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  Félix Peña

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  Revista Criterio, Nº 1561-62 | Diciembre de 1968
Participation in the International System

The aim of this work is to present some preliminary and partial observations regarding the issue of international participation. Preliminary because we will present certain elements that would require a more systematic approach and further development both at the conceptual and empirical levels. Partial, because we will only analyze some of the aspects of the complex international experience, with a particular emphasis on those of economic nature, and because a single point of view has been chosen among the possible variety that can be used to approach the subject. Our interest at any rate is to contribute to the budding national debate about the future of Argentina in the international system, a debate that must lead to the selection of alternatives for what has been accurately designated as the country's insertion in the world.

Formal and Real Participation

In simple terms, we can say that to "participate" means to "form part of something". From the moment that any political community is recognized as a state, it is considered as part of the system of nations by the rest of the states. Thus it begins to take part in the life of the system and, as a consequence of the international recognition, gains the right to perform certain actions at the international level and the obligation to comply with the rules and practices established by the community of nations. This formal participation becomes manifest in international events through a series of acts based on the doctrine of legal equality of states. This principle is the result of a juridical view of the international community, which considers that all states have an equal standing and thus have the same essential rights and obligations. Historically, its origins and implementation can be clearly explained. In present-day international affairs, the doctrine of legal equality of states has certain real validity in the application of the diplomatic protocol, the exchange of ambassadors and other government representatives, most certainly in the formal structure of international law and, what is most important, in the constitution of certain international mechanisms and its decision making processes. The United Nations (with the relative exception of the Security Council) and, within our hemisphere, the Organization of American States are two of the most typical examples of international mechanisms that are ruled in their composition and decision-making processes by the doctrine of legal equality of states. Both organizations guarantee its member countries the possibility of a formal involvement in international affairs and in this sense, we can refer to them as formal mechanisms of international participation. Thus, some indicators of the level of formal participation of a country are, the number of ambassadors it appoints or receives, of international organizations it forms part of, of international conferences it participates in or that are held within its territory, etc.

The previous considerations refer undoubtedly to a formal and, up to a certain degree, static view of international participation. As per this view, to participate is simply to be present in international forums. From this is does not necessarily follow that the international system receives an actual influence from the participating country. Therefore, our intention is to delve further into the international reality. For this purpose, we consider it necessary to view participation as the possibility of influencing the evolution of certain events. To participate would be not just to form part of something -a requisite that would indeed be necessary- but to be able to influence outcomes in a more or less direct manner or that events can be made to unfold in a certain way. To participate means to leave an imprint on the life of a society. From this perspective a state not only participates in the international life just by forming part of it but also in the measure that it can manage to exert its influence and shape international affairs in accordance with its own values and interests.

In order to work on the rationale of this concept it is necessary to examine realistically how this international society is structured. Even when the doctrine of legal equality can be explained from the regulatory standpoint of international law it is not a useful concept to understand reality. Facts show that the international society is not composed by equal states but by political communities with varying degrees of power. The system of nations is a stratified and decentralized one. Stratified, because there is a hierarchy of nations established according to their size, power, economic and technical capacity and military strength. Decentralized, because unlike what happens in a domestic political system there is no single holder of force that monopolizes the use of physical coercion, but several centers of power of different magnitude. More than a complete decentralization there is an oligarchic concentration of power by the few states positioned at the highest level of the stratified system. The United States, the Soviet Union and to a lesser degree China, France and the United Kingdom currently concentrate the nuclear and conventional power, and the group of most industrialized nations concentrate the economic power and the capacity for technological innovation.

