S O V E R E I G N T Y - The Underlying Principle in World Political Divides

Among the many voices raised over the divide in world politics, amidst the tones of exceptionalism, the cries of indignation, the accusations of hypocrisy, G. John Ikenberry identifies two theories that might embody this cacophony. The first frames cleavages in the international order as a geographical divide between Western and non-Western states. The second theory contests that the real divide stems between those who want to expand the international system of multilateral governance and those who seek a less interdependent order. It is the latter theory that Ikenberry favors.

While these two theories may be aptly applied to different issue areas in international relations, what Ikenberry neglects to consider is that they are not mutually exclusive—the two proposed cleavages overlap and intersect, but they are ultimately linked by a single, underlying theory: the principle of sovereignty. Failing to understand the dynamic of these cleavages leads to the mischaracterization of various issue areas faced in today’s international system. While different issues may be classified as falling under either a West v. non-West cleavage, a pro v. anti-multilateral governance cleavage, or display elements of both cleavages, the prioritization of maintaining state sovereignty within the international system is the broader distinction that underlies nearly all divides in world politics.

Three case studies in the issue areas of international political economy, international security, and international society will show that either one or both of Ikenberry’s two original classifications might be applied to each issue at its surface. However, further analysis will reveal that each case is more accurately understood by examining their implicit questions about state sovereignty. The first case study will examine international economics with regard to developmental banks (the World Bank and the New Development Bank) and falls under the multilateral governance cleavage. Underlying tensions over the prioritization of state sovereignty are what actually distinguish the goals and tactics of the two development banks. The second case study will address international security by examining the underlying questions of sovereignty in regional security organizations, which can be categorized under the West vs. non-West cleavage. The third and most extensive case study will address sovereignty in the area of international society by analyzing power hierarchies in intergovernmental organizations. Initially, the West v. non-West paradigm may be applied to this case because we often observe the pitting of the BRICS against the OECD countries, but elements of the multilateral governance cleavage are also present.

Ultimately, individual states within these intergovernmental organizations act according to how they prioritize their own sovereignty.


Development Banks

    The creation of the New Development Bank (NDB) by the BRICS was designed to serve as an alternative to the World Bank, of which Western nations have primary control. The two contesting development banks support the theory of a multilateral governance cleavage. However, the NDB does not exist solely in competition with the World Bank; its practices of non-conditional lending addresses the deeper question of sovereignty. States who prioritize their sovereignty are weary of the World Bank’s practice of conditionality. 

    Many lending institutions are in the practice of attaching both economic and political conditions to aid and development loans, known as International Financing Institutions (IFI) Conditionality. Initially, the attachment of economic conditions supplied a blueprint so that the loans would be repaid in a timely manner. However, at the height of the Washington Consensus in the 1990s, a period of stricter conditionality coupled with a set of broadly free market economic ideas, led to the inclusion of neoliberal political conditions in International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank loans. Such conditions might include: adopting anti-corruption measures, committing to protect human and minority rights, adopting a timetable for elections, agreeing to independent external audits or funds, and enacting environmental standards or studies in the case of developmental projects. Imposing these conditions enforces a multilateral governance cleavage that can be observed in the strong backlash to IFI conditionality brought forth by states who receive loans from these institutions. Countries who give aid on the basis of conditions appear to be in favor of multilateral governance because it is through multilateral institutions such as the World Bank that they are able to promote their neoliberal values. Countries who receive aid appear to be opposed to multilateral governance because the loans’ accompanying conditions prove to be burdensome. Attached political conditions may not be based on shared norms and values, they may prove ineffective in actually transforming governance practices, and they may ask states to show improvement in a fraction of the time taken by advanced nations. However, the introduction of the BRICS-led New Development Bank complicates this multilateral governance cleavage. So what accounts for the divide? 

    The divide is accounted for by the question of sovereignty. All of these political conditions could reasonably be viewed as an infringement on state sovereignty, and states subject to these conditions are more likely to be concerned for their individual sovereignty given the extent of the foreign influence exacted by these multilateral organizations. The New Development Bank provides a viable lending alternative for these developing nations by granting loans that lack explicit political conditions. This increases the perception that aid-receiving states are better able to maintain their sovereignty by removing the stringent parental-like oversight measures common in IFI conditionality. In addition, the NDB’s focus on lending to infrastructure-based projects is also note-worthy. In recent years, the World Bank has focused on initiatives that are more openly concerned with human rights, such as health and education based projects. The World Bank focus is more political in the projects to which it lends, once again leading to greater possibility of the perception of violated state sovereignty. The NDB’s more neutral focus reduces this possibility. Critics may argue that NDB loans create similar political obligations to the BRICS. However, any conditions attached to NDB loans are usually implicit, and there is no proof that there are any attached conditions significant enough to impact state sovereignty. By removing the political conditions from development and aid loans, the NDB addresses a key concern in the international political economy: prioritizing sovereignty.


