Home > Essays in Diplomacy > Globalization and Sovereignty: a Challenge for Diplomacy?

Globalization and Sovereignty: a Challenge for Diplomacy?

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by Juan “Jed” E. Dayang, Jr.

Globalization and the emergence of non-state actors have raised the question: Quo Vadis state sovereignty? For the past three centuries, the world as we know it has been defined by the interaction among states as primary actors which originated from the Westphalian system. Through sovereignty, states assert their supreme and exclusive authority over its territory, its freedom from any higher legal authority, and  independence from interference from other states.   The concept of sovereignty is however challenged by the rise of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), social movements, transnational business corporations, transnational terrorists, and supra-national organization. Sovereignty is also being questioned by those who espouse intervention on humanitarian grounds to protect citizens under illiberal regimes. For them, sovereignty could not be used as justification for non-interference in matters such as “crimes against humanity” which in International Law is considered as jus cogens or peremptory norms

My assessment is that sovereignty in the 21st century  remains relevant; yet it is undergoing pervasive change and persistent continuities characterized by both order and disorder. To grasp this paradox is to locate this discourse on the interactive tensions between fragmentation and integration. James Rosenau argues that the post Cold War era is an age of fragmentation and that there is a need for a new concept beyond the limiting scope of sovereignty. His argument is that the world cannot be simplified in terms of interactions of states and institutions because humans are the key actors within a state. Humans as actors are non-linear, multi-perspective, have inherent traits and are socially conditioned.  With the absence of a new conceptual framework, nation-states remain central.

The concept of sovereignty is changing pervasively.  Thomas Friedman described the world as “flat”. A world where economies are interconnected and people-to-people exchanges are no longer defined by strict boundaries.  Despite the diminishing role of the state as an exclusive authority in rule-making, it still has the capability to pool resources, restrict territorial borders, protect weak sectors in the market economy, and power to act as ‘traffic manager” to the interaction of non-state actors.  The world has also become more complex. Even in ‘melting pot’ countries, U.S. citizens have asserted their identities as Filipino-American, African-American, or as American Jews whose loyalties are divided.  Multiculturalism is also argued to weaken the state and the state’s ability to rally broad consensus and support. Internet has also made territorial boundaries porous.  Apart from globalization,  issues of morality, justice and ethics in politics and business have been raised.


Challenge to Diplomacy

Diplomats will have to contend with the diminished role of the state in shaping outcomes with the increased influence of NGOs, social movements, and transnational organizations. The world economy is interdependent and the  ‘low politics’ of economy has become a top agenda of states veering away from traditional ‘high politics’ of security. The information age has also made diplomacy virtual.   These paradigm shifts necessitate governments to adjust their ways of interaction with other relevant actors in a pluralistic world.  This does not mean total relinquishing of its diplomatic initiatives to non-state actors since this will only further diminish its authority.  New questions are raised such as:  What is the new function of diplomacy in the information age?  Should sovereignty be defended? How could diplomacy remain relevant in the information age and globalization?

Two implications could be drawn from globalization and information age. First is how can diplomacy continue to pursue foreign policy goals and second, how can diplomacy influence and assist non-state actors  in a multi-centric world.  In the new era, information is power. Diplomats could easily access information that will be useful in bilateral, regional and global negotiations. For security purposes, information and new technologies make it possible for the U.S find accurate information on countries developing nuclear weapons and avert terrorist threats. Virtual diplomacy could be used to aid diplomats in performing their duties, prevent war, and increased cooperation and coordination on various multilateral issues with other states.

On the second implication, diplomats have a role in managing and assisting non-state actors through joint cooperation and partnership. For instance, governments promoting migrants’ rights could have allies with social movements and NGOs in providing services and advocating human rights. At the same, time diplomats need to adapt its communications styles and develop expertise on specific issues.  Diplomats may work in providing opportunities for transnational corporations to increase trade and investments and build stronger ties abroad. Furthermore, international organizations and supra-national organizations are new arenas of diplomacy in influencing outcomes and creation of norms and social contracts on issue areas such as climate change, financial and trade infrastructure, and cooperation against human trafficking and other transnational crimes.

In summary, sovereignty could be described by change and continuity, order and disorder, integration and fragmentation. In a globalized world, the scope of diplomacy has been enlarged beyond the traditional state system that was constructed during the Treaty of Westphalia. The emergence of non-state actors such as NGOs, transnational corporations, supranational bodies, and transnational crimes has opened the door for other actors in shaping the world order.  Apart from globalization, there is also a rise in localization.  The growing importance of identity and culture have expanded our understanding of the way diplomacy is being practiced in a more complex and pluralistic world. Diplomacy finds its relevance in persuasion and negotiations as well as in championing the need for new social contacts that will define the new world order. States remain to be relevant as “traffic managers” in a globalized world. Transnational diplomacy remains vital in managing complexity and in achieving common interests among multi-stakeholders in a multi-centric world.  As the concept of sovereignty is changing, so does diplomacy need to adapt to these changes.


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