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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