April 11, 2001

Considering Sovereignty

With the downing/landing/whatever of the U.S. spy plane on the Chinese island of Hainan, talk of sovereignty is once again rampant. Was the airplane actually over territory that the Chinese nation claims as a sovereign as part of its airspace? Can the United States claim that the interior of the plane is in law a part of US sovereign territory, the generally workable myth that protects, for all concerned, embassies in other countries from takeover or marauding? Did the surveillance instruments by which the United States was able to monitor at least some activities fairly deep inside China constitute a violation of Chinese sovereignty? Is the "detaining" of 24 US crew members an egregious violation of US sovereignty amounting to kidnapping or hostage taking?

The concept of sovereignty has surfaced in other recent disputes as well. The US government’s Commission on International Religious Freedom has denounced religious oppression in Vietnam. Vietnam has denied that things are as bad as all that, but also that its rights as a sovereign nation make it none of the United States’ business to monitor what it does inside its own borders or to make demands that practices be improved.

China uses this argument constantly to deflect attention from the shameful way it has treated the Falun Gong religious movements and other non-state-controlled religious outbreaks in China. Zimbabwe has been in the news recently concerning a systematic campaign of repression sometimes amounting to terrorism against European-ancestry farmers – and saying that sovereignty should make it immune to demands if not to any criticism at all, from people in other countries.


The concept of "sovereignty" is used so often and in so many different contexts to mean so many different things that it might be useful to muse on the idea for a moment. The concept of sovereignty has been useful in many ways in the world order of nation-states that has developed since the concept of the nation-state came into being in Europe in about the 1600s. But the concept of sovereignty is a two-edged sword. Perhaps it is time to consider whether the costs of keeping the concept central to our thinking about international affairs exceed the benefits.


It is useful to note that "sovereignty" in the sense that a political scientist or political philosopher might use the term is not seen as a description of what actually is, but as something of an ideal or goal stemming from a philosophical approach to how the world should be organized. Among political philosophers there has never been anything approaching consensus about just what sovereignty entails and what rights accrue to the entity deemed to be sovereign in a particular territory.

The term "sovereign" evolved from what is still the first definition in the Random House/Webster’s dictionary: "a monarch or other supreme ruler." In the context of the modern world, in which we like to pretend that more is involved than the willingness to use force to back up one’s power, the term is more akin to the third definition: "a body of persons or a state having sovereign authority."

The questions of how that authority is gained or maintained, or whether the authority is legitimate, are not discussed in that bare-bones dictionary definition.

The main thing to understand is that sovereignty is about power. Perhaps it is even about supreme or even unaccountable power. The useful myth promoted as the 18th century flowed into the 19th and the 20th was that under what was seen as a "liberal" international order unnecessary conflict might be avoided by ceding the concept of sovereignty to the government, state or other entity that actually controlled a given territory, whether through consent or conquest.

Other countries and the international community might deplore the practices of a given country in regard to the potential rights of citizens, but insofar as the country remained sovereign in its own territory they had no business interfering with force (though they might use economic and other sanctions to effect a change in behavior).

As the idea of a system of nation-states evolved (or was improvised), then, the notion was that an incursion into some other generally-recognized state’s territory constituted aggression, which could be deterred or punished. But within its "own" territory a sovereign nation-state’s power was limited only by custom or constitution. The idea, or hope, was that this system would reduce or at least ameliorate the possibility of useless conflict among nation-states.


Unfortunately, the 20th century, the high-point of the nation-state system, was also the bloodiest century in history. Much of that blood was shed by nation-states slaughtering "their own" people – the Turks killing Armenians, the Soviets dispossessing, starving and slaughtering the "rich" kulak farmers, the Nazis systematically seeking to exterminate Jews, the Chinese communists killing untold millions of cultural rebels or unwanted and unaborted children. But millions of deaths also came as a result of wars among nation-states, including two conflicts the historians are now inclined to call World Wars.

So the system of nation-states avoiding conflict through mutual recognition of mutual sovereignty hasn’t worked out all that well in practice. Does that mean the system simply needs a little fine-tuning, or is it time to seek another paradigm?


