Murari Sharma: Full and Half Sovereignty

Sovereignty and non-interference in internal matters are deemed as some of the sacrosanct principles in international relations. However, these tenets have been frequently flouted, particularly since the Cold War’s inception. The crises in Ukraine and Syria, among others, are only the latest examples of the erosion of sovereignty and the increase of external interference.

Up until the 17th century, the concept of nation states and sovereignty were amorphous. Rulers fought wars and made treaties to acquire wealth, expand their territories, and maintain their sphere of influence. The Roman, Mongol and Turkish empires decided their foreign and defense policies based on such considerations. European powers continued to follow suit, until the Treaty of Westphalia was signed.

The treaty firmly recognized nation states and sovereignty within secure borders, establishing the concept of one country interfering in another’s internal matters within Europe. However, European powers continued to purse their interests in an anarchic fashion outside Europe, fighting to colonize and exploit overseas territories. World War I weakened them and gave rise to the communist Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union presented the Marxist vision of society and attracted many followers around the globe. World War I sowed the seeds of World War II, which decimated not only Germany and Italy, but also other European countries that were at the receiving end of the German and Italian aggression. At the end of World War II, the United States, which helped European and Asian victims of the war, emerged as the leader of the free world.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union consolidated its power and sphere of influence in the countries liberated by it from German occupation by spreading communism. Both the United States and the Soviet Union invested heavily in arms race and in the expansion of their political, economic and strategic dominance, which came to be known as the Cold War. 

The Cold War drastically narrowed the scope for sovereignty and non-interference. Both hegemons bullied their satellite states around the world citing the threat from the other side.

In those days, there were only two and a half sovereign nations in the world. One was the United States and the other was the Soviet Union. The remaining half sovereignty was shared by the rest of the world. The largest claimant of this residual sovereignty was the group of the Non-aligned countries that sought to keep themselves out of the direct control of either bloc. Within that group, too, there were regional hegemons.

After the Berlin Wall was pulled down and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the United States commanded the position of the sole superpower that could exercise nearly full sovereignty. Other theoretically sovereign nations can exercise only less than full sovereign authority. With its unparalleled military strength, economic clout and social influence, America has dominated the world, claimed American exceptionalism, and punished any person or country that crossed its path.

Syria and Ukraine are the latest examples. In Syria, President Assad, an Alawite Shia, cooperated with Iran, America’s enemy, defied American demand to quit power and earned the American ire. The United States, therefore, supported anti-Assad forces with money and weapons to start an armed rebellion.  President Barack Obama promised to directly intervene if Assad used chemical weapons against the rebels. Assad reportedly used chemical weapons, but Obama did not take action Syria since he had no support for it at home and from close allies. So the conflict in Syria continues unabated.

In Ukraine, Moscow and Washington’s strategic interests came into conflict. After incorporating several Eastern European countries in the European Union and NATO, America strove to swallow Ukraine in the Western economic and security alliances. Russia convinced the ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych to join the Moscow-sponsored Eurasian Union, rather than the European Union. In response, America supported financially and morally the Maidan uprising against Yanukovych that ousted him.

Yanukovych fled to Russia. Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine and supported the Russian-speaking Ukrainians to rise against Kiev. In retaliation, America imposed sanctions against Russia for supporting a rebellion in eastern Ukraine and persuaded, even forced, reluctant EU countries to follow suit. EU countries were reluctant to punish Russia since 30 percent of their gas comes from Russia and their trade with that countries is worth 350 billion dollars annually. US-Russian trade is only to the tune of only 24 billion dollars a year.

Russia imposed its own sanctions against the Western countries. The sanctions have damaged both the European countries and Russia. European exports to Russia have declined significantly. German carmakers, French shipbuilders, Italian apparel makers, and Spanish farmers have suffered from these dual sanctions. Consequently, even Germany, which escaped the Great Recession of 2008-09, is likely to face an economic downturn afresh. Other western European countries, which are struggling under the burden of debt and the recession, are hurting even more. 

Russia has suffered even more seriously. The rubble has plunged in its value by one-fourth. Russia has witnessed the exodus of foreign capital and drying of foreign investment. Senior Russian officials have been banned from visiting western countries. The Russian economy, which was recovering steadily from the 2008 financial crash, has stalled.

The worst may yet to come. Russia may stop supplying its gas to EU countries at the height of the coming winter to punish Ukraine. Ukraine has a huge outstanding gas bill to pay to Russia. Russia has it would not supply the gas to unless Ukraine pays in advance and promises to pay the outstanding amount. Ukraine has a history of siphoning off the Russian gas that flows to western Europe through the pipelines in its territories. If it resorts to doing so, Russia might cut off the supply altogether in the coming winter.

America seeks to aggravate this EU-Russia standoff to benefit economically and strategically.  Economically, Ukraine’s membership of the European Union will deprive Russia of a major market for its products. If EU countries are weaned from the Russian gas, America can make Europe the captive market for its own gas production. After the fracking technology has matured, the United States has become a major gas producer looking for markets. Ukraine’s EU membership will smooth the way for Kiev to join NATO, which will weaken Russia strategically. 

There are major differences between Syria and Ukraine in their culture, economic and strategic significance for the region and the world. What they share in common is that both Assad and Yanukovych defied the United States to earn its ire. Therefore, America supported the anti-Assad and anti-Yanukovyh uprising. Western European countries, which have abdicated their foreign and defense policy decisions to Washington for quite some time, were forced to follow the American leadership.

We should have no impression that only America punishes the person and country that defies its will. Other countries — including Russia, China, India, South Africa, and Brazil — do the same in their respective regions. Such external interference compromises the sovereignty of smaller and weaker states, as it is happening in Syria and Ukraine now. During the Cold War, there were two global hegemons. Now there is only one. That is the only difference.


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