Rise, Spread, and Fall of State Sovereignty

The classic state system is said to have emerged with the treaties of the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years War. In these treaties the secular claims of German princelings were recognised above the religious claims of the Papacy. There was no secular right of external power above the sovereign. This formal recognition of the principle of territorial sovereignty became the basis of an interstate system of international relations. Although there was the beginning of an interstate system, there was no international law in the modern sense as the rights of sovereignty were restricted to the European powers. While interstate relations were regulated between mutually recognised sovereign states in the West, there was no explicit framework of international society, which formally limited the exercise of state sovereignty. The regulation of interstate relations could not go beyond voluntary agreements between a select group of sovereign states. These treaty agreements were based upon interests of preserving state power through strategic alliances and the limited geo-political stability of a balance of power.

The age of the classic ‘anarchical’ state system, with no limits to the sovereignty of the major powers, was also the era of colonialism. The states included in this interstate system were those that could exercise power in the international arena through ruling over their territory and defending it from the claims of other sovereign states. It was, therefore, also quite logical and consistent to see that in those areas outside Europe, which could not demonstrate ’empirical statehood’, sovereignty could not apply. Under this system the right of intervention in the affairs of other states was granted to states which were capable of acting on, and enforcing, this right: the Great Powers….

The Westphalian model of state sovereignty had its critics throughout the modern era, particularly as the leading non-Western states modernised and grew in importance. The fear of Western decline and the need to stabilise growing international society led to new experiments in international relations. The first Hague Conference, in 1899, saw the attendance of China, Japan, the Ottoman Empire, Persia and Siam. Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905 was a powerful shock to European imperial confidence, because this confidence was closely bound up with a notion of racial superiority. The second Hague Conference, in 1907, was the first international gathering of modern states at which non-Europeans outnumbered the Europeans. The descent of European powers into the barbarism of the First World War did much to undermine the idea of Great Power international security. The fear of imperial decline and the expectation of resistance from the colonies led Western policy-makers to speed the process of transformation away from ‘might is right’ towards international law in an attempt to contain the threat of war between the Great Powers as well as anticipated anticolonial revolt.

The First World War settlement began the process of developing a legal concept of sovereignty as opposed to the Westphalian concept of sovereignty based on power. At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, US President Woodrow Wilson affirmed the principle of national self-determination for the newly created states of Central Europe. The attempt to legalise or formalise international relations was a direct consequence of the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires during the war and the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. The Soviet leader Lenin’s declaration of the right of nations to self-determination and the Soviet Union’s propaganda linkage of war with the imperialist outlook of the Great Powers put the Western policy-makers on the defensive. Instead of the discredited system of international power politics, post-First World War international relations became legitimised on the basis of formal equality between states….

The League of Nations initiated the process of formally restricting the sovereignty of the Great Powers. For example, colonial powers were no longer entitled to act as they liked but were mandated to advance the interests of their subject peoples. The mandate system, which implied that colonial rule could only be temporary, was the first open admission that empire was no longer a legitimate political form. However, the concept of sovereign equality was still a heavily restricted one, and the West rejected Japan’s attempt to include a clause on racial equality in the League of Nations’ Charter. The major European imperial powers were not in a position to consistently uphold the rights of sovereign equality….

After the Second World War, the United States’ dominance of the world economy enabled the construction of a new system of international regulation…. The discrediting of international regulation based on power and colonial domination led, through the two World Wars, to one based on sovereign equality. The Nazi experience and the rise of non-European powers had undermined the elitist ideologies of race and empire and led to the defensive acceptance of a law-bound international system…. The political pressure on the leading world powers meant that the 1945 settlement preserved in the principles of the UN Charter, was a decisive moment in the transformation of the Westphalian system. The sovereignty of the Great Powers was restricted, while the right of sovereignty was granted to new states which would have failed the Westphalian test of ’empirical statehood’, and hence have been dismissed as ‘quasi-states’.

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond: Human Rights and International Intervention, new ed., by David Chandler (Pluto Press, 2006), pp. 123-126 [reference citations removed]

Since the early 1990s, international relations have been transformed through the development of new norms and practices established with the intention of protecting human rights by extending the reach of ‘international justice’. Justice and rights protection no longer stop at the borders of the nation-state…. The establishment of The Hague tribunals, dealing with crimes committed during the Bosnian war and the civil conflict in Rwanda, the House of Lords judgment against Pinochet, and the international indictment against a sitting head of state, Slobodan Milosevic, are all held up to indicate the trend towards ‘international justice’ and the prioritisation of human rights.

The extension of ‘international justice’ has reflected a widely welcomed decline in the legal weight attached to state sovereignty as a barrier to external judgement and intervention in a state’s affairs. State sovereignty, the recognition of self-government and autonomy, is perceived to be increasingly dangerous or inadequate for many states and peoples. International intervention in Iraq, the decision to extend international regulation in Bosnia, and the establishment of protectorates in Kosovo and East Timor are seen to herald a new set of precedents that suggest a modified approach to state sovereignty. De facto rule over a territory is no longer held to legitimise the denial of justice or the abuse of human rights.

SOURCE: From Kosovo to Kabul and Beyond, p. 120

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