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Book Review: Re-Envisioning Sovereignty: The End of Westphalia?

In this edi­tion of our ongo­ing series of book reviews, Paul Mignano presents a crit­i­cal but ulti­mate­ly favor­able take on Re-Envi­sion­ing Sov­er­eign­ty: The End of West­phalia?a col­lec­tion of inter­dis­ci­pli­nary essays dis­cussing the con­cept of sov­er­eign­ty.


By Paul Mignano


Re-envisioning SovereigntyFor a con­cept that is so cen­tral to inter­na­tion­al rela­tions and pub­lic inter­na­tion­al law, the mean­ing of “sov­er­eign­ty” is sur­pris­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to artic­u­late. At its essence, West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty is about the abil­i­ty of a state to engage in polit­i­cal self-deter­mi­na­tion, to be con­sid­ered a legal equal of oth­er states, and to ensure non-inter­fer­ence of out­side states in its own inter­nal affairs.

Today, there are many chal­lenges to these three basic prin­ci­ples, rang­ing from the Bret­ton Woods insti­tu­tions to glob­al cli­mate change, and from the advent of inter­na­tion­al crim­i­nal law to glob­al health threats. The authors of Re-Envi­sion­ing Sov­er­eign­ty: The End of West­phalia? take dif­fer­ent approach­es to the sub­ject of West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty, from reex­am­in­ing its his­tor­i­cal under­pin­nings to approach­ing sov­er­eign­ty as a doc­tor would diag­nose a com­plaint. The var­i­ous approach­es of the authors serve as a reminder of the great dif­fi­cul­ty even the most accom­plished inter­na­tion­al schol­ars have artic­u­lat­ing both the core and out­er reach­es of the con­cept of West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty.

A key point that many of the authors over­look, but that is worth artic­u­lat­ing, is that West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty is and has been under threat only to the extent that states find it to be in their self-inter­est. The only non-state actor that can tru­ly inter­fere in the inter­nal affairs of anoth­er state is the Unit­ed Nations Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil, which is itself com­posed of states. The Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil typ­i­cal­ly acts only when it is in the self-inter­est of its indi­vid­ual mem­ber states to do so. In peace­keep­ing oper­a­tions (aside from extreme­ly rare actions under Chap­ter VII of the UN Char­ter), peace­keep­ers enter a coun­try with the con­sent of its gov­ern­ment accord­ing to a care­ful­ly nego­ti­at­ed set of terms regard­ing the size of the peace­keep­ing force, the dura­tion of its stay, and the scope of its mis­sion. States in tur­moil allow an inter­na­tion­al peace­keep­ing force to come in because it is with­in that state’s self-inter­est to do so.

The first few essays, which col­lec­tive­ly chal­lenge the tra­di­tion­al under­stand­ing and his­tor­i­cal under­pin­nings of West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty, are per­haps the most inter­est­ing of the book. Wayne Hudson’s exam­i­na­tion of the lit­er­a­ture on sov­er­eign­ty right­ly points out the bias­es towards Eng­lish sources and the ten­den­cy to view his­to­ry as an unerr­ing march from antiq­ui­ty to the mod­ern nation-state. Joseph Camil­leri expands on this idea, describ­ing much of the recent lit­er­a­ture on sov­er­eign­ty as some sort of sal­vage oper­a­tion designed to repair sov­er­eign­ty, giv­en the pound­ing it has endured since the end of the Cold War. Camil­leri stress­es the “rel­a­tive­ly unchart­ed waters” in which states func­tion, and that inter­na­tion­al inter­ven­tion must be done care­ful­ly to avoid being a series of neo-impe­ri­al­ist dic­tates from the glob­al North to the South. Rather than the West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty con­cept of each state hav­ing the abil­i­ty to tru­ly exclude all out­siders, today numer­ous inter­de­pen­den­cies have cre­at­ed a fetal world soci­ety.

Seem­ing­ly pre­ma­ture­ly, Jan Aart Scholte declares the world to be post-sta­tist, say­ing that “even the most pow­er­ful coun­try gov­ern­ments are unable to enact any­thing close to sov­er­eign­ty in its West­phalian sense.” His point is direct­ly con­tra­dict­ed sev­er­al chap­ters ear­li­er, when Roland Rich cor­rect­ly points out that the Demo­c­ra­t­ic People’s Repub­lic of North Korea almost com­plete­ly clos­es off its bor­ders to out­side trade and out­side diplo­mat­ic rela­tions and refus­es to accept for­eign invest­ment, with its atten­dant strings. Short of a U.N. Secu­ri­ty Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion, no force besides North Kore­an self-inter­est can force it to engage with the out­side world.

