policy (Rawls) or extends to global governance capable of accommodating pluralism (Walzer) or lived worlds (Habermas). So there is no one wisdom but a diversity of voices (and paths) that emerge.

As for the discrepancy you mention, it is inherent in politics. As Spinoza points out, "of all the sciences that have an application, it is politics where theory is said to differ most from practice". This does not prevent the development of philosophical views, on the contrary. In the introduction, several recent events such as the war in Ukraine or the Fukushima disaster are cited. Explaining and describing these events requires the mobilisation of protocols that are part of the so-called scientific theory. But nothing prevents us from evaluating them according to moral criteria (what is a just war, is it a duty of justice or charity to help distant victims?) and from underlining the dilemmas and fault lines that arise from their evaluation.

Finally, benevolence is one form of wisdom among others in international relations, provided that there is a clear understanding of the actions both morally and practically that it underlies. In the global space, and even more broadly in politics, benevolence is not a foundation or a piece similar to the keystone of justice. It prepares for politics by encouraging attention, listening, and a sensitivity to calm in the relationship with the other. It is a bonding agent. Moreover, enlightened benevolence takes into consideration the darker sides as well as the contexts that are not conducive to its development.

Finally, we can also despair of politics. And current international events could lead to a form of global resignation. But another posture is also possible, based on a lucid and uncompromising observation of reality, combined with a reading of the conditions in which benevolence can find its way. A narrow path, certainly, but a path nonetheless...

Interview by Miriam Périer

Illustration: "Surely the world is growing better" (1913), Will Crawford (1869–1944), Public Domain.

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