Category Archives: Global politics

Explain the key reasons why state sovereignty may be considered an outdated concept.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  But in this post, I’d like to challenge the ‘outdated’ bit – is state sovereignty actually real, or is it a Western European construct?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of state sovereignty has been eroded by a number of developments which mean that state sovereignty is now an outdated concept.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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Poland, Russia and the Clash of Civilisations

I’ve just listened to another excellent Tim Whewell on Russia and the Pull of Putin.

And that made me re-listen to Lucy Ash’s report on Pussy Riot from a few years ago.

And now I’m listening to Maria Margaronis on Poland’s Black Protests.

And these have got me thinking about the Clash of Civilisations thesis.  The conservatism in Poland and the grip of the Church on society (and politics) is very, very similar to that in Russia – but, of course, Russia is Orthodox and Poland Catholic.  A Ukrainian former student 6th said you couldn’t differentiate between Catholic and Orthodox bits of Ukraine.

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Environment stuff

The environment is the biggest political issue the world faces.  There are several fundamental problems which make co-operation and action difficult.

Vested interests:  this is economic.  Here are some examples.
GMOs.  Democracy at work.

Various people have various ideas on how to solve things.
Building using hi-tech stuff
Carbon capture

But until we change our entire economic system, I don’t believe it possible to deal with climate change and related environmental matters.  We probably need to halve the human population, too.

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Banana Wars and the WTO

Criticisms of the WTO can be seen in the ‘Banana Wars’ of the 1990s, and also the collapse of the Doha round in 2015.

The criticisms listed below are from the BBC.  The information on the ‘Banana Wars’ is from the Guardian.

  • WTO is too powerful, in that it can in effect compel sovereign states to change laws and regulations by declaring these to be in violation of free trade rules.

This is exactly what the USA did to regarding the EU and bananas.  The US alleged that an EU scheme gave Caribbean ex-colonies a preferential trade scheme, and that this violated free-trade rules.  In 1997 the WTO agreed and the EU had to change its rules.  In 2009 the EU changed their tariffs with SA countries, and in 2012 the WTO case was closed.

  • WTO is run by the rich for the rich and does not give significant weight to the problems of developing countries. For example, rich countries have not fully opened their markets to products from poor countries.

Clearly the EU were opening their markets to products from developing countries.  Only 7% of bananas came from the Caribbean.  Most of the rest came from South America – not even the US.  But powerful US multinationals ruled the South American banana trade…  Arguably, South America is a collection of developing nations, and the EU-Caribbean trade agreement could have been seen as anti-poor countries, except for the presence of those US multinationals (like Chiquita).  Hello, corporate world.

  • WTO is indifferent to the impact of free trade on workers’ rights, child labour, the environment and health.

That’s difficult to determine without substantial research.  Certainly, many SA bananas carry Fair Trade labels.  However, the EU-Caribbean deal was meant to help wean these islands off overseas aid – and it’s better to have people work than give them charity. This trade war has hit small Caribbean producers hard.

  • WTO lacks democratic accountability, in that its hearings on trade disputes are closed to the public and the media.

Who’s heard of the bureaucrats who worked on the Banana Wars case?  Another criticism of the WTO is that decisions are incredibly slow:  Pascal Lamy (WTO head) said that “It has taken so long that quite a few people who worked on the cases, both in the secretariat and in member governments have retired long ago.” The Doha round collapsed after more than a decade.

In addition to the WTO and the Banana Wars, criticisms include (according to the Edexcel mark scheme)

  • its aims and underlying philosophy. In particular, global free trade has been seen to widen economic inequalities by giving dominant powers access to the markets of weak states while having little to fear themselves from foreign competition. Free trade, moreover, gives economies global markets rather than local needs, and tends to place profit before considerations of community, stability and workers’ rights. 
  • Environmentalists have made particular criticisms of the WTO, arguing that free trade and economic deregulation tend to weaken environmental protection and preservation. The WTO’s principles fail to take into account the environmental impact of free trade and economic restructuring. 

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Human Rights examples

International Criminal Tribunals
The UN has various ad hoc war crimes tribunals.

  • The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) (based in the Hague) convicted Charles Taylor of Liberia, 2013
  • A UN Tribunal, again in the Hague, has just convicted Radovan Karadzic for the Srebrenica massacre (March 2016)

The International Criminal Court is the permanent child of ad hoc war crimes tribunals. It was formed in 1998.  It is not part of the UN, although it co-operates with the UN.  It is based in the Hague.  It has had some success. In 2012, the ICC convicted Thomas Lubanga (DRC) of war crimes.  It is currently trying Laurent Gbagbo (Ivory Coast).

