HomeNewsDevelopment DiplomacyThe logic behind indivisible security as a principle in international law

The logic behind indivisible security as a principle in international law


Wang Li

Over the past years, China has openly endorsed the concept of “indivisible security” as a principle applied to international politics. According to the Global Security Initiative (GSI) issued in February 2023, China urges that “the purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be observed while the legitimate security concerns of all parties should be seriously addressed.” It argues that general security should be the prerequisite for global development due to the uneven growth and also unfair positions between the Global North and Global South. Accordingly, it is necessary to facilitate a plea to find a cooperative security solution to today’s systemic disruptions in the regions and globally.

Historically, the concept of indivisible security can be traced to the modern state system of Europe for centuries. As a system of independent states, it has maintained the liberty of each without undermining the ideal of an international society due to the existence of the key principles of the balance of power and collective security. In both theory and practice, they have aimed to serve the general common interests of states by means of multilateral diplomacy. However, the hegemonic powers have steadily played down the significance of indivisible security in international relations from time to time.

It is evident that the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union has convinced the West generally and the U.S. particularly to approach international affairs in pursuit of its own supremacy instead of the authority of the UN. Consequently, the Anglo-American axis has become more outrageous in pushing forward the hegemonic order by launching a series of wars, color revolutions, or assassinations globally.

Since the full-scale conflict broke out in Ukraine, it has led to seminal impacts on the global geopolitical scenario, energy crisis, and food insecurity. The U.S.-led allies have made efforts to dismiss the indivisibility of security as a wishful idea from Russia so that they must work to assure Russia to suffer the strategic defeat in Ukraine.

In fact, the former Soviet Union and then Russia made several accords with its counterparts of Europe and the United States as well. In 1975, they signed the seminal Helsinki Accord with 33 countries of Europe joined by the United States and Canada. All the signatory states agreed “to recognize the indivisibility of security in Europe as well as their common interest in the development of cooperation throughout Europe and among selves and expressing their intention to pursue efforts accordingly.”

The Helsinki Accord was hailed as the vehicle for East-West dialogue and then since the 1990s three more substantial treaties were made like the Charter of Paris for a New Europe (1990), the Founding Act between NATO and Russia (1997) and The Charter for European Security (1999). These legal documents reiterated the concept of indivisible security in line with the Helsinki Accord that “Security is indivisible and the security of every participating State is inseparably linked to that of all the other in Europe.” Since international law rests upon the consent of states, if one state violates international obligation, it is responsible for the wrongful act towards the injured state, or under certain circumstances, to the whole international community.

Thus, it is fair to say that international law is not only a profession of legal studies but also an approach to international relations. This article first examines the European legacies in international law in general terms, and then uses theoretical approach to dissect the principle of indivisible security which has gone beyond the politico-legal matter.

Meanwhile, international law, as consensual commitment, can be part of ongoing inter-states system only if the relations among states selves are effectively preserved. Nevertheless, in the real world politics, states usually interact in terms of realpolitik more than the rules of law.

There is no doubt that it is a tough work perceived by geopolitical scholars as they are suspicious of the role of international law in resolving the security crisis then. For example, John Mearsheimer once argued that if NATO has kept its promise made previously that security of indivisibility must be observed as it was well written into the treaties, the war in Ukraine might have been avoided for the reasons of collective security.

It is clear that in Europe, states are bound together by the respective interest and common security concerns into a single society. Whenever they take big decision beyond their own realm, have to take account of each other’ interests and include them in its own calculations. As the 18th century jurist Vattel once put it, “members of Europe—each independent, but all bound together by a common interest—unite for the maintenance of order and preservation of liberty. This is what has given rise to the well-known principle of the balance of power, by which “No state should be in a position to have absolute mastery and dominate over the others.”

The maxim was further developed into a consensus that the existence of the balance of power is a condition of the flourishing of authoritative international law. Simply put, European states system defines that all entities have the rights to each other and responsibility to favor one other although they are obligated to adhere to only those laws to which they gave their consent in the structure of the world.

By the 19th century, collective security was seen as additional most far-reaching attempt to overcome the deficiencies of a decentralized system of law enforcement. First, a logical development from the balance of power theory was that in a horizontal order of independent units, collective security was backed up by the international consensus though it fell far short of the ideal, such as in the later cases of Article 16 of Covenant of the League of Nations and Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations. Second, although international law is usually seen as “positive international morality”, it affects the rational decisions made by statesmen holding the moral obligation to legitimate common interests and cooperation of all states for the creed of collective security.

