September 24, 2004


September 10, 2004

Violating ‘Sovereignty’: Questioning a Concept’s Long Reign (Carlin Romano, 9/10/04, The Chronicle Review)

As an explosive real-world political idea, sovereignty propels international armies and costs untold lives. As a historical concept within political philosophy — roughly defined by one scholar as “supreme authority within a territory” — it remains a back-alley matter, outside the main arena.

Compared with idealistic de jure notions like “justice” and “democracy,” it’s often a de facto embarrassment. Compared with relatively coherent concepts like “desert” or “entitlement,” it’s a mongrel: born in “divine right” theology and circumstance, barely coherent at best, terminally ambiguous at worst, preternaturally dangerous.

[Alan Cranston’s] posthumously published essay, recently issued as The Sovereignty Revolution (Stanford University Press), begins dramatically: “It is worshiped like a god, and as little understood. It is the cause of untold strife and bloodshed. Genocide is perpetrated in its sacred name. It is at once a source of power and of power’s abuse, of order and of anarchy. It can be noble and it can be shameful. It is sovereignty.”

An indefatigable international diplomat, Cranston insists on his subject’s enormous sway: “The fires of passionate crusades to achieve, assert, or defend sovereignty for one purpose or another or to avenge some breach of it light up the night skies of our time like some giant uncontrolled forest fire raging all over the world.”

Most of Cranston’s essay alternates between reporting the bare bones of multiple world crises rooted in the vagaries of his subject, and advancing a few basic positions. He argues that when people understand sovereignty as the absolute power of a government over its own territory and citizens, a shield against the intervention of other governments, nongovernmental organizations, and outside powers, it is an illegitimate and dangerous medieval idea. At best, sovereignty should be understood as the right of people to determine their own destinies. Such sovereignty, he maintains, delegable to governments through democratic process, is the only legitimate form, and political history in the West happily continues to head in that direction.

Finally, sovereignty as a defense against outside intervention to stop extraordinarily unacceptable behavior by a government against its people is always, in Cranston’s view, heinous and unjustified. International covenants on genocide and human rights similarly demonstrate the world community’s declining appetite for claims of such absolute state sovereignty. […]

Dan Philpott, the University of Notre Dame political scientist who offers the definition of “supreme authority within a territory” in his excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on the subject, draws attention to facets of the concept important for current purposes. He writes that if sovereignty assumes authority, then authority, as the philosopher R.P. Wolff outlined, assumes both a right to command and a right to be obeyed. Philpott, author of Revolutions in Sovereignty (Princeton University Press, 2001), notes that a “holder of sovereignty derives authority from some mutually acknowledged source of legitimacy — natural law, a divine mandate, hereditary law, a constitution, even international law. In the contemporary era, some body of law is ubiquitously the source of sovereignty.” Yet much media discussion of sovereignty ignores the issue of whether a thug regime — e.g., Saddam Hussein’s — has in any sense earned a right to be obeyed, and thus earned sovereignty.

Similarly, Philpott observes, “territoriality is now deeply taken for granted” in the sense that simple presence within a geographical area presumptively places someone under a particular sovereignty. But a case such as that of the Kurds, a stateless people who have suffered under Turkish, Iraqi, and Syrian sovereignty without any moral acceptance of that rule, shows how sovereignty often plays out merely as a recognition of power, not an acknowledgment of just power.

Such historical and philosophical perspective suggests that moral foreign policy must cut through the threshold concept of sovereignty instead of allowing it to be a conversation stopper. It must push on to sovereignty’s etiology, to issues of justice, democracy, and legitimacy. Debates that reflexively criticize, for instance, the United States for violating Iraqi sovereignty, or Israel for violating Palestinian sovereignty, or Russia for violating Chechen sovereignty, make little sense if one doesn’t explain why the supposedly violated sovereignty deserves that status.

Alan Cranston?