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August 22, 2023

Sovereignty in an emerging multipolar world: Editorial

Editorial by Richard Jurgens, Editor, The African Governance Papers, Volume 1 | Issue 3 | June 2023 by Good Governance Africa

Welcome to the third issue of The Africa Governance Papers. This issue offers a range of topics, emphasising considerations relating to China’s presence in Africa and its influence on the continent.

The contributions to this issue include Barry van Wyk’s research on Chinese media in Africa, Philip Ademola Olayoku’s discussion of the pedagogical challenges of teaching and learning Chinese for Africans, Cliff Mboya’s exploration of Chinese companies’ approach to social responsibility, Isak and Ann Wang’s analysis of the reception of Chinese vloggers by their audiences at home and what these reveal about Chinese views of Africa, and Dr Mandira Bagwandeen’s research on China’s influence on African attempts to ensure digital sovereignty. Other articles employ quantitative techniques: Professor Rod Alence explores the views of NGO staff members in several countries around the continent on the effectiveness of the African Peer Review Mechanism, while Pranish Desai looks at the link between population density, developmental outcomes and perceptions of governance in sub-Saharan Africa. We also have Terence Corrigan’s review of a reconsideration of a classic of African studies and Professor Stephen Chan’s review of Brian Klaas’s recent book, Corruptible, which assembles and discusses a wide range of recent research for general readers and asks whether politics corrupts or whether politics attracts the corrupt. Finally, the issue concludes with Professor Filip Reyntjens’ detailed study of the ethnic composition of Rwanda’s civil service.

I would particularly like to thank Dr Bob Wekesa and Amukelani Matsilele of the African Centre for the Study of the US at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) for interesting the authors of the first four articles in this issue in publishing with TAGP. Their work was produced as a result of a research grant provided by the Africa-China Reporting Project at the Wits Centre for Journalism. Many thanks, too, to Yvonne Fontyn for the subediting and Helene Maritz for the layout. And finally, my thanks to Dr Ross Harvey, director of Good Governance Africa’s research department, whose commitment to TAGP as an independent journal is immense and much appreciated.

This issue somewhat focuses on aspects of China’s role in and interest in Africa. Due in October, the following issue also focuses significantly on aspects of China’s digital innovations, their relevance to the continent, and some socially and politically orientated topics relating to China’s growing involvement in Africa. Having edited and reviewed these articles, it appears that they reflect African scholars’ interest in and, in some cases, critical concerns about the role of China in the continent. That relates, more generally, to the question of Africa’s relationships with the hegemonic powers of our age. In this editorial, I have taken the liberty of compiling some reflections on the question of sovereignty, which has played an essential role in various actors’ considerations and calculations relating to the dominant international relations problem of the time, namely Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Understanding sovereignty will continue to be essential for the continent as the world moves into a multipolar configuration. Rather than examine the issue of Ukraine directly, then, I have noted some thoughts about the concept of sovereignty itself and what the recent geopolitical developments might tell us about the uses to which it is put in practice on the world stage.

Commentators generally agree that the concept of sovereignty is “a fundamental organising principle of international relations” (Coe, 2019, p. 1) that “has been constitutive of the disciplines of political science and international relations” (Bartelson, 2006, p. 470). Yet, as Bartelson notes, the concept is also “notoriously ambiguous” (Bartelson, 2006, p. 470). Scholars have contested the concept on several grounds, particularly as regards the historical accuracy of its (by now) traditional identification with the Westphalian conception of a state’s sovereignty as essentially a matter of its autonomy over its internal affairs (Bauder & Mueller, 2023, p. 156). Meanwhile, some states, such as the US, have enjoyed sovereignty as “autonomy, control and recognition”, but many — indeed, perhaps most — have been more or less continuously subject to external influence (Krasner, 2001, p. 20).

