July 10, 2019 Reading Time: 8 minutes

In everyday speech people talk about countries as though they were people. We speak about the United States, China, Russia, France, and so forth. We speak of them as though they were singular entities, like individual persons.

That though is not all. When talking about international relations or things such as trade policy or economic policy generally we use language that implies agency. In other words, we use language that speaks about decisions, choices, and actions of various kinds. We say things such as, “In 1939 Germany invaded Poland,” or “China is engaged in widespread theft of intellectual property,” or “America is pursuing a particular policy toward Iran.” 

Nations Do Not Act

One of the fundamental features of human life is that the language we use to talk about the world both reflects and shapes our understanding of the world, the way we think about it. This is all the more powerful for often being unconscious. In this case the kind of language and even the grammar reveals a number of deep-seated assumptions and also helps to shape and direct the way we look at the world.

Referring to countries or political communities as singular entities that decide and act has a whole series of assumptions built into the language. The grammar of this language has some of these entities as subjects, acting and doing things, and others as objects, being acted upon (as in the case of the U.S. and Iran above). The language means that countries are seen as singular entities that decide and act in the way that individual human beings do. 

If you stop and think about this it becomes obvious that there is something wrong with this. Humans are not a hive species like ants or bees. As a species we do not decide and act with a single mind or will. Rather a political community or society is a large number of particular individual men and women. There may be a process of collective decision-making that arrives at decisions that are binding on the individual members of the community, but that does not mean a single will or purpose or even a single collective acting agency. 

If you start to think more carefully about this you will realize that there is actually very little in the way even of a collective decision-making process, much less shared purpose and action. Language and the way we use it is obscuring reality rather than revealing it. 

One way of thinking about this is to imagine that you meet an alien from another planet who has been learning about Earth from television broadcasts and is trying to find out more about our planet. Hearing reporters constantly say things like the remarks cited above, the alien asks you, “Can you show me the United States?”

What would you show them? You could get out an atlas and point to the part of the map that shows the U.S. It is not that, however, that is doing anything. Alternatively, you could show them people living and working in the U.S., but that would also not be satisfactory — in what sense are they pursuing a foreign policy, for example? 

You could show the alien the president, or Congress in session, or major public figures. Here you would be getting closer to what the alien wants you to explain, but it is still not the correct answer because there are few who would say that the president or Congress is the United States (even if they think they are).

The reality is that in discussions like this, terms like America, Russia, China are shorthand. We use them to avoid having to use more accurate but clumsy and awkward expressions. Instead of speaking about “China,” we should say, “The political community composed of the people inhabiting the part of the world commonly known as China, of very varied interests, tastes, and inclinations, and the complex and constantly changing relations between them.” (Technically we are using the trope of synecdoche, in which a part or aspect of something is described as though it is the whole of that something.) 

Performing this exercise, of expanding singular nouns into the full statement, is useful and revealing. It clarifies certain things and poses a whole series of questions. Considering those questions may then lead to a significant shift of thinking or perception and a recognition of realities that were previously obscured by the language people use.

In particular, thinking in this way raises the question of who or what has agency in the kinds of discussions that our confused alien was picking up. Who or what makes decisions? Who or what acts, and how is this done? If we talk about Chinese or American policy, who has formulated the policy and why have they done this? How was it formulated? 

Asking questions like this leads to much greater clarity even if we cannot answer the questions with our current knowledge. It is clear that the entire population does not have agency in any of these cases. Sometimes some individuals have agency but not all or many. 

Collective Decision Making

For example the statement “China is engaged in theft of intellectual property,” means in fact “Specific people and organized groups of people (companies) living in the part of the planet commonly known as China and being part of the political community made up of the people living there are engaged in theft of intellectual property.” So it does not make sense to think of the entire population of a political community in a specific place as having agency. 

What though if the political community in question is one with a collective decision-making process that involves consultation and discussion between all adult members of the political community? Leaving aside the problems of the inherent reality of politics (which is what we are speaking of here), this still does not mean that we can speak of the adult population as a whole deciding on a course of action, much less acting on or executing that policy. Many will dissent. There is not a common or single purpose but in fact many often-conflicting purposes. Above all, the entire electorate or political community does not act directly.

So, when we use shorthand like China or the United States and speak of actions in the sphere of international relations, what we are actually speaking about is the governments of the United States and China. We are speaking about the relatively small number of people in a particular political community who have political power and who can make decisions that will then be put into effect. We are also speaking of people such as diplomats and the military who are directly controlled by and responsible to the small number who make the decisions and who put those decisions into effect. 

When we speak about actions and policies in the sphere of international relations we should be very careful to explicitly say, “The Chinese government…” or “The government of the United States…” and not “China…” or “the United States.…” If you want to unwrap those more accurate statements they would be something like, “The group of people with political power and decision-making and executive capacity in the political community made up of the many people of varied interests, beliefs, and inclinations who inhabit the part of the world commonly known as China/the United States.”

