The Crisis of the Sovereign State

Report Political Process

The Crisis of the Sovereign State

November 19, 1999 18 min read
Jaime Pinto
Policy Analyst
The sovereign state emerged in Europe by the 16th century as a new and strong political entity with the centralized monarchies of England, Spain, France, and Portugal. Before that time, Europe in the Middle Ages contained different political entities. Some were minor, like the Italian city-states or surviving feudal powers; others were more substantial in size or dignity, like the Holy Roman Empire or the Papacy.

The triumphal emergence of the sovereign national state as the ne plus ultra among the political communities then possible was due to a complex and extensive process with a large number of distinct causes. These included the restoration among the intellectual community of the principles of Roman Law regarding the power of the princeps and the development of new military hardware, like artillery, that contributed decisively to the end of the feudal order of the Middle Ages by undermining the utility and destroying the physical substance of its definitive military structure: the stone feudal castle.

We can join the sophisticated interpreter of the history of institutions, Norbert Elias, in concluding that the sovereign state emerged to exercise a monopoly in the application of organized violence and in the coercive collection of taxes. One more element must be added, however, to clarify the fundamentals of state legitimacy: the monopoly of political loyalty. King and Crown progressively established supremacy over competitive institutions like those governed by the great feudal lords.

These summary reflections are particularly pertinent today now that, in the aftermath of the Cold War, new factors have emerged to challenge the state's supremacy and its monopoly of coercion, the right to extract taxes and to command loyalty. These factors are diverse in nature and origin, but their individual and collective effect is to challenge what has been understood as a key element of the Euro-American world--extended by means of European colonization in the 19th century to the emerging societies of the Americas, Asia, and Africa: the preeminence of sovereign states as the monopolists of the political functions of defense and foreign policy.


The coexistence today of business corporations, paramilitary irregulars, drug traffickers, and regular army and police units in some areas of Colombia; the creation of mob sanctuaries in other countries, from Peru to Mexico; the organization of informal economics under both rebel and private control in situations of protracted civil war and conflict; the proliferation of private armies like the now notorious (and defunct) Executive Outcomes that emerged to solve problems previously addressed by state institutions (and created new crises of legitimacy and authority) are technical evidence of trends that jeopardize the position of the state as the sole, or definitive, actor in the execution of core state functions.

To place this in context, it is necessary to recall that the defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War and the destruction of its empire transformed the international political paradigm. This caused the collapse of the bipolar order that had defined state and market relationships throughout the world since 1945. As in all similar prior circumstances, the collapse of one "order" was followed by an interregnum. This has been characterized by two contradictory movements, one economic (the realm of markets) and the other political (the realm of states). Markets have tended toward integration, economic "globalization," the creation of a "one-world" market, due not only to the progressive reduction of trade barriers within the World Trade Organization (WTO), but also to information technology and low-cost transport and containerization--all of which facilitate the circulation of goods, people, know-how, and credits.

But if economics has been a rapid and easy integrator, and markets are converging toward a single global market, politics in the past decade has followed a different and perhaps contradictory path. States appear to be fragmenting. New independent states, like those that emerged from the former Yugoslavia and Soviet Union, illustrate this trend. If we recognize that political "identity" is defined today in a democratic society primarily by a condition in which the state is based on voluntary allegiance of the people, we understand why "the resurgence of the nation" has emerged, on the one hand, as a prime locus of loyalties, and on the other, as a means of the destruction of states. In post-Communist Eastern Europe, where for historical reasons national states did not emerge in the 19th century, the experience of the people has been the imperialism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, and centralism formerly imposed by the traditional Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Empires, and later by the Soviet Union and its satellites.

It is difficult to forecast the impact of new technologies on political and social life, and predicting the impact of new combinations of new technologies on the industrial and social environment is even more different. If we recall that, among the hundreds of works devoted to futurology since Herman Kahn of the Hudson Institute published The Year 2000, only a tiny number even considered the disappearance of the Soviet Union, we are compelled to regard with some skepticism the imposing social forecasts we read today.

