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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Sovreignty, autonomy, and international environmental interdependence Krueger, Jonathan Patrick


The discipline of international relations employs two concepts - sovereignty and interdependence - as fundamental to understanding the current international system. The meaning of both sovereignty and interdependence, and their relation to each other, however, causes considerable confusion among scholars and other observers. An international system based on the sovereignty of its actors seems incompatible with the growth of international interdependencies. In particular, some observers argue that sovereignty is ‘modified’ or ‘undermined’ by the existence of international environmental interdependence, or that sovereignty is a barrier to the effective management of this interdependence. The suggested solution is to move to a postsovereign international governing arrangement. In international relations, sovereignty may be best understood as constitutional independence, the fundamental criterion required for a territorially based entity (a state) to become a member in the international community. That is, to be considered sovereign, a state’s constitution must not be part of a larger constitutional arrangement. Sovereignty should not be confused with autonomy, or freedom of action in the international system. While states are extremely protective of their sovereignty, both in rhetoric and in practice, they are willing to sacrifice various measures of autonomy through binding international agreements (such as the Montreal Protocol) to achieve goals which are important to them, or are considered greater global goals (such as environmental protection), which could not be achieved by unilateral action. The proposition that the sovereignty of the state is undermined or modified by international environmental interdependence, or is a barrier to the effective management of that interdependence, suffers from two defects: first, a failure to distinguish between sovereignty and autonomy; and second, a failure to identify precisely and accurately the impacts of environmental interdependencies. Despite the fact that many international environmental problems (such as air pollution, depletion of the ozone layer, and climate change) are global in scope, and that their solutions require international cooperation, the arguments about the current plight of the sovereignty of the state made by many observers are unwarranted. The existence of international environmental interdependence and the conclusion of international environmental agreements does not weaken, modify, or make obsolete the sovereignty of the state. Nor is sovereignty a barrier to obtaining multilateral regulation. Since state sovereignty is not at risk, and since solutions to serious global environmental problems are possible through the restriction of state autonomy, the prescription for a post-sovereign international governing arrangement due to international environmental interdependence is unfounded. Sovereignty remains, currently and for the foreseeable future, the central concept around which the international system is organized. Furthermore, it is not the barrier to cooperation that some observers would have us believe. Perhaps a clearer understanding of these concepts would not only enlighten observers and statespeople, but lead to improved, and more expeditious, cooperation on environmental issues of global importance.

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