That is the key under­ly­ing all of the chal­lenges to sov­er­eign­ty pre­sent­ed by the authors. The prob­lem of offi­cial devel­op­men­tal aid (ODA) not achiev­ing true aid for the need­i­est coun­tries is close­ly linked to the fact, as Rich points out, that the rich coun­tries who wield the most pow­er with­in the IMF and World Bank attach strings to their loans. These con­di­tions help such rich and pow­er­ful states to achieve their own pol­i­cy goals. This self-inter­est becomes even more self-evi­dent when for­eign direct invest­ment from one gov­ern­ment to anoth­er is con­sid­ered.

Glob­al­iza­tion is anoth­er force typ­i­cal­ly seen as a threat to West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty. How­ev­er, there is no require­ment for a state to join free trade orga­ni­za­tions such as the WTO, or to sign bilat­er­al trade agree­ments. Rather, states join these orga­ni­za­tions and sign these treaties because the result­ing increase in imports and the abil­i­ty to export more goods cheap­ly serves their own self-inter­est. That is, fos­ter­ing a more inter­con­nect­ed world can be in a sov­er­eign state’s self-inter­est. Bar­ry Hin­dess’ arti­cle about indi­rect rule explores glob­al­iza­tion based on the premise that mem­bers of glob­al trade orga­ni­za­tions are clear­ly not effec­tive equals, but it fails to men­tion that a devel­op­ing state that joins an inter­na­tion­al trade agree­ment does so of its own free will.

The book also con­tains a few fas­ci­nat­ing essays about per­cep­tions of West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty in dif­fer­ent regions of the world. Amin Saikal’s essay about Islam­ic per­spec­tives on sov­er­eign­ty is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing, with the dis­cus­sion of dif­fer­ences between Islam­ic notions of sov­er­eign­ty and more Euro­pean approach­es mak­ing for fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing. Accord­ing to Saikal, Islam is “essen­tial­ly a reli­gion of a bor­der­less com­mu­ni­ty of believ­ers,” with the rights of indi­vid­u­als exist­ing with­in the Islam­ic frame­work of a com­mu­nal life. How­ev­er, the pop­u­lar accep­tance of West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty has meant that a Sau­di is like­ly to iden­ti­fy him­self as a Sau­di first and a Mus­lim sec­ond. The major clus­ters of Jiha­di and Ijti­ha­di Islamists view sov­er­eign­ty in very sep­a­rate ways, with Ijti­ha­di Islamists argu­ing for a soft rela­tion­ship between reli­gion and pol­i­tics, and Jiha­di Islamists stat­ing that there is absolute­ly no sep­a­ra­tion between reli­gion and pol­i­tics. This split leads to fun­da­men­tal dif­fer­ences in the approach to sov­er­eign­ty tak­en in Islam­ic coun­tries, though Ijti­ha­di Islamists tend to include most sec­u­lar elites in the Mus­lim world today. Oth­er inter­est­ing region­al exam­i­na­tions of sov­er­eign­ty come from See Seng Tan and Tongjin Zhang, who write about notions of sov­er­eign­ty in South­east Asia and Chi­na, respec­tive­ly. Zhang notes that while the People’s Repub­lic of Chi­na may often seem (and is often described) as though it is the last bas­tion of West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty, Chi­na has often seen it to be in its self inter­est to open up to eco­nom­ic, but not polit­i­cal, glob­al­iza­tion.