Recognizing that social change is effected by the interaction of new ideas about the basic concepts like God, Man, State, Economy, and Virtue--new ideas that cause the so-called transformation of minds ("révolution des esprits")--with new tools (the transformation of technology) perhaps we can develop this point. The "West"--and before that, the Euro-American world of European sovereign states and their transatlantic extensions in North and South America after the 17th century--evolved through a paradigm that, since the Enlightenment, has proceeded from the premise that a "cultural revolution" preceded each political revolution. Alexis de Tocqueville, in L'Ancien Régime et la Révolution, described the fundamental changes in the thinking of French elites long before the Bastille was taken and King Louis XVI was beheaded. Twenty years ago, in the late 1970s, American intellectual conservatives built the values and focal points that formed the political agenda of the Reagan Revolution after 1981.

But 20th century literature has offered a different, utopian perspective: Aldous Huxley in Brave New World and George Orwell in 1984 suggested a future based on Stalinist paradigms. Thank God, these models have not emerged as the winner of the political competition. We have seen great tyrannies--Hitler's, Stalin's, Mao's--but these ended with the death of their creators, and they never approached global conquest or domination. The persistence of micro-tyrannies in countries like North Korea, Cuba, and some Asian and African states must not distract us. Orwell, for example, only contemplated big territorial units. Catastrophe, at least on a great scale, has been averted.

But, as we have seen, the fabric of social imagination is not limited to so-called scientific forecasts. Social imagination works through art and fiction--painting, literature, and movies. In this century, a particular rich set of literary genres, science fiction and heroic fantasy, have allowed an unlimited series of writings--some of great quality--on imagined futures. What strikes me in practically all these major works, from Isaac Asimov's Foundation to Frank Herbert's Dune (and its less exciting sequels), is the absence of "democratic rule" in those imaginary worlds. On the contrary, they are based generally on a combination of Middle-Age ethics and advanced military technology, in chaotic scenarios in which knights pilot supersonic spacecraft through galaxies, pay tribute to decaying emperors, fight non-human creatures, deal with clever and devious pirate-merchants, repel aliens, and so on.

Enough of fantasy. Let us return to the realm of present-day economics and politics, in this last year of the Second Millennium and of the 20th century, a decade after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the end of Communism and Cold War--just as the Bastille and the Winter Palace were the symbols for the collapse of the ancien régime and the Romanov autocracy.

As we have said, today we see a move toward economic (and financial) integration and political fragmentation. Used to Marxist "scientific" vulgata about the inevitability of politics following economics, and the dogma propagated in some Western sociological schools and major media that material conditions determine political outcomes, we seemed surprised that the integration of markets was not followed by political integration, that is, that a united, economic world-market can co-exist with a still more fragmented political world.

The only exception to that trend toward fragmentation, the European Union, is at present only an organization of independent states, and the high abstention rate in the European elections last June proved that the reality of an European state is still remote, as most citizens apparently are either indifferent or have substantial sympathy for the Euro-ceptical current and parties.

The point is that, notwithstanding the universalization of market economics and democratic pluralism (and we agree with the famous thesis of Francis Fukuyama in a neo-Hegelian sense, that there is no longer a "systemic" alternative), nationalism, in the sense of "the appeal of the nation" (or the clan or the tribe or another ethnic-cultural reference point), is still the primary political community--the community in which men recognize their equals, and from which they feel comfortable in choosing their leader.

