Monday, May 19, 2008

The State in The International System

Stanford's podcast The History of the International system (feed) has come to its conclusion. The lecturer, professor James Sheehan, spends a large part of his last lecture pondering what power could compete with the supremacy of the United States in the international system. Undoubtedly that is a very compelling question, but it is also a rather speculative one and there is another subject that had me thrilled even more.

The central agent within the International System, as Sheehan has painted it over the 28 lectures (earlier I wrote there would be 29, but I counted the mid term exam as a lecture - my bad), is the state. The international system is a community of national states, some more powerful and large, some puny and unimportant, but each a legitimate player. This we can see until today in an organization such as the UN. Its members are states and only states are its members. The uneven distribution of power among its players has always put this system under pressure, but the state as such is problematic, so Sheehan shows.

One problem is that of failed states. States that do not control their territory, are not representing their populace neither effectively, nor in a legitimate way. Furthermore, there are more players that influence the system: international organizations, non-governmental organizations and multinational business. On a deeper level, the state has always been a fiction, an imagined community. Many states are not nation-states, never have been and nobody really wants to reorder the nations into states or states into nations.

The thought occurred to me, that the whole idea of assuming the sovereign (the state) as the sole player internationally has been a stretch and become more so under modern circumstances. It is a presumption of isolation; the national sphere isolated from the international. The citizen of a state is only related to his own sovereign and not beyond. Other sovereigns are related to the sovereigns, but not to each others subjects. That seems workable as a fiction and has conceptually organized our idea of the international system well so far, but effectively this has never completely been true and with subjects of human rights, intellectual property, economy, ecology and more, we even accept and applaud non-sovereigns to act within the international system. Maybe the idea of states is going to go away.

Previous reviews:
A century of geopolitics,
History of the International System.

More geopolitics:
Nuts and bolts of empire,
Global Geopolitics - Martin Lewis,
A listener's guide to Geography of World Cultures,
Geography of World Cultures by Martin W. Lewis,
The End of Hegemony.

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