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14.4: Sovereignty and Anarchy

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    Learning Objectives

    By the end of this section, you will be able to:

    • Explain why sovereignty is an essential element of states in the international system.
    • Define anarchy in the context of the international system.
    • Explain the relationship between sovereignty and anarchy.

    Statehood is of vital importance to a nation because it confers sovereignty. Sovereignty is the ability of a state to run its institutions without fear of interference from other states or entities. Sovereignty allows states to enforce their own laws, for better or for worse, allowing a state to exert its power within its own borders and in situations where the state must work to protect its interests.

    While states’ claims to sovereignty allow them to protect their cultural identity, beliefs, norms, and institutions, they can also prevent other states from stepping in to protect the innocent when a state acts in a manner that is counter to the basic norms of human rights and human dignity enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.18 The actions a state takes to intervene on behalf of people subjected to violence at the hands of their own government could be seen as acts of aggression. In this case, the state that is perpetrating the violence would be within their rights to take action against the intervening state. In cases of crimes against humanity, such as the genocide in the Balkans19 and the civil war in Rwanda,20 both in the 1990s, sovereignty allows a state to function as it sees fit, even when it means some citizens of that country will die. States have used the cover of sovereignty to prevent nongovernmental organizations from providing aid. For example, the Assad regime in Syria has diverted humanitarian aid intended for civilians caught in the middle of the violence in that country’s ongoing civil war, using the aid to fund its own atrocities.21 At times, states have used the cover of sovereignty to block NGOs from gathering information on atrocities happening within the country or to decline to participate in negotiations when other states tried to broker peace.


    International Anarchy

    Anarchy has a particular meaning in international relations that likely differs from the meaning you might be familiar with. This video clip clarifies the concept of anarchy in this context, contrasting it with the concept of hierarchy.

    A system made up of actors focused on protecting their own interests naturally results in anarchy,22 where there is no overarching governing authority. In the case of the international system, anarchy refers to a lack of a general sense of order in the international system. Anarchy in the international system is directly linked to this lack of enforcement mechanisms as well as a lack of a broad global government. Sovereignty is the most important part of a state’s identity. The willingness of states to make sure that their sovereignty is protected for as long as possible ensures that the system will remain anarchic.

    While each state has the right to govern itself, there is still a need for a means through which different states can gather—some ordered structure in the system that allows states to work through common issues. Intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations, provide the forums through which states can attempt to exert pressure on one another to cause one or more states to change a behavior, to provide options other than violence for conflict resolution, or to adhere to already established norms that provide some semblance of order in the otherwise anarchic system. However, there are no true enforcement bodies that have the authority and the capability to impose comprehensive consequences on a state that violates an international agreement or takes actions that fly in the face of generally accepted norms. Intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations provide useful avenues for states to solve problems that impact them at a systemic level, but it is still impossible to say with 100 percent confidence that a state can be made to behave in a certain way.

    Foreign aid and sanctions are options available to members of the international community to help move a state into alignment with generally accepted expectations for behavior. Like all types of international actions, the ability of these options to be effective requires the participation of as many members of the international community as possible and the willingness of those states and organizations to close any loopholes so that the target state feels the consequences in a meaningful way. There is no mechanism to force a state to behave a certain way. Foreign aid and sanctions, along with treaties and the actions of international organizations, provide options international actors can use to help order the environment in which a state makes its choices about how it relates to other countries.

    States can work cooperatively through institutions to enact strategies aimed at coercing a state to change its behavior; however, there is no surefire way to guarantee a state will do so or that it will continue to uphold that change. For example, the United States led a series of negotiations beginning in 2015 to work to curb Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal, was an agreement signed between Iran and the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China, under the leadership of the United States. Negotiated by the Obama administration, the agreement allowed Iran to re-engage in trade, particularly of their oil, to take some of the pressure off their own economy, and in return, Iran would work to dismantle the nuclear facilities that presented security concerns to the world. Because of the domestic political situation in the United States, the US never recognized the Iran Nuclear Deal as a ratified treaty, opting instead to enter into an “executive agreement.”23 The terms of the treaty would have been binding, but without a formal treaty, the enforcement mechanisms included in the agreement did not ever become reality. When President Obama left office in 2016, the newly elected President Donald Trump began to pull back from the agreement. Trump chose to work separately from the parties to the agreement, reinstating sanctions on Iran, including penalties for entities that continued to trade with Iran. When one key party to an agreement pulls back, other members of the negotiating body are effectively unable to uphold their side of the agreement, and that agreement is weakened.24

    Representatives from China, France, Germany, the EU, Iran, the UK, and the US pose for a photo in front of their respective flags.
    Figure 14.6 In July 2015, representatives of China, France, Germany, the EU, Iran, the UK, and the United States posed for a photo during the meetings in Vienna that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. (credit: “Iran Talks” by Bundesministeriums für europäische und internationale Angelegenheiten/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

    It may seem counterintuitive to think about anarchy and order going hand in hand when talking about the international system, but the modern system relies on the assumption that states within the system want to maintain control over everything within their own borders and work for their own benefit while at the same time being unwilling to submit to an established order in the environment around them. The tension created in the fight between order and anarchy that exists in all states, no matter how powerful they are, is what underscores and motivates international relations.

    14.4: Sovereignty and Anarchy is shared under a not declared license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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