INTERNATIONAL relations deal with relationships between nation-states including all other factors encapsulated in inter-state relationships. These factors set standards that determine how the global system operates. It also links and directs the interdependence between sovereign states; inter-state relations; international institutions and non-state actors. All these combine into a global system which sets expected behaviour for all entities related to this discipline and guide them by common norms.
These global norms form a dialectical interdependence between confining and reinforcing the state sovereignty. This confinement and reinforcement is a proposition which seems contradictory and yet interactive. International Relations Professor Steven Krasner once observed that if an entity qualifies as a state, it is eligible for acceptance as such, and with acceptance comes certain rights, capacities, and obligations. This observation denotes that it is not every entity that qualifies to be a state unless it has capacities that makes it recognised as such. Therefore, it is not self imposition but recognition by others (states) for an entity to be considered a sovereign state. Furthermore even recognition of capacities has to be determined through accepting obligations imposed. These obligations too are not self resolute but predetermined by the global system.
There are a number of obligations or attributes for state sovereignty. But for the purposes of this topic only two shall be engaged with. These are the capacities to join with other states in making international and transnational law through international treaties, agreements and conduct; and the duty to abide by international norms of conduct agreed to by treaty or considered universal as well as part of customary law.
These attributes are not a choice but requirements for a state to be accepted as sovereign, binding this sovereignty to international laws, treaties, agreements and conducts to the global system. Therefore, the rules of engagement are not prescribed by its sovereignty but on the contrary by the international standards for the state to customise. These commitments supersede its local constitutional obligations where such local compulsions conflict with international expectations.
Eventually, a state becomes part of the global village on terms and conditions set by global system in order to interact with others. This indirectly limits state sovereignty as its interests are superseded by global norms. Amid this restriction, state sovereignty benefits from the interaction with the global village as it cannot survive on its own. The connection with the system is noticed by socio-economic and political benefits. More often this interdependency is observable when there is a global economic crisis. It impacts negatively on the economy of individual sovereign states.
As globalization intensifies, sovereignty is slowly surrendered to international institutions and non-state actors. Internal policies are surrendered through sharing international agreements, as well as capitulating internal commercial regulations as multinational commercial rules and transactions penetrate states. Ironically, at this particular level of interdependency sovereignty declines irrespective of economic or military power of a given state. The most recent example is that of President Donald Trump’s attempt to restrict foreigners from residing in the United States (US). The US courts ruled against his decision because it was interfering with international norms. This is one of the results of the ambiguity and controversy of the concept – sovereignty.
Implication of this ambiguity and confusion
It might seem contradictory for a state to be regarded sovereign though sovereignty is constrained by international norms. Contrary to this view at internal affairs level, the state continues to play its role without any interventions as long as local rules and regulations do not interfere with international standards. However, it is imperative to note that sovereign equality, territorial integrity and political autonomy are not shared equally across the global system. The determinant factor here is the structured or asymmetric position of states in international relations. This structure is composed of the core, the semi periphery and peripheries.
More economically developed and or militarily stronger states relatively have a better leverage to determine the rules of engagement as well as breaking such rules. Conversely, less developed and under-developed countries do not have influence on setting the same rules and have less or no autonomy to break them. Therefore, this ambiguity and confusion impact less on developed states that are at the core of the system than in states at the lower level. Therefore, the notion of equality among the unequal continue unaltered.
Nevertheless, new technological advancement has brought into play another factor in global system called non-state actors. Technological developments have broken the traditional economic barriers of powerful states, allowing penetration of these markets by among others semi-peripheral states to sell their goods in these markets.
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The modern “free market” economy is penetrating this structural position of the system as commercial links are breaking barriers set by the structure. These commercial links based on free market have penetrated every state irrespective of its market control. The concept of “free market” is restraining the sovereignty of the developed states too, though not in the same magnitude as is the case in less developed countries. This is a new challenge posed by the semi-peripheral states to the structure of the global system.
In a nutshell the sovereign state exists only when its interests do not conflict with the global norms and its rules of engagement are set, prescribed and accepted internationally. Any attempt against this logic is tantamount to a fiasco.
In disregard to this reality (systemic structure and role of non-state actors) politicians in some countries take advantage of this ambiguity, confusion and controversy of the concept “sovereignty” to advance self-centred and group interests to flatter their followers with claims of absolute sovereignty. But practice has proved them wrong as far as international relations are concerned. An example of this naivety is considered again below.
How many times did we hear the prime minister claiming that he will not receive the report from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) commission of enquiry into the death of the former army commander Maaparankoe Mahao because part of the enquiries were undertaken in a foreign country, thus undermining Lesotho‘s sovereignty?
How many times did he (the prime minister) claim that the former army commander will not vacate his position under the recommendations from SADC because Lesotho is a sovereign state? As if this is not enough, recently there has been another narrow-minded claim under the disguise of “sovereign” state with the so-called general amnesty bill. It is prudent to recall that in the first instance he said it was a compromise to accept the SADC Report. In the second case, he claimed it was done in the interest of saving jobs for the multitudes of factory workers. What will he say in the third instance? The nation should expect another flimsy tale in 2017 as the writing is on the wall again.