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Justice and the international state system

Is justice rather than power increasingly shaping what happens in the international system?

Justice and the internacional state system

Image taken from:   Bergbook

Key words:  Politics, identity, ideas, society, violence, confict.



This paper aims to address whether justice rather than power is increasingly shaping the international state system. As the question emphasizes transitional patterns, the case study proposed is a long term observation of Sovereignty recognition in the relation between the western and non-western worlds along the historical continuum that was brought to support the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). The principle of sovereignty allows exercising authority within a state’s own borders and protection from uninvited foreign interference. However sovereignty, to different degrees, has always enclosed some responsibilities to be recognized and the R2P is an emerging feature that theoretically allows interrupting sovereignty.


In order to assess justice and power from a relative neutral standpoint, this paper will observe the patterns of change using pluralism and multipolarity as a guide line. Justice is understood in terms of liberal cosmopolitanism underpinning the R2P. Liberal cosmopolitanism is a tradition that dates back to the Enlightment and has increasingly shaped state sovereignty in terms of liberal values. In terms of the R2P, it sees Human Rights (HR) as entitlements belonging to all human beings and Sovereignty becomes conditional on states ability to protect them (Bell, 2014, p.320).


Here power is associated with great powers ability to shape the system according to their interests. It is essentially related to the Hobbesian state system perspective. The distribution of material capabilities influence the structure of system, this because as Waltz suggests the absence of an overarching power able to control states gives rise to anarchy (Brown, 2014, p.102). Consequently, states see themselves as enemy and domination in seen by great powers ultimately as a mean to survival.


The case study will be assessed through two theories, Social Constructivism and Realism. Realism is consistent with the definition proposed for power. It sees the distribution of material capabilities constitutive of what happen in the international system, undermining the importance of ideas such as justice. In these terms the world is shaped by power. Differently constructivists give emphasis to the constitutive role of ideas and speech acts. Core aspects of international relations are socially constructed, by ongoing interactions (The Open University, 2014). As such, the requirements for sovereignty recognition are continually negotiated and ideas could increasingly shape the system by justice.


This paper will provide an overview and illustrative examples, rather than full historical account, of aspects proceeding from the Westphalian settlement up to the middle of the 20th century when sovereignty has been granted to former colonies. The first part will first look at how, from the constructivist perspective, during colonialism non-western world status was essentially subordinated by western standards of sovereignty. The second section will show, from a realist point of view, how self-interest and power have shaped western actions towards the non-western world. In the thirds and fourth sections the R2P will be observed again through ideas and power.


Both theories by themselves are limited in addressing the main question, however taken together they give rise to a fuller inside about what shapes the international system. Those world views that emerged in the colonial period through the use of power, in accordance with how the West managed its relations with the non-Western world, allowed sovereignty and liberalism to emerge as a hegemonic discourses. This paper is not concerned about the outcome of interventions, nor by the suffering of people, but about justice within the system of states itself. It will conclude that justice has been narrowed to a sole philosophical and political tradition at the detriment of pluralism. Since 1945 the system is characterized by more pluralism ever since the rise of the Westphalian system. Within this unequal system, if in the future the R2P erodes the relative multipolarity of the UNSC it might represent less justice. Ultimately, apart from the implications for justice, the understanding of such dynamics can help to explain the barriers to international agreements.

Colonialism: western ideas subordinating the non-western world


In Hobbes’ natural state, man is in a savage condition where he can do whatever he wants. This, leads to a "war of all against all" in which people subjugate others to survive (Brown, 2014, p.99). State sovereignty is therefore a prerequisite, which requires states' responsibility to tame the ‘state of nature’. Sovereignty allows society to create the material and cultural conditions that enable individuals to realize their potential for freedom and self-government. Such ontology excludes alternative ways of living from the domain of the political, as sovereignty becomes an essential feature allowing the rise of liberal institutions and values. From this moment onwards the idea that states should no longer aim to eliminate other states is tacking place among western states. This, according to what is termed Lockean culture of rivalry, allows the spread of a particular state forming their internal features and collective identities as members of a particular group of states. According to this logic, colonialism can be seen as a paternalistic practice of government that exports “civilization”, or as said by Locke, a duty imposed by God on humans (Moloney, 2011).