Yet, either the balance of power or the collective security is assumed in a rational way only if the following three requirements are met: 1) security-i.e., dealing with the problem of conflict by assuring the survival and safety of all the members concerned; 2) satisfaction-i.e., dealing with the case of disputes through obtaining mutual constraint or general consent; 3) flexibility-i.e., dealing with the issue of uncertainty or change in establishing reliable procedures capable of absorbing shocks and of channeling grievances. This query incurs the central question whether the rules of international law are observed to a sufficient degree by the member states of international system

Since Europe is home to modern international system and international law, the legacies of diplomacy, law and international society can be detected in Europe even during the Cold War which was resulted from the two hostile camps in Europe in terms of geopolitics and ideology. But the states of Europe, either the West or the East, were equally motivated by the political will to contribute to peace, security and cooperation from time to time.

By 1975, Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe was held and followed by the conclusion of The Helsinki Final Act reaffirming their objective of promoting better relations among peoples and ensuring conditions for lasting peace. It was the first time that European countries recognized “the indivisibility of security among their interplays and common interest in the development of cooperation throughout Europe and among selves and expressing their intention to pursue efforts accordingly; and also to recognize the close link between peace and security in Europe and in the world as a whole.”

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During the years from 1989 to 1991, Europe witnessed the historic sea-changes, in which the former Soviet Union came to the end. In the aftermath of its loss of the reign over its allies in Europe, a collection of mostly medium-sized and minor independent states were reborn in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Meanwhile, in the United States, President George Bush spoke of a “new world order”, as Kissinger argued, in which U.S. pretentiously acted the solo superpower dictating a new world order based on a rules-based and moral community. Later, three more treaties were signed in respectively involving the terms of indivisible security and the legitimacy of the rights and obligations of all states in Europe.

First, in November 1990, the leaders of the States participating the Helsinki Conference in 1975 assembled in Paris again. In the context of the reunification of Germany and dissolution of the Soviet Union, Europe hailed liberating itself from the legacy of the past. It was a time for fulfilling the hopes and expectations of the participating states of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1975, now they reiterated the principles of the Helsinki Final Act and vowed to carry on the Ten Principles of the Final Act towards the bright future for a new Europe would arise as great civilian power in accordance with their aspirations. The Charter of Paris for a New Europe echoed the line that “Security is indivisible and the security of every participating State is inseparably linked to that of all the others.”

Second, in 1997, the treaty on a new Europe-rebuilding was concluded after NATO, the largest military alliance in the world, and Russia held a series of the talks at the high-level to discuss the possibility of working together for a lasting and inclusive peace in the Euro-Atlantic area.As the Founding Act specified that “Proceeding from the principle that the security of all states in the Euro-Atlantic community is indivisible, NATO and Russia would work together to contribute to the establishment in Europe of common and comprehensive security based on the allegiance to shared values, commitments and norms of behavior in the interests of all states.”

It is noteworthy that the contracting parties championed the concepts such as “common and comprehensive security”, “shared commitment and norms of behavior, common interest related to security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area” in the treaty.

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Third, in 1999, the member states of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe signed The Charter for European Security that reaffirmed the joint commitment to the “formation of a common and indivisible security space.” It adhered to the Charter of the United Nations, and to the Helsinki Final Act, the Charter of Paris and all other OSCE documents to which they had consented. It is significant that the Charter appealed to OSCE’s cooperative and inclusive approach to common and indivisible security, and defined the term of indivisible security more formally than other documents, such as “to make further efforts in order to jointly address common security concerns of participating States and to pursue the OSCE’s concept of comprehensive and indivisible security; and to jointly address common security concerns of participating States and to pursue the OSCE’s concept of comprehensive and indivisible security so far as the politico-military dimension is concerned.” It is plain that The Charter 1999 tried to use collectively agreed term of indivisible security to establish true legally binding obligations.