The universalization of democracy and markets brought another set of problems that are related to "external conditions" of political models: As the founders of Western political philosophy noticed, politics--to live in a polis as a community--involves dealing with other values and elements that were not present in other "political" entities like the Persian Empire, which was too big and autocratic, or barbarian tribes, which were too primitive. Neither of these was a polis. Without the historical ethos that flows from Judeo-Christian ethics, respect for property rights, a sense of the distinction between social dimensions (religious, economics, family, and so on), the separation of state functions and powers, and the rule of law, it is extremely difficult to consolidate a true political democracy. And notwithstanding the efforts of international crusaders, many of the so-called new democracies in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe, despite the performance of rituals and compliance with certain forms, are a mockery--sometimes benign, other times tragic--of a free and open


Another element of today's international panorama is the real and deep inequality of states; it is worthwhile examining the basic statistics that describe the essential elements of states--like territory, population, resources, and military capacity--to understand the vast differences that separate rich from poor states, military powers from countries that have no Air Force or Navy at all. The weak states--the ones that occupy the lower ranks of the statistical table--are often located in troubled areas and are, as a result of their endogenous weakness, a permanent source of troubles.

The process by which states emerged after World War II explains the emergence of these extremely weak states, whose minimal requirements for statehood can be questioned. The competitive, bipolar scenario of the early years of the Cold War, between two powers who had no colonies (at least in the traditional sense of the European Empires), converged with the aspirational nationalism or "nationalitarism" of local political elites to create pressure on the dominant European powers, who were debilitated by the War and the German or Japanese occupation of their colonial territories. Last, but not least, the anti-imperialistic rhetoric used by the Allies against the Axis, rebounded on the European colonial powers after the War.

For most of the colonial powers, colonization had centered on economic interests. Major powers like England and France, therefore, despite the lack of political sovereignty extant within the colonies, transferred government to local elites that inherited the colonial administrative structures, and subsumed it into the structure of new independent states.

Given that the sovereign national state (which had emerged as the optimal polity in Western Europe) had been born and consolidated and later transferred to the European settlements in the New World after 300 years of maturity, was it appropriate to these areas, where "nations"--the substance of the modern state--either did not exist or existed only in the incipient forms of tribes or clans, bounded by rudimentary ethnical links?

The Cold War, with its bipolar order that generated an environment structured by the horror ad vacuum--which meant that every political unit had some utility for the main competitors in that it was important to prevent its control by the rival--exacerbated the volatility of some of the "states" created in this second decolonization. In the case of sub-Saharan Africa, political correctness masked the liabilities of the system and prevented even basic analysis of the condition of the countries there. In fact, many sovereign states, independent, with a flag and a seat in the United Nations, have an annual output of goods and services substantially less than the turnover of the average Fortune 500 company and even of some non-governmental organizations. The fact that, after the French Revolution, the sovereign state became the only polity, as city-states, protectorates, principalities--all the distinct forms of polity that survived from the ancien régime until the Confederation of the Rhine--were abolished, explains this chaotic and dangerous situation. In fact the restoration of intermediate categories of polities, between those with full state sovereignty and those whose existence is not recognized, might be a useful contribution to the present situation, which is characterized by strong local ethnic and nationalist pressures in area territories whose physical and cultural dimensions do not justify the existence of a sovereign state, but deserve some recognition and autonomous treatment. This is especially important in a time when the struggle for control of the state (and its reverse: the struggle for national unity) is the main cause of armed conflict.

One can conclude from the conflicts in the last decade that involved Western--and especially U.S.-- troops that U.S. political leaders have concluded that domestic public opinion will not accept the loss of life or casualties in war. This syndrome began in the U.S. with television coverage of the war in Vietnam, and was reinforced and extended to Europe with Lebanon in the 1980s and the death of American, French, and Italian troops in terrorist incidents. As a result: the Persian Gulf campaign brought no large number of allied casualties; the killing of U.S. Marines in Somalia in a particularly barbarous way caused President Clinton to terminate Operation Restore Hope; the risk of heavy casualties in the Balkans limited U.S. and allied intervention, while the availability of "smart" weapons made it possible to adopt a rationale of avoiding causalities by refraining from bombing under 5,000 meters. This, of course, led to lower accuracy and, consequently, more "collateral damage."