Due to their own gravitation and the relative weight of their military strength and economic power, these nations have the ability to alter considerably with their decisions the course of international events. It is evident that the nations that form the "nuclear club" ,and within it the United States and Russia, are the ones that could make the final decision to trigger or to prevent a nuclear conflict since they are the only countries that have the necessary means to execute certain military actions. The same is true with most part of the transactions that characterize the external relations of nations such as the exchange of goods, services, capitals, technology, etc. According to data from 1963 in terms of international trade only ten countries (United States., Canada, Great Britain, Japan and those of the European Community) represented above 53% of the world's total trade of goods. This percentage rises considerably in the case of the trade of manufactures. It is equally telling in the case of the flow of capitals and of technology transfer, or of international maritime and air- transportation. These are just a few of the most relevant indicators of real international participation that would be necessary to consider for an assessment of the international reality. Given the growing importance of the multinational companies in the field of industry and their impact on contemporary international relations, we believe that one indicator of the real international participation is the fact that most of those companies with multinational presence are based in a few industrialized countries (particularly the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Italy, Netherlands and Switzerland).

At the heart of the formal mechanisms of participation, but generally on their sideline, the most powerful nations in the world have devised a series of concrete mechanisms for participation through which they take the decisions related to the peace and well-being of the international community and the distribution of power within it. These may be formally organized mechanisms but in general they are extremely informal; they are official but in many cases also private and the concerned parties of specific areas of the economic activity are directly represented through them (such as for example the Freight Conferences). Their main aim is to draw out the most important international decisions from within the formal mechanisms of participation. On the other hand, by reflecting the real distribution of world power, decisions that have a concrete effect on the functioning of the international system may be adopted through these mechanisms. Their relevance lies in the fact that the essential rules of the international life are adopted through them and, in practice, all the nations in the world abide by them (or at least those nations that are under the sphere of influence of those making the decisions). An interesting example in this sense are the great international monetary decisions that are adopted by the Group of Ten, formed by the most important nations of the Western monetary system. In the field of international trade, the great joint decisions are adopted by the GATT and within it by the countries with the highest manufacture trade in the Kennedy Round, or in certain markets of primary products. It is useful to compare these real mechanisms with the formal mechanisms of participation established by the UNCTAD. Another example, the preservation of world peace, is only formally acknowledged to be the task of the United Nations since in reality it depends on decisions adopted at a national level by the great military powers or through informal mechanisms of understanding between them.

Most certainly, these observations are not meant to take away from the importance of the formal participation mechanisms based on the legal equality of states. It would be difficult to conceive the functioning of the international system without their existence and their role in the economic and political cooperation of nations is indisputable. However, it would be a mistake to continue thinking that it is through these formal mechanisms that states adopt most of the decisions that actually affect the course of international events.

Assumptions of Real Participation

In our previous considerations, we differentiated two types of participation in the international system: the formal and the real one. In the current partially organized international community both types of participation are reflected by formal and real mechanisms of participation. In our opinion, the problem that must be faced by a nation that occupies a middle position in the stratified international system (such as some Latin American countries and Argentina among them) is that if it wishes to increase its real international participation it needs to find the appropriate means to access the real participation mechanisms and thus influence the decisions that affect its external affairs.

In every analysis of the external policy of a nation whose aim is to increase its degree of real participation in the international system, it is convenient to begin with an accurate assessment of its relative situation within the context of nations. A frequent mistake in these cases is to overestimate the country's situation, oftentimes due to the ignorance of the realities of the external world. This has led certain nationalisms to the creation of policies that with time have shown great weaknesses in their fundamentals. On the other hand, it is also a common mistake to underestimate the real situation of a country and as a consequence, to miss opportunities that may emerge in the international context.

The relative situation of a country in the world may be assessed through some indicators of the real international participation which we have already mentioned: the volume of the Gross Domestic Product and in particular of the industrial product in relation to the world product; the share in international trade; the flow of capitals; technology access; maritime and air transportation services, among others. Additionally we may distinguish indicators of the ideological and cultural participation of a country in the world. It should be noted that, in the definition of the real economic situation of a country in the international context, it becomes increasingly important to consider what percentage of its foreign trade is the result of an in-house exchange within multinational companies based in other countries, what percentage of its industrial product is produced by branches of these multinationals, and what percentage of this same industrial product is made with technology provided from abroad. Such data is relevant to determine the level of independent decision-making that a country has in relation to the external trade of manufactures and technological innovation.