In the 1756 Vattels’ Law of Nations, the principle of sovereignty was further consolidated for western states, and the American and French Revolutions started emphasizing the rights of man as a responsibility to govern (Suganami, 2007). Kant’ s idea of liberal democracy becomes a means to a perpetual peace in which international institutions would establish order in the western world and ensure state compliance with principles of conduct (Czajka, 2014, p.388). In applying his notions, Kant distinguishes between those states capable of existing peacefully and those requiring external assistance to achieve this condition. The adoption of such ideas within states would influence the international arena, changing states’ identities and culture of anarchy. Kant’ s perspective enabled intervention for the common good under a cosmopolitan guise. Indeed,  Mill, later saw colonial governments as a way to allow the colonizer to prepare un-civilized territories for the right to sovereignty (Jahna, 2012). Liberalism, again, is a constitutive step producing a particular kind of polity, increasingly developing the civilized non-civilized duality based on double standards.


For realists, the language justifying Europeans actions hides the power and interests determining their behaviour. Anghie (2006), believes that once it was determined that the colonial world lacked in sovereignty, it was inevitable for the west to develop a juridical strategy to redeem and help others to achieve sovereignty. European progress, prosperity, and liberal values suggested that only the civilized know what it means to be civilized. Such self-representation in relation to the non-western world enabled them to justify colonization and constitute the structure of the international system. The standard of civilization concept entered into practice in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in order to determine membership to the “Family of Nations”. Gong suggested that the concept entailed guarantees related to the freedom to travel and to trade, in addition to the requirement for people’ s capacity for co-operation and organization  (Glanville, 2001). The absence of European-like standards in the non-European world equalled to the absence of what Mill called ‘ingredients of civilisation’ (Bowden, 2004). In distinguishing material practices from ideas, constructivism is biased toward the latter while it underestimates how power is a determinant for the enforcement of such ideas.


Each of the European imperial powers understood that colonization entailed some duty, this was confirmed at the Berlin Conference of 1884–5, in Article VI: ‘to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being’  (Glanville, 2001). Soon, after the First World War, the newly established League of Nations’ mandate was set to administer the territories of the defeated powers. It confirmed French and British responsibility to protect and ‘improve’ people’s life in their trust (Pourmokhtari, 2013). Colonies were now labelled ‘backward territories’, and the phrase ‘not yet able to stand by themselves’ suggested that the discriminatory duality continued in shaping the system. In addition, in those cases where states neglected their obligations, responsibility shifted to the international community, this, exemplifying an exclusionary cosmopolitanism. Nevertheless, years later, the atrocities perpetrated by Europeans in the two World Wars delegitimized the admission into the international society based on civilizational grounds.


Drafted by different actors in 1945, the United Nations (UN) came into existence and suggested that popular sovereignty represented the sole legitimate form of statehood (Pourmokhtari, 2013). Echoing the American Founding Fathers, the UN has allowed the slow emergence of an international HR regime aiming at a new standards of sovereignty. The same ideas provided the moral justifications for unconditional sovereignty claimed by dependencies and reflected that norms can be internalized through instrumental adaptation or strategic bargaining. In 1960, a UN declaration stated that  ‘Inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence’ (Glanville, 2001). This has also allowed the rise of a broader set of perspectives, at least, consistent with the 5 permanent states of the UN. However, were the ideas constitutive by themselves or by their support of an unequal distribution of power? Morgenthau argued that ‘moral and political concepts take on different meanings in different environments, that is, the universalization of morals is a universalization of power (Fiott, 2013).


Colonialism: self-interest and power between western and non-western relations


Colonialism began in the 15th century with the "Age of Discovery" through Portuguese and Spanish explorations pleasing their financial and religious needs (Pourmokhtari, 2013). Realist account of IR, sees the Treaty of Westphalia as the origin of a system of functionally equivalent units, namely of states pursuing survival within an anarchical system (Brown, 2014, p.101). This logic assumes that other states must be treated as enemies and thus be balanced against. Regardless of the internal order, by nature powerful nations seek more than mere survival. After ensuring sovereignty, they desire to fashion the world order. This means that the weak are forever vulnerable, or as Waltz put it "weakness invites control" (Menon and Oneal, 1986). During the 16th and 17th centuries, England, France and the Dutch Republic established their overseas empires. Rival imperial powers understood that the New World constituted an arena of open conflict and conquest among european states, in turn, subjugating non-european ones (Moloney, 2011). Wendt, differently, argued: a state behaviour and its interactions are the consequence of the perspective the state has of itself and of others (The Open University, 2014). As such, the constant search for power is due to an Hobbesian understanding of the system, not by the system itself nor by the human nature.