Countries and Governments

One of the most damaging aspects of the way we usually speak about public policy and about international relations in particular is the way that it leads us to conflate countries (the social and political community as a whole) with governments (the people who have and exercise power in those political communities). This leads to ways of thinking that are misguided and often damaging, such as hostility toward the entire population of another part of the world, rather than the people with power there. 

The normal way of speaking also obscures a whole range of matters and precludes us asking a whole series of interesting questions. Who are the people with power? How did they get it? Why did they decide to do what they did? Why do others obey or go along with it?

Analytically, this also means that you should think about international relations in particular in a new way, one that is not reflected in popular discussion or reporting in the media. The way you should think about it from this perspective is as follows. The surface of the planet is divided into self-governing (or nominally self-governing) sovereign units. Each of these is a political and social community made up of the people who live on that part of the planet’s surface. The people who make up these communities are very heterogeneous, and many have connections of a personal or business nature with people from other parts of the world who live in other political communities. 

Within each political community there are ruling groups. These are the people who have the power to make decisions that can then be enforced, if necessary on all of the other people in that political community. This subset are the people with political power. (There are other people with agency within the community, but their agency is weaker and diffuse whereas the agency of the ruling group is relatively greater and more concentrated.) In particular they have the capacity that other people do not have to legitimately deploy and use deadly force. Notice that in this particular context, it does not matter how the people with power got their position or how it is legitimized. (It does matter when we discuss other things, of course.) 

From this point of view international relations and things such as global trade policy are the relations between ruling groups. International relations are not the relations, exchanges, and agreements between those people and organizations that do not belong to the ruling groups. An important point is that although ruling groups may be internally varied and divided, they are much less so at any point in time than the population as a whole. They will typically have certain strong common interests. Many of these derive from the geographical location and situation of the part of the planet that they control. 

This is important because it means that the interests of the group controlling a particular part of the world will remain constant for long periods regardless of the actual people who make up that ruling group at any time, or their ideology and beliefs. Other interests reflect the particular economic and other circumstances of a given time, and these will change. Thus, as long as India was a part of the British Empire, protecting the sea route to India was a vital interest for the ruling group in Britain, but this was no longer the case after 1947. 

These interests between ruling groups may conflict, for all sorts of reasons. The ruling groups then have to weigh up how important the interests are and how far they are prepared to go to defend them. The problem is that miscalculation by one ruling group can lead to armed conflict, as we have seen many times in history. 

The really important point though is this. Just as we should not conflate or confuse countries (entire political communities) and governments (the ruling groups of those political communities), so we should not assume that ruling groups and the entire populations of their political community have common or shared interests.

Conflicts of Interest

Sometimes they do but not always. Frequently, the interests of ruling groups are at odds with the actual interests of a large part of the political community or even a majority of them. Imperialism is perhaps the classic example of this since empires do not serve the interests of the majority of the population even of the imperial power but do bring huge benefits of various kinds to the ruling group of that power.

Moreover, while there are frequently conflicts of interest between ruling groups there are almost never such conflicts between the general populations of political communities. There may be conflicts of interest between specific (and typically small) parts of those larger wholes, but it is vanishingly unlikely that there can be a conflict of interest between the entire populations of two or more political communities, or even a majority of them. 

This reflects two things. The first is the aforementioned variety and heterogeneity of the interests, concerns, and aspirations of the larger population. This makes it much less likely that they will have a specific common interest than the much smaller and relatively more homogeneous ruling group. The other is the general disparity between human relations based upon power and those founded on voluntary exchange of all kinds (including but not confined to trade). 

The first kind are inherently conflictual because they ultimately rest upon the two relations of submission and domination, which outside a very specific situation are always zero-sum relations. The second by contrast are always positive sum because they rest on the foundation of mutual benefit.

This means that historically the policy that liberals and individualists have always urged when thinking about international relations is free contact between the people who make up the populations of different political communities and as little active role for ruling groups as possible (both with regard to internal politics and external relations with other communities). 

One solution was the classical liberal idea of “people’s diplomacy,” which looked to strengthen and systematize the voluntary and personal relations between people from different political communities at the expense of the formal relations between ruling groups. The insight, expressed in works like George Washington’s Farewell Address, was that there should be as much contact and trade as possible between people and no more formal contact between governments than necessary.

Stephen Davies


Dr Steve Davies, a Senior Fellow at AIER,  is the Head of Education at the IEA. Previously he was program officer at the Institute for Humane Studies (IHS) at George Mason University in Virginia. He joined IHS from the UK where he was Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and Economic History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center at Bowling Green State University, Ohio.

A historian, he graduated from St Andrews University in Scotland in 1976 and gained his PhD from the same institution in 1984. He has authored several books, including Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and was co-editor with Nigel Ashford of The Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991).

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