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Analysis From Washington: World: Redefining Internal Affairs

Washington, 17 December 1996 (RFE/RL) - Both Washington and Moscow have now gone out of their way to assert that they will not interfere in the "internal affairs" of Yugoslavia. But each has defined that term in its own way and thus indicated what it believes is the proper stance of the international community to the events taking place in Belgrade.

On the one hand, President Bill Clinton last week made clear that the United States did not want to interfere in the internal affairs of Yugoslavia but was actively behind the goals of the democratic opposition to President Slobodan Milosevic.

On the other, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov said on Monday that the conflict between Milosevic and the Yugoslav people was "an internal matter for Yugoslavia" and warned against any outside interference whatsoever.

At one level, of course, this difference in emphasis simply reflects the difference between the policies of the United States and Russia on events in Yugoslavia.

But at a more fundamental level, it reflects the growing uncertainty throughout the international community concerning the distinction between those actions that are properly classified as the internal affairs of any particular country and those that should not be.

The reason this distinction is so important is obvious: On it depends the willingness and ability of the international community to bring pressure to bear on events that do not cross international boundaries.

For most of the period since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia defined the modern international state system, the actions of any government on its own territory were deemed to be the "internal affair" of the government involved. And so defined, these actions, however disturbing they might be, were considered to be beyond the reach of other states.

While such a perspective frequently allowed for morally reprehensible actions by particular states with respect to their own populations, it also contributed to the stability and predictability of the international state system.

But the events of this century, beginning with the horrors of World War I and then those of Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism, led to an appreciation of the principle that a country's internal affairs inevitably had consequences for its international behaviour and were thus a legitimate subject for international concern, if not intervention.

In recent years, that view has gained currency as a result of both the increasing internationalization of economic activity and the expanded media coverage given to developments inside particular states.

These developments led to international declarations like the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki Final Act which committed member states to uphold human rights and to insist that other states uphold them as well.

As a result, the generally accepted scope of "internal affairs" has been narrowed considerably, with ever more issues -- the treatment of ethnic minorities and democratic forms of government, to name but two -- now defined by the international community as properly objects of foreign concern.

And all such declarations have created expectations on the part of populations that the international community will come to their aid, expectations that quite often as now in Belgrade, help explain why opponents of a regime may take to the streets.

But there are three factors that limit the willingness and ability of the members of the international community either singly or collectively to take action:

Most states are reluctant to get involved in the internal lives of other states out of concern that any such intervention might establish a principle that could be used against them.

Most states quickly discover that there is no cheap or painless way to get involved. The least invasive means are often the most politically acceptable at home but the least effective in the target country. As a result, they resign themselves to making declarations that often have no impact at all.

Most states must deal with the unpalatable but very real fact that some of the most obvious candidates for outside intervention are themselves too powerful or too important to the country thinking about intervening or enjoy outside protectors who enjoy that status.

Because of this combination of factors, the meaning of "internal affairs" is likely to remain in flux. When countries are unwilling or unable to act, they will use this term as an excuse. But when they decide to take action, they will generally do so against states who lack the resources to prevent such actions.

In short, and to paraphrase George Orwell, all countries will continue to have internal affairs. But some countries will have more internal affairs than others.