The Congress of Vienna (1814–1815) institutionalized the balance of power within the European states but as Penttila observed, a concert of great powers is not a save way to run the world (Bowden, 2005). The economic and military power of Anglo-European states, relative to the rest of the world increased and legal principles have rationalized the practice of colonialism. In addition, powerful states have often intervened in the domestic affairs of weaker ones, maintaining that they were doing so for ‘humanitarian’ reasons (O’Donnell, 2014). Carr, however, advises that idealism serves merely as a disguise for the interests of the most powerful (Mellon, 2009). Until Europeans took over, African communities were waging wars to establish and extend control in their areas. This highlights that non-European had their own form of societal structure. Finnemore suggests that politics is about defining rather than defending national interests (Cohen, 2004). Indeed, Europeans defined the freedom of commerce, the right of ownership and the right to occupy terra nullius as legal doctrines, thus facilitating the universalizing Western liberal project and expelling non-Europeans from international law (Tourme-Jouannet, 2012).


During the second wave of colonization state power depended on prosperity and wealth: ‘The system of Europe has changed: trade enters, or nearly so, into all treaties as reason of state’ (Tourme-Jouannet, 2012). It is important to highlight that between the 18th and 19th Europe’s GDP per capita was almost ten times higher than other great civilisations such as China and India (Shipman, 2014, p.185). However in the international economic depression of the late 19th century, each western state had an incentive to avoid others controlling the markets. The unwillingness to guarantee profits to Europeans, persuaded governments to intervene wherever needed. In other cases international lawyers granted the natives, quasi-sovereignty, this because some states were ready to “voluntarily” transfer their rights and properties (Anghie, 2006). Africa’s free land encouraged expansions among powers. At that point, under support of the British and the initiative of Portugal, the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885 sought to regulate the competition between powers. However, realism appears to be limited in assessing the behaviour of each power in this period (Menon and Oneal, 1986). The US had surpassed Britain’s industrial power by mid-1890's, but did not engage in colonization nor participated in the scramble for Africa (Menon and Oneal, 1986). Certainly, the system allowed power to expand, but the American expansion cannot be fully explained within realism, rather, it can be better analyzed observing domestic politics. Still, the persistence of imperialist attitudes despite variation of culture and structure of nations back up realist claims.


Under the League of Nations the territories of the WWI defeated powers, rather than being acquired as colonies by the victors, were commonly placed under the authority of Britain and France. Anghie (2006) suggests that the Mandate System evidences how sovereignty could be created to be completely consistent with economic subordination. As realism sees it, systemic change occurs only when powerful states have some relative advantage over other states. The UN officially came into existence in 1945, upon ratification of the Charter by the five permanent members of the Security Council and by a majority of the other 46 signatories. The Charter of the UN enshrines state sovereignty in Article 2(7), which asserts that the UN ‘is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members,’ and ‘Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the UN to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state’ (Bell, 2014, p.299). With the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, adopted in 1960, all colonies attained equal sovereignty  (Glanville, 2001). This has handed over the world, from the British to the five powers.


The R2P: a constructivist perspective


For constructivism the cultural sector leads the political relations between units. However, following the Wesphalian settlement the western standard of civilizations spread through coercion. Increasingly standards for non-western states to achieve sovereignty evolved, likewise, at different standards, responsibilities towards citizens increased within western states. Whereas european states did make ideas about sovereignty matter, by using them with each other, non-Europeans were subjected, in hierarchical terms, by the position they came to be situated in regarding the international system.


Since 1991, as a reaction to a series of conflicts, IR dynamics changed. Chapter VII, Article 39, of the UN Charter has been reinterpreted and includes the prevention of gross abuses of HR, ethnic cleansing, and state failure to breaches of international peace and security that the international community was already allowed to fight (Bell, 2014, p.304). In a speech delivered in 1999, Blair defended this new interpretation, putting forward a doctrine of international community:  ‘We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not’ (Bell, 2014, p.305). Cosmopolitans claim that sovereignty cannot come at the detriment of HR protection, and as Suganami (2007) emphasized, western actors are trying to universalise HR, which they consider part of their shared values.


To some extent, this can come also through humanitarian intervention (HI), or at least this is what non-western countries fear. Wendt argues that states are not only motivated by material interests but by ideas about themselves, about other states and about their position within the international system. Consistently, the Group of 77 in 2000 declared: ‘We reject the so-called “right” of HI, which has no legal basis in the UN Charter or in the general principle of international law’ (Bell, 2014, p.299). To counter non-western fears, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) report, was comprised by individuals representing cultural diversity. Nevertheless, the ICISS has rapidly transformed the R2P from a concept to an emerging norm (Brighton, 2014).


