Explain the key reasons why state sovereignty may be considered an outdated concept.

This is a 15-marker from Edexcel’s 2013 paper.  You need to talk about globalisation and the emergence of non-state actors (TNCs, NGOs, UN/ EU, ICC etc).  That’s after you’ve defined sovereignty, of course.  But in this post, I’d like to challenge the ‘outdated’ bit – is state sovereignty actually real, or is it a Western European construct?

Edexcel defines state sovereignty thus:

State sovereignty refers to the capacity of the state to act independently and autonomously on the world stage. It implies that states are legally equal and that the territorial integrity and political independence of a state is inviolable.  Arguably the significance of state sovereignty has been eroded by a number of developments which mean that state sovereignty is now an outdated concept. 

 This sort of thinking goes back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which saw the end of the Thirty Years War.  It’s worth knowing a bit about the Thirty Years War, because it’s not too dissimilar to the kind of events tearing the Middle East apart at the moment, as this article in the Economist makes clear.

Britain, France, Italy, Germany – they’re all nation states.  The USA is a state of states.  In the 19th century, these European states began to amass empires in Asia, Africa and the Antipodes.  Because nation states were what we in Europe were all used to, it was only natural for the imperial colonists to divide their colonies into… states.  This meant drawing all sorts of boundary lines on maps, and carving up territory into territories.  If you look at a map of Africa, you’ll see lots of dead straight lines.  That’s because someone took a rule and ruled a line. These lines took little care of tribal boundaries, and Africa has suffered ever since.  Minority – and even some majority – tribes, such as the Tutsis in Rwanda (and, indeed, the Hutus in Rwanda before them) or the Igbo in Nigeria, have suffered massacres and wars because they are trapped in an artificial country.  The Rwandan genocide happened in part because of intra-tribal support across state boundaries, with the Hutus of Rwanda receiving help and support from those in Burundi.  In Africa, traditional tribal territories and cultures are arguably more important than ‘new’ state boundaries.

Similarly, in the Middle East, state sovereignty is a limited concept.  Sure, traditional, organic states do exist in the Middle East.  Let’s take Iran.  This is the mother of empires, whose first empire was built by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC.  Like Greece, Italy and Britain, it has a sense of its old imperial importance, and that’s why it hangs together so coherently, even though much of the population dislikes theocracy.  Saudi is also a state – ruthlessly put together by an acquisitive family, the ibn Sauds.  But the unravelling of Iraq showed how skin-deep the state is, and the civil war in Syria also – and the rise of Da’esh.  In the Middle East, it’s not so much tribal lines that act as tectonic plates, but religious divides:  the internecine struggles between Jews, Christians and Muslims, and the sectarian battles between Sunni and Shi’a within Islam.  These transcend borders.

Jim Muir,  an excellent BBC correspondent, has written an article on the Sykes-Picot line, and gives excellent maps showing the reasons for the mess of the Middle East.  It’s a must-read.

Jeremy Bowen’s exploration of the Middle East is here, and an excellent listen for further information on the states, or non-states, of the Middle East.

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