Since the 1990s, it has become increasingly popular for the United States and other Western nation-states to justify new wars on the basis of “humanitarianism.” This was the case in Somalia in 1993, in the former Yugoslavia in the mid 1990s, and in Libya in 2011. Humanitarianism was also part of the justification given for both Gulf Wars (in 1991 and 2001) and in Afghanistan. We are now told by many in the media and in the US military establishment that invasions of both Syria and Venezuela could be justified on grounds of humanitarianism.

It is recognized that in each case, the target country in question is subject to violations of its sovereignty. Violations of national sovereignty, however, require a disregard for both the UN Charter and centuries of established international law.

The response to this, often given by those who support intervention, is that national sovereignty is not absolute, but is forfeit when a regime behaves in a way that includes violations of human rights.

The increasing popularity and use of ostensibly humanitarian reasons for violations of national sovereignty has highlighted for us, however, how sovereignty has long been an important limiting factor on the power of large states in favor of smaller states. Sovereignty’s disintegration threatens to remove these limits.

After all, large states — especially hegemons like the United States and Russia and China — rarely must rely on appeals to the juridical protections offered by the concept of sovereignty. These large states have de facto sovereignty at nearly all times because of their enormous military capabilities.

Appeals to sovereignty in the legal sense are more the domain of smaller and weaker states which must appeal to both ideological and legal concepts as a protection against those states with far greater military capability.

It should not surprise us then, that as sovereignty takes a back seat to stated humanitarian concerns by larger states, small states find themselves at the mercy of more powerful states.The implications for the international system are significant.

The Historical Problem of Sovereignty

Nowadays, when discussing the concept of sovereignty, most tend to emphasize the importance of sovereignty as strengthening the power of a regime within its own boundaries. In the parlance of historians of the state, a truly sovereign state exercises a monopoly on the means of coercion within its own territory. (This is true, of course, so long as we allow for the fact that true confederations and federal systems allow for shared sovereignty within their borders.)

This Westphalian system of sovereign states is what most modern people have grown accustomed to. Since the 17th century, the international system of sovereign states has been built upon the idea of sovereign states that are all — at least on paper — “juridically equal.” That is, each state is just as sovereign as every other state.

Although the modern state system has its disadvantages — as do other forms of international organization before it, such as the city-leagues and feudal states — it also has its advantages for both states and their subjects. According to Hendrik Spruyt, these advantages include:

  • “Respective jurisdictions could be precisely specified through agreement on fixed borders.”
  • States could “precisely specify who their subjects were.”
  • “Borders enabled sovereigns to specify limits to their authority.”

While libertarians and other advocates for limiting state power might point to the problems of national borders in increasing state power over individual persons, the advantages to ordinary people can also been seen.

For example, a French farmer who lives along a frontier with Germany (and who wishes to live within a French-speaking majority) arguably enjoys a more reasonable and predictable expectation of this if the border with Germany is more specifically defined. By limiting the jurisdiction of states, borders offer advantages to those who seek protection from foreign states.

Prior to the Westphalian system, the situation was more fluid, and this was especially the case when confronted with certain imperial powers that asserted universal jurisdiction in an age when sovereignty as we know it did not exist.[1]

Sovereignty Limits the Power of Large States

From the perspective of small states, then, the fact that borders “specify the limits” of state authority is especially important.

If we take the issue of sovereignty seriously, it is not enough for a large state to simply assert itself as the local hegemon and invade neighbors when politically or strategically expedient. The concept of sovereignty limits the ability of these large states to act.

Thus, sovereignty — and its ideological justification, nationalism — shores up state power within certain areas while simultaneously limiting state power in areas outside the jurisdiction of all foreign states. In his book The Great Delusion: Liberal Dreams and International Realities, John Mearsheimer notes:

Nationalism, which is all about self-determination, says that the people living inside a state’s borders have the right to determine their own fate, and no outside power has the right to impose its views on another nation-state. Sovereignty is thus inextricably bound up with the nation as well as the state. In essence, nationalist logic reinforced Westphalian sovereignty. But nationalism had its greatest impact on sovereignty outside Europe, where it helped facilitate decolonization in the twentieth century by focusing great attention on the principles of self-determination and nonintervention. In effect, it helped delegitimize empire. It is no surprise that the countries that were once victims of European imperialism staunchly support the concept of sovereignty today.

Mearsheimer describes that sovereignty was a key issue in rolling back Soviet (and thus Russian) power in the wake of the Cold War:

The influence of sovereignty was probably at its height in the late 1980s, as the Cold War was coming to an end. States all around the globe embraced it, and definitely resonated with the Eastern European countries trying to free themselves from the Soviet yoke. And once the Cold War ended, many of the republics that comprised the Soviet Union began talking about gaining their own sovereignty, which they eventually did.

Consequently, we see that while sovereignty may solidify the state lower at the domestic level, it also has a decentralizing effect at the international level.

Large States Now Re-Assert Themselves Against Small-State Sovereignty

But Mearsheimer also notes respect for sovereignty has been eclipsed since then: “the norm was eroding by the mid 1990s, mainly because the United States took to interfering in the politics of other countries even more than it had in the past.”

Mearsheimer, refers in part to the rise of so-called humanitarian interventions which expanded the perceived acceptability of a larger power invading, bombing, and militarily dominating a smaller, weaker nation.

The US — with the help of coalitions of wealthy medium-sized states through NATO — has been at the forefront of this for more than two decades now. Note, of course, that these violations of sovereignty occur only against small, weak states. Larger states, which can protect their own sovereignty through real military defense, are not targeted. Mearsheimer points out:

A liberal unipole [such as the US] is unlikely to use military power to protect individual rights or foster regime change in a major power, mainly because the costs are too high. Nevertheless, it is likely to interfere in the country’s politics in other ways. Its tactics might include relying on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to support certain institutions and politicians inside the target state; linking aid, membership in international institution, and trade to the major power’s human rights record.; and shaming the target state by publicly reporting its human rights violations. This approach is unlikely to work, however, because the major power invariably views the liberal power’s behavior as illegitimate interference in its internal affairs. It will think its sovereignty is being violated, causing the policy to backfire and poisoning relations between the two countries.

