Sovereignty in the Age of International Intervention

The international community needs to decide on how much it values the importance of state sovereignty. While human rights abuses or insufficient military capacity against internal threat may compel an international intervention, unsolicited interventions cannot coexist with the present international notions of territorial integrity. Moreover, changes in the expectations surrounding the post-intervention sovereign entity need to accompany the shifting norms on sovereignty.

Territorial integrity cannot be considered inviolate if the principle can be superseded for higher purposes, such as under the Right to Protect (R2P). Moreover, the development of permeable borders also opens the way for changing norms. If external actors can unilaterally decide to cross state boundaries, then state consent becomes inherently less relevant. Even when the intervention comes at the behest of the international authority on force, the U.N. Security Council, territorial sovereignty stills diminishes in significance.

However, intervention strategies that overthrow sovereign regimes remain focused on an increasingly outdated conception of state sovereignty, an approach that has proven disastrous for self-rule. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya have all experienced regime change as the result of international use of force. After 15 years of violence in Afghanistan, the Afghani government still struggles to extend sovereign control over its territory. Iraq totters amidst ethnic unrest and the threat of an occupying Islamic State that emerged out of the post-Saddam power vacuum. Libya now has two fully functional governments within its territorial borders, a reality that completely diverges from the international model of sovereign statehood.

Under the “old” sovereign definition, a state requires a strong, unified leadership. Traditional sovereignty did not differentiate between regime type—both democracies and autocracies fit comfortably under the past sovereign model. While overthrowing autocracies may be laudable goal, the reality is that these regime-changing interventions are also destroying the core governing infrastructures of the sovereign state. The resulting chaos offsets the state’s ability to provide goods and services to the populace, and the reformed state government seems to lack the immediate capacity to rule effectively.

Thus, the international community needs to recognize the changes in sovereignty, and clearly delineate the higher-order value set. Regime-changing interventions need to take into account that the external intervention not only violates the present sovereignty, but also affects the state’s long-term viability as a traditionally sovereign member of the international community. If the traditional state system remains a priority, then these regime-changing efforts should also take into account measures that maintain core preexisting institutional structures. In short, states need to better incorporate the cost of intervention.


About Brian Mund

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