State Sovereignty in the US, Russian and European Interpretations

Saddam Statue Toppled

State Sovereignty in the US, Russian and European Interpretations

Kristina Cherniavskaya
National Research University - Higher School of Economics

This is the third in our series of three working papers produced for our recent Annual Conference Student Webinar: '"Conceptual Conversations": Exploring Russian, European & American Understandings of Core Concepts Underpinning Russia-West Relations'. This final paper is based on collaborative research undertaken by Kristina Chernyavskaya, Anastasiia Kazakova, Ivan Loshkaryov and Victoria Silaeva, all current post-graduates at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) and Higher School of Economics (HSE). The University Consortium's Annual Conference was hosted by HSE from 30 September - 1 October 2016.


State sovereignty is upheld by Russia, the USA and the EU as the prevailing principle of international law, a fundamental code underlying the modern system of international relations. However, in pursuing their foreign policy courses, the three parties rely on differing understandings and conceptualizations of sovereignty. This results in misunderstanding and breeds conflict, which threatens security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region and beyond. Operating within a system of international relations characterized by a high level of unpredictability, the three parties pursue their own interests, shaped by various internal and systemic factors. Therefore, whereas Russia embraces a Westphalian concept of state sovereignty, in Western countries a different tradition dominates, one based on a liberal political legacy and alternative historical experience.

At the same time, the US and EU’s approaches to such fundamental issues as the limits of integration, foreign interventions and the role of international law also differ, or even directly contradict one another. Each regions’ different conceptual vision of sovereignty has caused major debates between the US, Europe and Russia since the end of the Cold War. For example, Russia and the West’s opposing attitudes to the legitimacy of intervention in Yugoslavia; debates between the US and Europeans (along with Russia) on the campaign in Iraq; the reluctant submission of both Russia and the US to international arbitrages and other supranational bodies (unlike the EU, which is a supranational body itself). From this point of view, the current Ukrainian crisis was not only a result of a geopolitical clash, but in many respects it was a manifestation of much deeper contradictions in defining state sovereignty and the role of the state in the modern world.

For a better understanding of all the nuances that exist between the Russian and the Western attitude to sovereignty and the way it is reflected in foreign policy, it is essential to offer a focused study of those fundamental contradictions that have driven the approaches and policies of Russia and Western nations. In this paper we observe four spheres where the controversies seem to us especially striking: sovereignty in the sphere of economics and capital flows; trans-border people flows and migration; cyber security and internet regulation; attitudes to humanitarian interventions...

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