Sovereignty Regimes and the Norm of Noninterference in the Global South: Regional and Temporal Variation

By Coe, Brooke | Global Governance, April-June 2015 | Go to article overview

Sovereignty Regimes and the Norm of Noninterference in the Global South: Regional and Temporal Variation


Coe, Brooke, Global Governance


State sovereignty is a fundamental organizing principle of international relations. Although always imperfectly respected, the sovereignty norm-set-- territorial integrity, sovereign equality, and noninterference--carries enormous weight. It is not, however, static or monolithic, and this article seeks to historicize and contextualize sovereignty in the Global South by examining one of its essential components, the norm of noninterference. Making use of qualitative and quantitative evidence, it argues that the norm of noninterference, held sacrosanct in developing regions during the postdecolonization era, has eroded in important ways in Latin America and Africa as regional interference practices in response to domestic crises have gained legitimacy in the post-Cold War era. Noninterference has meanwhile been upheld and protected to a much greater degree in Southeast Asia. Keywords: sovereignty, regionalism, Global South.

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State sovereignty is a fundamental organizing principle of international relations. Although always imperfectly respected, the sovereignty norm-set--most essentially territorial integrity, sovereign equality, and noninterference--carries enormous weight. It is not, however, static. In fact, the current status of state sovereignty is the subject of some debate. Have globalization, democratization, transnational legalization, and other processes significantly eroded sovereignty? Have emerging norms such as the Responsibility to Protect redefined sovereignty in important ways? Studies addressing these and related questions respond to an increasing recognition of the essentially constructed nature of state sovereignty and of the need for scholarship that historicizes and contextualizes it, illuminating the dynamics and texture of global order. (1)

In this article, I examine an essential component of sovereignty, the norm of noninterference, arguing that--yes--sovereignty has evolved over time and especially since the end of the Cold War, but that this evolution has been uneven. In fact, we can observe distinct regional patterns of shared understandings and practices of sovereignty. Furthermore, this regional variation is not simply defined by divergence between the Global North and Global South, but in fact exists across regions in the Global South. Specifically, the norm of noninterference, a watchword in Southern regions during the postdecolonization era, has over time, and especially since the end of the Cold War, eroded in important ways in Africa and Latin America. Noninterference has meanwhile been upheld and protected to a much greater degree in Southeast Asia. In what follows, I provide evidence for the existence of these divergent normative trajectories and conclude by offering an explanation based on the history of shared ideas.

The end of World War II and the establishment of the United Nations carried important implications for state sovereignty. These events ushered in a wave of decolonization resulting in the creation of eighty new formally sovereign states over the next several decades, drastically altering the international landscape. (2) Furthermore, states in the Global South have, at least in the wake of decolonization, been more enthusiastic in their promotion of strict sovereignty than their Northern counterparts. Amitav Acharya and A. I. Johnston conclude in their 2007 edited volume on comparative regionalism that "the design of regional institutions in the developing world has been more consistently sovereignty-preserving than sovereignty-eroding," relative to their counterparts in Europe and North America, and that "the more insecure the regimes, the less intrusive are their regional institutions." (3) In other words, regionalism in the Global South has not failed at European Union-style regionalism, but rather functions for different purposes, supporting newly developing states as they face internal instability and external intervention and other forms of neocolonialism. …

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