by Anatol Lieven

Originally published in the Financial Times (London), December 19, 2002

In recent years, the doctrine of the pre-eminence of state sovereignty in international law has come under attack from an unlikely combination of intellectual forces on the right and left. Together, they constitute a threat not only to orderly international relations, but to clear thinking about the foundations of human progress.

Most recently, the doctrine has been challenged by rightwing US (and some British) advocates of a kind of neo-imperialism. They assert that states which break certain rules laid down by the US can be curtailed in their sovereignty, and even invaded by US and allied forces, reshaped by force, or dismembered. Such sentiments have a pedigree, but they reappeared following the terrorist attacks of September 11.
In the 1990s, it was the humanitarian left that took the lead in challenging the doctrine, calling for the right of military intervention in the name of humanitarian goals. It has even been argued from this perspective that the old system of a world dominated by states is being - and should be - replaced by one in which international networks of progressive sentiment, orchestrated through western-dominated non-government organisations (NGOs), wield greater power.

These two groups are as different emotionally and ideologically as can be imagined. And yet the combination of the two is not new. It recalls the 19th-century combination of idealistic Christian missionaries and hard-nosed military colonialists behind the expansion of European empires into various allegedly benighted parts of the world. In the eyes of the US, and the west in general, the "Westphalian" doctrine of state sovereignty - named after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 - only ever applied to "civilised" states.
It is essential to remember this history in order to understand the visceral hostility that current US rhetoric arouses among many peoples around the world. There is a justified fear that, if the US is accorded the right to act as world policeman, then - as in the past - it will impose a version of international law that is very far indeed from being universal or impartial.

The fears aroused by threats to the Westphalian order go deeper than this. Not only are many states around the world extremely fragile, but in most cases they gained independence only recently from those western empires. It is hardly surprising that they are acutely sensitive to the US and its allies arrogating to themselves the right to suspend sovereignties.

The founding documents of the United Nations are ambiguous on the question. In addressing the tyranny of the Nazis and especially the Holocaust, they lay down general principles for the internal behaviour of states concerning human rights. Yet they embody strict rules against unilateral war, except in self-defence or when explicitly sanctioned by the UN. Fundamental to the entire structure and philosophy of the UN is the principle that world order is not on peoples but states. The UN's central purpose is therefore to regulate relations between states, especially when it comes to the use of armed force.

Like it or not, we live in a world of states. International outrage at the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait in 1990 stemmed from a strong feeling that there should be no return to the international anarchy of previous ages. The idea of humanity coming together without the mediation of states is illusory, and the idea that states can be replaced by NGOs is self-serving megalomania. NGOs only replace states when states have already collapsed, and being wholly unsuited to perform state functions, they usually make an unholy mess of things.

Two things need to be remembered about states. Firstly, reasonably strong states are essential to human progress. As the example of much of the former Soviet Union demonstrates, they are essential not only to the protection of ordinary people and the maintenance of basic order, but to the functioning and growth of market economics. Even if the state should not be more than an effective nightwatchman, it certainly cannot afford to be less.

Secondly, we should remember that the creation and development of states is rarely a pretty sight. It usually involves copious amounts of what Bismarck called blood and iron. This is true even in western history if we go back a few centuries. It is even more the case with non-western countries, many of which have been compelled to try to imitate western success by adopting forms of state organisation that may have no roots whatsoever in local tradition.

Essentially, these countries are trying to jump to 21st-century Britain from the Britain of the 15th or even the 5th century in a few decades. It is hardly surprising that so many make a mess of it, and that the process is so often bloody. There is a limited amount the west can do to help, and except in a few really extreme cases, we should be very hesitant indeed about trying to help with bayonets.

The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.