Sovereignty Redefined, pt.1: The Evolution of Sovereignty

In the context of the ongoing Ukrainian debacle, a number of Western authors, including reps of the so called “expert community”, have often criticized Russia for violating international law. From such interpretations the conclusion comes out that Russia has not only delivered an unprovoked blow on a neighboring country, but it has eroded the fundamental principles of world politics: equality between all countries, territorial integrity, and refraining from external intervention in domestic affairs. Ultimately, the institution of sovereignty has been stomped over yet again.

Although this picture does indeed look very dramatic, it might turn out to be a bit less nuanced than reality actually is. If the problem solely boiled down to Russia’s behavior at the international scene, perhaps things wouldn’t be as confusing. But the truth is, as it turns out, things are not just “not as bad as they seem”, they’re much worse than they look at a first sight. Because, I’d argue, the political maneuvering of the Western powers and their elites for the last couple of decades has led to a situation where the violation of national sovereignty and meddling in other countries’ affairs may’ve become the norm rather than being a mere exception. Don’t believe me yet? Well, do bear with me now.

One of the global tendencies in the analysis of international relations for the last few years has been the activation of the political debate on the sanctity of the so called “Westphalian sovereignty“. In the framework of scientific discourse, the question about the possibility of external intervention into the domestic policies of one country or the other has become very frequent. The goals, means and limits of this intervention are also being regularly discussed. It’s understandable that in the modern world, where every country functions in the conditions of significant internal and external limitations, interdependent connections and obligations, and where the globalization processes lead to the redistribution of the power resources from the governments toward other subjects of global politics (like international institutions, financial and corporate economic entities, NGOs, trade blocs, military alliances, etc), there can be no such thing like “absolute sovereignty”.

However, the notion that national sovereignty has now become a mere anachronistic remnant of an old and increasingly eroded Westphalian system and organization of international relations, remains questionable. As does the notion that “traditional concepts of sovereignty” are somehow incapable of reflecting the entire complexity of modern international relations. Conversely, we could argue that “everything new is a well-forgotten old”. So when we’re faced with claims about the incompatibility between the old, “outdated” sovereignty and the humanitarian principles of the modern world order, we can’t help but recall the idea of one of the founders of the theory of international relations, Edward Carr, who more than a century ago argued that overlooking national sovereignty is an inherent part of the ideology of dominant states, which see in the sovereignty of the lesser states a sort of obstacle to the full assertion of their dominant position. There’s a sort of double standard that he noticed: in a nutshell, the bigger players like to be more independent, while they don’t like when lesser players are too independent.

The question about the character and the modern tendencies in the evolution of the concept of sovereignty remains very controversial. Of course, various transformations of the key norms that define the functioning of the international legal system, have been happening frequently throughout history. Some of these have almost completely died out – like such fundamental principles and institutions like the dynastic principle of power transferral, or the institution of colonialism (although many would argue here that neo-colonialism is just as rampant as its previous, more overt form used to be). In the meantime, a reinterpretation of other significant principles and notions is also going on. For example, in the 17th-18th century the market was mostly defined by the doctrine of mercantilism, while for the last century and a half or so, free trade has taken primacy. In other words, the very fact of transformation of the concept of sovereignty is nothing surprising or unexpected at all.

That’s not really the problem. The problem rather is that the role of an arbiter, interpreter and lawmaker of the principles and institutions has been taken over by a select group of states (mostly those in the West, which in essence makes this a sort of manifestation of the principle “might makes right”). A sort of instrumentalization of sovereignty is happening right in front of our eyes (if we’re to use the terminology of Stephen Krasner), i.e. a manipulation of international legal recognition through threats of conducting “humanitarian intervention” with the purpose of realizing the practical goals and interests of certain select countries.

International politics largely functions by the principle of rational expectation. A cornerstone of the previously dominant (and, in most expert opinions, still existing) archaic and pluralistic system of international relation from the time of the Westphalian Peace (and even before that), is the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. Meanwhile, the modern competition between the countries is supposed to be limited by the structure of the internationally recognized legal norms and sovereign rights. National sovereignty has been the basis of world politics, and has played an important function of minimizing violence in the relations between the countries for quite a while. So, it’s no surprise that many authors from the late 20th century have predicted that any attempt to undermine this basis of world politics and put in question the significance of the “primary institution” that is national sovereignty, would inevitably result in uncontrollable chaos.

In the foreseeable future, world politics will likely keep witnessing the confrontation between two diametrically opposite tendencies: one is toward asserting sovereignty, the other toward its limiting. And these tendencies will often be embodied in the policies of one country or a group of countries (these countries doing their best to essentially fortify their own sovereignty while actively working to undermine that of their rivals, is a frequent element of that, too). The contradiction between the tendency toward more sovereignty and less sovereignty will be a permanent source of international tension. The new interpretations and the newly found great flexibility of the term “sovereignty” will largely depend on the specific situation at the specific time and region, and of course the capabilities for power projection of the sides involved.

The post-Cold-War period is kind of unique in this respect. First and foremost, for almost two decades no one looked even remotely capable of challenging America’s global leadership (many analysts and experts have openly spoken of American hegemony, of the “hyperstate”, etc). The US power was indeed formidable and hugely intimidating in most respects. The US had 20% of the world’s GDP, more than half of the military expenses of the planet, etc. The US still remains the world’s center of innovation to this very day, and it sets the pace in most political and economic processes, and defines the course on most key decisions of global significance. All of this has been practically viewed as sufficient condition to perceive America’s global political leadership as de facto legitimate.