Regional Security Organizations    

    The rise of regional security organizations (RSOs) across the globe is easily characterized as a West vs. non-West cleavage given that RSOs are primarily geopolitical alliances. Neighboring states with similar values, concerns, and interests ally in a manner more complex than classic collective defense arrangements. RSOs serve as forums for dialogue, reconciliation of norms, and economic coordination. The rise of RSOs in the continued era of American hegemony frames participation in the international system as a choice: “They [states] can directly challenge the United States for international leadership…or they can integrate into the existing liberal order.” However, the establishment and operation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) as a check against Western American hegemony demonstrates that questions of sovereignty underly and influence the actions of member states in regional alliances.     

    The SCO is is a Eurasian political, economic and military organization founded in 2001 by the leaders of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Many observers believe that the SCO was designed specifically to serve as counterbalance to NATO and avoid regional conflicts which the U.S. might use to justify intervention in the area. While this may seem a blatantly anti-Western sentiment, it is also important to acknowledge the sovereignty principles that informed the creation of this regional security organization. The growing “World Without the West” is increasingly shifting towards a neo-Westphalian system, where states “bargain with each other about the terms of their external relationships, but staunchly respect the rights of each to order its own society, politics and culture without external influence.” By contrast, the United States and its Western allies still operate in the neoliberal system established after World War II and strengthened in the 1990s following the fall of the Soviet Union. This neoliberal system has less concern for state sovereignty, especially with regard to developing countries whose systems of governance do not necessarily fit the ideal liberal mold. By creating regional security organizations, developing non-Western countries are working to develop a system that grants them economic, social, and cultural autonomy.

    Forming alliances such as the SCO allows China, Russia, and others to align themselves with like-minded states that share sovereignty as their priority. While these RSOs may engender the West vs. anti-West cleavage in their rhetoric, they are still guided by a desire to maintain individual sovereignty in the international system.


Intergovernmental Organizations

    Power hierarchies and political coalitions present in the United Nations is an example of an apparent West vs. non-West cleavage. Given that the setting is an intergovernmental organization, tensions over multilateral governance also play out in this example, albeit, to a lesser extent that is not easily proven. However, beneath these cleavages the prioritization of sovereignty is the main question that shapes individual state actions, as exemplified by BRICS actions at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Cancun Ministerial in 2003.

    Created after World War II during one of the peak eras of American hegemony, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization (WTO), and other intergovernmental organizations formed around this time were heavily shaped by U.S. power. The UN is organized such that its founders—primarily Western nations, such as the United Stakes, the United Kingdom, and France—exercise significant control through their permanent seats on the Security Council. Coalitions such as the Group of 7 (G7) also serve as the leading members of the WTO, which provides a forum for Western states to coordinate international policy to best serve their collective interests. It is also important to consider is the economic strength G7 states wield; their share of world total GDP is still significant, despite the rise of non-Western economies. The combination of these factors allows Western states to exert significant influence within the UN, and their practices of excluding non-Western states engenders a perception of a geopolitical divide between the two regions. With the creation of a more formalized BRICS coalition that meets annually, this perception was further justified. 

    The political operating taking place within the context of this intergovernmental organization also supports the multilateral governance cleavage. The influence that Western/G7 nations enjoy within the United Nations may provoke resentment in developing countries, who might be discouraged from engaging in this form of multilateral governance and others for fear of their interests being overwhelmed by predominant G7 interests. 

