A World Astir|Jul 27, 2004 8:23 AM| by:

About International Relations


In recent years “international relations” have become a more and more complex issue. Governments are spending a considerable administrative and conceptual effort on entertaining active bilateral relationships between their own nation and practically every other country in the world on all sectors like politics, economy, social development, culture, education, law, justice, etc. This multiplicity of interactive aspects to be considered when analyzing “international relations” becomes even more obscure, if we take into account each nation’s membership in different international organizations with different priorities and different orientations.

Thus we might ask, if we could discover, in this at first sight quite chaotic and partly contradicting “jungle of interests”, a common thread, an underlying and unifying principle, upon which the issue of “international relations”, the interchange of individual nations within a continuously changing world community, can be based, judged, analysed.

In “The Synthesis of Yoga” Sri Aurobindo defines, referring to the individual, “four main standards of human conduct that make an ascending scale”:

“The first is personal need, preference and desire; the second is the law and good of the collectivity; the third is an ideal ethic; the last is the highest divine law of the nature.”

Could these standards help us to understand the development of a nation, of a national body, vital, mind, even “soul” as well as its relations to other individualized countries?

“To satisfy his physical and vital demands and necessities before all things else and, in the next rank, whatever emotional or mental cravings or imaginations or dynamic notions rise in him must be the first natural rule of his conduct.”

Indeed it seems, as if in the initial stages after the formation of “nation bodies” the physical demands, i.e. that of securing the territorial survival and existence, have been predominant, nearly to the exclusion of all other aspects. Arising from the fear of destruction and even annihilation, young nations in Europe, like Germany at the time of Bismarck, laid stress upon the capability of defending themselves (militarily) and “securing their security” by a complex scheme of binding alliances – that the nation in its helpless and embryonic state would not fall victim to the “law of force” that has governed most parts of our world for such a long period of time.

Yet, “in the next rank”, “emotional or mental cravings or imaginations or dynamic notions” rose – we could observe a shift from the idea of a generally “passive” self-defence to some kind of imposing self-confidence, expressing itself in the idea and potential to realise the nation’s desires, its (vital) “ideals”. The “stabilized” nation turned its eye on others: expansion, colonialism, any kind of missionary desire, “national pride” indeed became the “first natural rule of (its) conduct.” We all know the – in the scheme of world history “short-term” – at first sight tragic, yet unavoidable effects of this “nations’ infancy” upon world history and millions of suffering individuals.

However, to this vital uncaring and in its nature “unlimited” demands a balancing factor was introduced…

“The sole balancing of overpowering law that can modify or contradict this pressing natural claim is the demand put on him by the ideas, needs and desires of his family, community or tribe, the herd, the pack of which he is a member”.

One could very well say that a nation’s “vital desire” – revealed in its most extreme and demanding form in the totalitarian system of Germany during the 2nd World War – could only be restrained by the international community, the common (economical or political) interests within a certain group of nations, by its shared needs and desires.

The European Union, for example, was founded as a body of common (vital economical) interests (and “desires”), forcing each member to accept certain common “standards of conduct”, certain rules “for the good of all”, as the “growth of the family” is widely considered to be favourable to all of its members – thus restricting the “pressing natural claim” of the individual nation within the community.

One might even say in the words of Sri Aurobindo that “this obligation englobes his personal law of conduct in a group-law which arises from the formation of a lasting group-identity with a collective mind and life of its own to which his own embodied mind and life are subordinated as a transitory unit.”

But “the law and good of the collectivity”, is this the standard, we are truly observing in international relations at their “very best”? Are we still “stuck” in the purely physical and vital demands of the individual nation? Or are we already moving towards the third standard in the ascending scale mentioned by Sri Aurobindo, “an ideal ethic”?

As, concerning the term “nation”, we are living in a world of different stages of development (without considering one stage to be “superior” to the other), any judgment upon the predominant “standard of conduct” in international relations cannot be generalized.

At first sight, however, there appears to be no indication for the state of “an ideal ethic” anywhere in the world…. But could we have made at least some first and stumbling steps into a “transition-phase” between these standards?

