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State sovereignty no longer defines the global political order. Scholars describe changes in the global political order since Word War II.

Scholars David Held, Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt and Johnathan Perraton argue that the past half century has witnessed a significant shift in the understanding international political authority. Prior to World War II the common way of understanding international law was “between states only and exclusively.” The authors argue that since World War II there has been an increasing shift toward understanding national and international relations in terms of diffused political authority.

Toward a New Vision of a Global Political Order

Following World War II, there was a growing realization that the balance of power among sovereign states was not a sufficient basis for preventing the most extreme forms of violence against humanity. There was also a growing acknowledgment of the interconnectedness and interdependence of nations.

Held and his colleagues identify some of the more important legal transformations that have grown out of this change in the way of thinking about international political authority.

  • Individuals and groups (rather than states) have increasingly become the subjects of international law,
  • There has been a move from international politics focusing on political and geopolitical affairs to more focus on coordinating and regulating economic, social, communications and environmental matters,
  • A move away from the the source of international law in the consent of states to a number of sources for international law, including:
    • Conventional sources like treaties or conventions,
    • International custom or practice,
    • Underlying principles of “civilized nations,”
    • The “will of the international community,"
    • A patchwork of regulatory mechanisms.

These developments represent a move away from a conception of international regulation based in state sovereignty toward global political authority based in a community of nations.

A New Vision of a Global Political Order: The United Nations

Even though the shift in understanding international political authority began to develop slowly prior to World War II, the development of the United Nations significantly extended these developments.

The United Nations Charter (1945) was an important step from a system of states toward a community of states. Even though the Charter recognized the “jealous” sovereignty of states, Held and his colleagues identify a set of principles within the Charter that set the stage for the later movement from a system of sovereign states to a community of states.

  • States were linked in a “myriad of relations” rather than relations based solely on the absolute sovereignty of states,
  • States were subject (at least in principle) to tight restrictions on the use of force,
  • States were under pressure to resolve disagreements by peaceful means following the rule of law,
  • States were expected to observe certain standards with regard to people within their territory.

The Charter could not, at the time, move completely away from a vision of the world as divided among a set of autonomous sovereign states. The most obvious manifestation of this was the veto power given to the permanent members of the Security Council.

Given this limitation, however, the Charter was innovative in a number of ways:

  • It provided a deliberative forum in which all states were, in certain respects, equal,
  • The forum was particularly important for states that sought solutions through consensus,
  • It provided a framework for decolonization,
  • It provided a framework for pursuing reform of international institutions,
  • It aided the development of a governance structure for “international public goods.”

In short, however tied to a sovereign state system the United Nations Charter was, it nonetheless provided a vision of alternative principles of global governance.

Bottom Line

There was shift in the global political order following World War II. Prior to this, the understanding of global political order was based on the absolute sovereignty of the nation-state. A new political order began to emerge via the role of the United Nations. The new vision of an international political order is one of a community of nations rather than a system of sovereign states.

Data and Methods:

Data Source:

Historical and theoretical research.


Research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Full Text Availability:
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Held, David, Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt, and Jonathan Perraton. 1999. Global Transformations: Politics, Economics and Culture. Stanford: Stanford University Press. Introduction, pp. 32-86.

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