Sovereignty Is Bunk

During the run-up to the Iraq War, I remember a few hot conversations among opponents of the war about whether there was such a thing as a “sovereignty left”, e.g., a tendency towards seeing the achievement and maintenance of inviolable national sovereignty as the first commitment that activists should defend internationally.

I thought and still think that this does describe the actual politics of at least some European and American progressives, though I’d agree that it’s hard to find a reference where this view is laid out as a fully-fleshed philosophical or theoretical argument. It’s more a question of what kinds of reflexive responses to international crises you tend to see within spaces that are broadly or loosely encoded as “left” of some kind or another. These responses are not about the defense of sovereignty in general, but are instead a sort of echo or continuation of anti-colonialism. They defend the sovereignty of postcolonies against imperial power, defend the non-West against the hegemony of the West. Intrusions on the sovereign borders and territory of the EU and US (such as undocumented immigration) tend to code in the other direction: the left often understands those problems as issues of economic and social justice within nations, but the right often sees them as being about the maintenance of legal authority over national sovereignty.

The problem I have with this kind of response, however much it is or is not a real political faction (please, let’s not do the ‘no true Scotsman’ schtick), is two-fold. The first is that even if we understand this as a tendentious re-labelling of anti-colonialism, it mostly serves to recall the poor match between the content of anti-colonial protest (all the way back to the 1940s) and the demands for national sovereignty. The second is that Westphalian sovereignty is one of the biggest collective lies the human race has ever told itself, and continues to be the primary rhetorical justification for dangerous and mendacious arguments from pundits and bureaucrats of all ideological stripes. (And so is not just a problem of some kind of “left”.)

So, to the first point. The actual content of anti-colonial politics within Western states from the 1940s onward has been almost uniformly liberal, even when the people engaged in that politics self-identify as radicals of some kind or another, whether socialist or otherwise. Anti-colonial activists usually proclaim that the citizens of liberal democracies bear responsibility for what their countries do in the world, and therefore if their own countries act as repressive imperial powers, citizens must stop those actions and ameliorate the damage they’ve caused.

They also argue that what makes imperialism peculiarly or especially repressive is its illiberalism. The complaint is that imperial rulers are especially prone to violating and ignoring the supposedly universal human rights of colonial subjects. Colonial subjects are often killed, wounded, imprisoned, and tortured even when an imperial ruler or occupier professes to be serving as an emancipator or protector. Settler colonialism tends towards exterminationist or genocidal logics in particular. Modern colonial subjects from the early 20th Century all the way up to the present have been excluded from work within their own societies, denied the right to speak or move freely, have had any and all political rights stripped arbitrarily from them at the whim of the imperial ruler, have had their property and land stripped from them arbitrarily and been treated as profoundly unequal in social and economic life.

The problem is that the first instrumental goal of anti-colonial politics has usually been the expulsion or retreat of the imperial hegemon and the creation (or restoration) of national sovereignty. That’s where the mismatch comes in, because an illiberal national sovereign is not really that different from an illiberal imperial occupier. Once upon a time, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was perhaps reasonable to hope otherwise, but that time is long past. We now know that there is nothing in Westphalian sovereignty per se that guarantees or even makes more probable that a postcolonial national state will be systematically more respectful of basic human rights and dignity.

The contemporary situation where this disjuncture is most acutely visible is in activism directed at the Israel-Palestine conflict. It’s fair to describe Israel as an imperial occupier of Palestinian territory. It’s fair to characterize numerous injustices and violations of human rights suffered by Palestinians (and even Israelis of Arab descent) as the consequences of colonial control of Palestinian territory by Israel. But when we run down the bill of indictments, it’s not at all clear that any particular Palestinian nation with real and meaningful sovereign independence from Israel will be particularly superior in correcting those injustices and violations. The best we might say is that sovereignty would remove a condition that is certain to prevent justice, that there can never be fairness, justice or equality while one society rules another. The probability that sovereignty in and of itself will change much else besides removing one layer or cause of oppression is, judging from post-1945 world history, relatively low.

