The Nature of Change in State Sovereignty in the Post-Cold War Era


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In the period after the end of the Cold War, state sovereignty has been a key principle that defines how states related as well forming the base of world order. It refers to the equality of states in terms of capability, independence and legality, whereby each state allowed by international laws to make decisions and implement them without interference from other states (The International departmental research centre, n.d). By the end of cold War there was a possibility of an emergence of a new world order and therefore analysts sought to find what its fundamental characteristics would be. The major debate was based on the structure and position of political authority which was over a long time associated with the institution of the state and its potentiality to change (Lugo, 1996).

The world has in the past hundred years witnessed a diminishing state power which has resulted in ambiguity of the term state sovereignty. This can be attributed to several factors such as an increase in human migration beyond the control of many states, multinational corporations have continually grown in power and influence, development of world economic system that has seemingly rendered domestic actors irrelevant e.t.c. Powers that were traditionally held or executed by states have shifted to regional and international organizations on the downward shift, some powers of the state have are now bestowed on non-governmental organizations or even individuals. As a result, perspectives on the range and role of state sovereignty have quickly evolved and substantially especially in the past decade, whereby each version is deemed legitimate as long as it protects the human rights of individuals (Simmons & Carlsnaes, 2002 ).


Nature of change in state sovereignty

This therefore means that the original definition of state sovereignty is limited and the various limitations form a new definition. The sovereignty of a nation cannot bar the UN Security Council from taking action as a way of addressing an act of aggression, a threat to peace or breach of peace. This means that sovereignty is only recognized provided it meets the demands and of international peace and security. Hence independence, legal equality and competence will only be up held when there is peace, stability and order among states. Secondly obligations to treaties as required by international law and relations puts a limitation to state sovereignty. This means that though a state might be sovereign it has an obligation to perform its international obligations and hence sovereignty will not be used as an excuse for non-performance. Therefore their sovereignty only holds effectively to the extent the state meets its obligations obtained by the fact that it has membership in the UN and other world organizations (United Nations, n.d).

Therefore states have responsibilities that they are required to meet as they exercise their sovereignty whereby they are to protect persons and property who are in their territories. Though the chatter provides for sovereignty on matters in the state’s domestic jurisdiction, which refers to those issues that are not covered by international law the term ‘domestic jurisdiction’ does not cover a fixed content and is also subject to change with the evolution of international law. As a result what would have previously been taken to be matters of internal affairs have been put under the jurisdiction of international law and hence ambiguity in state sovereignty (Totten, 2007).

Since the end of the Cold War has been some aspects that have emerged which have also challenged the notion of state sovereignty. First, there has been a continued demand for self-determination whereby the sanctity of borders and the illegitimacy of secession has continually been challenged. In a period of about 50 years it was still hard to imagine that a part of a state would want to secede, even if it was with the consent of the original state. However by the end of the Cold War the idea that the existing borders were sacrosanct was no longer holding water, first the larger Soviet Union was broken in to Russia and other 14 new states. Hence a country’s sovereignty was challenged as its power over its part that wanted to secede was stopped (Lugo, 1996).

Secondly, the phrase threats to international peace and security has in the recent past been experiencing an interpretation and understanding that is quite broadened. When the principle was developed the main aim was to prevent states that would illegally want to exercise external sovereignty by intervening in other countries affairs that is aggression. On the contrary in the post Cold War period the UN expanded the conception and interpretation of the principle to include military action as a reaction to international insecurity and threats to peace. As a result some interventions were done on humanitarian grounds though the sovereignty of the invaded countries was compromised however the interventions themselves became threats to the international peace and security. Thirdly, state sovereignty has been compromised when some countries cannot effectively exercise control over their jurisdiction.

These weak governments can at times be overthrown resulting in chaos, killing of civilians and hence humanitarian conditions deteriorate. This leads the Security Council to go against a country’s sovereignty. Lastly there has been increasing importance of popular sovereignty whereby state sovereignty is no longer defined by just having a population but it includes both rights of and responsibilities to the population. Therefore if a state is incapable of providing life-supporting protection and assistance for their citizens, it should ask for assistance. However if it fails or obstructs access to those needing support and puts them at risk then there is international responsibility to respond. Then its sovereignty is temporarily suspended (The International departmental research centre, n.d).

Positive Outcomes of Change in State Sovereignty

Changes in sovereignty have come with many positives both to individuals, organizations and states. First, the principle of respecting international treaties over national sovereignty has enabled the sustenance of continued peace. This is because countries that are in conflict which would have otherwise resulted in war are forced to restrain themselves from going in to war as a result of treaties and agreement signed between them. For instance Israel was constantly at war with its Arab neighbours for along time; however with the signing of a peace treaty with Egypt has to some extent reduced aggression in the Middle East as each of the two countries works for a peaceful solution to any disagreement.

There has been increase in respect for human rights, whereby the UN member countries are obligated to stand against violation of human rights. Particularly because those countries that cause gross violation of human rights and whose leaders go against democratic principle risk losing their sovereignty, and as a result UN can authorize intervention on humanitarian grounds. This makes the leaders to be cautious on their actions because there is a higher authority over their sovereignty that can hold them accountable for their actions. Lastly countries have been able to work together to promote fairness and political and economic accountability whereby countries collectively counter check one another as per the set standards of which otherwise each country would have been run by its own rules even if they harm others. Hence powerful nations would have domineered and mistreated the weaker ones (ICISS, n.d).

Negative Outcomes of Change in State Sovereignty

There are countries that have used humanitarian grounds for intervention as an excuse to enter other countries with ulterior motives of promoting their economic or political gains. For instance when a country claims that another is a threat to international peace and security hence it ends up invading that country, however its main objective was to secure economic benefits in that other country such as minerals. This mostly demonstrated by overly stay of forces of an intervening nation in the country it intervened long after normalcy has returned to that country. Another disadvantage is that some interventions on human grounds end causing more harm to the population than even what the perceived human rights violation would have. For instance when the UN decides to use military intervention and the government of that country uses its military to resist the UN forces.

In some occasions the objectives of interventions are not met but rather the efforts become counter productive. For instance when non-military interventions such as economic sanctions are used in an effort to punish wrong leadership, the citizen end up to be the biggest losers especially in cases where the leaders are resistance to change. For example in Zimbabwe where sanctions caused the economy to deteriorate yet President Mugabe never change his policies hence citizen are the ones who were the hardest hit by the economic pinch. The UN Security Council has five permanent members who have veto powers and hence can decide where intervention is necessary. This brings the question of its legitimacy because the 5 members do not represent all the corners of the world today. In addition legitimacy of the UN Security Council is questioned as a result of the inconsistency and selectivity of international action to stop violations of human rights on whether there are hidden agendas or whether there should be intervention anywhere there is lack of capacity.


It is clear that the nature of state sovereignty has greatly changed in the post-Cold War era. It is no longer absolute whereby it guarantees independence, competence and legal equality of states, however it is subject to limitations and challenges that have developed in the post-Cold War period. Therefore a state can only be allowed to discharge their authority over its population provided it adheres to the international treaties and agreements in which that state is a party to. On the other hand there have also been issues that have emerged which have challenged the sovereignty of states, such as struggle for secession. There are also both positives and negatives that have come with the erosion of state power. All these point to the evolution of state sovereignty and also call for scrutiny of these new developments in order to be able to come up with proper recommendations on the extent to which state sovereignty can be beneficial. His important because there are issues which still remain unsolved as far those bodies that have taken state power is, as we concern ourselves with limiting state power we should also take keen interest on those organizations that that power is bestowed.

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