Sovereignty and the international order

Ioannis Kotoulas
Thursday 24 Feb 2022

The present tensions between Russia and Ukraine raise important questions for the international order.

The recent tensions between Russia and Ukraine with the prospect of war looming dangerously over the continent of Europe for the first time in decades highlight the importance of some fundamental notions in international relations.

Russia has gathered its military forces on the border with Ukraine, effectively threatening a further invasion of the country after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the secession of the eastern provinces. The intense military standoff, heated diplomatic exchange and repeated contacts between Russia, Ukraine and major Western actors, including the US, France and Germany, continues, as on 21 February Russia recognised the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in Ukraine’s Donbass. In this context important questions and lessons still arise concerning the legitimacy of such actions and the international order.

The world order is based on the fundamental Westphalian notion of state sovereignty that sees the existence of states as independent actors on the international level and sets out matters that are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state. Thus, the principle of state sovereignty has two essential aspects, one territorial and the other political. 

Concerning the territorial dimension of state sovereignty, all actions undermining the territorial integrity of a state are to be condemned. These include casus belli, i.e. a threat of war, itself illegal under international law, and external interference in the territory or affairs of another nation. 

One such case was the casus belli issued by Turkey against Greece in 1995 after Greece decided to extend its territorial waters to 12 nautical miles, as it has the right to do according to international law. Another is the casus belli of Russia against Ukraine, if the latter moves on with its intention to join the NATO alliance. 

Issuing threats of war against other states is a dangerous practice that could lead to an era of chaos and turmoil. Examples of external interference in other states include Turkey’s previous meddling in Egypt’s internal affairs, its unlawful and destabilising presence in Libya and Syria, and its use of foreign mercenaries as proxy actors in theatres of war.

Concerning the political dimension of state sovereignty, external pressure on the internal politics of states often disrupts the international order. The Western states in particular should cease their often-misguided rhetoric and instrumentalisation of abstract principles like “human rights” or “democracy” in order to put pressure on other states and should focus instead on the respect for state sovereignty as an inalienable national right. 

External interference in national affairs should be avoided as a general guiding principle of inter-state relations. Relevant examples here include the criticism of Egypt with respect to its anti-terrorist campaigns and the criticism of Greece with respect to its protection of its sea borders. States should develop their own paths of political evolution with no external interference, no matter what the supposedly benevolent intentions of the external actors might be.

Chief Editor of the Al-Ahram Weekly Ezzat Ibrahim rightly highlighted this principle in relation to the crisis between Russia and Ukraine by quoting words from major US analyst George Kennan in his seminal article “America and the Russian Future” that originally appeared in the US journal Foreign Affairs in 1951 concerning Western perceptions of the former Soviet Union.

“Give them time; let them be Russians; let them work out their internal problems in their own manner,” Kennan wrote. “The ways by which people advance towards dignity and enlightenment in government are things that constitute the deepest and most intimate processes of national life. There is nothing less understandable to foreigners, nothing in which foreign influence can do less good.”

* The writer is a lecturer in geopolitics at the University of Athens in Greece.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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