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I recently read a journal article by Peter Haldén titled A Non-Sovereign Modernity: Attempts to Engineer Stability in the Balkans 1820-90. He writes to correct the conventional view that international relations in modernity is all about sovereign, independent states, and that the earlier era of protectorates, vassal states, or other such semi-autonomous regions ended with the arrival of nationalism. Indeed, the rationalist, modern Concert of Europe deliberately used non-sovereign zones several times in the Balkans area in order to control the outbreak of political crises.

The topic remains important for us readers today for a few reasons. First, understanding history is always good (particularly for budding fiction writers, who have a tendency to assume that all stories must be set in modern states or in absolutist monarchies, and thus impoverish their stories.) Second, non-sovereign states never really went away; they were just sleeping. Understanding the dynamics of non-sovereign states gives us a fresh lens to understand places like Kosovo, Chechenya, or even international organizations such as the European Union or the United Nations.

The power politics of the 19th century were marked by several themes, but two of the most important were the decline of the Ottoman Empire as a great power, and the rise of Russia which aspired to take its place. The fundamental problem facing the European powers was how to manage the fragmentation of Ottoman authority, which expressed itself in events like the Greek revolution, without causing a full-blown war between the Great Powers over the spoils.

Briefly, the favored solution was to take outlying provinces of the Empire and turn them into non-sovereign states, under the aegis of the Concert of Europe. These provinces would still nominally be subject to the Turkish Caliph and would pay tribute, and they would be prohibited from having free diplomatic relations with other states as an independent state would, or from having a military. But they would have civil militias and police forces for defense, they would be self-governing, and they could have diplomatic relations with the Concert of Europe as a body. Importantly, the Ottoman Empire would be forbidden to maintain troops in these non-sovereign states.

How does this help? In modern International Relations, states often try to set up buffer zones between them and some potentially hostile neighbor. These zones typically take the form of other, smaller, states. For example, China uses the totalitarian hell state of North Korea as a buffer between it and South Korea, or Japan. The “Low Countries” of Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg were used as a buffer between France and Germany, to their periodic detriment.

The idea is that if you don’t share a border with a potential foe, then there are fewer opportunities for friction that might escalate into a full-blown war. After all, it is hard to distinguish between positioning troops to defend your borders, and positioning troops to attack your neighbor. So the buffer state helps to cool down the temperature. The only problem is that when a buffer state is independent, it can rely only on its own force of arms to maintain itself. The history of the Low Countries graphically demonstrates how easily this can fail; moreover, the potential for a buffer state to become a full-blown military ally of one side or the other ensures that the situation remains tenuous.

A demilitarized nonsovereign territory, on the other hand, is not guaranteed by force of arms, but by the cooperation of the potential rivals under color of an international agreement. There is less likelihood of miscalculation or escalating tensions, and more opportunity for creative institutional design (read the article for some great examples); not all peoples are ready for statehood, after all, even aside from the objections of their current rulers. And there would be less competition between rivals such as Britain and Russia as there would be (and were) over who would dominate the policy of newly independent states, if the territories could only have relations with the international body as a unit and not with other states bilaterally.

For a modern parallel, we can look to the European Union, which began as the European Coal and Steel Community—a project to strip West Germany’s ability to produce war armaments without the cooperation of France, and vice versa. By effectively tying their own hands, the member states hoped to foreclose on the possibility of war between them, so they could focus on the vital task of withstanding the Soviet Bloc. Henceforth, relations between member countries would be based on partnership and negotiation, not power politics.

However, in the case of the Balkans, the stability of the protectorate arrangements for Greece and elsewhere depended crucially on the degree to which the Great Powers trusted each other. In the three cases that Haldén considers, the initial attempts to institute a nonsovereign territory broke down once Russia violated the terms of the agreement, and Britain could no longer trust the Russians to play nice. (I am oversimplifying grossly.) Indeed, the creation of new independent states from the former provinces of the Ottoman Empire was, in Haldén’s telling, a suboptimal outcome, forced on the Great Powers by the breakdown of cooperation and the increasing worry over Russia’s growing power. The independent states would have to fend for themselves, without the aegis of a Concert of Europe which was growing ever-less-concerted over time. No surprise that World War I kicked off in the Balkans; Serbia was one of these formerly nonsovereign states.

Similarly, arrangements such as the EU or the UN are hampered by the lack of trust between member states. Many predict that the current economic crisis may spell the end of the Euro currency, or of the EU altogether, because Germany will grow tired of footing the bill for its more spendthrift neighbors forever. Early aspirations for the UN to become a true world government, meanwhile, have run aground on the cold reality that Americans do not trust a body made up mostly of dictatorships to act with the public interest in mind.

Haldén also draws a fascinating parallel with the old free-markets/interventionism debate in economics. He writes that creating new independent states who would rely on their own armies for defense, and hoping that they can contribute to international stability, is comparable to the intent of the free market. Conversely, a managed protectorate under the oversight of an international body is similar to government control of the economy, under the theory that such control will lead to more manageable outcomes. Whether or not you believe that government control can lead to better outcomes in the abstract, it is clear that you will not desire actual government control unless you trust the government to play nice. If you do not trust the government, you will accept even the putatively suboptimal outcomes of the free market in exchange for keeping a measure of control over your own destiny.

Haldén apparently wrote a book exploring some of these themes, which I may want to read. For our purposes, we should remember that what we are familiar with is not everything that is possible. As well, if we want to build a new world, it is crucial that we trust the main players; otherwise, the world may turn out to be not what we expected.