The conventional norms of sovereignty are explicit. Sovereignty, in a standard definition, is the right of countries to “oversee their internal affairs without foreign interference” (Adebajo, 2016, p. 1188). “In the contemporary world,” writes Krasner, “sovereignty primarily has been linked with the idea that states are autonomous and independent from each other”, with the “necessary corollary” of non-intervention in that “[o]ne state does not have a right to intervene in the internal affairs of another” (Krasner, 2001, p. 21). According to Coe, state sovereignty consists “most essentially [of] territorial integrity, sovereign equality,
and non-interference” (Coe, 2019, p. 1). In another formulation, a state is sovereign in the sense that it is “singular, supreme, absolute, autonomous, and free from external control” (Bonilla, 2017, p. 333).

According to Henkin, sovereignty “began as a domestic term in a domestic context” and referred to “the relations between rulers and those they ruled”; it was understood, essentially, to refer to the relationship between the sovereign – this being itself a term associated initially with kingship – and “his or her subjects” (Henkin, 1999, p. 18). Other powers’ views of the sovereign’s relationship with their subjects were irrelevant. A standard view is that this conceptualisation and practice changed with the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, which ended the ruinous Eighty Years’ War between the Netherlands and Spain and the Thirty Years’ War between various European states. The significance of this was twofold: firstly, the peace agreement recognised that sovereign authority was confined to a territory within which it was supreme, and secondly, because several powers assented to the peace, it represented an international agreement to the effect that the signatories would not interfere in each other’s internal affairs.

The peace, then, represented a formal agreement to recognise a view of sovereignty that went beyond its earlier conceptualisation as a matter pertaining entirely between the ruler and the ruled within a polity. Now, the notion of sovereignty was understood to involve two additional elements: firstly, that polities were self-determining and “free to choose their own form of government” (Krasner, 2001, p. 21), and secondly, that states’ mutual recognition of each other’s self-determination was necessary for a context in which all similarly claimed self-determination. This naturally entailed that states refrain from intervening in each other’s internal affairs. As Sheehan observes, the core modern concept of sovereignty is that the sovereign is “master” at home and the equal of other sovereigns abroad (Sheehan, 2006, p. 2).

In the standard telling, modern conceptions of sovereignty involve two elements. It came to be seen as consisting of an internal element – the state’s “authority and independence vis-à-vis internal [domestic] actors” – and an external element, the state’s “authority and independence vis-à-vis external [international] actors” (Coe, 2019, p, 1). Polities, and the states that represent them, did not exist in isolation but in the context of other states. A condition of internal sovereignty is said to be the state’s “absolute authority” or “ability to rule internally” (Kyris, 2022, p. 291). External sovereignty is seen as the external recognition by other states of this (ability to) rule (Kyris, 2022, p. 291). Particularly as international law developed, mutual recognition of sovereignty came to be seen as “constitutive of statehood”, and the interplay between “the domestic” and “international” aspects of statehood as “crucial for sovereignty” (Kyris, 2022, p. 292).

Modern conceptions of sovereignty

This account of the basic meaning of sovereignty is, of course, brief and abstract. As Craven points out, in historical terms, ideas of sovereignty developed by “an accretive process” between 1500 and 1900, beginning with “a notion of sovereign authority centred upon the coercive authority of the monarch” and culminating, in the 20th century, in “the modern imagination of the ‘nation-state’” (Craven, 2012, p. 865).

In orthodox accounts, Westphalia is said to be a “founding moment of the “long transition from the Middle Ages to a world of sovereign states” (Philpott, 2020). According to Philpott, a proponent of this view, the Westphalia treaties did not explicitly prescribe the sovereign state as the legitimate political unit of sovereignty. However, they did result in legal prerogatives and practical powers that amounted to the mutual recognition of the principle by all the states involved. The conception, “one of the most formidable and successful political trends in modern times”, subsequently became a default reality as the foundation of all states (Philpott, 2020).