It might be better for progressives to be more indifferent to whether a situation is imperial. What makes an imperial situation an inviting one from the perspective of an activist who would like to work for justice and peace is not that there is something especially repugnant about colonialism besides its illiberal outcomes, it is that an imperial situation is one where an activist in the West may have a greater degree of influence over that situation. I could participate in a campaign against the government of Equatorial Guinea and hope perhaps that some limited kinds of international pressure could have a useful effect. The embarrassment that might stem from working to have UNESCO refuse to give a prize in the name of its ruling family, perhaps. But this is very minor, and easily ignored. But if it’s my government torturing and killing and discriminating directly? There are all sorts of avenues for meaningful pressure, so many in fact that progressives can have vicious intramural fights amongst themselves about what the most effective tactics might be.

But if we were in some sense less hung up on whether imperialism per se is the reason for mobilization, and clearer about a commitment against any sort of similar injustice, then first, that might lead to some sort of pressure brought within colonial situations, less writing of blank checks to any potential future sovereigns. It is not that we should ever say, as in Palestine, that approval of national independence has to wait until a properly virtuous sort of nationalist steps forward. That’s setting an impossible standard. It’s also doubling-down on imperialism by imagining that bunch of people who don’t live there have the right to decide what is an acceptable regime and what isn’t. They don’t and they shouldn’t. Who rules and how they rule is not anybody’s choice to make but the people of a given nation, region or community.

But the other point would be: people are involved in this struggle or any other because of what’s unjust in the situation. If that’s why imperialism qua imperialism is bad–its propensity to produce injustice–then those commitments should carry over after a change in sovereignty, and for the most part, they don’t. Activists who were ardently mobilized by the misrule of the Rhodesian Front were at best passively unhappy with the misrule of ZANU-PF in independent Zimbabwe.

If we were clear that we look first for situations where our mobilization can lead to meaningful pressure against injustice, that might lump together imperial situations with other situations that are not imperial but where some other kind of special tactical leverage exists: particular kinds of international interdependency, particular sorts of entangled institutional relationships. And maybe we could along the way get less posturing about whether certain kinds of tactical commitments are radical and others are wishy-washy liberal. Because in the end most of what “radicals” and “liberals” offer as evidence of actionable injustice in such situations is the same.


The other reason to care less about sovereignty is simply that it’s a nonsense fiction that describes almost nothing about the world we have lived in for the last century. This isn’t a problem with progressives, it’s a problem at almost every end of the contemporary ideological spectrum.

It’s very hard to take anybody seriously who gets excited about which nation has control over the Crimean peninsula. There is no ethical or political wisdom to be found in earnestly reciting the history of which state has owned the Crimea at which times. That answers absolutely nothing about what would be fair or right for the people who live there and answers absolutely nothing about what is true or untrue about Crimea. The two states contending over it right now are both recent creations within their present boundaries, descended from an empire that rearranged (and extinguished) boundaries and peoples frequently during its existence, descended from another empire that did the same.

The “international law” now being solemnly delineated and defended by American politicians and their more earnest or jingoistic pundit-class hangers-on has been thoroughly rubbished by those same American politicians over the last twelve years. It’s hard to take anyone seriously who gets terribly, terribly concerned for the territorial inviolability of Crimea but who supported the invasion of Iraq, who legitimated black site prisons and extraordinary rendition, or who feels that using the ridiculous loophole status of Guantanamo to hold prisoners is basically acceptable.

Borders in much of the world are sites of extraction and petty authoritarianism for the ordinary travellers, laborers and merchants who must traverse them. For the rich and powerful, borders are protective shrouds for shadow economies that should be under national control and regulation but are not. Many physical and natural phenomena that shape all our lives have little to do with borders and yet may be very strongly affected by human institutions, human agency.

The answer that some progressives give to all this is to empower the nation-state further and to empower interstate institutions to enforce and expand the reach of the power of sovereign states. That if only all states were genuinely Westphalian, without porous borders, without the subversions of capital or international organizations, life would be better. I doubt it partially because of where I started this essay, because there is nothing that guarantees that a sovereign nation will be a particularly just or free society.

But I also doubt it because that will always require being overly solemn and certain about essentially arbitrary and mutable questions: where this or that chunk of land belongs, whether this or that people share enough of a history or language or a sense of everyday culture to belong within the same sovereignty, whether these communities or those communities qualify as being properly indigenous, and so on.