Even at the time of the bipolar global standoff during the Cold War, the US was actively participating in the shaping up of a system of international norms, which was supposed to be serving their own interests and those who supported them, and to develop the values and principles that the US and their allies saw fit. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, the US achieved unprecedented success in legitimizing and institutionalizing their claim to the right for power and omnipresent global influence – mostly through asserting the viability of their own model of political and economic organization. The US-led liberal model (the so called Washington Consensus) included free market economy and the development of democratic institutions, and was being accepted by other countries because their political elites and the broad public there deemed it the most efficient at the time (and many of them still do).

There’s been such an overwhelming consensus about the primacy of liberal democratic ideology that many have taken Francis Fukuyama’s notion of the “end of history” much to heart. To paraphrase Arthur Schlesinger Jr, who in an article on the essence of liberal ideology made the famous conclusion that “in a sense, liberalism is everything in America”, we could say that at the beginning of the 21st century, everything in the world (including the theory of international relations and political practice) has been literally soaked with the ideas and principles of liberalism.

In the context of the triumph of the liberal ideological paradigm, an attempt was made of crafting an axiom out of the notion that liberalization was essential for guaranteeing peace and security for all, and that this could become reality even in countries that were extremely different from each other. Another axiom stipulated that neo-liberal states are less prone to aggression and less likely to succumb to the temptation of increasing their military might for the sake of projecting power. And that the liberal regimes were always more peaceful in principle. As a consequence, the rule said, the level of threat in international relations somehow depends on the ratio between liberal and non-liberal regimes. In that context, regime change and democratization (i.e. the “export of democracy”) has been perceived not as a blatant violation of international law and national sovereignty, or a direct intervention in the domestic affairs of this country or the other, but as a totally justified and humane cause, and simultaneously the most rational strategy for achieving global stability and guaranteeing “human security“. It’s also being viewed as a tool for guaranteeing a country’s own safety, and securing the moral and political leadership of the old liberal democracies. Moreover, by forming a more peaceful and cooperative international environment, the liberals preferred to focus their attention on the issues of economic interdependence (especially among the countries with a market economy), and on the role of international institutions. They have put the emphasis on the idea that liberalism is universally applicable, regardless of the national and cultural specifics.

If we take a look back at history, we might notice that in various historical epochs, the leading countries have often tried to take the initiative and promote specific paradigms and formulations of a set of values and rules of conduct at the international stage. There’s a very simple explanation for that. The policies of a leading country which otherwise does not have sufficient legitimacy, would inevitably meet resistance (whether active or passive, or both) from both rivals abroad and at home. In such conditions, pushing one’s own political agenda is rendered impossible, or in the best case requires huge additional resources and efforts. So, in the absence of such consensus, the level of mutual trust between the main political subjects at the international scene is usually rather low. After all, leadership (and of course, hegemony) that does not rest upon international legitimacy soon turns out a burden too heavy to sustain.

According to most Western experts and a significant part of the political elites, in order to minimize the energy and resources that’s required for realizing and sustaining leadership, establishing a certain set of common rules and values is necessary – they’re to ensure support for the political agenda of the leading country, and legitimize its leading position. In this sense, the transformation of the old international values, rules and regimes, and their substitution with new ones, could turn out of paramount importance for the leading country, because they would ensure the necessary international support, and thus guarantee the efficient projection of power and influence. Furthermore, the dominant countries are to refrain from being too aggressive in their attempts to counter the imposition of certain limitations to their own activeness from the international institutions, and are to respect the commonly accepted norms and rules that they’ve themselves promoted. The Western countries, and most of all the US however, have shown time and time again that they’re not exactly capable of such self-restraint. And, while in the case of the authoritarian regimes that’s understandable (since the disregard for international law is part of their very definition), from the point of view of liberal democracy that’s a serious problem.

In other words, while some apologists of American exceptionalism may be rather eager to look for justifications for arbitrary unilateralism in the actions of various totalitarian regimes, rogue states or extremist groups (i.e. the “but they do that too” argument), using North Korea, Putin or the Taliban as a yardstick is not exactly the most compelling argument, especially when claiming the moral high ground constitutes an essential part of making your case. If we’re to fully embrace Realpolitik, on the other hand, things become much simpler, more cynical, and yet at least somewhat sincere.

In result, as paradoxical as that may seem, during the short “monopolar period” of world history that followed after the Cold War, it turned out more difficult to create and sustain international regimes in the sphere of security, the control of various specific spaces (the Arctic, the ocean, interplanetary space, etc), and to respect the ecological norms. The double standard and the ad hoc standard for acting according to the particular situation or based on some single precedent that you’ve set yourself, has become an inherent element of the model of international relations that the US and their allies have been trying to impose for years.

Granted, it wouldn’t be fair to claim that these were the only countries that have benefited from this rampant normative indeterminateness. The arbitrary construction of international norms by the global hegemon and its servile minions has benefited an entire group of mid- to minor-sized countries, at least until very recently. After all, these conditions have given them the opportunity to take part in various temporary (or even long-term, like NATO) alliances, designed to fortify their regional political and/or global economic positions. This circumstance has ensured a certain degree of stability to the whole system, which can’t be a bad thing, by any measure.

In the meantime though, promoting the democratic norms and values, and the saturation of the modern political discourse with humanist and humanitarian rhetoric, has generated a lot of questions, since this transformation of the rhetoric has been coupled with active attempts of diluting some key norms of international law, and legitimizing such vague terms like “limited sovereignty”, “regime change”, “humanitarian intervention” (especially when not internationally sanctioned), etc.

…That being said, next time I’ll attempt to have a look at the way the norms of the slightly older monopolar world have largely become obsolete in the emerging multipolar one.

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