A modern view on ‘Anatomy of the State’

How States Relate to One Another

Since the territorial area of the earth is divided among different States, inter-State relations must occupy much of a State’s time and energy. The natural tendency of a State is to expand its power, and externally such expansion takes place by conquest of a territorial area. Unless a territory is stateless or uninhabited, any such expansion involves an inherent conflict of interest between one set of State rulers and another. Only one set of rulers can obtain a monopoly of coercion over any given territorial area at any one time: complete power over a territory by State X can only be obtained by the expulsion of State Y. War, while risky, will be an ever-present tendency of States, punctuated by periods of peace and by shifting alliances and coalitions between States.

We have seen that the “internal” or “domestic” attempt to limit the State, in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, reached its most notable form in constitutionalism. Its “external”, or “foreign affairs”, counterpart was the development of “international law”, especially such forms as the “laws of war” and “neutrals’ rights”.1This is to be distinguished from modern international law, with its stress on maximizing the extent of war through such concepts as “collective security”. Parts of international law were originally purely private, growing out of the need of merchants and traders everywhere to protect their property and adjudicate disputes. Examples are admiralty law and the law merchant. But even the governmental rules emerged voluntarily and were not imposed by any international super-State. The object of the “laws of war” was to limit inter-State destruction to the State apparatus itself, thereby preserving the innocent “civilian” public from the slaughter and devastation of war. The object of the development of neutrals’ rights was to preserve private civilian international commerce, even with “enemy” countries, from seizure by one of the warring parties. The overriding aim, then, was to limit the extent of any war, and, particularly to limit its destructive impact on the private citizens of the neutral and even the warring countries.

When States are not at war, agreements are often necessary to keep frictions at a minimum. One doctrine that has gained curiously wide acceptance is the alleged “sanctity of treaties”. This concept is treated as the counterpart of the “sanctity of contract”. But a treaty and a genuine contract have nothing in common. A contract transfers, in a precise manner, titles to private property. Since a government does not, in any proper sense, “own” its territorial area, any agreements that it concludes do not confer titles to property. If, for example, Mr. Jones sells or gives his land to Mr. Smith, Jones’s heir cannot legitimately descend upon Smith’s heir and claim the land as rightfully his. The property title has already been transferred. Old Jones’s contract is automatically binding upon young Jones, because the former had already transferred the property; young Jones, therefore, has no property claim. Young Jones can only claim that which he has inherited from old Jones, and old Jones can only bequeath property which he still owns. But if, at a certain date, the government of, say, Ruritania is coerced or even bribed by the government of Waldavia into giving up some of its territory, it is absurd to claim that the governments or inhabitants of the two countries are forever barred from a claim to reunification of Ruritania on the grounds of the sanctity of a treaty. Neither the people nor the land of northwest Ruritania are owned by either of the two governments. As a corollary, one government can certainly not bind, by the dead hand of the past, a later government through treaty. A revolutionary government which overthrew the king of Ruritania could, similarly, hardly be called to account for the king’s actions or debts, for a government is not, as is a child, a true “heir” to its predecessor’s property.

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