Ivan Samolovov's Blog

International hierarchies as taboo: Russia's attitude to sovereignty

May 7, 2015

In recent months, Russian officials have repeatedly emphasized Russian sovereignty and autonomy. Russia indeed is not a part to an integration project or a military alliance that dismantle its bundle of sovereign rights. There are no foreign troops on the Russian territory and no-one dictates economic policy to Moscow. Vladimir Putin has recently portrayed the U.S. as "patrons and sponsors" of European nations and Bulgaria as a country that, sadly, “is deprived of the possibility of behaving like a sovereign state”. Dismissing sovereignty in Russia is apparently a non-starter and a taboo. But are these hierarchies to which the Kremlin points necessarily bad?


Escaping the state of nature


International politics are often described as being in a state of anarchy with no central authority watching over other states. The latter are pictured as like sovereign units, the sole differential being their material capabilities. The formal-legal approach to sovereignty doesn’t allow an authority higher than a nation state. Hence, the distinction between domestic and international: only within a state are the patterns of hierarchy – defined as relationship of dominance and subordination – possible.


Since the main objective of each state is survival with sovereignty being its basic condition, loosing control over one’s sovereignty is deemed irrational and self-suicidal. But in fact giving up some measure of sovereignty can be perfectly rational, since by ‘outsourcing’ their economic or foreign policy to a dominant power subordinates escape the state of nature securing their survival and even enhancing living conditions.


Imperial governance ‘light’


To begin with, we cannot seriously talk about empires nowadays, unless someone pursues certain political goals. Concepts like ‘informal’ empire or empire ‘by invitation’ point to some small measure of similarity with imperial patterns of the past and are rather puzzling than eye-opening. Empires are often associated with colonialism with the metropolis being clearly the main (if not the only) beneficiary of this form of governance.


Extracting resources in the periphery, colonial masters hardly ever cared about indigenous populations. It is worth noting that during the era of decolonization the empires unraveled primarily as political entities. Not all colonies were granted sovereignty and statehood. Because they didn’t want to go. The cases I’m describing here refer to the Faroe Islands, the Dutch Antilles and the Cook Islands which maintain a sort of ‘semi-sovereign’ relationship with, respectively, Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand.


The three semi-colonies enjoy substantial security and economic benefits for not opting for full sovereignty, whereas there are no material benefits for their quasi-metropolises. Indeed, the strategic importance of these islands is marginal and there is virtually nothing to extract. The only possible explanation for this odd reversal in net benefits is the self-identity of  Denmark, the Netherlands and New Zealand as ‘good international citizens’.


Western hierarchical society


According to some scholars, the patterns of relationship between the United States and the European countries are the ones of hierarchy with the U.S. being a dominant power. This dominance doesn’t rest on a blatant coercion. Instead, the Americans and the Europeans (as well as the Japanese) maintain a kind of  contract according to which the U.S. should provide a social order and the Europeans should comply with the U.S. commands necessary to the (re)production of that order.


Although the number of American troops in Europe has declined after the Cold War, Washington has been the main contributor to defense efforts in NATO whereas the largest European members to NATO has been spending less and less constantly failing to meet the target of spending 2% of GDP on defense. Under the ‘security umbrella’ of the U.S. larger portions of GDP can be transferred to other items of budget. The U.S.-backed liberal economic order is another benefit (and not only for subordinates).


Conceiving of sovereignty as something valuable in itself may thus be as irrational as the willingness to give up some measure of one's own autonomy. The concern of Russian politicians with the issues of sovereignty might be merely an exaggeration of the threat posed to the country aiming at producing 'rally-round-the-flag' effect and diverting attention from economic problems. Being a genuinly sovereign country may be indeed highly valuable, if one thinks that self-help is the only way to survive.



Author's twitter: @IvanSamolovov


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