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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
questions of how that authority is gained or maintained, or whether
the authority is legitimate, are not discussed in that bare-bones
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
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).
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.
CENTURY OF SLAUGHTER
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.
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?
COVER FOR THUGGERY
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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