Syria, the state and changing notions of sovereignty

This week’s class focuses on some basic concepts in IR: states, sovereignty, anarchy and order. We’ll be exploring the origins of states, the evolving idea of sovereignty and the diverse ways of ordering international politics over time.  One of the issues I’m interested in discussing is how we understand the nature of state sovereignty.  Can states simply do whatever they want inside their sovereign boundaries? If not, why not?  What’s the source of these limitations? Morality? International law? To whom do states owe their obligations (if anyone?)  Are there other (better?) ways of ordering global politics?

The debate about ‘traditional’ notions of sovereignty versus some broader sense of responsibility on the part of states finds no sharper focus at the moment than the conflict in Syria.  In 1999 then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan published an essay in The Economist called “two concepts of sovereignty”, where he claimed the traditional understanding of sovereignty was being “redefined”, removing the right of states to do whatever they want within their borders.  Annan is now the UN/Arab League envoy to Syria, attempting (with little success so far) to bring about an end to the bloodshed.  What does the war in Syria tell us about the nature of sovereignty? Does the Syrian regime have a responsibility to its citizens?  Are their obligations on others to “intervene” to stop the violence? (something we will come back to in later weeks).  Are there dangers in trying to impose peace, justice, and democracy? For a good sharp exchange on the latter subject, see the op-ed in the New York Times last week by Alex de Waal and a brief response by former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans.


6 comments on “Syria, the state and changing notions of sovereignty

  1. sarahchan30 says:

    I thought Gareth Evans response was mostly persuasive, but I would be interested to know how he defines “imminence” when applying the R2P doctrine to a potential or perceived threat. Neta Crawford,Professor of Political Science and African American Studies, has said that the consequence of acting on a presumption that mass violence is ‘imminent’ ”brings about wars that might not happen.” She goes on to say “They are [also] unjust because they assume perfect knowledge of an adversary’s ill intentions when such a presumption … may be premature or unwarranted” .

    • mir2012blog says:

      I’d also like to know what he means by a “soft landing” for Gaddafi and how he’d have negotiated the ceasefire. Could outsiders simply have persuaded anti-Gaddafi forces to stop? I think one of the problems for interventionists is to explain how they think can simply call a time out in the midst what are effectively civil wars. Every action taken (or not taken) has consequences for actors on the ground, who in turn respond in ways suit their own interests. Note how Evans seems to prefer the peaceful resolution of the Kenyan case as his textbook example of R2P, not Libya (but that’s a topic for another day.)

  2. adslater says:

    I agree that the terms of the R2P protocol as evidence of increasing international jurisdiction and intervention across ‘the Great Divide’ needs to be very firmly fixed if it is to be effective. The danger lies (as highlighted by Evans) in the inclination of the global community to ascertain the specific issues/ sides that underpin the conflict, to lay blame, and then to implement a suitable response (if any). Yes, a call for a ‘simple’ ceasefire would be great, but can this seriously be a viable, enforcable option, except with the global recognition of the limits of all state’s sovereignty, the scope of global institutions and norms of intervention, and possibly reiterating the point by the ‘sabre-rattling’ of concerned by-standers?

    I am reminded of the drawn out, multi-faceted Sri Lankan civil war with the Tamil Tigers, spanning circa 25 years…

    As de Waal argues, “The killers usually have political goals. They are determined to kill until they have achieved their objectives, not until there’s no one else left standing. Their use of violence can be excessive, but more important, it is often instrumental.”

    This is true of both sides to the Sri Lankan conflict, and the international community has been criticised in the last year of the conflict for essentially putting their heads in the sand and allowing Sri Lankan forces to obliterate the Tamil Tigers, as well as a substantial number of peaceful inhabitants who unfortunately got caught in the cross-fire. Would a simple recognition of a ‘global police’, and the enforcement of a ceasefire (however impossible that may have been) helped save the lives of countless peaceful citizens? Or, as can be argued, the aggressive nature of the final offence by the Sri Lankan forces against the Tigers was valid, finally ended a generation of war. The country now avows its inner peace. As you say David, “Every action taken (or not taken) has consequences for actors on the ground, who in turn respond in ways suit their own interests.”

    As Evans points out – “The whole point of the R2P doctrine is simply to generate a reflex international response that occurring or imminent mass atrocities are everybody’s business, not nobody’s.”

    To be glib, perhaps we do need a one world government, a one world army!?! Or at the very least we desperately need clear terms of international engagement (for example R2P and other interventionist methodologies) that will remove any ‘grey area’ that exists between state and international sovereignty?! It is in this grey area that humanitarian crisis are permitted to exist. As Annan states, “…the collective interest is the national interest”.

    • rpgordon says:

      The concept of a ‘world government’ or ‘world police force’ is perhaps not so glib. Given the increasing inter-connectiveness of states, if states are truly self interested rational maximisers, surely existing in a world with universally accepted norms and systems of laws which defend states existence and promote growth and stability is in the best interests of all actors.