There are some exceptions, of course, but all too often the concept of sovereignty in "international law" – another largely mythical concept sustained largely by the willingness of leaders of nation-states to pretend to believe in it and to abide by it (at least when it is seen as in their short-term interest) – provides a handy cover for domestic thuggery.

Although one might question whether an official arm of the US government, as compared to a private, voluntarily-funded human rights group, has a right to demand changes in the practices of another country, for example, there is little question that the still quasi-communist government of Vietnam treats religious believers shamefully. State approval and a measure of control assure that most religious organizations will be creatures of the state. Individuals or groups who have the notion that religious belief transcended nationalism or politics and that religious groups should not be subject to political veto are hounded and persecuted.

The situation is similar in mainland China. We may never know whether or not the Falun Gong religious movement in China began with some sort of political agenda. But once the group demonstrated the capacity to turn out demonstrators on short notice, and once it became obvious that China housed more Falun Gong adherents than Communist Party members, the government began cracking down ruthlessly. The government also persecutes non state-approved Christian and Buddhist organizations and individuals as well as ruling the country in general in a high-handed, dictatorial manner.

When anyone complains about how China or Vietnam or Russia or Zimbabwe or almost any nation-state abuses the citizens over whom it asserts power or authority, the leaders almost instantly invoke the sacred concept of national sovereignty. You might not like the way we handle problems in our country, say the leaders, but it’s our country – i.e., it belongs to the recognized government and the recognized government can perpetrate just about any kind of outrage it desires without outside hindrance. Outsiders may expose, investigate, deplore and call for change, but they don’t have the right to interfere with what a sovereign government does.

Students of international relations stroke their chins thoughtfully and agree reluctantly. Mess with the concept of sovereignty, even on behalf of people persecuted by cruel governments, and Chaos and Old Night will fall upon the earth spreading bloodshed and suffering. And since the world is not a pristine, hermetically sealed laboratory – which might come as news to denizens of college bull sessions and New World Order international-relations professionals – it is impossible to perform the kind of double-blind test of different systems that might prove or disprove such an assertion. (Historical analysis helps, but there are so many uncontrollable variables.) So maybe on balance the concept of sovereignty in a nation-state system has, on balance, saved more lives than it has ended.


A few thinkers have proposed moving beyond state sovereignty to different concepts. Many 20th-century thinkers saw great hope in the idea of world government that would be able to keep order among contending mini-nations or a system of international organizations able to breach sovereignty when some sort of duly constituted body at NATO or the United Nations deemed it advisable. The notion that the cure for the conflicts that are still rampant in a system of sovereign nation-states who agree to a few minimal rules of international behavior is a larger, more powerful, more centralized mega-state is still close to the reigning paradigm among international relations professionals.

But James Dale Davidson and Lord William Rees-Moog, in their book The Era of the Individual Sovereign and Doug Casey in a book of political theory disguised as an investment manual (Strategic Investing for the 1990s) have proposed pushing the concept of sovereignty down the socio-political scale rather than up to a world government. They suggest that the key to freedom and a relative absence of war is to recognize each individual person as sovereign in his or her own legitimate domain – rightfully able to own, control and dispose of his or her own property and other resources without hindrance from the minions of the nation-state.

You can probably guess where my sympathies lie in this discussion. The concept or noble myth of individual sovereignty is promising, has some deep roots in American and European culture (and elsewhere) and just might be the next logical step (after nation-states, industrialization, internationalization and the Internet) in the social and cultural or intellectual evolution of human society.

But the institutions and intellectual underpinnings of the nation-state system and the concept of national sovereignty are also deeply rooted and enormously powerful. Whether the better idea of individual sovereignty can or will displace them and help to pave the way for a brighter tomorrow is anybody’s guess.

But it wouldn’t hurt to start thinking seriously about such matters and raising the question of where, in a free society, sovereignty correctly resides – if there really is such a thing as other than an abstract concept.

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Alan Bock is Senior Essayist at the Orange County Register and a weekly columnist for WorldNetDaily. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995). He is also author of the forthcoming book Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press). His exclusive column now appears every Wednesday on Antiwar.com.

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