June 11, 2001

Intervention Compromises National Sovereignty
(DANIEL PHILPOTT, June 11, 2001)

Repeated throughout the 1990s, this “new intervention” has punctured the traditional sanctity of sovereignty. This is revolutionary, for the principle of sovereign statehood had become one of the least-questioned principles of international order. We still take it for granted that virtually all of the earth’s land is parceled by invisible lines that we call borders. Within borders, supreme political authority typically lies in a single source–a liberal constitution, a military dictatorship, a theocracy. This is sovereignty.

Hobbes and Bodin and Grotius first wrote of the modern version of the principle in the 16th and 17th centuries; a generation ago, the sovereign state captured nearly the entire land surface of the globe when European colonies achieved independence. Sovereignty has come closer than any other political principle in history to enjoying universal, explicit assent.

This is why it is surprising that internationally sanctioned intervention has become one of the most important foreign policy issues following the Cold War. And this is why one of the most conceptually innovative developments in international relations of the past decade has been formation of the European Union in the Maastricht Treaty of 1990. Here, 15 states banded together to continue an amalgamation of governance that began in 1950 with the founding of the European Coal and Steel Community. Eleven of these states even agreed to adopt a common currency, one of the most important principles of statehood.

Will these trends continue? It seems likely. It was only two years ago that the Clinton Administration ordered the sustained bombing of Serbian forces in Kosovo under the auspices of NATO. Although President Bush has promised to intervene more sparingly, we should not surprised if he makes an exception or two: His father intervened in Somalia and on behalf of beleaguered Kurds in Iraq.

A transition to a wholly new principle of international order is still far distant. The formation of sovereign states, first in Europe, then throughout the globe, occurred over a period of 800 years. But such gradualness should not obscure the innovations and developments that intimate new authorities or new political forms.