The global arena of international relations has entered a new, post-Westphalian era, which challenged theorists’ ideas of statecraft and power balance. The Treaties of Westphalia presented a revolutionary concept of sovereignty, which gave states the power to make final decisions regarding their people, land, and resources. The events of 1648 also established non-interference between sovereign states, which meant that countries had no authority to interfere with each other’s internal affairs. Thus, on the one hand, sovereignty provided governments with an opportunity to legitimize their rule and specific tools to protect their people. However, the rise of technology and ethnonational movements, as well as globalization have made states more fragile and weakened their ability to provide protection and security. In theory, states are central actors in international relations and exert a lot of influence. In practice, they are often too ‘small’ to solve the emerging issues such as climate change, transnational crime, or human rights violation. They are also too ‘big’ to focus on the problems of local communities and the mistreatment of minorities. In addition, any moral justification of states is met with rightful skepticism due to corruption and negligence that have become synonymous with politics.
International relations theorists offer different justifications of the existence of sovereign states. First of all, there is a need to clearly define what states are and what constitutes their power on an international arena. A state is considered legitimate if it meets the following criteria:
- geographically defined boundaries
- a stable population
- effective and legitimate government
- being diplomatically recognized by other states.
A state becomes a legal representative of its people and gains sovereignty, which is why some nations must gain such a right to non-interference. The post-colonial reality of the 20th century led to heated disputes surrounding the creation of new states and their participation in international affairs. A more recent example is the case of the Kurdistan Region. Kurds have their language and include more than 30 million people scattered around Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq. They sought for self-rule after World War I, which was met with opposition from the states that wanted to keep Kurds within their boundaries. The 2003 Iraq War provided Kurds with an opportunity to make the first step in legitimizing their existence and creating an autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. Kurds’ struggle to represent their interests demonstrates that no state equals no recognition and essentially exclusion from the list of central international actors. Therefore, although states rely on other states’ confirmation of their legitimacy, sovereignty that comes with such recognition provides them with an opportunity to protect their interests without excessive interference in their internal affairs.
Statecraft Tools: Limits and Possibilities
States can exert influence by using diplomacy, economic sanctions, and force, which requires a certain level of credibility. Countries usually exercise their right of participating in international affairs by bargaining and negotiating. Diplomacy aids governments in securing benefits for their people and implies strategic communication between official representatives of each party. It becomes possible for states to express their concerns and negotiate a necessary deal with another country. However, domestic pressures turn diplomacy into a two-level game, where different levels of governing powers clash (as in federal vs. state authorities, for example). It is evident that while diplomacy can be beneficial, bargaining and negotiating sometimes fail to represent the ideas of minorities.
Another important tool of statecraft is sanctions, which include positive engagement and negative sanctions. For states, it is usually a cost-efficient way to influence the actions of other governments by either denying or providing them with resources. Such measures can target entire states or individual politicians. Only economically strong and well-endowed states can engage in economic statecraft effectively. If a country does not have enough influence on the economy, its sanctions have little to no impact. There is also a limit to how well governments can evaluate positive and negative effects of sanctions, which is supported by the examples of Cuba, Russia, and South Africa. For instance, despite the U.S. sanctions against Russia and its most prominent leaders, the government of the Russian Federation continues to participate in a military conflict in Eastern Ukraine and occupy the Crimean peninsula. The recent study has shown that only 10% of sanctions imposed by United Nations could be considered effective. Therefore, although sovereignty creates an opportunity for states to economically influence other countries, the effects of economic engagement/sanctions are often unpredictable and disappointing.
Lastly, states resort to the use of force to protect their interests on a global arena. Liberal governments often prioritize diplomacy and sanctions over military conflict although it remains a possible instrument for states to threaten and persuade. Military force is utilized as a tool to combat terrorism, protect human rights, and fight other forms of transnational crime. However, violence and threats have their limit since they inevitably become a source of moral corruption, sin, and lead to countless losses.
Moral Justification of States
Biblical narratives regarding the emergence of authority imply that God is the originator of all governing powers, which explains why people must be in subjection to them. Christian beliefs confirm that structured states can organize people and influence them to create something positive, which usually becomes a much needed change in their communities. However, the religion also acknowledges that sin and self-interest are a part of human nature, which translates into corrupted governments, unjust popular rule, and tyranny. Authority often shapes people’s ideas of what is right or wrong. By sharing one’s moral compass, governing powers ultimately change behavior of the masses. Thus, the multiplier effect usually leads to the destruction of traditional values and normalization of sin. Sovereign states can affect the lives of citizens in either a positive or a negative way by influencing their perception of reality. Therefore, there is either a possibility for states to reduce sin or encourage moral decay.
Sovereignty, States, and the 21st Century
There have been various theories that affected the modern understanding of justification of states. The most recent framework suggests that people maintain the rule of law via the social contract, which serves as the basis for democracy. Communism and anarchy are the regimes that argue that the existence of states is unjustified. The current reality of the 21st century presents numerous challenges to the existence of states as sovereign entities in an international climate. The emergence of new technologies, growing interconnectedness, and the rise of ethnonational movements are among the issues states face today.
Technological developments have shifted the power balance between governments and the general public in terms of who controls the information. Although the authorities of some countries choose to censor media and control their citizens’ online activities, it is evident that the creation of the World Wide Web and the distribution of news on the Internet has presented a challenge to state powers. By limiting governments’ control over news, new technologies gave people an opportunity to change their perception of reality.
Globalization has led to the abundance of ideas, while simultaneously uniting people over shared values. After all, human rights are a social construct that has become an accepted narrative for the majority of world population. Although positive, common beliefs in human rights and their protection are a source of conflict between the United States and Saudi Arabia (as an example). Sovereignty establishes every state’s obligation not to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries. It poses a challenge to solving global issues such as climate change, deforestation, or ethnic cleansing. States are limited in their ability to influence each other’s decisions, which is why it is hard for them to cooperate and contribute to efficient solutions to battle international crime, global warming, and human trafficking.
In conclusion, it is important to assess the limits and possibilities of states as central actors in international relations. Although sovereignty provides states with an ability to protect their internal decisions, it is limited by the hyper-globalized environment of today. There are a number of normative limits on the exercise of sovereignty, which are challenged by the emerging transnational issues that require cooperating and abandoning national interests. That is why international non-governmental organizations have been more effective in protecting human race as a whole and battling global issues. On the other hand, governments are often too focused on their states’ interests on an international arena, which is the reason why some countries do not suppress extremist and violent actions against minorities. Local governing powers can recognize the problems, mobilize necessary resources, and facilitate early interventions to protect the rights of those discriminated against and underrepresented.
Center for American Progress. “State Legitimacy, Fragile States, and U.S. National Security.” 2016. Web.
European Central Bank. “Sovereignty in a Globalised World.” 2019. Web.
Getachew, Adom. “The Limits of Sovereignty as Responsibility.” Constellations (2018). 1-16.
Mingst, Karen, Heather Elko McKibben, and Ivan Arreguín-Toft. Essentials of International Relations. 8th ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018.