Even discounting the fact that the founding fathers of Western military ethics--the heroes of Homer and the inventors of the phalanx--considered the bow a weapon for "cowards" because it killed at distance and a "real" man would face the enemy at close quarters, giving him an equal chance, we have to admit that there is something strange in compromising your declared military objective--to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo--by allowing Serbian paramilitary forces more than two months to determine the fate of those civilians the war effort had been intended to support.

Quite apart from substantial debate about the moral issues at stake in the Yugoslav crisis, one must note that Western governments now seem to be obsessed with avoiding risk to military personnel, even though the armed forces in NATO countries today are professional soldiers who volunteered for military service. On the other hand, in an effort to overcome the effect of sharp budget cuts after the end of Cold War, some armies, for example that of Argentina, have engaged in unorthodox activities like renting out military facilities for commercial purposes or using Air Force airplanes for commercial tours of Patagonia.

This "crisis" of Western formal military institutions is to be blamed on the politically correct
cultural climate created by politicians and media. The essence of soldiering has been transformed; the military are becoming simply "uniformed public servants" with all the key preoccupations of civilian professionals--unions, labor disputes, and career trivia. The notion of a casualty-free war and the political imperative of low collateral damage, moreover, have transformed military commanders into PR communicators, forced to explain how a "smart" weapon could confuse a civilian bus with a heavy tank. Proliferation of the myth of war without casualties, at least among one's own troops, will have a profoundly transforming effect on the character of the military in the post-industrial countries.

All of this reinforces my initial thesis. Privatization of political functions is already underway on several fronts and is a well-established trend in the developing world. It has also begun to contaminate the core of the First World, however, as the interests and ethics that support the consolidation of the sovereign national state and an international order based on states are challenged by post-Cold War realities.

The sovereign state is now challenged by many competitors, and the weakness of some states--especially those in troubled areas of the Third World--threatens the state's monopoly on violence, taxation, and loyalty. In African states such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire), civil war and armed dissidence of long duration have deprived the state of the monopoly not only of coercion, but also of tax collection, and have estranged it from the loyalty of at least a part of the population. Protracted civil wars, guerilla activity, or organized drug trafficking in Lebanon, Afghanistan, Indochina, the Balkans, Peru, and Colombia, combined with intense conflict in the competition for resources by factions whose survival is threatened, have created synergies between armed political groups and crime syndicates, and informal economies beyond state control.

The need for security in these troubled areas has caused mining as well as oil and gas companies and agribusiness concerns to turn to private security companies, because the local army and police are incompetent, unreliable, or corrupt. Other industries have set off on similar courses. In troubled areas of economic importance, therefore, we see the proliferation of private security "armies," competent and well-equipped to do a job that was previously the preserve of the military and police.

Still more significant was the decision of some African governments to contact private military companies to train and support their troops and to perform special operations in civil wars. Executive Outcomes, a private security firm formed by former special forces officers and registered in South Africa and Britain, had a decisive impact in association with the Angola army in the war against UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) in that country, and crushed the rebellion in Sierra Leone. For its services, it was paid in hard currency, as well as oil and mining concessions.

There are parallels with the British, Dutch, and French pioneering ventures abroad in the 17th century. The Dutch West India Company in Brazil maintained a fleet, an army, "sovereign" rights and fought statal wars. The Dutch and British East Indies Companies did the same in the Pacific and Indian Ocean areas.

On the other hand, in the civilized world, the classic military establishments face great difficulties in a politically correct environment characterized by "enduring peace." This may lead in the future to a return to the use of mercenary armies for the "serious business of war," as their will always be the risk of fatalities, despite "smart" weapons and other high-tech paraphernalia.


The idea of "privatization" of foreign policy is even more radical than the notion of privatizing elements of defense. In the Western political tradition, foreign policy has been the most noble area of politics, La Grande Politique or Machtpolitik, and, in that sense, a privileged function reserved to the leadership of the state. Its rationale is to safeguard the state's permanent interests, defined by raison d'état.