Adopted by a formal declaration at the 2005 UN World Summit, each states has now ‘the responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity’ (Andreopoulos and Lantsman, 2011). The ICISS changed from a “right to intervene” to a “responsibility to protect,” emphasizing the importance of prevention on behalf of people over invasion by a powerful state (Andreopoulos and Lantsman, 2011). The latter, might be its greatest achievement. Indeed from state security the R2P has been linked to human security. In terms of constructivism this has been a determinant move aiming to distance itself from the bias western states and institutions might have inherited in the past.


The R2P became consolidated through the declarations of the UN and NGOs, however it is not considered a legal duty as such (Brighton, 2014). Nevertheless, despite HR standards have not been set too high, governments became subjected to new normative responsibilities. Resolutions provide evidence that the R2P may be gaining acceptance as customary international law. Quite obviously the evolution of the discourse around HI shows that concepts have a constitutive impact on realities by enabling a series of wars. Through this process, international society is reconstructing the rules of the sovereign statehood. The idea that states have a responsibility to protect the rights of individuals has been discussed since sovereignty emerged in early modern Europe. Nonetheless, the idea that HR are an integral part of international relations marks a new development which aims to include non-European states within a cosmopolitan family of nations.


A cosmopolitan culture of rights aims to become the basis of shared ideas amongst states, ultimately changing how they behave. However, powerful states such as China, Russia, and India have been reluctant to the R2P (Brighton, 2014). The R2P did not change the powers and the limits of the UNSC. Constructivists argue that norms are more likely to be accepted if deployed by a vocabulary shared by the community of states. Discrepancies suggest that people do not understand themselves as part of a single community, and a single conception of identity is not able to construct global principles of justice.


The development of international institutions is related to the evolution of norms and traditions. HR as a new standard of behaviour is inconsistent with the actions perpetrated by the west throughout different historical moments. Consequently, the HR tradition is seen to reflect a degree of hypocrisy. In line with Schmitt any version of cosmopolitarian commitment disguise the interests of a few great powers  (Cohen, 2004). While the HR have replaced ‘civilization’, the new language is advancing a determined tradition of thought. Indeed eroding the norm of sovereignty or overcoming the UNSC might challenge the political and ethical pluralism of the international system.


The R2P: a realist perspective


Sovereignty is a pillar of realist thinking within IR. Because of anarchy within the international system, realists oppose to HI in order to preserve stability. During the Cold War superpowers intervened routinely in other countries, often justifying their actions in altruistic terms (Bell, 2014, p.301). After 1990, a significant shift in the terms of debate about intervention occurred. The UNSC broadened and reinterpreted Chapter VII, granting forcible interventions emphasizing the purposes of HR (Bell, 2014, p.304). However these were labeled as extraordinary cases with formal reference to threats or security, suggesting that a violation of HR on its own was insufficient to justify intervention. Krasner argued that the repeated breaches of sovereignty evidence the limits of constructivism: ‘Norms, though not irrelevant, do not have the weight that constructivism has attributed to them’  (Glanville, 2001).


As mentioned before, the R2P doctrine was adopted in the 2005. However, this variant differed from the ICSS report of 2001. ‘In situations where a state has manifestly failed to protect its population’, the international community has, according to the 2005 UN endorsement, a ‘responsibility to take timely and decisive action through peaceful diplomatic and humanitarian means in a manner consistent with chapters VI, VII and VIII of the UN Charter’ (Bellamy, 2010). The third pillar of the R2P, which shifted the responsibility to the international community, is not considered a legal duty and landed the R2P on the fate of the HI dimensions. Indeed the R2P did not change the powers and the limits of the UNSC in a legal fashion. While Libya’s Resolution was a surprise, it was legally bounded to the UN system of collective security and did not differ from resolutions passed prior to the emergence of R2P (Komp, 2013).


Constructivists would suggest that realists have difficulties in accounting for the rise of R2P as different kind of actors worked together to make the norm operative in the international system. At the same time the R2P is limited in its endeavours, and those who relativize its unsuccessful application due to its early stage of development might oversee the importance of the kind of sovereignty they are willing to combat. Much of the literature on norm creation identifies the importance of hegemonic leadership in leading new standards of appropriate behaviour and ever since the 1945, five great powers, decide if and when the ‘international community’ is responsible for the protection of those in danger (Brighton, 2014).