The orthodox view, then, is oriented in European history. Sheehan traces its development as a slow and uneven process involving factors such as Europe’s geography, the medieval conflict between pope and emperor, wars fought to defend or acquire territory, codifications of law such as the French Civil Code in 1804, and the spread of constitutions, including those of Sweden (1772), France (1789) and – presumably by extension – the US (1789), arguing that by the middle of the 19th century, law had replaced religion and the monarchy as the source of political legitimacy (Sheehan, 2006, pp. 5-8). A parallel and increasingly orthodox view is that the emergent system of the European state system, which centred on conceptions of sovereignty that generated an emergent international legal system, was connected with European colonial expansion and domination (Craven, 2012, p. 862). For some commentators of this view, the connection is incidental, the product of “an intra-European rivalry”, while for others, it is intrinsic to the emerging system in that it encodes “the discriminatory features of cultural difference”, mainly European conceptions of sovereignty (Craven, 2012, p. 863). From this point of view – that is, that of the colonies that European powers acquired in much of Africa, Asia and South America – “intervention and sovereignty [we]re two sides of the same coin” (Adebajo, 2016, p. 1188).

Whether Westphalia represented a founding moment of the state system based on sovereignty (Kyris, 2022, p. 292), understood as a norm set including territorial integrity, sovereign equality, and mutual non-interference of nations states (Henkin, 1999, p. 19) has emerged as “a fundamental organising principle of international relations” in the modern era (Coe, 2019, p. 1). In the post-World War 2 context, many countries wanted a rules-based system of international relations that would maintain their independence and territorial integrity (Adebajo, 2016, p. 1188). In Europe, this need was based on the experience of Nazi aggression, which had overrun countries and swept away national sovereignties across the continent. More widely, it was welcomed by formerly colonial Latin American states, many of which had attained statehood in the 19th century but had been subject to the dominance of the US. The war also effectively ended the remaining European imperialist projects: the French, British, Dutch and Portuguese empires. These and other factors led to the creation of the United Nations (UN) in 1945.

The UN charter enshrined sovereignty as the organising principle of contemporary international relations by prohibiting attacks on “political independence and territorial integrity” (article 2(4)) and restricting intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state (Article 2(7)) (Philpott, 2020). In Henkin’s view, the Charter fundamentally revised the internal conception of sovereignty as the relationship between ruler and the ruled that had been dominant until then. Firstly, it required “‘sovereign states’ gave up their ‘sovereign’ right to go to war”. As he observes, we may not appreciate how remarkable this mutual limitation was. Secondly, the establishment of the UN requires states to learn to cooperate, though, in practice, the notion of sovereignty has limited the extent of cooperation. Moreover, thirdly, it invoked and required states to adhere to human rights standards. How a state behaved, even in its territory, was no longer its own business but was a matter of international politics and international law (Henkin, 1999, pp. 19-20).

Thus the UN Charter codified “firmly and unambiguously” the rights of sovereign states to self determination and non-interference” (Coe, 2019, p. 3) while it also replaced the previous emphasis on the relations between states with an emphasis on human rights (Krasner, 2001, p. 22) and therefore on the rights of individuals (Philpott, 2020). The Charter, then, involved a “sharp tension” or even a contradiction between the “fundamental norms” that it established for international relations: on the one hand, respect for the self-determination of states, and on the other, international humanitarianism, “including international commitments to protect human rights” on the other hand (Coe, 2019, p. 10). With time, the Charter’s humanitarian provisions have been supplemented by more than 20 accords and conventions covering issues including genocide, torture, slavery, refugees, stateless persons, women’s rights, racial discrimination, children’s rights, and forced labour, though, in fact, the UN has few enforcement mechanisms, and even its provisions for reporting violations have often proved ineffective (Krasner, 2001, p. 22).

The establishment of the UN was also associated with a wave of decolonisation following the demise of the last European empires. Consequently, 80 new states emerged as participants in the emerging global community (Coe, 2019, p. 3). During the 19th and early 20th centuries, European colonial powers subjected non-European states to their rule based on a view that sovereignty required adherence to “standards of civilisation” (Coe, 2019, p. 2). Lack of “civilisation” in European terms meant that non European states were “unsovereign”, which justified colonial claims to supposedly unowned lands, to dispossess native communities, or to incorporate them through unequal treaties into the colonial “ontological order of civilisational difference” (Bonilla, 2017, p. 232). Former colonies welcomed the rules based international system because it provided ways to maintain their territorial integrity and independence from further interference.

