Sovereignty Redefined, pt.2: New Players, New Rules

In the conditions of a transitional “monopolar” age in international relations which emerged at the end of the 20th and the beginning of this century, the Western states, just like one or two centuries ago within the framework of the so called Westphalian system, have tried to assume the role of vanguard, projecting (including through force) their own preferred values and institutions (free market, human rights, liberal democracy) upon other societies, regardless of their local cultural and historic specifics and peculiarities. In return, the latter (although to a varying extent) have shown a tendency to oppose this process and, and as paradoxical as that may seem, many of them have tried to uphold the integrity of the very institutions and norms previously imposed upon them by the West itself (like national sovereignty, territorial integrity, diplomacy as a primary tool at the international stage, etc). In this sense, the system of international relations continues to be based on the relations between center and periphery, where the role of generator and distributor of new values belongs to the West almost exceptionally.

Now, as for the proneness of imposing values through force, the last fifteen years have seen the emergence of a doctrine designed by the American political class which employs the imposition of simple (and by definition, forceful) solutions to international problems, and has thus become the core of the US political discourse. And though America has promoted terms like “soft” and “smart force”, that hardly means Washington would somehow magically relinquish its attachment to the traditional instrumentarium of hard force any time soon. The US continues to conduct policies based on their global military presence and projection of their own influence in the key regions of the world. In the conditions when the formation of a monopolar tendency in world politics was considered almost self-evident and natural, that may’ve made a lot of sense. But the situation is changing very fast now. If until 10-15 years ago the notion of a “multipolar” world order looked extravagant and fictitious, in more recent times the tendency toward polycentrism, redistribution of weight and influence of the separate states in world economics and politics has become ever more plausible, changing the picture that we got used to at the turn of the century.


As some US experts point out, the US should rather be supporting diversity not just within their own borders but around the whole world, and accept that liberal democracy ought to be in an open competition at the market of ideas with other types of political system, without presuming to underestimate their value or assume the moral high ground in relation to them. Because in reality, tolerance to various types of political systems matches the US interests to a much greater extent than the arrogance that we’ve seen from the Neo-cons, or the short-sighted idealism of today’s US liberals. The respectful attitude to responsible governments, tolerance to political and cultural diversity, the balance between global rule and the transferring of prerogatives to the regional powers, as well as the more moderate approach to globalization, are the principles that should probably be at the core of a future world order.

We’ve been hearing calls for sparing resources, limiting the scope of international activity, or cooperation with other states and transferring of prerogatives to them for problem-solving within the framework of their respective regional sub-systems. I.e., a more frugal approach to world politics, which would be less exhausting economically and less damaging morally to the global cop itself. On the other hand though, we can hardly rely on the US adopting self-control, a more regionalized approach, or embracing a well thought-out cooperative culture among the US political elite any time soon. Almost no high-rofile US politician (maybe save for Ron Paul, who’s got a number of other shortcomings, unfortunately) has openly called for America to limit its own role of global arbiter and regulator, or to relinquish its plans of forming a politically homogeneous “democratic world” under its sceptre (which is basically what defines this constant drive for “spreading democracy”, and explains the effort to change regimes in sovereign countries around the world).

The problem is not solely being viewed through the prism of looking for effective instruments and relevant ideas that could consolidate the America- and Western-dominated world order. For the ruling Democrats, the main goals for guaranteeing the US global leadership have boiled down to guaranteeing a prosperous economy, untouchable military power, and attachment to the policy of imposing “universal values“. Having in mind the financial problems, in the mid-term perspective, America’s goal is to make other countries contribute more for creating “global public goods”, to support the new international norms and institutions, and to cooperate for regulating the conflicts in various regions by the Western terms.

The US and their Western allies (in the most general sense) have continued to act as a generator of international norms and principles even in the conditions of the global financial crisis, which otherwise accelerates the processes of redistribution of influence, and facilitates the increase of potential of a number of non-Western power centers (China, India, Brazil, Russia), each of them having a certain set of positive and negative sides as well as certain amounts of regional and global influence. The crisis has demonstrated the incapability of a limited group of Western countries to bear responsibility for global regulation for the last few decades (and throughout almost the entire 20th century, in a broader sense), and to control and uphold the global order, and overcome the challenges of the epoch.