Thus, it is no accident that we only hear of calls for humanitarian regime change or invasion in small states that can offer no meaningful resistance to American military might.

More adroit observers in small states are aware of the implications of this. The erosion of sovereignty is thus viewed as a revival of colonialism by many international-relations scholars, and especially in parts of the world where colonialism is still a relatively fresh memory.

Vague and Ever-Changing Standards for What Constitutes Actionable Human Rights Violations

After all, when the need for an allegedly humanitarian invasion is invoked by larger states, no objective standard is given as to at what point a state has forfeited its sovereignty because of human rights violations. Many could agree about extreme cases, such as with the Rwanda genocide, but most cases are far less clear. In the case of Libya in 2011, for example, there was no looming human rights crisis that was remotely comparable to what happened in Rwanda, and yet the US called for immediate and urgent invasion of Libya in the name of human rights.

Similarly, the current situation in Venezuela remains firmly within a gray area that bears no comparison to true genocides. What is the body count? How large are the mass graves? This isn’t to say that the Venezuelan regime is an enlightened one. But the fact that a “humanitarian” invasion of Venezuela is even being contemplated shows how far the goal posts have been moved in the matter of human rights violations, compared to what was viewed as a serious violation twenty years ago.

Many defenders of the sovereignty and independence of small, relatively poor countries ought to view such a development with concern.

For example, if the current situation in Venezuela justifies humanitarian intervention, other Latin American states are equally open to intervention. Given that 29,000 people were murdered in Mexico in 2017 — as a result of ongoing lawlessness resulting from cartels and state corruption — it would not be hard to build a case that the Mexican state’s willingness to tolerate such a bloodbath necessitates outside intervention. The same might be said of Colombia and Honduras as well, for similar reasons.

Any Latin American who calls for US intervention in Venezuela ought to be aware that he may be making the case for the US invasion of his own country as well.

Paving the Way for Russian Interventions

The US is not the only large state that benefits from this erosion of sovereignty.

As Shane Reeves has pointed out, Russia has used the language of humanitarian crises to justify its own violations of national sovereignty: “The Ukrainian crisis is again, unfortunately, highlighting how easily a state may claim the authority to use force to avert a humanitarian crisis.”

Notably, Russian president Vladimir Putin “claimed the intervention, in large part, was to defend Russian-speaking minorities in the region from ‘real threats’ to life and their health, to protect against anti-Semitic violence, and for a number of other humanitarian purposes.”

The Russian state made similar claims during the 2008 Russo-Georgian War in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Naturally, the Western media and Western intellectuals tend to dismiss the Russian claims, portraying these violations of sovereignty as unjustified because those areas don’t really warrant humanitarian intervention — and because Russians are supposedly motivated only by cynical self-interest. We are told, of course, that Western invasions, using the exact same logic and justification are all motivated by only noble and honorable desires. It is not difficult to see however, how the US’s erosion of national sovereignty in the name of humanitarian intervention has laid the groundwork for the Russian state to engage in its own interventions.

Moreover, were the Chinese state to intervene in neighboring countries to protect ethnic Chinese minorities, or to “calm ethnic tensions” in a neighboring state, on what grounds would the West object? It is increasingly difficult to credibly appeal to “respect for sovereignty” as a limiting factor on Chinese (or Russian, or US) intervention. All that is left is a debate over whether or not violations of rights of national minorities constitute a “human rights crisis.” No meaningful yardstick for measuring this, however, exists.

Desirable Limitations on State Sovereignty

None of this is to say that state sovereignty is an unmitigated good. State sovereignty is often problematic precisely because it reflects a state’s ability to assert itself as the ultimate legal and political monopolist within its territory. This can be a major problem for domestic minority groups and regional powers attempting to assert their own autonomy within a state. Thus, limitations on state sovereignty through secession, federalism, and decentralization in general can be justified without eroding sovereignty as a concept that acts as a bulwark against intervention by large states. When large states violate the sovereignty of smaller states — whether ostensibly justified by humanitarianism or not — the result is a concrete and de facto increase in the power of a large state at the expense of a small one. This is no less desirable in the international realm as it is domestically, when a national government might impose the preferences of larger states or provinces on smaller and relatively weak ones.

Meanwhile, the current drive toward ever-more-frequent violations of national sovereignty in the name of humanitarianism represents a significant victory for large states seeking to expand their own power ever outward.


1. For example, it was often asserted that the Holy Roman Emperor enjoyed universal jurisdiction. According to Alexander Lee in Humanism and Empire: The Imperial Ideal in Fourteenth-Century Italy:”…the canonist Johannes Teutonicus declared that the emperor enjoyed universal dominion by right, and stood above all other kinds, except those who had received special dispensation. And while some lesser monarchs might deny imperial overlordship, Bernard of Compostella the Elder minatained that the emperor was – in law- the true princps mundi et dominus … et omnes provinicae. It was in this spirit too, that Barbarossa proclaimed that divinia providente clementia Urbis et Orbis gubernacula tenemus, and Frederick II laid claim to universal jurisdiction, which he acknowledged as coming from God.” (p 191.) (Not surprisingly, the imperial court’s perennial rival, the Bishop of Rome, generally opposed this idea.) No such claims are tolerated (in theory) under the Westphalian system in which each state is assumed to be supreme within its own borders and no “overlordship” exists within what is regarded as an anarchic system.

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