Cold War polarities

The establishment of the UN represented an advance in the direction of a globalworld order encompassing the world’s polities. Still, its ideal of equal, sovereign states was belied by the tension between its fundamental principles, while its practical realisability was undermined by inequality in practice. The complexity of this situation was further compounded by the domination of the international
system after the end of the Second World War by the US and the USSR. The Cold War confrontation has been extensively theorised as a polarity, with each characterisable as “a great power … at the centre of the international system” (Chen & Pan, 2016, p. 76). In Waltz’s well-known definition, a polar power must have a considerable population and territory, as well as “resources, economic capability, military strength, political stability, and competence” (cited in Chen & Pan, 2016, 76). The two countries were “military and ideological rivals heading competing alliance systems” (Nadkarmi, 2010).

The Cold War was an opposition of two great powers, each pre-eminent in terms of military strength in its sphere, and each regarded, within that sphere, as having special rights and duties by other members of the society of states of which it was at the centre. In the UN system, special rights were accorded to permanent members of the Security Council to “settle international matters beyond those which were of immediate concern to it”, while their duties were to formulate their policies and define their interests “widely enough to encompass the preservation of an international system in which the bulk of member states regard themselves as having a stake” (Bull, 1980, pp. 437–438). The US and the USSR were members of the Security Council, along with the UK, France and China, but their military power effectively dominated even that elite club. Scholars have described this as an “institutionalised functional bargain” that allowed the collective management of problems in a world of formal equality and material inequality (Paris, 2020, p. 29).

According to this view, the problem for the rest of the world’s states was that while the UN international system represented the “equalising side of this bargain” (Paris, 2020, p. 29), it was based on a de facto hierarchy that restricted their sovereignty. On either side of the grand polarity, all other states were accorded “semi-sovereignty” in relation to superpower they allied or associated with (Kyris, 2022, p. 294). Alliances of associations were manifested through military groupings such as Nato and the Warsaw Pact, economic groupings such as the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) and the Warsaw Treaty Organisation, as well as through ideological and cultural links of various kinds. According to Grovogui, during the colonial era, European “historical regimes of sovereignty” enabled smaller European “quasistates” such as Belgium and Switzerland to play a “great power” role by including them in an “ethos of reciprocity and mutuality” that was not accorded to non European states (Grovogui, 2002, p. 327). It can be argued that in structural terms, a similar relationship of semi-sovereignty, at best, pertained between the sovereign Cold War great powers and their allies (Kyris, 2022, p. 294).

Sovereignty in the UN system, then, though formally equal, was restricted by the Cold War’s great power polarity. The sovereignty of the new states that emerged from the colonial encounter was even more restricted. Under colonialism, European powers were “unappreciative of the textures and qualities of the relationships that preceded European hegemony”, as Grovogui puts it. However, in the longer term “certain shared interests, purposes and institutions” enabled the former colonising and colonised states to “converge on a Westphalian ethos of political autonomy” (Grovogui, 2002, p. 319). Still, the new international system consisted of rules the emerging states had not consented to since they had already been set, mainly by European and Christian states (Adebajo, 2016, p. 1188). As a result, despite the founding value of equal “Westphalian” sovereignty, they found it difficult to gain full recognition and prevent more powerful and established states from interfering in their affairs (Coe, 2019, p. 2).

The result was that the emerging states of the Third World, as they were then labelled, sought to establish a “middle way” between the dominating ethoi of the Cold War superpowers through institutions such as the Bandung Conference of 1955 and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) of 1961. “Non-alignment” involved the rejection of control by the superpowers, resistance to pressures to align with East–West pressures, and “solidarity with Third World interests relating to strategic world political and economic issues” (Strydom, 2007, p. 2).

