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[Jeffrey Robertson] The United Nations’ troubled child

In an interview on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se quite rightly questioned North Korea’s membership of the United Nations in light of its repeated violations of UN Security Council resolutions: “I think all members of the UN have to ask themselves whether North Korea is really qualified.”

It is a highly pertinent question, which requires deep consideration -- and most school teachers would know why.

Think of international relations as a schoolyard. There are leaders, there are followers, there are bullies, there are richer and poorer kids, and then there are those so troubled that they just do not seem to fit. We can think of North Korea as the troubled child

In the schoolyard, violations of school rules must be punished. Reprimand, alone time, detention, suspension and ultimately expulsion. But teachers know expulsion is the very last option. Expelled, the troubled child is no longer subject to school rules. Worse than this, the troubled child is no longer exposed to the social norms of behavior that sit behind every school rule. Estranged from social norms, the troubled child’s behavior goes from bad to worse.

The schoolyard metaphor seems distant, but the phenomenon of estrangement in international relations is very real and something that deserves attention.

In the simplest terms, estrangement is the separation of two entities. It most often relates to the separation or alienation of an individual from the affection of a group or another entity. In common usage we speak of “family estrangement,” where a member or members of a family are separated or alienated from other members of the family. “Parental estrangement,” is where one or both parents are separated or alienated from each other or their children. “Sibling estrangement” is where one or more siblings are separated or alienated from the others. It is most commonly associated with a state of unnatural separation or alienation and thereby evokes the sense that reconciliation and mediation is required.

Estrangement has a rich intellectual tradition. It weaves through the works of philosophers across time and space. Plato, arguably the progenitor of Western philosophy, was estranged from his society. According to scholar Walter Kaufmann, he was “disaffected, disillusioned, and convinced that it would be utterly pointless for him to participate in the public life of his city.”

Estrangement, of course, is a human condition and not specifically a Western phenomenon. Confucius, the progenitor of one of the main streams of Eastern philosophy, was as much the alienated philosopher as Plato. Confucius resigned as justice minister of the state of Lu, and set on a path of self-imposed exile in a series of journeys through Wei, Song, Chen, and Cai, before returning to teach. Although not a central subject in Confucian philosophy, estrangement is unequivocally an implied subject in the structure of the hierarchical social system put forward by Confucius.

Contemporary understandings of estrangement focus on the writings of Karl Marx, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and are equally influenced by any number of psychologists and social commentators who based their work upon one or all three during the 1960s and 1970s. As Richard Schacht wrote in 1970, “There is almost no aspect of contemporary life which has not been discussed in terms of ‘estrangement.’” After a hiatus of nearly thirty years, estrangement reemerged as a topic of research across several disciplines, including psychology, sociology, and applied disciplines such as organizational management and diplomacy.

In diplomacy, estrangement implies the separation or alienation of an individual country from the affection of a group of countries or an international entity. The estrangement of one or more countries from the affection of another group of countries can be found in conflict (sanctions, territorial disputes, terrorism, war, conflict resolution), international commerce (trade and investment) and global governance (globalization, governance, and multilateralism).

Within international society or the “family of nations,” estrangement is similarly associated with a state of unnatural separation or alienation. Diplomatic estrangement similarly evokes the sense that reconciliation and mediation is required.

The question that teachers ask other teachers when thinking about expelling a troubled child from school may be relevant: Do we really want a troubled child holding a grudge, estranged from all social norms of behavior, loose on the streets in our own neighborhood?

Do we want a nuclear North Korea inside or outside the UN?

By Jeffrey Robertson

Jeffrey Robertson is an assistant professor at Yonsei University, and a visiting fellow at the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at Australian National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.