J. Dana Stuster, writing at Lawfare:
In these polarized times, it came as a surprise to me that the authors of three of the most interesting books on international relations of the past year agree on at least one thing. Each argues that the global order is entering a crisis that calls into question the concept of state sovereignty, a foundational principle of the international system as it has existed for nearly four centuries. In the past half-century—as globalization has interwoven the international community more densely and closely than ever, multilateral institutions have proliferated, new doctrines on human rights and counterterrorism have gained credence, and transnational threats have emerged—the definition of sovereignty has come unmoored from its traditions. These diverse authors agree that this will have consequential effects on the world, but diverge over how we reached this point and what should happen next.
The books: Rosa Brooks’ How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Richard Haass’ A World in Disarray, and David Kennedy’s A World of Struggle.
A bit of history:
Each author identifies to the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 as a critical point of reference. To Haass, it is the foundation of the modern world order, establishing the basic principles of international relations as they are understood today. At the heart of this framework is the concept of sovereignty: the right of governments to manage their affairs of state within their borders without foreign interference. Sovereignty has always been an artificial concept, and states have never abided by it perfectly. The Treaty of Westphalia failed to prevent various upheavals across Europe, but it succeeded in establishing a framework that would persist through revisions after the Napoleonic Wars and World War I.Brooks places Westphalia in the context of the development of the law of armed conflict and, later, human rights law. “Even after this symbolic starting point,” she writes, “it took centuries of conquest and many more wars before anything truly resembling today’s state system.” While Haass tracks the integration of relations between states, notably the consultative structure of the Concert of Europe and economic ties that served as a check against aggression, Brooks follows the development of legal traditions for conflict, from their origins in antiquity through the Lieber Code, the first Geneva Convention, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact.Haass and Brooks’ histories intersect again at the point when the global order diverged from its Westphalian traditions. The cataclysm of World War II prompted the development of new innovations in law and multilateral institutions that have undermined that fundamental concept of sovereignty. The reasons for this were well-intentioned: The founders of the United Nations sincerely wanted to prevent repeating the atrocities of the war they had just witnessed. But by setting down principles barring certain conduct by governments against their own citizens, they opened the door to all manner of justifications for foreign intervention. This has been exacerbated by globalization and the accompanying devolution of power that has allowed small states, corporations, terrorist groups, humanitarian organizations, and individuals to influence events across borders. Both Brooks and Haass argue that now, seventy years later, sovereignty is eroding to its breaking point.Kennedy, like Brooks, focuses on legal developments, but he approaches this history differently as a constructivist. “[O]rigin myths are as important for world building as they are for religions, families, or cultures,” he writes. Nonetheless, he reaches a similar conclusion: “This proliferation of legally framed activity has made war and sovereign power into legal institutions even as the experience of legal pluralism and fluidity has unhinged the idea of a law which, out there, somehow distinguishes.” The basic tenets of the Westphalian order “have become far too spongy to permit clear resolution—or became [sic] spongy enough to undergird the experience of self-confident outrage by parties on all sides of a conflict.”
The nation-state, after all, is not given in the nature of things. It is a contingent form of social organization, arising in certain historical to serve certain ends. The contemporary world is very different from the Europe of the 17th century.
Stuster quotes Kennedy as asserting:
Imagine politics delinked from polity, spreading horizontally to diverse sites of potential contestation. Imagine an economics whose destiny was local, linked to the well-being of communities. Against this background, the routine boundary work of the governance professions might be quite different: aiming to reconnect the political and the economic while fragmenting the space of economic activity and multiplying the modes through which politics is undertaken.
Stuster finds the "utopian rhetoric" to be "wildly unrealistic," and I can see why: "State institutions are too strong in the developed world to allow the emergence of alternative polities like those Kennedy envisions." OK. Maybe the "developed" world is over-developed?
Stuster believes "the issue of failing states seems more salient than changes in the concept of sovereignty" and that
when history books are written about this moment with the benefit of hindsight, my suspicion is that shifts in the understanding of sovereignty will be one paragraph in a much larger discussion of the tension between growing state power and the democratization of influence and violence that has been facilitated by globalization and the internet. China and India’s economic development has raised the average standard of living in the world on an immense scale and made these countries increasingly important players in the global order. Sovereignty is an inextricable part of a larger historical shift that includes the role emerging powers will play, physical displacement caused by climate change, and professional displacement generated by unprecedentedly rapid shifts in commerce and industrialization. These trends are only likely to accelerate. We should not ignore sovereignty—as Brooks, Haass, and Kennedy note, the stakes are too high for that—but restoring it or reforming it will not be a panacea for the global order. It is just one of the dogmas that has proved inadequate to the stormy present.
Well, OK. It's not all about sovereignty. But that still leaves us with the question of how the global order is going to be organized.