Significantly, the NAM emphasised the values of the UN international system, namely sovereignty, territorial integrity, and non-interference (Strydom, 2007, p. 5). Crucially, it also emphasised the importance of multilateralism, though this might have been less than committed on the part of some participating socialist states (Matthies, 1985, p. 209). In the estimation of one commentator, the NAM’s lasting success was in bringing many developing countries into contact, in creating South-South relationships that to some extent weakened North-South dependencies, and introducing “greater flexibility in the international system” (Matthies, 1985, p. 209). At the same time, its claim to a global “peace function” in motivating disarmament and easing tensions between the Cold War blocs may have been exaggerated, given its “limited contributions to international crisis management” (Matthies, 1985, p. 209).

Sovereignty and its international challenges

In the view of a range of scholars, concepts and practices of sovereignty have undergone several transformations and, in some cases, “retrievals” of older forms in the post-Cold War international system. As John Lewis Gaddis observed, the abrupt end of the Cold War and the sudden disintegration of the Soviet Union came as a surprise to almost all who counted themselves as experts, including those in government, the academy, the media, and think tanks (Gaddis, 1992, p. 5). Very possibly, this surprise reflected a baked-in view of international relations as a bipolarity that left translational institutions somewhat unprepared for the configuration that followed, which was based on American unipolarity as the single remaining superpower (Sinclair & Byers, 2007, p. 337). According to Sinclair & Byers, this role put the US in a position to exercise its “unique conception of sovereignty” as the ability to “protect it[self] against outside influences while concurrently maximising its ability to intervene overseas” (Sinclair & Byers, 2007, p. 318).

There is little doubt that the US’s unipolar power during the 15 years or so between the early 1990s and the middle 2000s was considerable and even unrivalled in world history, based as it was on its dominant economy and, until recently, massive military power. Its conduct of its uniquely self-protective and interventionist conception of sovereignty has been variously estimated. According to Zeihan, since the end of the Second World War, the US has essentially overseen the creation of the “first global worl order” by policing the high seas to protect world trade and opening its gigantic economy to the rest of the world (Zeihan, 2020). On a less enthusiastic assessment, it has “provided leadership on democracy and human rights” while at the same time often opposing international rules (Sinclair & Byers, 2007, p. 331). The US instigated “preemptive” interventions in other countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and refused to ratify critical international institutions such as the International Criminal Court.

Jonathan Rabkin, a prominent exponent of this form of muscular Americanism, argues that the American sense of sovereignty is informed by the view that international regulatory schemes interfere with the views of local democratic constituencies while implausibly claiming to establish rules of conduct and corresponding protections that apply to everyone in the world; the US stance, then, is based on the primacy of its national law over international law (Rabkin, 2004). He asserts a standard internal version of sovereignty as primarily a relationship between ruler and the ruled. In his argument, though, the place of the sovereign is taken not by a ruling government but by the US Constitution. At the same time, the ability to maintain this sovereignty without interference is afforded by overwhelming military and economic might. To that extent, his argument that such an approach is, at any rate, available to any other sovereign power rings hollow in principle. Perhaps it reflects Krasner’s view that the extent of states’ compliance with international rules is always based on self-interest and that, in particular, the attitudes of great powers will always reflect an “organised hypocrisy” (cited by Sinclair & Byers, 2007 p. 319).

Yet sovereignty as an existing phenomenon is dynamic, as Kyris observes, and subject to associated conditions such as the willingness of other stage actors to recognise a state as sovereign (Kyris, 2022, p. 289). Historically, sovereignty in this external sense has always been challenged (Sinclair & Byers, 2007, p. 319). As a new conjuncture unfolded in the wake of the end of the Cold War, the traditional sense of sovereignty came under increasing challenge from the idea of universal human rights (Bartelson, 2006, p. 474), which many commentators regard as contradictory to or at least in solid tension with, the value of sovereignty. To some, the standard view that lawmaking was a monopoly of the state was under threat of replacement by international law, trumping the will of states and even international treaties (Cohen, 2004, p. 1).

