Individual Rights and the Making of the International System

Scholars have offered a variety of explanations for the rise and triumph of the nation-state. Reus-Smit argues that most accounts fail to explain why people wanted independent statehood in the first place. His answer is human rights. The book looks closely at the three great waves of state expansion: in Europe in the seventeenth century, in Latin America in the nineteenth century, and in the worldwide decolonization movements that took place after World War II. Reus-Smit argues that in each of those watershed periods, it was the struggle for human rights by subject people within empires that broke the old orders apart, triggering crises of legitimacy for imperial powers and paving the way for sovereign independence. At each juncture, the enemy of human rights was empire, and the vehicle for acquiring and protecting those rights was the sovereign state. The book is impressive, but Reus-Smit disregards the ideological and great-power struggles of the twentieth century, which played a critical role in dooming empire and allowing for the most recent expansion of sovereign self-determination.

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