The overuse of the term ‘international community’ does not effectively disguise the fact that western powerful states will judge sovereignty of states depending on their interests. Moses (2013) claims that there is no guarantee of good behaviour by great powers, as there are no higher powers capable to hold them accountable. As such, interventions based upon R2P criteria may be regarded as being either imperialistic or as belonging to a cosmopolitan order that is not yet in place. Indeed China, Russia, and India have been very critical of attempts to make HI a feature of international politics. Seeking equal justice under the rule of law, underestimate the realities of power politics.


The ICISS demand the UNSC to not use their veto power to block R2P action “where their vital state interests are not involved,” however this is not binding (Brighton, 2014). Clear from it, intervention could never be directed towards them and their veto power could be used as a bargain tool. Accordingly, as rational actors, the states pursue their self-interest and humanitarian causes can be used to advance their objectives. With the US claiming to be a ‘benevolent hegemony’ but rejecting criteria that would have limited their exercise of interventionist power at the 2005 UN World Summit, highlights how cosmopolitanism can be instrumentalized by powerful states (Moses, 2013). The only circumstance that could facilitate interventions under the R2P is a situation in which national interest coincide with the protection of HR. When moral considerations prevail, no power would deploy any resources. In this regard Morgenthau was clear, morality both enables and restricts action consistently with own interests (Pourmokhtari, 2013).


At the same time, the US, France, and the UK have acted outside the UNSC explicitly stating that they have the right to it (O’Donnell, 2014). Andreopoulos and Lantsman (2011) suggest that in an unequal world, ‘those most capable and willing to use force will abuse the openings that might be provided by a legally recognized right of HI’. For the former US National Security Advisor James Jones, HI is merily related to the interests of powerful states (Brighton, 2014). Similarly, the economist Jonathan Tepperman argues that strategic interests and interventions “are almost inextricably intertwined”, it has been the case in Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia, Libya, and Iraq (Brighton, 2014).




In conclusion, this paper has tried to answer whether justice rather than power is shaping the international system. It has tried to do so by observing instances of the historical development that, between morality and power, have shaped the international system in liberal terms and are now proposing the R2P as a new standard of behaviour. Constructivism limits itself to the interpretation and constitutive role of ideas, and realism does not consider ideas something different than a simple function of power. However both together allow to observe how liberalism has come to prevail over other ideas.


Overall, this paper has shown that cosmopolitanism has surged through an history full of violence that saw the europeans as the sole subject of history. While Hobbes is related to state sovereignty, Kant was could shape the European continent and Mill the entire international system, excluding non-European societies. In the 20th, by contrast, the dynamic operated to establish the terms on which non-European societies might enter international law as sovereign states.


The responsibilities of sovereignty were clearly evident at least in Europe’s relations with the non- European world. Within this context, coercive democratization was a morally justifiable enforcement of cosmopolitan law saving the innocents. Liberalism constructed non-liberal others. This justified war against all states whose form of government was associated with the violation of the rights of man. Indeed this process of universalization is not one of moral principles shared by all. Instead, it is a gradual universalization of power and of geopolitically shifting inequalities of power. The abstract link between a particular structure and moral principles establishes a link between self-interest and morality. This challenges the realist assumption that sovereignty is ahistorical, it could be said that sovereignty has increasingly become an attribute of states, however non-western states’ sovereignty is unique and embedded in structures of power.


The R2P is a project of government, a project specifically emphasising on human rights and the rescue of population. But the understandings underpinning it, cast doubts on who has the right decide whether sovereignty is to be violated. Decisions at the international community are hard to see as the result of altruistic motives rather than national interests. This is not to say that there are no humanitarian crises that require a state to provide aid, but rather that the existence of human suffering alone cannot explain the phenomenon of humanitarian intervention. Again, since there are no pure humanitarian motives involved in any intervention, it entails mixed motives and risk to sustain imperial projects.


Power allowed liberalism to surge and progressively change the character of sovereignty. This is a powerful and enduring intellectual structure. Not sovereignty but rather, human rights, democracy and good governance have been experimented in the West and then exported into the non-Western world. Since 1945, these projects aim to replace legal equality with legal inequality as the basis of the international order. Under current conditions, further instrumentalization of particularistic morality, rather than supporting a plural global rule of law might constrain multilateral agreements. The current system is influenced by power, however with the permanence of the UNSC a minimum degree of plurality is achieved, this grant a relatively greater level of justice to the current international system in relation to prior 1945.





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