Review: Sovereignty by Stephen Krasner

krasner-sovereigntyI have just finished reading Stephen Krasner’s book, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy.

In this relatively slim work, Krasner analyzes the durability and performance of norms of sovereignty in the international system.  It has been frequently argued, particularly in the late 1990s, that globalization is eroding long-standing respect for sovereignty challenging the ability of states to exercise control over their territory, governance, and international affairs.

Krasner explicitly positions his book as a critique to this literature noting that challenges to state sovereignty are nothing new in world politics.  Rather, a broader historical view reveals that states and international actors have long interfered in each others’ affairs with at least as much intensity as we see today.  What has changed is our perception of the legitimacy of those challenges.  Whereas it would be difficult to countenance the conquest of one state by another, other equally less subtle violations of sovereignty occur on a regular basis from the enforcement of human rights norms to the implementation of economic restructuring which often accompanies foreign aid.

His key point is that the international embrace of sovereignty is characterized by a pervasive organized hypocrisy, meaning that even as the international community claims to be upholding sovereign rights, boundaries, and responsibilities, it often violates them in the name of upholding those conditions.  For instance, many states emerging from the First World War were obligated to include provisions for the legal protection of ethnic minorities in their constitutions, a violation of sovereignty, in order to ensure minority repression would not spark interstate war by ethnic cohorts, also a violation of sovereignty.  In Krasner’s view, norms of sovereignty are far from deeply embedded making them both susceptible to subversion by asymmetrically powerful players and amenable to flexibility in the face of systemic challenges.

Disaggregating the concept of sovereignty into four subtypes, Krasner distinguishes between domestic sovereignty, interdependence sovereignty, international legal sovereignty, and Westphalian sovereignty.  The first refers specifically to the ability of the state in question to control its domestic affairs while the second refers to its ability to control cross-border issues.  The third subtype highlights whether or not the state in question enjoys some form of international recognition (territorial or otherwise) while the fourth refers to a state’s negative “right” to non-interference in domestic affairs by external actors.

Breaking down this broad definition is particularly useful given that although all state entities may exercise some of these characteristics, they do not often exhibit them all.  Indeed, a state can continue to exist with little in the way of the first two and final conditions so long as it still enjoys international legal sovereignty.  Krasner is particularly concerned with the relationship between international legal sovereignty and Westphalian sovereignty as although neither imply any conditions of control (which can only be achieved domestically), they do characterize a given state’s relationship with the rest of the international system.

Through broad historical comparative analysis, he demonstrates that when faced with a dilemma of sovereign violation, states (meaning their leaders) tend to follow a logic of consequences rather than a logic of appropriateness.  That is, state actions are guided by concerns for power and interest rather than normative concerns for performing cognitive scripts counseling the fulfillment of a sovereignty norm.  His point here is not so much that institutionalized norms do not matter but that they are often highly susceptible to concerns of material interest in an unstable international environment.  This is a rather bold if effective challenge to the English School’s focus on the socializing power of international society and more broadly constructivism’s insistence of the constitutive power of norms.

While I do not have the historical tools at my disposal to adequately challenge Krasner’s perspective over the long run, I do submit that he has underestimated the power of sovereignty norms in the modern day.   He is correct to distinguish between Westphalian and international legal sovereignty, yet it does not seem revolutionary to suggest that the latter norm of non-interference has never gained much traction.  Indeed, even those in the scholarly community who do focus on the constitutive power of sovereignty norms acknowledge that intervention is often the norm rather than the exception.  What Krasner’s analysis (if unintentionally) confirms is that although Westphalian sovereignty may be weak, international legal sovereignty in the contemporary age is rather well embedded, particularly in the post Cold War era.

The fact that state death and territorial conquest have largely disappeared as political phenomena despite their relative frequency only a century ago points to the critical impact of international legal sovereignty on the international system which state calculations based on power and interest alone cannot explain.  This is not to say that the organized hypocrisy that Krasner so ably identifies is not a key element of this expression of sovereignty as well.  Here, however, the hypocrisy may travel in the opposite direction.  While attempting to uphold the norm of sovereign territoriality (also known as the territorial integrity norm), the international community may follow a logic of appropriateness while eschewing a logic of consequences.

For instance, insofar as Kosovo is seen as being entitled to international legal sovereignty, this may be accomplished largely by ignoring the consequences of such a move in a region characterized by ethnic fault lines and latent substate separatism.  The principle of allowing Kosovo independence severing it from Serbia is itself a rather hypocritical application of the sovereignty norm in a region where other substate separatisms have been deemed illegitimate (note Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina).

Similar logics of appropriateness tend to override logics of consequences in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  In Israel, domestic concerns for being in concordance with international demands to respect the international legal sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority in the disputed territories of Gaza and the West Bank overrule both security concerns and ethnohistorical claims in these territories.  The domestic debate usually has the effect of constraining military and diplomatic responses to cross-border attacks in an apparent contradiction of a logic of consequences.

Indeed, the very fact that territorial consolidation is not openly sought by states in possession of such disputed territories points not only to a realist concern for power asymmetries but a powerful normative constraint imposed by the questionable international legal status of these spaces.  Such conditions move these states into situations of organized hypocrisy in which the state neither formally claims these spaces nor relinquishes their control of them.  Such dynamics are quite obvious in the administration of Serbian enclaves in Kosovo, Israeli quasi-military governance and settlement in the West Bank, Armenian proxy governance in Nagorno-Karabakh, and Turkish proxy administration of Northern Cyprus to name just a few.

In short, while Krasner is certainly correct that the modern character of internationally recognized sovereignty is an exercise of organized hypocrisy, the hypocrisy is not unidirectional.  Although logics of consequences often override logics of appropriateness, efforts by states to implement policies consistent with a logic of consequences may be colored by normative concerns.  That such cases exist both attempting to abide by the prescriptions and proscriptions of the territorial sovereignty regime while simultaneously violating it is quite curious indeed.  If the norm has force, why violate it?  If the norm is meaningless, why go to any lengths to abide by it?  While it certainly is instructive to examine cases in which sovereignty norms are violated in order to uphold them, it may be more consequential to examine those on the margins which explicitly violate those norms in a manner in which is clearly cognizant of the consequences of that violation.

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