    A specific case study that exemplifies both cleavages can be found in the 2003 WTO Cancun Ministerial. Here, the BRICS contested a joint proposal on agriculture made between the United States and the European Union. The BRICS, especially India and Brazil, saw this proposal as an effort to force developing countries to lower their trade barriers, while the U.S. and EU were allowed to maintain their trade distorting subsidies. This proposal prompted a strong reaction from some developing countries; Brazil and India formed an alliance to oppose the initiative and craft their own counterproposal. “As a result, the Cancun Ministerial took shape as a dramatic battle between developed and developing countries and ultimately ended in collapse, with the G20-T’s block of the US-EU proposal a central factor in the breakdown.” Brazil and India’s reaction exemplifies the West/non-West cleavage apparent in world politics. The BRICS nations that chose not to join in this reaction exemplify the multilateral governance cleavage. While India and Brazil chose to act against the proposal within the boundaries of WTO protocol, China, Russia, and South Africa largely refrained from such aggressive action, perhaps because they recognized that the structure of such multilateral organizations tends to favor those at the top of the hierarchy—namely, Western states. While this is mostly speculation, it is indirectly supported by the fact that until Cancun, there was essentially a U.S. and EU “cartel over agenda setting and compromise brokering” in the WTO. Evidence that China is less inclined to engage in multilateral governance is also found in statements made by Chinese negotiators: “China is not a leader and China does not want to be a leader….we would have to take the spotlight, and that is against China’s philosophy to be quiet, low profile, modest.”

    But where does sovereignty lay in all of this? The answer to this question is found when we consider the the actions of individual states. Within intergovernmental organizations, individual states will still act in accordance with how highly they prioritize their sovereignty. This is the underlying principle that connects the West/non-West and multilateral governance cleavages. Within the context of the previous example, this principle also explains why BRICS reacted so strongly against the Western-proposed agricultural trade proposal and why the U.S. and the EU do not appear to be more concerned about their own sovereignty within this system. First considering Brazil and India, it is clear that their actions in Cancun were motivated by domestic interests. They mounted a challenge against the proposed agreement in order to protect their sovereign economic interests, which were shared in this instance. These two states were more likely to work within the confines of a intergovernmental organization to affect change because as developing countries they lack both the influence the U.S. and EU members possess and the high levels of economic growth seen in China. Working within the mechanisms of the WTO by coalition-building is most likely the best way for countries like Brazil and India to achieve their goals and protect their sovereignty. However, we will see that this will not always be the optimal option; sticking with the example of Brazil and India, later rounds of negotiations saw their alliance fall apart when their sovereign interests were no longer aligned. Thus, individual states act within intergovernmental organizations according to what best serves their sovereignty. For BRICS and other developing nations, this sovereignty is especially prioritized within international organizations given their susceptibility to be overwhelmed by Western/G7 interests. When analyzing U.S. and EU sovereignty in contrast, it would be a mistake to say that state sovereignty is of a lower priority for these nations. Arguably, there is no state more uncompromising than the U.S. when it comes sovereignty, as the the American Congress constantly demonstrates. Post-WWI the Senate rejected U.S. entrance into the League of Nations. In 1944 the Senate again rejected U.S. entrance into an International Trade Organization (ITO) proposed by the Bretton Woods agreement. In 2012 the Senate rejected a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled. All of these were rejected on the claim that they would erode the principles of American sovereignty. What allows the U.S. to de-prioritize sovereignty in the context of the UN and the WTO is their position at the top of hierarchical power structure. As a permanent Security Council member and a leader of the G7, the United States wields considerable power, and there is little concern of its interests being overwhelmed within the system. However, were the tables turned, it is likely that the U.S. would alter it’s actions such that its sovereignty becomes its first priority. Even in an issue such as this, where elements of both cleavages are displayed, the ultimate division in world politics is the prioritization of sovereignty.


    Nowhere does the question of sovereignty seem greater than in international relations; nowhere do states pay it more attention. It is persistent in its endless monotone that lies beneath the more raucous debate over the divide in world politics. While surface level of analyses may allow us to classify different issues as falling under the West v. non-West cleavage, the multilateral governance cleavage, or perhaps both cleavages, the ultimate divide is united by underlying questions of sovereignty. Neglecting the nuances of different issues by forcing them into one cleavage or the other leads to the mischaracterization of these issues. For example, characterizing state actions in intergovernmental organizations as emblematic of a West/non-West divide over-simplifies individual state motivations. If nations accept this cleavage at face-value and implement foreign policy accordingly, they run the risk of reinforcing a divide that does not accurately reflect the reality of situations. The unintentional consequence would be that those partners who are pushed together are those who would otherwise not unite. 

    To understand the fault lines in today’s international system, it is essential that we continue to ask: how does each state prioritize its sovereignty?





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Divya SundaramComment