It is self-evident that the consensus on indivisible security in Europe was written into four multi-formal treaties. Though using the various terms like charter, accord or act, they should be defined as the law-making treaties with the bonding-force in terms of the specifications of legal documents. First, they were signed by the numerous heads of the signatory states or the high representatives of respective government. That is sufficient to justify the legitimacy of the treaties. Second, the texts of the treaties belong to the law-making treaties as they imposed the obligations on all the parties to the treaties and seek to regulate the parties’ behavior over a long period of time. Considering the rules of law for laying down the rights and duties of states in relations to each other, they have built an imposing edifice, e.g. consisting of thousands of treaties, hundreds of decisions of international tribunals, and similarly innumerable resolutions which have been in most instances scrupulously observed.

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It deserves noting that during the 1970s and the 1990s, Europe and NATO signed the treaties first with the former Soviet Union and then Russia with a view to admitting the term of indivisible security as a general principle to guard mutual relations. Then both parties met what was defined as the three requirements: it must be made to assure common interests and security concerns; it should seek to resolve the vexing issues in line with mutual respect and reciprocity; and it appeals to talking to each other with the long-term cooperation through the geopolitics of empathy.

Recently, Mearsheimer who is well-noted scholar of international geopolitics asserted that during the years that followed the breakup of the Soviet Union, the West has used all means to minimize Russia’s power and prestige. Some policy-making elite in the West are anxious to knock Russia out of the ranks of the great powers, if not trigger Russia to break apart like the former Soviet Union did in 1991.

To that end, the U.S.-run NATO has made no secret of its goal of inflicting “strategic defeat” on Russia. As a part of the hybrid war against Russia since last February, the U.S. and its global allies have dismissed the legitimacy of indivisible security even though it was well-written into the treaties between NATO/EU and Russia, and has been admitted by many countries of the Global South.


According to Vattel, Oppenheim and many other jurists of the globalized era, the function of international law is to organize the coexistence of the various units (mainly sovereign states): this presupposes that their existence is assured. After the previous discourses of the balance of power and collective security, it is plain that indivisible security as the principle first existed in European states-system and then expanded into the globalized world community amid a new Cold War in which both Russia and China are seen as the geopolitical rivals.

Regarding the increasing tensions over Ukraine, it is crystal clear that the U.S. in line with the UK has been trying to pull Russia into an armed conflict over the disputed issues even though Russia has reiterated it is prepared to engage in more diplomacy. From a view of geopolitics, NATO’s presence in Eastern Europe has intentionally ignored the legitimate Russian security concerns and core interests as a great power. However, as the cradle of modern diplomacy, Europe is expected to act in line with the reasons and wisdom of the time-honored statecraft rather than following the U.S.-led Cold War mentality.

In 2022, China first proposed the Global Security Initiative (GSI) appealing to the concept of indivisible security in the world affairs. As security involves traditional and non-traditional concerns, China has urged that the purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be observed while the legitimate security concerns of all countries should be also addressed. Whether or not the concepts and principles of the GSI are the mainstay of China’s foreign policy since the 1950s, it is seminal that the GSI proposes to all countries to uphold the principle of indivisible security and rebuilding of a balanced, effective, and sustainable security architecture. It means that any country while pursuing its own security interests, should take into account the reasonable security concerns of others.

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Today, under the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC), China has proposed the Global Security Initiative which covers “six commitments” as its pillar tenets to underpin the GSI, such as a vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security and the conventional security concepts like respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. The six commitments are an organic entirety of dialectical unity with a view to addressing the complex and intertwined security challenges with a win-win mindset.

It is self-evident that as security issue is inherent involving traditional and non-traditional concerns, China has urged that the purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be respected while the legitimate security concerns of all countries should be effectuated seriously. With the ongoing war, crisis and disputes occurring across the world, China has urged all the parties concerned that peaceful settlement of disputes between countries through dialogue is a must choice.

Some scholars argue that the core concepts and principles of the GSI are the mainstay of China’s foreign policy since the founding of the PRC in 1949. Here, what is novel is that China has proposed to all countries to uphold the principle of indivisible security and build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture. As the GSI defines that “the legitimate and reasonable security concerns of all countries should be taken seriously and addressed properly. Any country, while pursuing its own security, should take into account the reasonable security concerns of others.”

*The author Wang Li, is PhD in International Relations & Law, Shi Liang School of Law, Changzhou University, China.

**The opinions in this article are the author’s own and may not represent the views of The Diplomatic Insight. The organization does not endorse or assume responsibility for the content.

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