“In the conflict of the claims of society with the claims of the individual two ideal and absolute solutions confront one another. There is the demand of the group that the individual should subordinate himself more or less completely or even lose his independent existence in the community, the smaller must be immolated or self-offered to the larger unit.” And Sri Aurobindo continues: “Against this danger of suppression and immobilisation Nature in the individual reacts. It may react by an isolated resistance ranging from the instinctive and brutal revolt of the criminal to the complete negation of the solitary and ascetic. It may react by the assertion of an individualistic trend in the social idea, may impose it on the mass consciousness and establish a compromise between the individual and the social demand.”

Could we see the American way of handling the Iraq Crisis (“within or without” the United Nations) and the individualization of some nations within the European Union in this matter – opposing the “vital” interest of European unity, of a “common stand” – in this light?

Certainly the intentions, the driving force, were at least a mixture of vital economical interests and the reaction against the “danger of suppression” mentioned above.

And yet, in the end, this “compromise between the individual and the social demand” has been achieved. Both international organizations do not seem to have substantially suffered from this temporary crisis and the individual expressions of the respective nations have been incorporated in the community without muzzling the “rebellious” countries.

Is this “balance” an appropriate way of stabilizing international relations in the future, a model of how individual demands can be fruitfully integrated in the framework of the international community?

Sri Aurobindo continues:

“But a compromise is not a solution; it only shelves the difficulty and in the end increases the complexity of the problem and multiplies its issues.

A new principle has to be called in, other and higher than the two conflicting instincts and powerful at once to override and to reconcile them. Above the natural individual law… there had to arise the notion of an ideal moral law which is not the satisfaction of need and desire, but controls and even corrects or annuls them in the interests of an ideal order that is not animal, not vital and physical, but mental, a creation of the mind’s seeking for light and knowledge and right rule and right movement and true order…  His needs and desires themselves are touched with a more elevated light of purpose and the mental need, the aesthetic, intellectual and emotional desire begin to predominate over the demand of the physical and vital nature.”

Was this “new principle” already introduced by the respective nations, i.e. the U.S., France, Germany during the Iraq-crisis?

With all caution, being aware of the ambiguous and mixed intention behind a great number of uttered political and ethical statements, I would dare the conclusion, that this was indeed the case.

I was very much impressed by the emotional and courageous speech the French Foreign Minister delivered in front of the Security Council, imploring the “European values and ideals” of “liberté, egalité, fraternité”, the right of self-determination of nations. At first sight the motive force behind the U.S.-intervention in Iraq seems obvious or at least by its opponents it was claimed to be “economical interests and domination, i.e. in the field of oil”. Yet the fear of “weapons of mass-destruction” within the American population as well as government administration is real, the idea of “war against terror” for the ideals of freedom and democracy all over the world honest, apart from any obvious misuse by certain political currents for their own selfish aims. As the success of Rome and Napoleon’s victories, so the growth and strength of the United States could not only be based on a self-sufficient idol of power and political manipulation. In its very beginnings Rome was driven by an extraordinary ideal of honesty, simplicity, strength; Napoleon’s eagles were driven by the winds of the French Revolution and as long as both kept their faith in and followed these ideals, their supremacy was untouchable. The United States have been formed and grown through the ideal of freedom and democracy and their role in world history will be closely linked to their faithfulness to this ideal. It will be interesting to observe whether they will face the same fate as Rome and Napoleon’s France by betraying their foundation of existence or whether they will keep their strength by following their unique role, which history has given to this great nation. At the moment, it seems, as if – in spite of any “official” abuse and fear-driven contrary tendencies within the country aiming at religious minorities– the spirit of “freedom and democracy” in America is once more revitalizing. Otherwise, such kind of widespread support within the “ordinary” population, which is obviously not profiting from the supposed economical gains, would be unthinkable. There has been a shift within ordinary people’s minds from a “non-intervention policy” to an active contribution to world policies and such a shift could hardly be based on “economical advantages”, but has to take its stand on some kind of strong ideal that has to be “exported to the whole world”.

But why, if we are slowly but steadily moving to a “more sophisticated” standard of conduct between nations, why then still all this trouble and turmoil? Is it just the “unjustified” resistance of “inferior nations” against those “who know better”, “who have reached a higher standard”? When they learn and “adapt”, will then all the problems in international relations be solved?

