STUBBORN THING, THAT SOVEREIGNTY…:

Intellectuals and International Relations (Harry Gelber, December 2006, Quadrant)

The first chair of an independent discipline of international politics was created in 1919 at Aberystwyth, and its first holder was Professor Sir Alfred Zimmern who, a number of years later, left Aberystwyth to take up another foundation chair in the subject, the first Montagu Burton Professorship of International Relations at Oxford.

Working in the immediate aftermath of the First World War, Zimmern was very much an idealist in the mould of his contemporary, the US President, Woodrow Wilson. He believed deeply in the mission-oriented Wilsonian approach that has suffused so much of international relations studies ever since: the search, on the basis of the self-determination of peoples1, for peace and conflict resolution. Ever since Zimmern, a central concern of international relations scholars has been the resolution of differences on the basis of these two principles, with international order resting not only on the traditional tools of diplomacy and inter-state treaties but also, and strongly, on the creation of powerful international laws and institutions.

But that effort, from its beginnings, has been based on a profound and probably insoluble contradiction that has caused increasing philosophical and practical difficulties for its devotees. It has been like a house built on a geological fault-line. Wilson’s approach to ensuring peace might mean the invention of a League of Nations to keep the peace and avoid another world war. But the units of the Wilsonian construct were national: nation-states, separate and sovereign. Neither the League nor its successor, the United Nations, has had any authority over individual states and neither has been able to do more than use moral and political persuasion against recalcitrant sovereigns, unless its officers could persuade major state members to act on its behalf. Indeed, the United States itself famously (or, depending on one’s point of view, notoriously) refused to have its decisions fettered even by joining the very League for which Wilson had worked2.

That contradiction remains unresolved. The process by which new states were brought into independent and sovereign being by the dissolution of the old empires between 1918 and the 1960s, especially in Asia and Africa, was quite often encouraged by the former imperial powers themselves. They had become tired of the economic, let alone the political, costs of looking after the colonial peoples. At the same time, one need hardly point out that the movements of “national liberation” in regions like East and South-East Asia, or the Middle East, movements with which very many people in the West deeply sympathised, rested critically on Wilsonian ideas of national self-determination and the proposition that identifiable ethnic and linguistic groups were entitled, as a matter of course, to run their affairs in a state of their own, governed by their “own” people. That reflected a universalist approach inherent in American thought and policy from the Declaration of Independence onwards.

Once established, moreover, the new states have insisted on nothing more strenuously than their sovereign status and rights. They have almost invariably been highly suspicious of any idea that those rights should be subordinated to the votes or decisions of any outside party, let alone any international entity. Indeed, well before the end of the twentieth century it had become a matter of debate whether even the trade and aid policies of the major and advanced powers might not amount to damaging new forms of “colonialism”.

In Europe itself, the territorial policies of National Socialist Germany were, for many years, based on Wilson’s own notions of national self-determination. As late as 1938 many good people believed that it was entirely reasonable of Hitler to want to unite all Germans in a single German state. It was only in 1939, with the German occupation of the plainly non-German regions of rump-Czechoslovakia, that opinion turned. Even later, the postwar settlement of Europe in 1945-47 relied strongly on Wilsonian principles–only this time not by moving borders but, instead, by moving people: in other words, “ethnic cleansing”. By 1950 one person in five in the brand-new West German state was a refugee or “expellee”, having been expelled from the new Poland or Czechoslovakia or elsewhere.

Nor have these beliefs weakened since. By the 1990s, for example, NATO intervened militarily in the Balkans, largely in order to avoid letting Christian Serbs clear Muslim Albanians out of Kosovo. The net result has been that, under the government of a NATO military protectorate, the Albanians have almost totally cleared Serbs out of Kosovo, which some people regard as “progress”. Similar things have happened elsewhere. The recent travails of the Sudan have very largely to do with the desire of the Christian and black south to free itself from the Islamic and Arab north.

It has, then, been very rare for any of the old or new sovereign states to be willing to subject their rights of decision to others, let alone to treaty regimes they regard as undesirable. That point has become clear even in the case of the European Union, arguably the group in which existing states have gone furthest in pooling sovereignty, or subordinating their own freedom of decision to a commonality of policy and even law. It was two of the Community’s oldest members, the Netherlands and France, who in 2005 rejected the proposal for a new European Constitution. A much larger majority rejected proposals, in 2006, for subordinating domestic criminal law to majority voting within the EU. Further cases in point are the recent behaviour of North Korea and Iran over nuclear developments.

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