Tran­scend­ing sov­er­eign­ty when fac­ing threats to human and glob­al secu­ri­ty seems an obvi­ous exam­ple of an exer­cise of enlight­ened self-inter­est where­by states cede tra­di­tion­al aspects of West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty for their own bet­ter­ment. Bri­an Job’s arti­cle on con­fronting inter­na­tion­al non-state ter­ror­ism demon­strates that even when states dif­fer on the root caus­es of inter­na­tion­al ter­ror­ism and appro­pri­ate meth­ods of coop­er­a­tion, it is square­ly with­in the self-inter­est of all states to pre­vent acts of ter­ror­ism from occur­ring on the ter­ri­to­ry of their own or any oth­er coun­try. A less self-evi­dent instance of self-inter­est­ed states ced­ing aspects of their sov­er­eign­ty is the accep­tance and absorp­tion of inter­na­tion­al refugees or inter­nal­ly dis­placed per­sons. In their essays, both Howard Adel­man and Robyn Lui dis­cuss the threat to sov­er­eign­ty that mass refugee move­ments might rep­re­sent. Adel­man writes about the bal­ance between con­cerns of civ­il lib­er­ties and nation­al secu­ri­ty, employ­ing the intrigu­ing metaphor of a sus­pen­sion bridge, sup­port­ed between the poles of indi­vid­ual and state sov­er­eign­ty with a road­way from self-sac­ri­fice to respect for human rights. Lui’s approach to inter­na­tion­al refugee pro­tec­tion notes that no state is oblig­at­ed to accept refugees from war or dis­as­ter-torn third coun­tries, but that lib­er­al inter­na­tion­al­ism and the poten­tial for reci­procity are strong incen­tives for states con­sid­er­ing whether to accept refugees and to estab­lish camps.

Oth­er transna­tion­al issues writ­ten about in which a state may find it in its self-inter­est to allow for more inter­fer­ence in its inter­nal affairs are glob­al health crises, glob­al cli­mate change, and inter­na­tion­al crim­i­nal law. While Lor­raine Elliott believes that West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty is “coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to the pur­suit of glob­al envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice,” each state work­ing towards a solu­tion to glob­al cli­mate change is also try­ing to max­i­mize its own self-inter­est. The inabil­i­ty of the states to draft a com­pre­hen­sive and enforce­able plan of action to com­bat glob­al cli­mate change is evi­dence that West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty is alive and well, for bet­ter or worse. On the oth­er hand, Jack­son Nya­muya Maogoto’s arti­cle on inter­na­tion­al jus­tice and West­phalian sov­er­eign­ty chal­lenges this con­clu­sion. The ad hoc inter­na­tion­al crim­i­nal tri­bunals in the for­mer Yugoslavia and Rwan­da seem to be bla­tant chal­lenges to the tra­di­tion­al West­phalian prin­ci­ple of non-inter­fer­ence. How­ev­er, Mao­go­to right­ly points out that while sov­er­eign­ty bestows rights upon a state, it also impos­es respon­si­bil­i­ties and oblig­a­tions. Mao­go­to states that among these oblig­a­tions is the respon­si­bil­i­ty to pro­tect a state’s pop­u­la­tion from inter­nal and exter­nal threats. When a state fails to meet this oblig­a­tion, as trag­i­cal­ly occurred dur­ing atroc­i­ties in both the for­mer Yugoslavia and Rwan­da, that state has lost some of its sov­er­eign­ty, and the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty at large has a right and a duty to inter­vene. The fail­ure of the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty to inter­vene on many occa­sions does not ren­der this duty of inter­ven­tion mean­ing­less.

Essays in the penul­ti­mate sec­tion of the book bring togeth­er the chal­lenges to sov­er­eign­ty dis­cussed in ear­li­er sec­tions and put them in a full and rel­e­vant con­text. The essays on devel­op­ment con­sid­er the incen­tives fac­ing devel­op­ing states to cede tra­di­tion­al aspects of state sov­er­eign­ty. Rich’s arti­cle wise­ly con­cludes that sov­er­eign­ty is a porous shield against many aspects of glob­al­iza­tion, at least for demo­c­ra­t­ic states. There are states which con­tin­ue to adhere to true West­phalian val­ues of non-inter­fer­ence and legal equal­i­ty, North Korea and Myan­mar among them. Notably, these states, and oth­er more tra­di­tion­al adher­ents to the prin­ci­ple of sov­er­eign­ty, are not democ­ra­cies. It thus appears to be the pres­sures of democ­ra­cy, and the demands of a devel­op­ing pop­u­lace, that dri­ve state gov­ern­ments to cede sov­er­eign abil­i­ties. This may seem a hol­low ful­fill­ment of the West­phalian promise of legal equal­i­ty of states, but it is ulti­mate­ly the self-inter­est­ed choice of each state to choose its own des­tiny.

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