For nearly four centuries, since the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, the concept of sovereignty—the right of nations to an independent existence and autonomy—has occupied the core of what international order there has been. This made sense, for as every century including the current one has witnessed, a world in which borders are forcibly violated is a world of instability and conflict.
But an approach to international order premised solely on respect for sovereignty, together with the maintenance of the balance of power necessary to secure it, is no longer sufficient. The globe’s traditional operating system—call it World Order 1.0—has been built around the protection and prerogatives of states. It is increasingly inadequate in today’s globalized world. Little now stays local; just about anyone and anything, from tourists, terrorists, and refugees to e-mails, diseases, dollars, and greenhouse gases, can reach almost anywhere. The result is that what goes on inside a country can no longer be considered the concern of that country alone. Today’s circumstances call for an updated operating system—call it World Order 2.0—that includes not only the rights of sovereign states but also those states’ obligations to others.
Such a concept of “sovereign obligation,” it is worth pointing out, differs from the notion of “sovereignty as responsibility,” which lies at the heart of the legal doctrine known as “the responsibility to protect,” or R2P. R2P refers to the obligations a government has to its own citizens—commitments that, if ignored, are supposedly enforceable by other states through measures up to and including military intervention. It clearly represents a potential infringement on classic Westphalian sovereignty, and it has supporters and opponents for that very reason. By contrast, sovereign obligation is about what a country owes to other countries. It stems from a need to expand and adapt the traditional principles of international order for a highly interconnected world.
Sovereign obligation thus retains a respect for borders Russia invading Crimea. And it retains a respect for governments’ rights to act generally as they wish within their borders, subject to the constraints of broadly accepted provisions of international law, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention. Sovereign obligation does not reject or replace the traditional approach to order—one that remains necessary but is no longer sufficient—so much as it builds on it.
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