Certainly, the relative situation of a country can vary whether it is considered in regards to the whole world or just a determined region. It is a known fact that the relative situation of Argentina, Brazil and Mexico varies whether it is considered with regards to the industrialized nations or with regards to the Latin American region. Likewise, it would be necessary to define the relative situation of a country in terms of its international trade in a global perspective and considering each one of the main products of its economy separately. Even when Argentina has a low participation in the total of international trade, its participation is high in some products such as meats, grains and wools. The same is true for most countries. Even though Argentina has a very low participation in the world trade of manufactures, its share of the same type of trade within ALALC is high.

Once the relative situation of a country within the international context either at a global scale or within an international system in particular has been defined, to achieve the desired objective of gaining a greater real international participation demands the fulfillment of at least three requisites. First is the existence of a national purpose to increase the actual participation of the country in the international system. A simple desire for "greatness" is not enough, it is also necessary to dedicate human and material resources for such purpose. Ultimately, it consists of having the will to project by all means available a set of values and a lifestyle that have been tried and accepted at a national level onto the international society, be it global or regional, either because there is a belief that the nation has a special mission in history or because it benefits the interests of its current and future inhabitants. In second place, it demands an internal task, which consists of using or obtaining the necessary resources to increase the military power and the economic and technological capacity of the country. Every country has a natural limitation in relation to the possibilities of owning or obtaining such resources, so its external policy should be planned accordingly. In third place, it demands a true knowledge of the rules of play that affect the international affairs of the country as well as of the decision centers where these are generated, because any external action should be focused in both these aspects.

The Rules of Play of the International System

We would like to focus on this last idea about the rules of play that affect the international life of a country and center our analysis in it.

Let us first define what constitutes the external life of a nation. Basically, it consists of insuring its survival as such, that is, to prevent it from being submitted by force to the will of another country. This implies the development of a defensive action and, eventually, of an aggressive one and therefore of the creation of a security policy. Above the ideals of a world ruled by justice, equality and solidarity, reality shows that for the moment being, and possibly for a long time, the law in the international system is imposed by the strongest and such strength is demonstrated ultimately by the military capacity of a country. This is the reason why a country needs to develop its own military power or to obtain through alliances with other countries the level of military deterrence that is required for survival. However, it is necessary to consider that if military strength is the greatest indicator of the power of a country, it is however dependent on the economic capacity and increasingly of the technological capacity. In this instance, the known relation between security and development is raised.

It is in terms of its economic development and therefore of its well being that a country establishes relations with others through different kinds of transactions that affect multiple aspects of its life. Which are these transactions? Basically the exchange of goods, services, capitals, technology, ideas and people. The actors that take part in them are the citizens of a country, its businesses and its government. If we analyze how the exchanges between countries take place we will realize that they are subject to a series of formal or informal rules of official or private origin. Many of these rules have their origin in the national government due to its sovereign faculty for ruling the external relations of a country. For example in relation to foreign trade, some of these are the customs fees, the legislation and administrative practices, the exchange regulations, etc. At the same time, most of the transactions are subject to rules of play of international origin as well. There are formal and informal rules that govern international trade, at least among capitalist countries. Examples of these are the most favored nation clause, cornerstone of the GATT; the rules imposed at a regional level by the EEC, the EFTA or the LAFTA; those that originate in private organizations -for example the International Chamber Commerce- and the less formal but still effective ones derived from direct competition, which are more or less regulated and require certain conditions regarding the quality and price of products to be able to sell them in other nations.

Generally these international rules are originated within the mechanisms of real participation and are imposed by those with "more say in the game", for example those countries with the highest participation in trade. The great powers, that is those nations that contribute the most exchanges of goods, services, capitals, technology and people in the world or in a particular international system are ultimately the ones who determine under which conditions these exchanges take place. For this purpose, they create mechanisms that are not based on the doctrine of legal equality but on the real distribution of power.

