Have individual rights transformed world politics? Prof. Reus-Smit challenges the circumscribed nature of this debate, arguing the relationship between individual rights and world politics has a longer history and is more fundamental than it suggests.
Have individual rights transformed world politics? Debate on this question has focused to date on the efficacy, or lack thereof, of the international human rights regime. Prof. Reus-Smit challenges the circumscribed nature of this debate, arguing that the relationship between individual rights and world politics has a longer history and is more fundamental than it suggests. Individual rights, and the struggles they have informed and licensed, have played a critical role in the development of the international system itself. The present system has a distinctive structure of political agency: no polities or peoples lie outside its geographical reach, it is multiregional, and it is multicultural. This structure is the product of the system's expansion from an original kernel of nascent European sovereign states to encompass the globe, an expansion that occurred in a series of great waves: the most significant being those following the Peace of Westphalia, the collapse of the Spanish Empire, and post-1945 decolonization. These waves were the result of struggles for recognition, most immediately struggles by diverse polities for the recognition of their sovereign rights. Yet these struggles were dual in nature: struggles by polities for sovereign rights were driven by deeper struggles by individuals for the recognition civil and political rights. In each case, these dualist struggles undermined the legitimacy of empires and licensed the construction of sovereign states as their institutional replacements, steadily increasing the number states, regions, and cultures within the international system.