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.