It is important to note that there are numerous examples of sovereign states violating human rights, treaties, and environmental regulations. The lack of accountability from such states is a result of the absence of superior authority in international relations. International institutions lack any form of power to ensure that member states are accountable because they are solely collaborative in nature but not authoritative. The current international system is mainly anarchic and offensively realistic, which means that there is no single unified mode of authority to enforce and impose regulations, treaties, and human rights on a sovereign nation.
Firstly, it should be noted that the explanation to the question lies in the anarchical nature of the international system, which is reflected in the theory of offensive realism. The five tenets of the latter framework include international anarchy, offensive military capability, the uncertainty of intentions, survival, and rationality (Alenezi 2). In other words, it is difficult for the international community to hold governments of sovereign states accountable for violations of treaties, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation because the system is anarchic. In addition, the great powers are the main actors and catalyzers of world politics, among which the US, Russia, and China can be highlighted. All nations have varying degrees of offensive capabilities reflected in their military. No one nation can be certain of other nations’ intentions or objectives. However, it is clear that all states seek to survive as their main goal. Therefore, all sovereign nations are rational and strategic actors in regard to their survival aspirations.
Secondly, on the basis of the offensive theory of international politics, it is evident that great powers act offensively rather than defensively. It is stated that “Mearsheimer contends that the combination of all his five assumptions pushes states to maximize their relative power as opposed to seeking an ‘appropriate’ amount of power” (Orsi et al. 35). In other words, the great actors, who possess the highest offensive military capability, will not only defend their survival but also expand their sphere of influence as hegemons. In addition, “Mearsheimer’s offensive realism, however, makes a distinction between global hegemons and regional hegemons” (Orsi et al. 35). In this case, the United States is the closest candidate for a global hegemon spreading neoliberalism, whereas Russia and China are the second closest. The latter two best fit into the description of regional hegemons, which control the sphere of influence over different parts of Asia and some African nations when it comes to China’s economic power.
Thirdly, considering the fact that great powers and hegemons seek to survive and expand their sphere of influence, other nations under the influence of hegemons are unable to act solely on their interests but have to take sides with one or several hegemons. International organizations, such as United Nations or Human Rights Watch, have no power to enforce the adherence to treaties, human rights, and environmental regulations because they have no military offensive capabilities. For example, the United States can promote these issues over its spheres of influence, such as the EU or Australia, to a certain extent but cannot force Russia or China to do the same. Similarly, Russia is capable of enforcing its interests in its sphere of influence, such as Central Asia or some Eastern European nations. In other words, if human rights issues or environmental regulations do not benefit Russia’s or China’s interests due to dependence on fossil fuels, they and nations in their sphere of influence will not adhere to these matters.
Fourthly, the lack of international authority except for the hegemons means that victimized nations cannot be assisted in defending their rights through international institutions unless these hegemons have the interests to do so. For example, Zambia sought out help from the International Monetary Fund, an international institution, after the copper market collapsed. The outcome was that “IMF, who stepped in the late 1990s and restructured Zambia’s debt, had to accept SAP, removed control on agriculture, privatizing 280 state agencies and opening up to foreign investment” (“International System and Globalization” 9). In addition, “local workers pushed out by foreign workers, profits from copper mines sent to Canada, UK and China, Zambia government unable to reinvest in society caused suffering, governmental programs even more important in Zambia than in the US, GDP did not increase or lift people out of poverty” (“International System and Globalization” 9). In other words, offensive realism was manifested as a result, where more powerful nations used international organizations to advance their interests rather than Zambia’s.
Fifthly, based on the logic of offensive realism, one can see how international politics is anarchy, where only the hegemon’s interests are realized. More powerful nations capitalize on and use the less powerful nations, which creates a small number of axles of power. In the modern age, there are mainly three axles of power reflected in Russia, the United States, and China. The US most resembles a global hegemon with both military and economic might, whereas China and Russia rely only on economic and military power, respectively. Therefore, treaties will be preserved as long as it is in the best interest of the hegemons, which is also true in regard to human rights abuses and environmental degradation. As soon as one of these issues becomes problematic for one hegemon, they will no longer enforce them. Thus, it is highly difficult to hold governments accountable because these matters need to be designed by the international community to be suitable for all hegemons’ interests. In most cases, it is either impossible or short-lasting since new changes and conflicts might emerge to abandon them.
Lastly, offensive realism also acknowledges that the current anarchic state of international relations is in a transition phase towards hierarchy since hegemons are firmly establishing their dominance in their respective regions. The shift toward hierarchy is taking place, which means that global interest might be possible to enforce in the future as soon as one nation emerges as a global hegemon, where the United States is leading in this regard (Orsi et al. 37). The latter implies that two other axles of power must lose their hegemon status and become either independent states or fall under the influence of the single dominant nation. At that point, treaties, human rights, and environmental regulations will be enforceable, and nations will be held accountable as long as it fits the interests of the hegemon.
In conclusion, the anarchic state of the international community under the framework of offensive realism is the reason why sovereign states cannot be held accountable for violations of treaties, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation. These matters must be in the best interests of all hegemons with their respective spheres of influence. International institutions cannot help victimized states without the support of a hegemon or hegemons, which was demonstrated in the example of Zambia.
“International System and Globalization.” 2022. Lecture.
Alenezi, Danah A. “US Rebalance Strategy to Asia and US-China Rivalry in South China Sea from The Perspective of the Offensive Realism.” Review of Economics and Political Science, vol. 1, 2020, pp. 1-14.
Orsi, Davide, et al. Realism in Practice: An Appraisal. E-International Relations Publishing, 2018.