Other transnational phenomena such as multinational corporations, international NGOs, internet communities and the proliferation of ethnic conflict were also perceived to threaten standard nation based sovereignty (Hansen & Stepputat, 2006, p. 296). To some, globalisation, too, was contributing to the breakdown of sovereignty, exposing the porousness of borders and the tenuous nature of state power, particularly in the global South (Bonilla, 2017, p. 331). Others did not see it as a particular feature of the developing world but as a general characteristic of capitalism (Henkin, 1999, p. 21), which with the demise of socialism, has been largely unopposed.
Humanitarian intervention in the internal affairs of (often nominally) sovereign states is prescribed by the UN Charter in cases of international crimes, as well as an array of conventions and treaties, including those prohibiting genocide, torture, racial discrimination, and discrimination against women, as well as protecting children. As Krasner points out, the motivations for intervention are generally both a matter of humanitarianism and security (Krasner, 2001, p. 22), and it is worth adding that the latter may often be as much a regional as a local matter. Countries neighbouring one where human rights abuses are occurring may have several reasons for wanting intervention, including concerns about the spread of violence across borders and the possibility of mass refugee migrations, as occurred, for instance, during the Rwanda genocide in 1994. Besides, it is one thing for states with relatively low levels of human rights abuses to oppose intervention in their affairs but another for states with high levels of abuse. Moreover, the fear of dilutions of sovereignty as a result of intervention assumes that any existing form of sovereignty is an end in itself. In principle, at least, interventions in a state’s internal affairs might improve governance and the quality of its sovereignty. Finally, citizens subject to human rights abuses may well agree with international human rights regulatory frameworks and want to see them implemented.

Other forms of transnational risk pose more dilemmas so far as sovereignty is concerned. These include climate change and terrorism, which, combined with porous borders, may pose risks for citizens (Cohen, 2004, p. 1). As regards climate change, Henkin questions whether “the environment” is or can be subject to any one state’s sovereignty, for instance. As he suggests, in theory, it would be feasible for every state to address such elements of the problem as it can, and states can agree to laws and create institutions that address the more significant problem (Henkin, 1999, p. 22). The global meetings beginning with the Montreal Accord (1987) and culminating in the Paris Agreement (2015) and the widespread agreement on the science of climate change are achievements in themselves. Even if little agreement has been achieved regarding which countries are to blame and which should bear the costs of mitigating the effects of climate change, the global dialogue, however confrontational at times, has generated new perspectives on where solutions might come from (Maizland, 2022).

Terrorism is another transnational risk. The canonic example is the attack by mainly Saudi terrorists on the World Trade Center in New York in 2001, which profoundly shook a country that had never experienced an attack on its home soil and arguably initiated the US’s so-called War on Terror, which represented a move from defence to prevention (Van Munster, 2004). For some authors, the “core threat” to international security would come from state-sponsored terrorism (Sinclair & Byers, 2007, p. 334); states would, it is arguable, have considerable resources available. An example would be the poison attacks on Russian dissidents in 2018 and 2020 involving Novichok, a highly lethal nerve agent designed to be undetectable by international inspectors and not likely to be produced by private entities (“Navalny ‘Poisoned,’” 2020). The US accused Russia of carrying out the attacks (Putin’s Poisons, 2022), which Russia has denied (Roth, 2018). Nevertheless, the lethality of the agent, though targeted at individuals in these cases, demonstrated the potential of transnational terrorism.

Lapses in state security represent at least as much of a threat. In 2007, for instance, a break-in occurred at the Pelindaba nuclear research station near Johannesburg in South Africa. In the event, the intention of the incursion was never made clear. Though the attempted break-in was (said to be) unsuccessful, experts commented that a successful theft of nuclear material might have yielded enough low-grade enriched uranium to make six dirty nuclear bombs (Jurgens, 2022). Cases of intentional state-sponsored terrorism and failures of security demonstrate a clear link between internal sovereign responsibility and external recognition as an actor in the international system.

