Deanna Lim is in her final year of her International Relations BA at King’s, where she is focusing on conflict, security and strategy in the MENA and East Asia regions. She also studies IR Theory from non-Western philosophical perspectives due to her interest in theory and in broadening her worldview beyond conventional Western lines. Her area of interest in IR lies mainly in foreign policy and security, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia, as she is from Singapore!
“The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy.” (Carl Schmitt)
In 1963, the Élysée Treaty was signed between former foes France and Germany to mark a breakthrough in their reconciliation, the mutual sincerity of this newfound ‘friendship’ seemingly distilled in the exuberant expressions of both leaders upon formalising the treaty. It was a joyous occasion for them. Having lived through decades of rivalry and conflict, the trauma of the two disastrous world wars served as active reminders or even warnings to them of the consequences of future hostility.
Contrary to what most may think about the consequentialist and utilitarian discipline of IR, there exists a growing body of scholarship on the topic of friendship between nations. Often dismissed by realists and traditional theories as ‘utopian’ or idealistic, friendship remains woefully underexplored within the discipline. This is a surprising fact, considering how there are countless such discursive references to the concept of friendship by practitioners, in political proclamations, analyses or treaties to mark new milestones of amity in interstate relations. Given that realist assumptions of state behaviour often dominate the discourse, what, then, is the value of friendship in IR? Can the friendship we know to exist between persons be found between states? In this article, I reference Berenskoetter’s landmark article titled “Friends, There Are No Friends?” (2007) as a vantage point to interrogate the applicability of the friendship concept to the International. I also invite readers to reflect upon their own understanding of friendship, in terms of the expectations and responsibilities that they share with their friends, and what exactly makes the term ‘friend’ so unique.
Do friends even exist in the international system?
Friendships are recognised as intimate relationships characterised by affection, reciprocity, trust, and equality. The intimacy of this special relationship is also rooted in its particularity between two parties, forming a closer connection discrete from one’s belonging within a larger community — some friends are just more valuable or significant than others, making them stand out from the in-group which we identify with. However, the liberal ontology anchoring the dominant discourses within IR is fundamentally antithetical to this notion of genuine friendship, as they reflect the traditionally Western concept of individualism that depicts states as (ruthlessly) self-preserving.
The Hobbesian attitude towards anarchy assumes states to be in constant competition amongst themselves for their own survival, with the permissibility of conflict being a natural consequence of anarchy. Within realism, traumatic memories of violence and tragedy in a state’s history have bred a natural predisposition towards mistrust, anxiety, and doubt. This overwhelming ‘rationality’ is perceived as a wise error on the side of caution, lest others harm us in the same way we were hurt before. In this realm, the uncertainty of the future leads statesmen to adopt a natural position of suspicion towards others’ political agendas — with their unrelentless consideration for state security eclipsing any ‘naïve’ assumptions of others’ true sincerity. This lies in stark antithesis to any form of friendship materialising between states.
In this light, a constructivist rethinking of the ontology behind the Hobbesian human condition is apt, alongside what Berenskoetter conceived of as an Aristotelian framing of friendship and the self. By paralleling states with people, this reading invites us to conceive of the state as a dynamic being with a focus on identity, where states form positive particularistic and group connections with other states in pursuit of self-actualisation. In this constructivist interpretation of state behaviour, kinship experienced between states can help to create order by delineating the responsibilities and expectations that states should undertake. This echoes Qin Yaqing’s ‘logic of relationality’ in his “Relational Theory of World Politics”, which proposes how the state is never an objective entity which exists in a vacuum but is constantly in-relations with others. This lends far more credence to the agency of the state in conceptualising its relationship with others, departing from the rigidity of neorealist or neoliberal institutionalist traditions. In all, order in the international system need not merely be sustained through alliances to escape our anarchical reality, but also be grounded by the specific nuances of interstate relationships and the individual motivations of states that aid in the fulfilment of their identities.
“What are we?”
One may then question how one can meaningfully distil friendships in IR if the sincerity of a state’s proclamations can never be truly verified. The unfortunate answer is that onlookers can only take educated guesses based on public showcases of symbolic diplomacy, or reference states people’s use of language to represent affinity and brotherhood between states. Symbols in diplomacy carry multitudes of meaning, the “boisterous hug” shared by Adenauer and de Gaulle for instance communicating the integrity of the Franco-German ‘friendship’ to the world. However, the benefit of the doubt in such relations may not always be given due to the inherently high stakes of international relations, no matter how clearly states people communicate their diplomatic intentions.
Even within alliances, it is hard to ascertain whether genuine and unconditional friendships, measured by Aristotle as “friendships of excellence”, are present between members, beyond the instrumentality of contractual and mutually beneficial pacts. Having close bilateral relations with another state unfortunately does not equate to enjoying altruistic and affective bonds anchored by shared moral obligations (in the same way we share such privileges with our friends). Even within an International Society, in which mechanisms of good relations are codified and institutionalised to generate predictability in IR, the relational bonds of states in such networks cannot truly be conceived as intuitive, voluntary, or genuine friendships, as it is hard to prove them as such beyond the utility of their partnerships.
The Real Value of Friendship in IR
The fundamental question at the heart of scholarship on friendship in IR asks not whether genuine friendship does exist in IR, but rather how a change in statesmen’s attitudes toward friendship can gear foreign policy towards a recognition of kinship in other states. Along this vein, Oelsner and Vion (2011) suggest that “the way international friendship gets realised and institutionalised is to a larger extent based on the exemplarity of speech acts and institutional facts than the concretion of sincerity and intimacy”. These small, productive acts are formal markers that represent progress in the cumulative workings of friendship, a process that often begins with the will to achieve a shared vision. In this way, the value of friendship resides precisely in its Kantian ideal, as an intimate and moral relationship, that serves as a stepping stone for deepening ties. Whether or not benevolence and goodwill can be verified in a state’s actions, the acts contributing to close bilateral relations themselves play deeper symbolic and legitimising functions of kinship, beyond just the practical obligations of being allies. Going along this trajectory of closeness, conceptions of friendship also play a large part in peace studies and the institution of positive peace in conflictual areas of the world.
As readers of IR, it is also important to remember the limits of a cosmopolitan theory of IR, as well as the obvious and immutable differences between people and states. For states people, stakes are higher and change is less malleable, since states are collective groups of fractious communities whose unity rests on longstanding norms and institutions. And neither are states equal due to differences in size, resources, location and history, whilst many of such relations remain asymmetrical, such as the ‘special relationship’ former colonies often maintain with metropoles. Nonetheless, friendship must be situated in IR theory as a refreshing new ontology to represent how friendly relations can constantly and infinitely be produced and reproduced within the international system.
Photograph credit: Federal Government of Germany