So what about these new players on the scene? Well, there sure has emerged a severe need for broadening the circle of countries participating in taking the key decisions. This has become a stimulus for the emergence of new institutions of global regulation (like G-20). In the meantime though, the Western countries have insisted on remaining the main factor for defining the norms and principles of this global regulation, as if that is their given right, granted to them by historical inertia.

This is where the obvious discrepancy in the current transitional situation in global politics emerges from. The monopolar moment remains part of the past, while the norms that were created in its core, previously capable of guaranteeing relative stability, are now having a strongly destabilizing effect in an increasingly polycentric world (namely, the principles of “limited sovereignty”, “selective legitimacy”, interventionism, etc). These still remain in place, and are actively pushed forward by the West, but the situation has changed, and they’ve become a detriment rather than asset.

In other words, when in the framework of a monopolar system of international relations, the Western countries deemed it necessary to start transforming the traditional Westphalian sovereignty, it became clear that it was exactly them who were intending to take benefit of that transformation, in order to project their own influence upon the other participants in international relations, by legitimizing (or, conversely, delegitimizing where appropriate) this or that political practice. The countries that tried to exhibit an “unsystematic” behavior were constantly being threatened with sanctions and even military intervention. Until very recently, this used to discipline most players in world politics (both state and non-governmental players in fact), and create a sense of controllability of the conflict situations, and the presence of “firm rules of the game”. Implicitly, it was self-evident that the limitations (including that of sovereignty) wouldn’t ever affect the leaders in that monopolar system in any way, but that was okay, as long as the rules were clear, and stability was guaranteed.

Thus, the “outsiders” and the marginal countries and “fringe states” were turned into subject of deligitimization of their own sovereign status, and a potential target of foreign intervention, while the US and the West as a whole were playing the role of the arbiter. What’s more, the very idea of a possible conflict between the big players was completely out of question.


But now the accelerating tendency toward forming a polycentric world order is changing the big picture, and pretty fast. The establishing of the principles of limited sovereignty, preemptive action, unilateralism, selective legitimacy, and interventionism, are not only NOT facilitating the better management of the processes in world politics, in fact they’re breathing new life into the political unpredictability and uncertainty that was forgotten for a while. The until-recently valid norms and principles of international law (including the principle of non-intervention in internal affairs or the threat of use of force, and the principles of internal and external sovereignty and border integrity) were largely designed to minimize international conflicts in a potentially polycentric system. Which is why ignoring or outright disregarding them poses an immediate danger to world order. In the emerging polycentric world, the norms and precedents that are being set by the US and the West, could now be used by other emerging new powers for their goals, and we might not like the results very much. In result, instead of an illusion for manageability and control, the advocates for the active promotion of new norms and principles in modern world politics could soon be faced with a rather chaotic picture, and even the complete destabilization of the world order that they strive so much to control. I.e., yet another case of presumably good intentions backfiring pretty badly.

In this sense, perhaps it’s not too far-fetched if we forecast an exponential rise of the global risks for the system, since the new and fast emerging powers will surely be asserting their claims for a more active participation in defining the rules of the game, and will be drawing their own “red lines” ever more definitely in regards to the various aspects of their internal and external politics.

There is some hope that the current crisis in the relations between Russia and the West could stimulate, if not the respective political elites, at least the expert community in both America and Europe, and prompt them to look for more inclusive strategies, and formulate more balanced approaches to forming and promoting the norms and rules of modern world politics – and I’m not just talking about the problems with sovereignty. It’s becoming ever clearer that there’s no viable alternative to that.

In any case, the increased enthusiasm for setting new precedents, and the drive for imposing one’s own rules of the game upon everyone else (with a back-door option for arbitrary reinterpretation of these rules as a “leadership bonus”), is incapable of creating, in the conditions of an emerging polycentricity, any stable basis for anything resembling a predictable and manageable development of international relations, and would certainly be the cause of many new global crises instead.

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