In the words of Sri Aurobindo:

“But always its instincts is to translate (these higher ideals) into binding law, into pattern forms, into mechanic custom, into an external social compulsion upon its living units.” And: “The moralist erects in vain his absolute ethical standard and calls upon all to be faithful to it without regard to consequences. To him the needs and desires of the individual are invalid or they are in conflict with the moral law, and the social law has no claims upon him if it is opposed to his sense of right and denied by his conscience… He demands from the community or nation that it shall hold all things cheap, even its safety and its most pressing interests, in comparison with truth, justice, humanity and highest good of the peoples. No individual rises to these heights except in intense moments, no society yet created satisfies this ideal. And in the present state of morality and of human development none perhaps can or ought to satisfy it. Nature will not allow it, Nature knows that it should not be. The first reason is that our moral ideals are themselves for the most part ill-evolved, ignorant and arbitrary, mental constructions rather than transcriptions of the eternal truths of the spirit. Authorative and dogmatic, they assert certain absolute standards in theory, but in practice every existing system of ethics proves either in application unworkable or is in fact a constant coming short of the absolute standard to which the ideal pretends.”

This enlightening passage describes very well the “state” of the “developed” nations’ ideals: freedom, democracy, justice… they fail, they have to fail, “a constant coming short of the absolute standard to which the ideal pretends” (like the recent prison abuse cases in Iraqi jails).

“And in fact man’s absolute justice easily turns out to be in practice a sovereign injustice; for his mind, one-sided and rigid in its constructions, puts forward a one-sided partial and rigorous scheme or figure and claims for it totality and absoluteness and an application that ignores the subtler truth of things and the plasticity of life. All our standards turned into action either waver on a flux of compromises or err by this partiality and unelastic structure. Humanity sways from one orientation to another; the race moves upon a zigzag path led by conflicting claims and, on the whole, works out instinctively what Nature intends, but with much waste and suffering, rather than either what it desires or what it holds to be right or what the highest light from above demands from the embodied spirit.”

In this light, “ignoring the subtler truth of things and the plasticity of life” the “one-sided partial and rigorous scheme”, that is now intended to be imposed on Iraq might very well be bound to failure – as might be as well the “one-sided partial and rigorous” (moral) scheme of the opposing Islamic fundamentalist forces. And this may as well be applied to the “War on Terrorism” as a whole or international relations in general. Both schemes might prove “in practice (to be) a sovereign injustice” leading to a “zigzag path led by conflicting claims” with “much waste and suffering”. It seems, however, that this is the way Nature has decided to hew the path, or simply has to hew, without the conscious consent of the nations and their opening to a higher force of light.

For “beyond the mental and moral being in us is a greater divine being that is spiritual and supramental; for it is only through a large spiritual plane where the mind’s formulas dissolve in a white flame of direct inner experience that we can reach beyond mind and pass from its constructions to the vastness and freedom of the supramental realities… There alone the unification of the transformed vital and physical and the illumined mental man becomes possible in that supramental spirit which is at once the secret source and goal of our mind and life and body. There alone is there any possibility of an absolute justice, love and right – far other than that which we imagine – at one with each other in the light of a supreme divine knowledge. There alone can there be a reconciliation of the conflict between our members.”

This fourth and last standard of conduct, “the highest divine law of the nature”, as Sri Aurobindo names it, can, at present, not be envisaged on a collective level. Yet it is bound to happen and mankind, the “international community”, still unconscious, is continuously stumbling forward on this progressive path. In spite of all difficulties and turmoil we can be assured that man “works out instinctively what Nature intends”. Our way to a true human unity, as far as the goal still may be, cannot fail by the Divine Grace.

And we should not despair with the present situation – on the contrary. Through all trouble, difficulties and suffering not only individuals but mankind as a whole is constantly progressing towards the Divine realisation. Thus,  “… good is all that helps the individual and the world towards their divine fullness…”.

Georg Stollenwerk

(Georg Stollenwerk is from Germany. His work has taken him to all parts of Germany and to many countries outside and also given him the opportunity to watch at close quarters the evolving political, economic and social situation. Being a spiritual seeker he attempts here to look at these from a deeper insight.)

(All references taken from “Sri Aurobindo: The Synthesis of Yoga, Part I, Chapter VII, Standards of Conduct and Spiritual Freedom”)