From Syria to the TPP: The state of state sovereignty

Considering its role as the fundamental principle of modern international relations — responsible for defining functional units, i.e. states — state sovereignty is a relatively recent concept. The idea dates back to 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia brought an end not merely to the Thirty Years’ War, but also to the Vatican’s dominance over individual monarchs. Westphalian sovereignty granted European monarchs the right to determine the religion of their people and in doing so created a system of total supremacy within defined borders. Power by divine right was discarded as the dominant justification for political legitimacy, and in this void between humanity and God grew the Enlightenment ideals that would one day destroy the monarchies themselves.

But so long as European powers maintained their vast colonial holdings, state sovereignty was a sham. The Congress of Vienna, meant to reestablish equilibrium after the Napoleonic Wars, reinforced the dominance of major European powers over world affairs by listing only “thirty-nine states as comprising the European diplomatic system” in 1814. As K.J. Holsti explains in his book, Taming the Sovereigns, “While France, Prussia, Sweden, Venice, Spain and others may have been sovereigns by historical longevity, new claimants to this status had to be recognized to gain entrance to the club.”

Such an attitude is reflective of the constitutive view of statehood, which holds that “a state is only a state when it is recognized as such” by other states. This stands in contrast to the declarative view, one which regards “the political existence of the state” as “independent of recognition by the other states.” The declarative view was enshrined in the 1933 Montevideo Convention, an agreement between 16 North and South American countries that established four criteria for statehood: a permanent population, defined territory, a government, and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. Professor William Worster of the Hague University claims that this latter definition of statehood is the dominant view among scholars and commentators today.

Before the middle of the 20th century, the central question surrounding sovereignty dealt with defining the state for purposes of granting authority. While these questions still rage, the advent of the post-war American economic order brought with it new organizations and institutions whose political clout posed never-before-seen threats to the authority of the state itself. On an international level this power manifested itself in the IMF and the World Bank, established at the Bretton Woods conference in 1944, as well as the WTO. Under the aegis of globalization, these organizations implemented policies that, according to former World Bank chief economist and Columbia professor Joseph Stiglitz, have made the developing world subservient to the interests of global capital. Although “economics has been driving globalization,” writes Stiglitz,

…politics has shaped it. The rules of the game have been largely set by the advanced industrial countries — and particularly by special interests within those countries — and, not surprisingly, they have shaped globalization to further their own interests. They have not sought to create a fair set of rules, let alone a set of rules that would promote the well-being of those in the poorest countries of the world.

The IMF’s quota policy grants voting rights based on the amount of money contributed to the fund, a system which grants the United States veto power over any IMF proposal and other wealthy nations a disproportionate degree of influence over their poorer counterparts. This in turn gives multinational corporations with political clout in Western democracies a mechanism by which to influence policy in developing countries. Fears globalization has “undermined democracy” have sprung from the use of the global economic order to strip developing countries of the ability “to make decisions themselves in key areas that affect their citizens’ well-being.”

Perhaps the most notorious example of corporate bias in the international economy is the WTO’s “product-process” distinction. Writes world-renowned moral philosopher Peter Singer, “the WTO operates on the basis that a country cannot ban a product on the basis of the process by which the product was made but only by showing that the banned product is different in its inherent nature from other products.” In principle, this is designed to prevent subtle protectionism, but in practice it results in WTO sanctions against environmental and animal rights regulations, such as the United States’ ban against tuna caught with methods that harm dolphins and European Union’s bans on fur from animals caught in steel-jaw leghold traps or beef from cattle treated with growth hormones.

The upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership stands to fully cement this corporate power in its Investor-State Dispute Settlement provision, which creates courts for corporations to sue sovereign nations over a projected loss of profits. In all these cases, domestic policies are subject to the approval of the multinational corporations that stand to suffer from them.

Both the rapid advances in technology responsible for globalization and its infliction of economic hardship upon many of the world’s poorest have given rise to another disruptive force that has proliferated in tandem with globalization: terrorism. Global terrorist networks are a new type of actor to be considered in international security analyses in much the same way that multinational corporations and NGOs have been given distinct roles in formerly state-centric economic discussions. Nowhere today is terrorism’s impact on national sovereignty more apparent than in the Middle East, where wide swathes of southern Iraq and northern Syria have been claimed as the base of a global caliphate by an organization colloquially called the Islamic State. Although rejected by nearly every source of institutional power — including U.N. secretary general Ban-Ki Moon, who in an act of ineffectual defiance dubbed the group the “Un-Islamic Nonstate” — this title is alarmingly appropriate according to the four tenets of the constitutive view of statehood.

