Skip to ContentGo to accessibility pageKeyboard shortcuts menu
OpenStax Logo
Introduction to Political Science

14.3 Sovereignty and Anarchy

Introduction to Political Science14.3 Sovereignty and Anarchy

Menu
Table of contents
  1. Preface
  2. Introduction to Political Science
    1. 1 What Is Politics and What Is Political Science?
      1. Introduction
      2. 1.1 Defining Politics: Who Gets What, When, Where, How, and Why?
      3. 1.2 Public Policy, Public Interest, and Power
      4. 1.3 Political Science: The Systematic Study of Politics
      5. 1.4 Normative Political Science
      6. 1.5 Empirical Political Science
      7. 1.6 Individuals, Groups, Institutions, and International Relations
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  3. Individuals
    1. 2 Political Behavior Is Human Behavior
      1. Introduction
      2. 2.1 What Goals Should We Seek in Politics?
      3. 2.2 Why Do Humans Make the Political Choices That They Do?
      4. 2.3 Human Behavior Is Partially Predictable
      5. 2.4 The Importance of Context for Political Decisions
      6. Summary
      7. Key Terms
      8. Review Questions
      9. Suggested Readings
    2. 3 Political Ideology
      1. Introduction
      2. 3.1 The Classical Origins of Western Political Ideologies
      3. 3.2 The Laws of Nature and the Social Contract
      4. 3.3 The Development of Varieties of Liberalism
      5. 3.4 Nationalism, Communism, Fascism, and Authoritarianism
      6. 3.5 Contemporary Democratic Liberalism
      7. 3.6 Contemporary Ideologies Further to the Political Left
      8. 3.7 Contemporary Ideologies Further to the Political Right
      9. 3.8 Political Ideologies That Reject Political Ideology: Scientific Socialism, Burkeanism, and Religious Extremism
      10. Summary
      11. Key Terms
      12. Review Questions
      13. Suggested Readings
    3. 4 Civil Liberties
      1. Introduction
      2. 4.1 The Freedom of the Individual
      3. 4.2 Constitutions and Individual Liberties
      4. 4.3 The Right to Privacy, Self-Determination, and the Freedom of Ideas
      5. 4.4 Freedom of Movement
      6. 4.5 The Rights of the Accused
      7. 4.6 The Right to a Healthy Environment
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
    4. 5 Political Participation and Public Opinion
      1. Introduction
      2. 5.1 What Is Political Participation?
      3. 5.2 What Limits Voter Participation in the United States?
      4. 5.3 How Do Individuals Participate Other Than Voting?
      5. 5.4 What Is Public Opinion and Where Does It Come From?
      6. 5.5 How Do We Measure Public Opinion?
      7. 5.6 Why Is Public Opinion Important?
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  4. Groups
    1. 6 The Fundamentals of Group Political Activity
      1. Introduction
      2. 6.1 Political Socialization: The Ways People Become Political
      3. 6.2 Political Culture: How People Express Their Political Identity
      4. 6.3 Collective Dilemmas: Making Group Decisions
      5. 6.4 Collective Action Problems: The Problem of Incentives
      6. 6.5 Resolving Collective Action Problems
      7. Summary
      8. Key Terms
      9. Review Questions
      10. Suggested Readings
    2. 7 Civil Rights
      1. Introduction
      2. 7.1 Civil Rights and Constitutionalism
      3. 7.2 Political Culture and Majority-Minority Relations
      4. 7.3 Civil Rights Abuses
      5. 7.4 Civil Rights Movements
      6. 7.5 How Do Governments Bring About Civil Rights Change?
      7. Summary
      8. Key Terms
      9. Review Questions
      10. Suggested Readings
    3. 8 Interest Groups, Political Parties, and Elections
      1. Introduction
      2. 8.1 What Is an Interest Group?
      3. 8.2 What Are the Pros and Cons of Interest Groups?
      4. 8.3 Political Parties
      5. 8.4 What Are the Limits of Parties?
      6. 8.5 What Are Elections and Who Participates?
      7. 8.6 How Do People Participate in Elections?
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  5. Institutions
    1. 9 Legislatures
      1. Introduction
      2. 9.1 What Do Legislatures Do?
      3. 9.2 What Is the Difference between Parliamentary and Presidential Systems?
      4. 9.3 What Is the Difference between Unicameral and Bicameral Systems?
      5. 9.4 The Decline of Legislative Influence
      6. Summary
      7. Key Terms
      8. Review Questions
      9. Suggested Readings
    2. 10 Executives, Cabinets, and Bureaucracies
      1. Introduction
      2. 10.1 Democracies: Parliamentary, Presidential, and Semi-Presidential Regimes
      3. 10.2 The Executive in Presidential Regimes
      4. 10.3 The Executive in Parliamentary Regimes
      5. 10.4 Advantages, Disadvantages, and Challenges of Presidential and Parliamentary Regimes
      6. 10.5 Semi-Presidential Regimes
      7. 10.6 How Do Cabinets Function in Presidential and Parliamentary Regimes?
      8. 10.7 What Are the Purpose and Function of Bureaucracies?
      9. Summary
      10. Key Terms
      11. Review Questions
      12. Suggested Readings
    3. 11 Courts and Law
      1. Introduction
      2. 11.1 What Is the Judiciary?
      3. 11.2 How Does the Judiciary Take Action?
      4. 11.3 Types of Legal Systems around the World
      5. 11.4 Criminal versus Civil Laws
      6. 11.5 Due Process and Judicial Fairness
      7. 11.6 Judicial Review versus Executive Sovereignty
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
    4. 12 The Media
      1. Introduction
      2. 12.1 The Media as a Political Institution: Why Does It Matter?
      3. 12.2 Types of Media and the Changing Media Landscape
      4. 12.3 How Do Media and Elections Interact?
      5. 12.4 The Internet and Social Media
      6. 12.5 Declining Global Trust in the Media
      7. Summary
      8. Key Terms
      9. Review Questions
      10. Suggested Readings
  6. States and International Relations
    1. 13 Governing Regimes
      1. Introduction
      2. 13.1 Contemporary Government Regimes: Power, Legitimacy, and Authority
      3. 13.2 Categorizing Contemporary Regimes
      4. 13.3 Recent Trends: Illiberal Representative Regimes
      5. Summary
      6. Key Terms
      7. Review Questions
      8. Suggested Readings
    2. 14 International Relations
      1. Introduction
      2. 14.1 What Is Power, and How Do We Measure It?
      3. 14.2 Understanding the Different Types of Actors in the International System
      4. 14.3 Sovereignty and Anarchy
      5. 14.4 Using Levels of Analysis to Understand Conflict
      6. 14.5 The Realist Worldview
      7. 14.6 The Liberal and Social Worldview
      8. 14.7 Critical Worldviews
      9. Summary
      10. Key Terms
      11. Review Questions
      12. Suggested Readings
    3. 15 International Law and International Organizations
      1. Introduction
      2. 15.1 The Problem of Global Governance
      3. 15.2 International Law
      4. 15.3 The United Nations and Global Intergovernmental Organizations (IGOs)
      5. 15.4 How Do Regional IGOs Contribute to Global Governance?
      6. 15.5 Non-state Actors: Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs)
      7. 15.6 Non-state Actors beyond NGOs
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
    4. 16 International Political Economy
      1. Introduction
      2. 16.1 The Origins of International Political Economy
      3. 16.2 The Advent of the Liberal Economy
      4. 16.3 The Bretton Woods Institutions
      5. 16.4 The Post–Cold War Period and Modernization Theory
      6. 16.5 From the 1990s to the 2020s: Current Issues in IPE
      7. 16.6 Considering Poverty, Inequality, and the Environmental Crisis
      8. Summary
      9. Key Terms
      10. Review Questions
      11. Suggested Readings
  7. References
  8. Index