Thus, we arrive to the essence of the issue of the real international participation of a country. This would consist of acquiring the necessary capacity to influence the international rules that condition the transactions of its government and citizens with those of other countries so that they benefit their interests as much as possible. It could be said that the action of a government whose objective is to increase the real international participation of its country consists of obtaining, for itself and for its citizens, the best conditions possible in the international transactions they take part in by being able to conform the rules to its own values and interests and thus maximize the benefits.

Let us go back to the case of a country situated in a middle position within the stratified international system (such as the cases of Argentina, Brazil and Mexico among the Latin American countries) whose goal is to increase its real participation in the global or in a particular international system and let us examine which would be the logical stages in the process of conceiving a foreign policy. Let us assume that the relative situation of this country within the system has been accurately defined and that for several reasons there is a national predisposition in favor of the desired objective. For the purpose of this analysis let us imagine the creation of a foreign policy in regards to a determined sector of the international affairs of the country (for example foreign trade of manufactures) without denying the fact that it would be impossible not to coordinate all the external policies of the country together. This limitation in our analysis is proof of its partial and preliminary nature.

There are five stages that we can differentiate in the process of the creation of an external policy of a country regarding a specific sector. These are the following: a) to make a diagnostic that would consist of determining which are the current rules of play within the area of interest (the world, the Western system, Latin America, etc); b) to make an assessment of reality that would consist of determining if the present rules favor the country's interests or not; c) to imagine the picture of a desirable and possible reality, that is, which would be the rules that would be needed to improve the situation of the country in future transactions (for example if it would be convenient to have non reciprocal and limited preferential zones to facilitate the access of manufactured products to certain industrialized markets; d) to determine what would be the necessary means to affect or change the current rules or to procure completely new ones; and e) to verify the possibility of obtaining such means, if unavailable, and what would be their cost (for example, to join other country with similar interests and capacity for the production of certain kinds of goods with the objective of improving the negotiation power within a determined international mechanism such as the GATT).

No doubt, the execution of an external policy for a particular sector devised in the manner indicated above raises the issue of the political and administrative stability of a country so as to guarantee the continuity in time. Such continuity could be achieved as well with the involvement of the concerned internal sectors in the process of the creation of the corresponding policy.

The involvement of the internal sectors that are affected by a determined external policy (the case of industrial sectors if dealing with the manufacture trade) in the creation of such policy leads us to highlight another aspect of the international reality. In fact, who are the players in the real international participation of a country? We mentioned before that these were the government, the citizens in general and the businesses. This statement is valid in principle for pluralist national political systems. On the contrary, it would not be valid in the case of an internal state monopoly of productive activity as for example happens in socialist systems. In this case, the main and almost sole player in international participation is the government. The same would apply for all countries in relation to certain aspects of their external affairs where government monopolizes international action. This would be the case of military relations where the national government clearly has the internal monopoly of force in every society. As was previously mentioned, in general, government keeps for itself the faculty to regulate the external relations of a country, even in the case where the actors are private citizens. In every case, the government takes on the formal representation of the country before other countries through diplomatic mechanisms.

In a pluralistic society, the external action of the government has its real reason in the support that it provides to the main actors of the transactions, especially those of economic kind, in which the country participates. This situation is increasingly more evident in highly industrialized societies, with a growing trend for large corporations to be geographically diversified and act simultaneously in the markets of several countries. This is a trend that is starting to be perceived in Latin America, even in those companies of local capitals. That leads us to believe that in the next decade there will be even more need for the external action of the governments of some Latin American countries to offer a strong support to its citizens and businesses as important players in international participation. If a considerable percentage of these companies acting from within a country towards the exterior were at the same time part of multinational corporations, with the real decision centers located abroad, the task of defining an external national policy would, no doubt, become highly compromised.

Félix Peña Director of the Institute of International Trade at the ICBC Foundation. Director of the Masters Degree in International Trade Relations at Tres de Febrero National University (UNTREF). Member of the Executive Committee of the Argentine Council for International Relations (CARI). Member of the Evian Group Brains Trust. More information. |

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