The idea of privatizing foreign affairs, even in democratic times, thus seems sacrilegious, violating the essence of the state. Conscious that we are not advocating an outcome, but merely examining a phenomenon, however, we may note that the crisis of the sovereign state has been particularly acute in the case of the states that are not "national" in character. By that we mean both states without nation, like several sub-Saharan African states that lack this "substantial" basis, and plurinational states, like the Kingdom of Spain, containing several "nations" inside its borders. The absence of the nation in the first case, and the plurality in the second, can both be destructive of political stability.

The end of Cold War, the move toward a global economy, and the demise of states' capacity to regulate economics, trade, and finance has led to the ascendancy of economics over politics. Economic competition has come to be seen as the dominant factor in power politics. This has increased the influence of the global companies that dominate this realm relative to the primary actors--state governments. The fact that scientific socialism or state centralism has disappeared from the lexicon of respectable economic theories and practical models has moreover reinforced the importance of global companies in the political arena.

One last factor is the systemic transformation that occurred in the West and elsewhere after the end of the Cold War. As long as there was a major East-West confrontation, politics, in the sense of national and alliance security, was seen to override pure economic issues. The United States not only provided the major part of funds required for collective defense within NATO, but also refrained from using this fact to promote significantly its national economic interests. The post-Cold War diplomatic agenda, on the other hand, is focused on economics and the major global issues are now addressed by the Group of Seven, which is defined by the economic power of its members and may now be described as the "power of powers." The importance that the Clinton Administration, the European Union, and Japan attribute to economic matters and the concept advanced by the media that economic competition is now the sole substantial competition--which has attracted the new observation that "war is the continuation of economics by other means"--complete this picture.

The end of global strategic competition has rendered some states effectively expendable, as they are considered irrelevant in terms of economic interests, while not constituting a threat to the interests of other states. Lacking the resources to pose a threat, they are neither useful nor dangerous. Meanwhile, as we have seen with U.S. foreign policy under Bill Clinton, great power politics have also became fragmented and driven by domestic considerations and business concerns.

The fact that weak states with few resources are now unimportant, even if they are located in troubled areas, has, moreover, made them uninteresting even to Foreign Office or State Department professionals. The conduct of bilateral relations with them is left to desk officers with no leverage with foreign policy system.

The governments of small countries that need to deal with great powers are thus driven to go outside official channels to make their case. They thus retain strategy consultants, PR or media experts, professional lobbyists, many of whom use private relationships to address their clients' cases in decision-making that are themselves increasingly driven by private, rather than state, considerations.

Finally, one may consider the privatization of these functions from the perspective of success. Southern Africa has seen two major successes in achieving internal peace settlements and democratic transitions. The countries are, of course, the Republic of South Africa and Mozambique. Both of these were achieved through negotiation processes in which private, rather than state, institutions were decisive.

In Mozambique the initial contacts between the rebels of RENAMO (Mozambique National Resistance) and the FRELIMO (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) government took place in Rome, and were facilitated by the Santo Egidio Community, a lay Catholic organization, with the support of the Mozambican Catholic Church. In South Africa, the business community, foreign and private organizations, and a broad spectrum of churches promoted the informal talks between leading representatives of the African National Congress and of the white establishment that initiated the transitional process, while business and the churches created the framework for the National Peace Accord. It may have been the absence of these bodies of civil society that accounts for the failure of conventional diplomacy, thus far at least, to prevent and resolve conflicts both in Angola and in the region of the Central Africa Lakes.

Jaime Nogueira Pinto is Professor of Political Science at the Institute for Political and Social Sciences, University of Lisbon and the publisher of Futuro Presente (Present Future), a political and literary quarterly magazine.


Jaime Pinto

Policy Analyst