Changing the rules
By Steven Martinovich
Until recently it was commonly held, at least at the state level, that what happened inside of a nation's borders was the exclusive concern of that nation. So long as the state avoided the use of force against other nations or didn't threaten regional or global security, it could act internally as it wished with impunity.
The reason for this is the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years' War in 1648. The treaty essentially laid out that the nation-state was the basic building block of the international diplomatic and political system and its sovereignty was inviolate. So entrenched was this ideology that it was the basis for Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.
That commonly held assumption began to break down in the 1990s with the U.S.-led intervention in the Balkans against the Serbs. That precedent, which bypassed the UN and therefore Chapter VII, spelled the end of absolute sovereignty and further inflamed the debate between Westphalians and transnationalists, those who believe that sovereignty wasn't as important as social agendas.
Orrin Judd's Redefining Sovereignty: The Battle for the Moral High Ground in a Changing World explores that debate with a collection of essays and speeches from an impressive array of thinkers. Judd's effort, however, isn't an academic weighing of the scales as the preponderance of his selection of essays argues from the Westphalian perspective.
Judd himself argues that he believes transnationalism to be nothing more than an attempt by the intellectual left to sacrifice sovereignty in favor of meeting social goals. National governments, he argues, would be replaced by centralized regional and world governments "who will then establish and enforce liberal, or progressive, policies irrespective of the objections of discrete majorities."
Given the recent history of the European Union, it's hardly an unjustified statement. Although the EU publicly proclaims itself as a continent-sized democratic entity, the reality is that most Europeans have limited opportunity to influence debate within the myriad of agencies that make up the transnational body. Individual governments, faced with local protests, typically throw up their hands and place the blame on distant bureaucrats in Brussels.
Transnationalists, charges Judd and many of his contributors, seek the same for the United States where treaties like the Kyoto Protocol or the International Criminal Court can be imposed without the unpleasant difficulty of having the U.S. Senate weigh in. As America's judiciary shows, with rulings referencing European verdicts, transnationalism is already gaining a foothold in the United States. With this sort of power, his contributors argue, Americans will lose their ability to govern themselves and seek solutions unique to the United States, arguably the greatest social experiment in human history.
Liberals aren't likely the only ones who will argue with the conclusions of many of the essays presented in Redefining Sovereignty. While most are hostile to transnationalism and the erosion of sovereignty, many argue American intervention in the internal affairs of other nations as justified. Judd himself argues that George W. Bush's mission to reshape the Middle East in a democratic image isn't at odds with the history of American foreign policy and is indeed necessary to preserve American security. It's doubtless an argument that will have paleoconservatives and the libertarian wing of the Republican Party less than pleased, arguing as they did against interfering in the Balkans and Iraq because they were sovereign nations dealing with internal issues.
Not surprisingly it's in between these two camps -- the transnationalists and sovereignty absolutists -- that Judd pitches his tent. Echoing Ayn Rand when she famously wrote that a state was only legitimate when it protected the rights of its citizens, Judd writes that "Americans have moved on to a paradigm that requires that a regime only be recognized as sovereign if it has democratic legitimacy." Where previously the test consisted only of international recognition of sovereignty, the new test includes the nature of the state claiming the sovereignty.
Small wonder that new test has generated no small measure of controversy. The Treaty of Westphalia and Chapter VII of the UN Charter guaranteed a state its sovereignty as long as it posed no threat to its neighbours. Under this new paradigm, which gradually coalesced into a pseudo-official policy towards the end of the administration of the George H.W. Bush, the issue of human rights trumps sovereignty. It was the justification used in Somalia, Haiti, the Balkans and Iraq, among other interventions, and carries even more potency with the advent of George W. Bush's policy of preemptive military action. Mistreat your citizens and you may hear a knock at the door.
These issues and a myriad of others are explored in the stellar line-up, which includes everyone from Vaclav Havel to Jesse Helms, which Judd has brought together. Critics are likely to paint Redefining Sovereignty as a neoconservative justification for war dressed up with a veneer of liberal concern for human rights or a war manifesto for hawkish liberals. They would be doing Judd and his book a disservice. Redefining Sovereignty instead succeeds at its real goal: to force the reader to appreciate that in-between the two camps is a viable alternative.
Redefining Sovereignty is a powerful entry into the debate, particularly given that the concept of transnationalism has been the subject of remarkably little public debate. For those opposed to international bodies such as the UN taking precedence over national governments, Judd's collection is a potent collection of arguments that buttress that point of view. Yet isolationism isn't his intention given the admission that sovereignty can no longer be considered an absolute. Ultimately, it is a celebration of freedom and the dream of those who signed the Declaration of Independence that freedom be known worldwide. History will decide whether this new paradigm is the key to that future.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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