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Explain why sovereignty is an essential element of states in the international system.
  • Define anarchy in the context of the international system.
  • Explain the relationship between sovereignty and anarchy.

Statehood is of vital importance to a nation because it confers sovereignty. Sovereignty is the ability of a state to run its institutions without fear of interference from other states or entities. Sovereignty allows states to enforce their own laws, for better or for worse, allowing a state to exert its power within its own borders and in situations where the state must work to protect its interests.

While states’ claims to sovereignty allow them to protect their cultural identity, beliefs, norms, and institutions, they can also prevent other states from stepping in to protect the innocent when a state acts in a manner that is counter to the basic norms of human rights and human dignity enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.18 The actions a state takes to intervene on behalf of people subjected to violence at the hands of their own government could be seen as acts of aggression. In this case, the state that is perpetrating the violence would be within their rights to take action against the intervening state. In cases of crimes against humanity, such as the genocide in the Balkans19 and the civil war in Rwanda,20 both in the 1990s, sovereignty allows a state to function as it sees fit, even when it means some citizens of that country will die. States have used the cover of sovereignty to prevent nongovernmental organizations from providing aid. For example, the Assad regime in Syria has diverted humanitarian aid intended for civilians caught in the middle of the violence in that country’s ongoing civil war, using the aid to fund its own atrocities.21 At times, states have used the cover of sovereignty to block NGOs from gathering information on atrocities happening within the country or to decline to participate in negotiations when other states tried to broker peace.

