Sovereignty regimes and the norm of noninterference in the global South: regional and temporal variation.

Author:Coe, Brooke

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.


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. Amitav Acharya explains in a separate article that, while regionalism in Europe in part responded to "the declining legitimacy of nationalism" in the wake of a devastating war, postcolonial nationalism and regionalism were in fact mutually reinforcing. (4)

As asserted above, though, sovereignty norms are not static. Although the postcolonial world is often characterized as a space where Westphalian logics continue to carry the day, sovereignty has not remained unchanged in the South, and a range of interference practices--from public condemnation to fact-finding missions to economic sanctions and peacekeeping missions--have, over time and especially since the end of the Cold War, been increasingly legitimized, institutionalized, and put into practice by regional actors as part of state monitoring regimes or in response to domestic political and military crises. Furthermore, just as normative orders in the postcolonial world are not static, neither are they monolithic. This is the case despite an important common history of colonization and decolonization. As stated above and demonstrated below, the norm of noninterference has eroded to a much greater degree in Latin America and (especially) Africa than in Southeast Asia.

Before I present evidence of this regional and temporal variation, I briefly clarify my cases and dependent variable. I compare the status of the norm of noninterference over time in three regions, which together make up a large portion of the Global South: Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Since regions are not natural units, I use regional organizations (ROs) to define their boundaries. Africa is defined as those states currently composing the African Union (AU); membership in the Organization of American States (OAS) defines Latin America; and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) membership defines Southeast Asia. The one exception I made to this rule is that I excluded the United States and Canada from my definition of Latin America despite their membership in OAS. In addition to serving as proxy for the purposes of defining the cases themselves, these ROs are also important arenas and actors. That said, in this project I was interested in regional norms more generally, not just RO norms, and so the practices of other actors--states, coalitions of states, and subregional organizations--were also within the scope.

Again, my variable of interest is the status of the norm of noninterference. A "norm" is a "standard of appropriate behavior for actors with a given identity." (5) It is not only a pattern of behavior, then, but a "prescribed pattern of behavior which gives rise to normative expectations as to what ought to be done." (6) But how does one measure the strength or status of an international norm? First, and perhaps obviously, claims about norm strength make more sense in relative rather than absolute terms. That is, asserting that the norm of noninterference is strong or weak only makes sense if we are also specifying "compared to what?" Or, "compared to where or when?" Second, in order to make comparisons across time or space and support claims about the relative strength and meaning of that norm, it is useful to think about evidence falling into three (overlapping) categories relevant to a norm's status: discourse, law, and practice. First, how do relevant interpretive communities talk about the norm? Second, what is the legal status of the norm or practices that violate the norm? Finally, how often and to what degree do relevant actors' practices comply with or violate the norm? Since the norm that I examine is a prohibition (noninterference), and I argue that it has eroded over time, key pieces of evidence in this study include speech, laws, and actions that violate the norm or promote practices that violate the norm.

Specifically, I am interested in the affirmation, legalization, and execution of regional interference practices: actions carried out by states and ROs--located in the same region as the target state--that encroach on domestic political or security matters. To qualify as interference, these practices are to some degree intrusive or critical of or materially costly to the target state, seeking to monitor or alter state action in some way or affect the outcome of a domestic crisis. I examine activities in two categories: regional monitoring regimes and regional responses to intrastate crisis. The former refers to RO election observation and human rights monitoring. The latter refers to a range of actions (e.g., condemnation, mediation, sanctions, peacekeeping missions) carried out by ROs or regional states in response to domestic political and military crises, especially unconstitutional changes in government (UCGs), episodes of political violence, and civil conflict.

My definition and operationalization of interference, then, follows scholars who have conceptualized noninterference as a principle of "exclusive domestic jurisdiction." (7) That is, states have exclusive jurisdiction over their domestic affairs, and it therefore is inappropriate for outside actors to concern themselves with these affairs. When outside actors do inquire about, take positions on, or attempt to affect the course of domestic events and political processes, this is interference. An important category of exception to the prohibition includes interference activities taking place at the behest of, or in the explicit support of, the regime in power (of the target state). Although these activities have been considered by some to qualify as interference--African states have at times decried proregime foreign forces on the continent as violators of noninterference because they affect the outcome of domestic disputes--more widely accepted understandings of noninterference exclude these activities from the prohibition and consider it within the rights of a sovereign state to request and receive assistance in this way. Violations of noninterference...

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