      The last 60 years has seen a dramatic increase of internal and inter-state wars – not on the scale of wars in the mid twentieth century, but with increased frequency and intensity that the world has not previously known. When we consider that the state no longer has a monopoly on power – given the rise of non-state actors who now have the power to affect/coerce/threaten societies, if not the states themselves – then if the key motivator of any state is self-preservation, in the modern context the argument for a world governance/police to guarantee global stability is compelling. And what better place to discuss it than when exploring the concept of state sovereignty – the two concepts seem counter-intuitive; yet the world may have to find a way to exist with these seemingly mutually exclusive concepts.

      Consider the example of the time traveler from Jackson’s ‘States and Quasi States’, and let ourselves be in the shoes of the man in the past approached by a traveler from 200, 300, 1000 years into the future. What dramatic changes would this traveler present us with which we would deem unthinkable and challenge our preconceptions of the ‘modern world’? Given the changes that occurred in the 80 years from 1936, is it so unthinkable that a global government could not exist in the future? Unless a dramatic change occurs on the international scene (whereby perhaps the concept of the states no longer exists) it is highly likely that global governance will exist in the future. As students of history, we see that central governance has often been the response to a society faced with increasing inter-connectiveness, communication and ease of travel.

      Human kind has thus far managed to avoid the fate of the dinosaur and Dodo, but in an anarchical global system where suitcase nukes, cyber warfare and LHDs exist, is it naïve to think life can perpetually exist in this state based only on goodwill and gentlemen’s agreements? Once again governance, international relations and IR are being forced to evolve to a world which is being constantly changed by technology and extremism.

      World governance, legitimized by universally accepted norms and laws and supported by a world police force, may someday be necessary to evolve new norms of international behavior to regulate and moderate the behavior of states both powerful and weak. Recent international conflicts (Iraq, Afghanistan, Abkhazia) have shown that International Relations is no longer relevant and must evolve to remain relevant to this new world; and as we continue bravely into the future we will need a to adopt a holistic view and much closer coordination between states to ensure greater stability and perhaps the continued survival of the state itself.

  3. Glenn Davy says:

    I too thought Evans’ response was persuasive. Infact I found de Waal’s assertion that Idealists thinking the perpetrators as insatiable killers was redundant anyway. If they are not insatiable, and the killing does eventually stop once goals are met, then nevertheless chances are there has already been too much killing. It is this that R2P is seeking to stop.

    It’s a perennial problem settling the definitions of pertinent words contained within protocols and statutes, etc. in order to then apply them. What is meant by ‘imminence’ is certainly relevant in deciding the application of the R2P doctrine, but the main point is often action must be taken and the best I can offer is often this; there is not one all encompassing unambiguous definition but you definitely know it when you see it.

    During the Rwandan Massacre the US State Department famously gnashed it’s teeth about whether what was happening was in fact a genocide. The problem was in fact less about whether it fit the definition but the consequences of it fitting (which it manifestly did). If it was a genocide then they were compelled to intervene (which I suspect, they didn’t want to happen – still smarting from the mess in Somalia the year before).

    The point I think then is what is meant by ‘immence’ is secondary to the greater (and I think, noble) intention of R2P. One needs to move beyond the inherent ambiguity of language and take action. Law, international and otherwise, is usually clarified and refined in the subsequent action and precedents that are set.

  4. frassminggi says:

    I think the basic or inherent features of state sovereignty are secular forms of model of state, system of political organization, and conception of international order. States can be defined as a human community which successfully lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a certain territory. In this nature of state sovereignty and monopoly of legitimate physical violence, states simply can do whatever they want inside their sovereign (means no one above us) boundaries because states as a set of institution exercises sovereignty over a bounded territory. A supreme law is enforced by the states and human community must submit to authority of the state. It is authorities come from the barrel of a gun.

    States owe their obligations to the people because states get its authority from loyalty and trust of people by election. It is secular in its core. With this only state who have authority to pass the law. State is always to maintain the control. This comes to the question why we need states? States needed to provide order and security from external and internal threats.

    In my humble opinion there is other better ways of ordering global politics which is recognize Divine sovereignty and recognize Divine law as a supreme law. For example, in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam prohibit money being lend on interest. All around the world we have a banking system which lending money on interest and with this the rip-off has already taking place. And the enslavement of many of mankind has already taking place in consequence of that banking system. This is from perspective of finance and monetary economics. It has to be lawfully constituted authority which means authority constituted based on Divine law not authority from the barrel of a gun. It also recognizes the unity of humankind and preserves the unity of humankind by peaceful means.

    Before there were states the world was not always divided into states. We must remember that states are institutions which are subject to change. We must remember also that modern state is a relatively new constructed. Indonesia established in 1945, New Zealand in 1852, Germany in 1871, Italy 1871, and United States 1789. Before states there were fiefdoms, principalities, empires, villages, clans, tribes, tributary empires, free cities, ecclesiastical proto-states, dukedoms, and hereditary kingdoms. States are constructed and prone to change anytime as history sees many forms of institutions were rise and fall. State is only social structure and mechanism of social order and it is decided by ideational, material dimension of power, culture, and motivation.

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