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Byman and King on “Phantom States”– More evidence of a neo-medieval international system

Abkhazia

Abkhazia

My colleagues (and friends!) Dan Byman and Charles King have a  fascinating article in The Washington Quarterly on “The Mystery of Phantom States.” In this piece, they explore the existence of polities that seem to have de facto statehood, like Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Nagorno—Karabakh and the Dniester Moldovan Republic. They argue:

Seeing phantom statehood as simply a legitimacy problem or a prolonged territorial dispute misunderstands the complexities of how such entities are born and the strategies they pursue in order to survive. In the 21st century, peripheral elites in phantom states are able to carry on a host of state-like activities without regard to external sovereignty. They can engage in trans-border commerce, accrue military power, educate their children, build infrastructure, and in many cases benefit from direct economic aid and other assistance programs from external patrons.
Moreover, as time goes on, phantom states become more adept at using these elements for their survival. Phantom states, like real ones, are learning enterprises. When external patrons falter, phantom states build up their military resources and prepare to defend themselves against the base state. When elite cohesion breaks down, domestic out-bidding may cause elites to push for restarting a war with the base state. When the international community seems to be ignoring their plight, they find precedents or other elements of international law to buttress their case for real independence.

They conclude that:

The real danger with phantom states is that low expectations lead to low accountability. Entities which have no real stake in the international system are disinclined to worry about upsetting it. For this reason alone, phantom states deserve to be moved from their position as curiosities of international affairs to being seen as a new form of state-making in an age of globalization, overlapping sovereignties, and multiple political loyalties.

I agree. It seems to me that both scholars and practitioners of international politics need to stop ignoring these– and other– inconvenient facts that challenge the myth of the Westphalian system. With a growing number of entities in the world that exercise real levels of both control and authority over persons, it makes sense, as I have argued before, to recognize that the international system is truly becoming what Hedley Bull termed “neo-medieval. Such as system is one in which there are indeed states in the traditional sense, but there are also a host of other dissimilar actors that play a meaningful role in governance– intergovernmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, trans-state political organizations (like Al-Qaeda and Hezbollah), supra-state organizations (like the European Union), and variety of sub-state actors– such as “phantom states.” In such as system,  there is, to use Bull’s words,  “overlapping authority and multiple loyalties.”

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Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.