The ICC shows the limitations of intergovernmentalism:  it has issued an arrest warrant for Omar al-Bashir, but he and his allies in other African countries keep ignoring it.  It dropped its charges against Uhuru Kenyatta in 2014, and has just dropped its case against William Ruto (both of Kenya) – it’s just too difficult to charge and arrest them.

The ICC also has a problem getting hold of those whom even national governments agree have committed crimes against humanity.  It issued a warrant for Gaddafi’s son Saif, but the Libyan government won’t give him up, and instead have sentenced him to death.  Similarly, it issued a warrant for the Ivory Coast’s Simone Gbagbo, but its government refuse to yield her up and an Ivorian court sentenced her to 20 years imprisonment for crimes against humanity.

On the other hand, the fact that both Libya and the Ivory Coast have tried and convicted Gaddafi and Gbagbo show that the existence of the ICC has some influence on the way countries deal with human rights.

Neither the US nor China have signed up to the ICC.  (Well, actually, the US did, but then un-signed.)

Here’s a useful article, which points out that ‘overall the major successes of the court have been almost exclusively on paper and not in the actual prosecuting or sentencing of criminals.’

Humanitarian Intervention
What is HI?  It could be sending aid into disaster zones/ medicos into ebola areas, but more usually it’s sending military force into countries.

Iraq 2003 – or was it?
Libya 2011

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Climate Change – what to do?

Aware of the carbon footprint created by this page, and by your looking at it…

Stop using coal:  currently, 30% of Britain’s energy is from coal.  Coal-fired power stations will be phased out.  Germany, on the other hand, is building more coal-fired stations.  Nuclear power.  Renewables:  a European super grid could help the use of renewables
Farming; also here and here
Women’s education
Afforestation – projects like this one

One thing we must do is be mindful of what we use.  Cheap flights are great for tourism, but terrible for the environment.  The internet is a fabulous thing – but it, too, has a big carbon footprint.


Here’s something to listen to.

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Electric Avenues part 2

The EU has obliged its member to produce at least 15% energy from renewables by 2020. This doesn’t sound much. It’s 30% electricity of UK. Again, doesn’t sound that much – the majority of our electricity will come from carbon and nuclear. This is partly, if not largely, because of the intermittent nature of renewables (especially wind), and electricity storage problems.


With industry growing and requiring ever more electricity, nuclear is inevitable. Even James Lovelock has advocated it. Using fossil fuels will definitely bring our ignominious demise; using nuclear might. There are huge problems with nuclear power – one of my friends is a civil servant whose job it is to work out what the hell to do with the nuclear waste we’ve amassed since the 1950s. No-one knows even what to do with low-grade nuclear waste. Then there are the two major nuclear accidents, Chernobyl and Fukushima. Scientists and builders are racing against time to try to cap Chernobyl, but radiation is dangerously close to seeping into major European waterways; if the river Dnieper dams fail for whatever reason – and they are, of course, near a war-zone, Europe would be exposed to high levels of radioactive particles.

The Chernobyl disaster (1986) was caused by bad design and implementation, by lack of proper training and education; a catalogue of incompetence and negligence. This was combined with the lack of care for human beings which is the hallmark of totalitarianism. This was a disaster waiting to happen: it was the product of cover-ups and a lack of any individual moral responsibility – in a totalitarian state, individuals give up their moral responsibility to the Party.

But substitute capitalism for communism and a multi-national company for the state and the picture is no prettier. In 2011, a tsunami hit the Japanese island of Honshu. This was not completely unexpected, as Japan is on a plate boundary and thus susceptible to megathrust earthquakes. It might be thought that to build a nuclear reactor on a plate boundary wasn’t a good idea, but, well, the Japanese know what they’re doing, don’t they? The reactor at Fukushima was built by and belonged to Tepco, the Tokyo Electric Power Co. As in the Ukraine, Japanese officials had turned a blind eye to or covered up the corners cut to save a few yen and enlarge profits. Like Chernobyl, the disaster at Fukushima could have been avoided if everyone had done their job properly and if the wealth of the few hadn’t been put before the wealth of the commons. The disaster at Fukushima was smaller – but the impact on our already very beleaguered oceans is yet to be assessed.

Here’s an article on Hinkley Point.


Profit-related negligence is one of the major arguments against fracking. The British government has climbed into bed with some unsavoury types because it’s panicking about immediate energy shortages.  The fracking industry is self-regulating.

Reasons for British government interest in fracking:

  • gas from Russia
  • shale independence
  • what happened to our North Sea gas?
  • CO2 emissions from fracking
Problems with fracking:
  • US shale boom: companies spending more than earning, owing to high drilling costs 
  • US, environmental bad news coming out 
  • fracking can leak methane
  • fracking can cause subsidence and earth tremors.
  • fracking requires much more transport than, say, solar.

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