The “S” Word: A review of The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence by Jeremy A. Rabkin (John Yoo, Claremont Review of Books)

Unlike many who write in the field of international relations and law these days, Rabkin, a professor of political science at Cornell, has a deep knowledge of American constitutional history and political theory. To him, the conflict between the U.S. and supporters of international law and organizations concerns not merely power and raw national interest, but also ideology. Rabkin shows that the current contest between the United States and other nations who would rely on international law and institutions is not just the effort of middling nations to restrain the world’s only remaining superpower through rhetoric and non-military means. It is a competition driven primarily by ideology and belief.

Centuries of murderous interstate warfare have led Europeans to seek to bury nationalism within broader supranational entities, a tendency that has disabled their confederation from exercising real national-security powers. As a result of their antagonism to independent sovereign states, Rabkin writes, “Europeans are prepared to cede vast governing power to ‘common’ institutions, but the different peoples of Europe do not trust each other enough to organize themselves into a single state.” Europeans have “learned how to coordinate without compulsion, taking over basic law-setting responsibilities from actual governments without any of the threatening aspects of state power.” In effect, Europeans attribute their postwar success to international law and institutions, not the aid and protection of the U.S., and thus want to export the former, and restrain the latter, everywhere. Rabkin notes that Europe “is already so diverse, it can see its governance techniques as almost universal—or as an embryo of a pattern of governance that can be global.”

But European-style global governance conflicts fundamentally with the principle of national sovereignty. Drawing expertly on the framers’ thinking, Rabkin defines sovereignty as a government’s “capacity to enforce” its wishes over a defined territory, its ability to protect its people against outside invasion, and a people’s “control of force” by the government. “Sovereignty appeared as a way of ordering and constraining political life,” Rabkin argues. “It insisted that law and force must be joined, and that power to command must be linked with the power to protect—especially against outsiders.” The framers enshrined this understanding in the Constitution by creating a federal government of limited, enumerated, and separated powers that could provide for the common defense, but that did not answer to any legal authority higher than the American people. To Rabkin, the Constitution is the very expression, if not perfection, of sovereignty.

Advocates of global governance believe that sovereignty, particularly of the American kind, stands in the way of more effective world cooperation and harmony. Louis Henkin, the dean of American international law professors, has even called on scholars to banish sovereignty as the “S word.” For Rabkin, such ideas are dangerously utopian. American military and economic power, not international law and institutions, defeated Germany and Japan in World War II, attained victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War, sponsored the peaceful spread of democracy to Europe and Asia, and ended human rights abuses from Haiti to Iraq. People can find security only in sovereign states—which draw their political legitimacy from the protection they provide—not in international organizations like the United Nations, which lacks an army and whose actions are subject to the vetoes of France, Russia, and China. If the U.S. were to place its security in the U.N.’s hands, not only would it lose its national character, Rabkin suggests, but the world would suffer, too.

Instead, Rabkin offers a distinctively American suggestion for foreign policy. On the one hand, “internationalists” believe the U.S. should wield its influence to build durable international organizations that will outlast its own predominance. Many if not most international law professors, and more than a few officials in the State Department bureaucracy, fall into this camp. On the other hand, “imperialists” want the U.S. to use its power to reorder the world for our own and the world’s benefit. It might not be wrong to count William Kristol and Robert Kagan in this camp, along with the writers of President Bush’s Second Inaugural address. Rabkin, however, suggests a third path, one built upon the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These documents, which create for Rabkin the principle of “constitutional integrity,” prevent any international law, commitment, or institution from exercising authority superior to our founding documents.

If international law or institutions were permitted to become a policy-making forum, the American people would lose their connection to their government and its founding principles. We would no longer be a nation. For this reason, Rabkin writes, “The United States needs to safeguard its sovereignty in order to safeguard its own form of government. It is not simply a matter of legal technicalities. It is about preserving a structure under which Americans—in all their diversity, with all their rights, and all their differences of opinion—can live together in confidence and mutual respect, as fellow citizens of the same solid republic.” So, Rabkin seems to say to our diplomats, cooperate all you like, but always remember that the United States, because of the primacy of its Constitution, has the right to ignore international law or withdraw from its institutions.

Professor Rabkin, who may or may not want to be known as Ann Coulter’s mentor, has two essays in our forthcoming anthology on sovereignty. Americans must always remember that for us sovereignty is a one way street–ours is inviolable; yours depends on what you do with it.


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