State sovereignty, up for grabs

By encroaching on others' territories, China, Russia, and Islamic terrorist armies challenge the norms of state sovereignty. How should the world respond?

AP Photo
Russian officers gesture to the driver of a Russian tank near Simferopol, Crimea, last March.

Countries, like individuals, resist giving up even a portion of their sovereignty. Their very identity relies on retaining autonomy and honoring the inviolability of national borders. Yet in just the past few years, state sovereignty – a now-universal concept established in 1648 by Europe’s Treaty of Westphalia – has lately been put to a severe test.

Here are recent examples of the challenges to such sovereignty:

In March, Russia took the Crimean Peninsula by force. For more than a year, Chinese ships and planes have encroached on islands controlled by other Asian nations, even ramming foreign vessels. And in countries from Iraq to Nigeria, bands of terrorists from different countries have taken over chunks of territory and declared Islamic entities. 

None of these actions were done for humanitarian reasons, in the name of self-defense, or with legal authority from the United Nations. Yet so far they have not drawn any major military response but rather sanctions and other lesser measures. This stands in stark contrast to what happened after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Just a quarter century ago, President George H.W. Bush was able to muster a UN-approved coalition of national forces and roll back Iraq’s takeover. At the time, he offered this justification: “No peaceful international order is possible if larger states can devour their smaller neighbors.... Vital issues of principle are at stake. Saddam Hussein is literally trying to wipe a country off the face of the earth.”

These days, state sovereignty has become a bit mushier as nations are faced with difficult cross-border challenges, such as stateless terrorists, mass migration, climate change, rapid financial crises, weapons proliferation, and cyberthreats. In 2009, President Obama could declare: “More than at any point in human history, the interests of nations and peoples are shared.”

For sure, the European Union has shown just how much sovereignty nations are willing to give up for economic and social purposes. Membership in the UN and other international bodies requires a nation to give up some control over its affairs. And since 2005, the UN has endorsed the use of force on sovereign powers that fail in their duty to protect their own people. The 2011 bombing of Libya was the first case under that new doctrine of “responsibility to protect.”

Other recent challenges contribute to a muddled future for the notion of sovereignty.

NATO bombed Kosovo in 1999 without UN consent. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq was done under dubious legal justification. For its defense against Al Qaeda, the United States uses predatory drones in Pakistan (and also killed Osama bin Laden) without approval from its elected officials. And the US violated Iran’s sovereignty by sending the Stuxnet computer virus into the Natanz nuclear power plant. Mr. Obama also threatened to unilaterally bomb Syria last year after its uses of chemical weapons on civilians, citing international law.

Nearly five centuries after the Treaty of Westphalia, it may be time to forge a new consensus on the meaning of state sovereignty.

At its base, the concept rests on a group of people being able to define their cohesion and integrity around a set of values, such as subjects declaring loyalty to a monarch or citizens united around democratic ideals. These days, however, Russia under President Vladimir Putin declares sovereignty over any group of Russian-speakers. China sets its boundaries based on ancient routes used by Chinese traders. Islamists try to set up a caliphate, or Islamic state, anywhere they can.

By its response to such challenges, the world is allowing sovereignty to be redefined by default – with values it may find create an unstable international order. The Westphalia system of nation-states has largely helped humanity flourish since the 17th century. The world must not abandon it so lightly.

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