As WE collectively rush into the era of climate change, international relations as we have known them for almost four centuries will change beyond recognition. This change is probably inevitable, and maybe even necessary. But it will also cause new conflicts, and therefore wars and suffering.
Since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, diplomats have, in times of peace as in times of war, subscribed for the most part to the principle of national sovereignty. It is the idea, enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, that foreign countries do not have the right “to intervene in matters which essentially fall within the national competence of a State”.
The concept was born, along with the entire modern state system, in the physical and psychological rubble of the Thirty Years’ War. From 1618, the European powers intervened in each other’s territories almost willy-nilly. Turn after turn, the war has left about one in three dead in Central Europe. It was in this continental cemetery that statesmen (they were all men) stipulated that it was best that each state now only mind its own affairs.
No one at the Peace of Westphalia was mistaken enough to think that this realistic notion would end the war as such. After all, by recognizing sovereignty, the system has accepted that countries pursue their national interests, which tend to clash. But at least the new consensus offered the possibility of preventing another blind bloodletting.
Even then, the principle of sovereignty has never been absolute or uncontroversial. For a long time, the best idealistic counter-argument was humanitarian – that countries not only have the right but the duty to intervene in other states if, say, these commit atrocities such as genocide.
Now, however, there is an even more powerful argument against sovereignty, made by thinkers such as Stewart Patrick at the Council on Foreign Relations. This is because in a world where all countries are collectively confronted with the global emergency of global warming, sovereignty is simply no longer a tenable concept.
This idea probably also emerged from many delegates at COP26, the UN climate summit currently underway in Glasgow. What is at stake in these negotiations is not the “national” interest of a country as such, except to the extent that it is part of the collective interest of our species to preserve world heritage. : the atmosphere and the biosphere. And while aviation regulators may disagree, the borders around our territorial jurisdictions just don’t stretch into the air.
A carbon dioxide molecule emitted in China, the United States or India will float who knows where and accelerate climate change all over. It will flood cities in Germany, burn forests in Australia, starve people in Africa and submerge islands in the Pacific. All the peoples of the world therefore have a legitimate interest in the greenhouse gases emitted in a given jurisdiction.
An early and tragicomic demonstration of this shift in international relations was the dusting off in 2019 between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron. Bolsonaro, a populist brand, at the time allowed fires to burn large swathes of the Amazon rainforest. It turns out to be the world’s main “lung” or “carbon sink”, removing greenhouse gases from the atmosphere and storing them in trees. Except now the Amazon was spitting carbon into the air.
Speaking for many, the French president accused his Brazilian counterpart of promoting “ecocide”. Sounds like the new genocide, doesn’t it? Bolsonaro countered that Macron was a neocolonialist and followed up with a sexist jibe targeting Macron’s wife.
The underlying question was sovereignty: is a tropical forest in Brazil the business of Brazil or the world? In a hypothetical future scenario, would an alliance led by France be within its right to declare war on Brazil to prevent ecocide, and therefore the suicide of humanity? (Fortunately, 100 countries, including Brazil, pledged this week to cooperate to phase out deforestation).
This opens up a new line of thinking in world affairs. Policy makers are already steeped in analyzes of the new types of conflicts that global warming will provoke within and between countries. These include wars for access to fresh water, the disappearance of arable land or massive migrations.
But the creeping obsolescence of Westphalian sovereignty as a system of exploitation of international relations would provoke even more upheaval. And it seems inevitable. Some powers or alliances will consider military interventions in other states in the future to end what they define as ecocide. Others may even go to war if they think rival countries are taking unilateral action on climate change that threatens their own interests.
The US National Intelligence Council, for example, considered what would happen if a country sprayed huge amounts of aerosols into the stratosphere. Such geoengineering could reflect sunlight and cool the planet, as ash does after a large volcanic eruption. But it could also change weather conditions and deprive other countries of their livelihoods. Who in this scenario would be sovereign over what?
It is time to think about the disappearance of sovereignty. Perhaps we will need an ecological equivalent of what the World Trade Organization is to trade: a new international body that explains the conundrum and tries to maintain order. Even then, the world is likely to become more unstable and dangerous, not only ecologically but also geopolitically. We all fear environmental Armageddon. But we don’t want another Thirty Years War either.