Axver (axver) wrote,

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From Westphalia to South Ossetia

Good old state sovereignty. As soon as you get any sort of international dispute, sure as anything you'll get diplomats and commentators alike prattling on about "territorial integrity" and the like. After all, the inviolability of state sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention in a state's domestic affairs are accepted norms within mainstream International Relations; a government and its people have a right to be secure within their own borders. So, of course, you can guess what has inevitably arisen in the discourse/bickering regarding the conflict between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia.

The thing is, it sometimes feels like it's on the wrong side of relevance.

State sovereignty's defining moment is said to be the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, and although that's over-stating things, the notion of the Westphalian international order (i.e. ordering the world into territorial states) has been naturalised globally in less than 400 years. We take the state system for granted, completely oblivious to the fact that four centuries ago, it existed nowhere in its modern form, and even 150 years ago, it was totally foreign to large swathes of the world. It spread pretty damn quickly out of Europe.

The crucial point I wish to make by saying this is that the Westphalian system has pretty much no connection whatsoever to the socio-political context and history of the Caucasus region. It should not be the defining point upon which rights and wrongs are hung, since it is a political structure divorced from the ethnic politics that shape the dispute. Essentially, whether or not we accept the inviolability of sovereignty, the problem in South Ossetia will still be there. It doesn't matter whether or not Georgia has a legitimate claim to territorial integrity, because it does not address the problem. The merits of Georgia's assertions of authority, Russia's intervention, and South Ossetia's claim to autonomy/independence should be judged against the social and ethnic relations that define the history and politics of the area, as they are at the core of the problem. Obviously, the universality of the Westphalian system means that any final outcome will have to fit within this framework, but to use it to define the debate, identify antagonists, and force solutions lacks relevance and is perhaps a bit of a laugh.

Another point I wish to make is that appealling to territorial integrity can be grossly misleading. Territorial integrity is essentially meaningless if a government is incapable of wielding effective power throughout the country. Hence places such as Somalia are considered failed states; whoever's in power in Khartoum sure as hell doesn't have any control over Somaliland in the north, and probably struggles to enforce their rule just 100km outside the central city. Defending territorial integrity simply for its own sake seems monumentally useless when part of a territory is de facto sovereign and an authority other than the central government has gained local legitimacy. I see absolutely no beneficial outcome for states to keep clinging to territory they really do not control, inhabited by people who do not recognise their authority.

Accordingly, although Russia has rather disingeniously dragged Abkhazia into the dispute, I fully support - and have always fully supported - Abkhazian independence. I have not, however, decided my stance on South Ossetia, since the issue of its rule is so hopelessly bogged down in complexities I am not terribly familiar with. Furthermore, while Abkhazia has always expressed a will to be independent, the claims of pro-Russian South Ossetians to independence as opposed to union with Russia or being a Russian puppet state seem far less certain or solid. Russia is monumentally hypocritical here, happily acknowledging Abkhazia and South Ossetia while overlooking the likes of Chechnya-Ingushetia within. Of course, it's just trying to throw its weight around and assert its status as a regional power. This does not bode well for actually settling the dispute on the grounds I emphasis, i.e. the core issues that have brought people into conflict. Georgia and its allies will continue to appeal to territorial integrity, Russia will pursue any outcome that enhances its might, while the people actually tied up in the conflict who have to live with the outcomes become lost and ignored. In the midst of International Relations power politics and as a consequence of the failure of conflict management to address the root causes at play, the people disappear.

To summarise, I don't mean to say that we should abandon or ignore the Westphalian system; I can't think of a better form of international order in the absence of global governance (though the supranationalism of the European Union is promising). What I do mean to say is that we shouldn't rush so quickly to "territorial integrity!" and "state sovereignty!" as talking points the minute an international conflict arises. It obscures the complexities and nuances of the issue and is not necessarily the most appropriate or useful response. If it is not at the heart of the claims and grievances of the disputing parties - like in this case - then it should not be treated as if it were.
Tags: abkhazia, conflict, georgia, independence, international relations, peace, politics, russia, south ossetia, westphalia

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