Sovereignty in an emerging multipolar world

As has been remarked, the US enjoyed about 15 years of undisputed unipolar sovereignty. Even as the Cold War system broke up and the US was assuming its new role as the behemoth of the international system, political scientists predicted the emergence of powers “coequal with the United States” and, therefore, a multipolar world (Turner, 2009, p. 160). The possibility was implicit in a more nuanced analysis of the period of US unipolar domination, such as Huntington’s, which postulated a three-level international system with the US pre-eminent, a second level of major regional powers (among them Russia in Eurasia, China in Asia, India in South Asia, Brazil in South America and, interestingly, Nigeria and South Africa in Africa), and a third level of secondary regional powers, including Britain, Ukraine and Japan (cited in Chen & Pan, 2016, 83). Europe, though the largest market in the world, tends to be left out of the picture as a serious power because its union of semi-sovereign states gives it very little sovereignty as a power, particularly in the military field, and is seen as a “vassal” of the US due to its dependence on the Americans for defence (Shapiro & Puglierin, 2023). Given their prominent roles in the Cold War, the nature of their economies, and their military capabilities, China and Russia were clear candidates for a challenge to the US’s hegemony.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s, China and Russia issued joint statements “denouncing US hegemony” and advocating a multipolar world order, and in 2001 they signed a 20-year, renewable Sino Russian Treaty aiming to promote a “just and fair new world order” (Turner, 2009, p. 164). Given the nature of a changing new system in which actors seek to place themselves, it was not immediately clear from their statements how they intended to achieve this multipolarity (Turner, 2009, p. 160). More latterly, both have been clearer in outlining their strategic aims. In 2021, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, published a treatise in which he argued that Belarus, Ukraine and Russia constitute a common territory of the Rus, a people who settled in the area bounded by the Baltic and Black Seas and that he intended to create (or in his estimation, reassert) a Slavic union whose regional dominance would be recognised by all the former post-Soviet states (Hill & Stent, 2022, p. 2). Since 2012 at least, China under Xi Jinping, meanwhile, has aimed at “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” based on a “grand narrative” that projects a plan to “integrate Eurasia into a Sinocentric “community of shared interests, destiny and responsibility” (Callahan, 2016, p. 3). In outline, both aim to achieve multipolarity, at least by establishing themselves as the undisputed hegemons of their regions.

China’s approach to creating a Sinocentric community is based on a series of infrastructural investments in “two new trade routes connecting China with the rest of the world”, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) (Jie & Wallace, 2021). China’s economy is far more significant than Russia’s – reckoned presently to be the second largest in the world – while Russia’s is smaller than Italy’s. However, the BRI, according to Jie & Wallace, is a “fragmented collection of bilateral arrangements made on different terms” with countries that include Pakistan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Greece and Italy (Jie & Wallace, 2021). According to Legarda, its motivation is to facilitate trade and investment through “unstable regions” and protect Chinese citizens and companies living and operating in the countries involved in the BRI (Legarda, 2018). In addition, China has increasingly been seeking a role as a mediator in conflicts ranging from North Korea to South Sudan, Nepal and Zimbabwe (Legarda, 2017), as well as between antagonists such as Israel and Palestine and Iran and Saudi Arabia (Gering, 2023). One informed analysis of China’s longer term goals is that it aims to check American power, protect its pursuit of markets, reform the existing international institutions and upgrade its status as a world power (Chen & Pan, 2016, p. 86).

Until 2022, according to Bergmann et al., Russia’s approach to creating its projected Slavic community was based on “a position of relative geopolitical strength” as the “pre-eminent regional actor” (Bergmann et al., 2022, p. 2).

Overall, its approach was less fundamentally based on economic investment as it was on supporting Russian businesses in neighbouring countries, shoring up neighbouring leaders in countries such as Belarus and Georgia, brokering peace, as it did between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, and intervening militarily in places like Kazakhstan (Bergmann et al., 2022, p. 2). A particular focus is a loosely defined notion of the “Russian World”, which Moscow associates with “a sacred duty to defend the culture, language, and rights of all Russian speakers across the world, particularly in the former Soviet Union” (Bergmann et al., 2022, p. 4). Interestingly, the concept of the Russian World is articulated in a decree issued in September 2022, six months after Russia invaded Ukraine, citing Nato’s eastward expansion and a need to save millions of Russian speakers there from genocide (Bergmann et al., 2022, p. 3). According to the decree, “non-interference in the affairs of other states” is a core principle of the Russian World (Bergmann et al., 2022, p. 40).