Video

International Anarchy

Anarchy has a particular meaning in international relations that likely differs from the meaning you might be familiar with. This video clip clarifies the concept of anarchy in this context, contrasting it with the concept of hierarchy.

A system made up of actors focused on protecting their own interests naturally results in anarchy,22 where there is no overarching governing authority. In the case of the international system, anarchy refers to a lack of a general sense of order in the international system. Anarchy in the international system is directly linked to this lack of enforcement mechanisms as well as a lack of a broad global government. Sovereignty is the most important part of a state’s identity. The willingness of states to make sure that their sovereignty is protected for as long as possible ensures that the system will remain anarchic.

While each state has the right to govern itself, there is still a need for a means through which different states can gather—some ordered structure in the system that allows states to work through common issues. Intergovernmental organizations, such as the United Nations, provide the forums through which states can attempt to exert pressure on one another to cause one or more states to change a behavior, to provide options other than violence for conflict resolution, or to adhere to already established norms that provide some semblance of order in the otherwise anarchic system. However, there are no true enforcement bodies that have the authority and the capability to impose comprehensive consequences on a state that violates an international agreement or takes actions that fly in the face of generally accepted norms. Intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations provide useful avenues for states to solve problems that impact them at a systemic level, but it is still impossible to say with 100 percent confidence that a state can be made to behave in a certain way.

Foreign aid and sanctions are options available to members of the international community to help move a state into alignment with generally accepted expectations for behavior. Like all types of international actions, the ability of these options to be effective requires the participation of as many members of the international community as possible and the willingness of those states and organizations to close any loopholes so that the target state feels the consequences in a meaningful way. There is no mechanism to force a state to behave a certain way. Foreign aid and sanctions, along with treaties and the actions of international organizations, provide options international actors can use to help order the environment in which a state makes its choices about how it relates to other countries.

States can work cooperatively through institutions to enact strategies aimed at coercing a state to change its behavior; however, there is no surefire way to guarantee a state will do so or that it will continue to uphold that change. For example, the United States led a series of negotiations beginning in 2015 to work to curb Iran’s development of nuclear weapons. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly referred to as the Iran Nuclear Deal, was an agreement signed between Iran and the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China, under the leadership of the United States. Negotiated by the Obama administration, the agreement allowed Iran to re-engage in trade, particularly of their oil, to take some of the pressure off their own economy, and in return, Iran would work to dismantle the nuclear facilities that presented security concerns to the world. Because of the domestic political situation in the United States, the US never recognized the Iran Nuclear Deal as a ratified treaty, opting instead to enter into an “executive agreement.”23 The terms of the treaty would have been binding, but without a formal treaty, the enforcement mechanisms included in the agreement did not ever become reality. When President Obama left office in 2016, the newly elected President Donald Trump began to pull back from the agreement. Trump chose to work separately from the parties to the agreement, reinstating sanctions on Iran, including penalties for entities that continued to trade with Iran. When one key party to an agreement pulls back, other members of the negotiating body are effectively unable to uphold their side of the agreement, and that agreement is weakened.24

Representatives from China, France, Germany, the EU, Iran, the UK, and the US pose for a photo in front of their respective flags.
Figure 14.6 In July 2015, representatives of China, France, Germany, the EU, Iran, the UK, and the United States posed for a photo during the meetings in Vienna that resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known as the Iran Nuclear Deal. (credit: “Iran Talks” by Bundesministeriums für europäische und internationale Angelegenheiten/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

It may seem counterintuitive to think about anarchy and order going hand in hand when talking about the international system, but the modern system relies on the assumption that states within the system want to maintain control over everything within their own borders and work for their own benefit while at the same time being unwilling to submit to an established order in the environment around them. The tension created in the fight between order and anarchy that exists in all states, no matter how powerful they are, is what underscores and motivates international relations.

Do you know how you learn best?
Kinetic by OpenStax offers access to innovative study tools designed to help you maximize your learning potential.
Order a print copy

As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Citation/Attribution

Want to cite, share, or modify this book? This book uses the Creative Commons Attribution License and you must attribute OpenStax.

Attribution information
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a print format, then you must include on every physical page the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-political-science/pages/1-introduction
  • If you are redistributing all or part of this book in a digital format, then you must include on every digital page view the following attribution:
    Access for free at https://openstax.org/books/introduction-political-science/pages/1-introduction
Citation information

© May 20, 2022 OpenStax. Textbook content produced by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License . The OpenStax name, OpenStax logo, OpenStax book covers, OpenStax CNX name, and OpenStax CNX logo are not subject to the Creative Commons license and may not be reproduced without the prior and express written consent of Rice University.