1. A permanent population: The population living in ISIS territory is so permanent that the bus from Beirut to Raqqa, the Islamic State’s capital, “always comes back empty.” The lucky few granted leave for medical treatment must return within 15 days or risk confiscation of their property.

2. Defined territory: This point is slightly contentious, considering the borders of Iraq and Syria are subject to conditions on the ground that change from week to week. U.S. airstrikes and the subsequent media obsession over “ISIS oil fields,” however, reveal the degree to which the land in question is regarded as firmly in control of the Islamic State.

3. A government: ISIS has an incredibly structured political hierarchy similar to that of many modern democracies. Led by self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, whose deputies in Iraq and Syria preside over the operations of twelve governors each, the Islamic State has developed the sort of infrastructure necessary for sustaining its role as an actor on the world stage.

4. The capacity to enter into relations with other states: Discounting the obvious, war with the Syrian state, the Islamic State’s control of Raqqa would have been history were it not for the vast support they’ve received from U.S. ally and NATO member Turkey. Accused of providing everything “from military cooperation and weapons transfers to logistical support, financial assistance, and the provision of medical services,” Prime Minister Erdogan’s regime has denied all involvement while jailing journalists reporting on secret service trucks funneling arms to Syrian Islamist groups.

Power, via Pixabay

Power, via Pixabay

Turkey’s support of ISIS seems suicidal considering its proximity to Kobani, a central battleground in the war on the Islamic State, until one considers who they’re fighting. The YPG, or People’s Protection Units, and the YPJ, its all-female counterpart, are the Kurdish armies who at one point seemed like the West’s best friend in the region but have now been cast aside as sovereign states gather to discuss the ISIS issue. Much like ISIS, the revolutionary Kurds of the PKK — or Kurdistan Workers’ Party — have seized upon the instability of war to claim territory for their ideological experiment. Unlike ISIS, however, the PKK’s philosophy as laid out by the party’s founder Abdullah Ocalan has seen “radical direct democracy enacted in the streets” of Rojava, an autonomous region carved out of Turkey’s south and Syria’s north. The principles of democratic confederalism enshrine ecological security, women’s rights and political decentralization and establish the Kurdish experiment as a novel model of civic engagement in the midst of chaos.

These same principles of radical autonomy are what have drawn the Turkish state’s wrath. Writes Wes Enzinna in his stunning New York Times piece “A Dream of Secular Utopia in ISIS’ Backyard,

The American State Department designated the P.K.K. a terrorist organization in 1997. Having failed in Turkey, officials claimed, the P.K.K. was trying to create a Kurdish homeland amid the disruption of war. “We will never allow the establishment of a state in Syria’s north and our south,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said in June. “We will continue to fight in this regard no matter what it costs.”

No strongman can mince words and hope to maintain control of his lands when a democratic challenge threatens his dominion. Erdogan’s actions reflect this; his government has launched over 300 airstrikes against the Kurds since August 2014 and only three against ISIS in the same interval. In this light, Ankara’s inaction as the carnage in Kobani transpired in full view of Turkish tanks can be seen as a calculated attempt to let its two worst enemies destroy each other. So long as the Islamic State’s geographic disruption remains confined to Syria and Iraq, Turkey regards the YPG as a larger threat despite their refusal to use violence unless provoked.

Both ISIS and the Kurds have relied on their ideology to amass volunteer armies from around the world. As the majority of Western democracies regard both groups as terrorist organizations, citizens of America and the UK have been arrested for emulating or trying to join these fighting forces. Whether it comes in the form of sharia law or radical democracy, ideology has the power to reconstruct arbitrary borders and draw followers wherever words can reach. Their masterful manipulation of social media is what has enabled the Islamic State to rival the drone war in its globalization of the war on terror.

This, then, is the state of state sovereignty. Under attack by international economic structures rewriting domestic policies to reshape economic realities, by multinational corporations bribing elected representatives out of enforcing their obligation to the people’s will, by ideologies of repression and liberation calling citizens to take up arms and abandon their national allegiances for a global vision, the state cannot hope to stand. Humanity is hurtling towards a paradigmatic redefinition of political power and the only common theme is decentralization. The structures designed to confine a land’s people under a common identity are straining under the illusory burden of the law, and all around the world people are in rebellion. It is not destiny but the will of the free that will decide the fate of freedom.


Raghav Sharma is a writer, filmmaker, and political activist studying at the University of Pittsburgh. He writes on electoral and campaign finance issues, foreign policy, and economic affairs.

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