According to Biscop, the Russian invasion of Ukraine confirms that “we are in a multipolar world” (Biscop, 2022). On this view, the world might have tipped into two rival blocs, with the Europeans and the US against Russia and China and Ukraine as the battleground (Biscop, 2022). However, though China has been careful to maintain relations with Russia, its attitude has been cautious, with a joint statement by Putin and Xi identifying the countries’ relationship as one of “nonalignment, non-confrontation, and non targeting of third countries” and affirming that they would continue to “advance the multi-polarisation of the world” (Aluf, 2023). China has announced that it will seek to expand BRICS, a loose mechanism comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa to promote “peace, security, development and cooperation” and establish “a more equitable and fair world” (Aluf, 2023). In Aluf’s interpretation, China does not seek to supplant the US as the pre-eminent world power. In the US’s estimation, it does. According to the US’s 2022 National Security Strategy, China aims to “reshape the international order in favour of one that tilts the global playing field in its benefit, even as the United States remains committed to managing the competition between our countries responsibly” (The White House, 2022, p. 3).


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has focused the world’s attention on the international rules-based notion of sovereignty. In March 2022, a large majority of member states of the UN condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a violation of the UN Charter’s provisions regarding the sovereignty of all states. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution demanding Russia’s immediate withdrawal from Ukraine (Aladekomo, 2022, p. 10). As Aladekomo points out, the UN’s 1970 General Assembly Declaration on Principles of International Law Concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States declares that aggression is “inconsistent with the purposes of the UN” and, further, “a crime against the peace for which there is responsibility under international law” (cited in Aladekomo, 2022, p. 21).

As the outline above shows, sovereignty is open to flexible interpretation, depending significantly on a state’s reading of its geopolitical context. Yet, concerning the core senses of sovereignty, that flexibility has limitations. As we have seen, the core senses generally accorded to the concept are self determination and freedom from external interference. To that, the UN’s multifaceted approach added the necessity of cooperation since sovereignty in a community of states crucially requires acceptance as such, that is, recognition. Yet suppose the account of the competition between the great powers of our time for eminence is accurate. In that case, hegemons tend to take self-determination in the sense of autonomy as the central and defining sense of sovereignty. Hegemonic states aim for a minimum of external influence on their internal affairs and a maximum of external influence on the internal affairs of other states.

Paradoxically, the successful ones can do this because their internal arrangements, in some sense, support or justify their ambitions and are seen to do so by other states. They must have the population, territory, resources, economic capability, military strength, political stability, and competence to claim or hold their pre-eminent position. In a time of transition from one structure of the international system to another, from a unipolar situation to a multipolar one, it would appear that the meaning of a central term of art, such as sovereignty, is subject to even more ambiguity than usual – not so much in its meaning as in its application. Here the rest of the world, particularly the developing world and Africa, enters the picture again. The emerging multipolar world will shape the continent’s opportunities and costs in international relations. It would be as well for its states to carefully and clearly calculate their actual position on the world stage and calibrate their performances accordingly. As the saying goes, when the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers. In that case, it would be wise to get off the grass and consider the situation from a different, less vulnerable perspective.

Biographical Details

Richard Jurgens is editor of Good Governance Africa (GGA)’s peer-reviewed academic journal, The Africa Governance Papers and is a former editor of GGA’s flagship publication, Africa in Fact. He spent 10 years in exile with the ANC in Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe, as well as the Netherlands. He has worked in mainstream media, alternative media, the corporate world and for Non-Government Organisations internationally and in South Africa. As a published author, he has recently completed a Research Master’s degree in public policy at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance.


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