The Value of International Politics

Why study politics?

With any research project, understanding the question of interest begins with a definition. Generally speaking, politics can be understood as the collective wielding of a societies’ power, or the ability to shape the surrounding environment according to this ‘political’ will. Therefore, viewed locally, politics determines the laws of any given society in question. By studying the political formation of these laws, one gains important insights into the operation and priorities of the society.

International politics, however, results from the clash of different societal entities with different foundational assumptions. Thus, while the study of domestic politics offers clarity into a societal structure, the international arena is not so clear-cut. Rather, international politics, and therefore international law, arises through the coagulation of independent legal structures that are forced into reconciliation due to the co-inhabitance of the same international sphere. As a result, this second sphere of international politics, vital to the peaceful operation of our global community remains relatively ill-defined.

My primary research interest involves the legitimacy of sovereign states in international politics, and the factors and characteristics in various societies that lead the international community to consider that society legitimate. Legitimacy does not develop from an objective reality. On the contrary, the acceptance of legitimacy within the construct of the current international system is entirely dependent upon the other members of the international community. In other words, legitimacy must be conferred upon a normative idea or behavior through the social interaction and mutual agreement of the constituent members.

The current international system, crystallized into international law with the acceptance of the United Nations Charter, operates off the notion of sovereign states—that each recognized member country has total control over its internal affairs, and represents the interests of its domestic community within the international community. There is no hierarchy, however, among members of the international community; the system presumes each member to hold an equal standing with every other recognized sovereign state.

The reality, however, is that not every societal arrangement fits within this idealized system of international affairs. My current research focuses on two societal communities that do not fit into these normatively accepted bounds. First, separatist regions challenge a preexisting sovereign state, and fight for both independent governance as well as international recognition as an independent sovereign entity. Second, de facto states are autonomous governing communities outside of any sovereign government control that are not recognized by the international community as sovereigns. While neither separatist nor de facto states have received wide-scale international recognition, they exist as illegitimate entities in the international community. However, many of these self-governing entities slowly do gain international legitimacy without an accompanying recognition by sovereign states, thus generating an inconsistent normative environment where different norms vie for preeminence.

Scholars must study the legal ramifications of the increasing legitimacy of non-recognized states, and more generally, the challenge to the overriding authority of the state sovereignty norm. A large part of conflict, particularly territorial conflict, involves the disputed legitimacy of ownership. Most of the time, the disputants emphasize differing societal norms to advance their own claims to legitimacy. For example, in the case of Baku, the Azeris discuss their sovereign powers and the accompanying legal rights, whereas the Armenians and Nagorno-Karabakh Republic emphasize their right to self-determination and self-governance. The lack of ordering principles in international law provides the ambiguity that allows for each claimant in the conflict to adopt a view of international principles that favors their own national self-interests. Thus, the study of international politics, and the accompanying development of a unifying code of international principles, suggests a path that would carry the international community a long way towards conflict resolution.


About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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