It’s possible to make a Churchillian statement that Westphalian sovereignty is better than all the other ways we could organize power over space and territory. But I don’t think that’s true at all even in the world we live in and the world we have lived in for several centuries. Certain kinds of porousness, certain kinds of flexibility and contingency in the architecture of sovereignty, certain kinds of alternative ways of owning, controlling, or inhabiting territory are not only part of the real world as it stands but in some circumstances preferable to a classic “strong” sovereignty. As things stand, I find the passion that many invest in questions like “Who properly owns Crimea?” or even “How can a state of Palestine come into being?” is a distraction from what we should really care about, which is “Are people living in Crimea living in the light of justice, fairness, and freedom?” or “What is unfree, unfair or injust about the life of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and why is it so?” In some cases those questions are not just distractions but active contributors to more misery and injustice–say, when disputes about what’s right for Crimea enable the contemplation of war or allow those who have habitually violated sovereignty when they find it convenient to do so to whitewash their own practices.

If those questions could be asked without the presumption that they must be resolved out within the usual calculus of Westphalian sovereignty, we might have a better chance at finding generative and creative answers.

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12 Responses to Sovereignty Is Bunk

  1. jfruh says:

    One thing that fascinates me is how the concept of Westphalian sovereignty posits that at some basic level, the United States and, say, Nauru are equals, are the same kind of thing, when they obviously aren’t. I’m thinking of Nauru because at one point it had literally thousands of paper banks registered there to avoid money-launering laws, all to enirch the presumably tiny elite of a country with a population of 9,000.

    The ultimate in this absurdity is the Vatican, an completely notional state with literally none of the attributes that are supposed to adhere to a Westphalian sovereign created entirely so that the pope could continue to be a head of state.

  2. Doug says:

    This is a little bit meta, but the Western — EU, US — struggle in Crimea and now Eastern Ukraine is to determine which sort of order will prevail in Europe. Will it basically be the post-Cold War (and indeed post.WWII( kind of order in which sovereignty is pooled, disputes are resolved through international institutions, and armed conflicts — especially territorial annexation — are seen as exceptions? Or will it be a more nineteenth century kind of order in which territorial competition is the norm, the little powers attempt to grow, and the great powers expect compensation at the expense of each other or of the little powers?

    Putin’s actions in the Crimea and in Ukraine have reopened these questions. Crimea qua Crimea is not an important question for US foreign policy. What kind of political order will prevail in Europe is an extremely important question for US foreign policy.

    If nuclear non-proliferation is more one’s thing, the fate of Ukraine is important as well. Preservation of its territorial integrity was one of its conditions for giving up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the USSR; that one of the guarantor powers is now doing the dismembering gives would-be proliferators one more reason to think acquiring nukes is a good idea.

    There are important questions being contested in Ukraine; the concepts of sovereignty, international law, and treaty obligations are part of the terms of the struggle.

  3. Jerry Hamrick says:

    “If those questions could be asked without the presumption that they must be resolved out within the usual calculus of Westphalian sovereignty, we might have a better chance at finding generative and creative answers.”

    Well, now you have done it. After nearly seventy years of study and design I have developed solutions for almost everything except international relations. Somehow it just slipped my mind, or perhaps I suppressed it. Now, because of you, I have to come out of retirement and decide how the humans of this world should treat each other, and how to make them actually follow my rules. Instead of a new paradigm I have to design a new calculus. Thanks a lot.

  4. The only quibble I have with the rejection of political/territorial history as a guide to solving political/territorial conflicts — and I’ve been in enough Israeli-Palestinian, Japanese-Korean, Japanese-Russian, etc. discussions to know that you’re basically right — is that modern culture is more tied up with national institutions (education, journalism, publishing, easier migration) and happens more intensely within national boundaries. The political history of a region can help explain the cultural affinities and habits of peoples as well as anything else, both for positive connections and negative reactions.

    I also question whether the intrusion into the sovereign affairs of one state by another is sufficiently comparable to the violation of sovereignty perpetrated by illegal immigrants to justify the ‘pox on both houses’ construction. The fundamental difference between governmental and individual action, between policy and reality, seems much greater than you’ve allowed. In short, I think Westphalian consistency is greater on the left – which tends to more procedural literalism – than on the right, and liberal interventionism tends to be based on principles like supranational rights rather than on loyalty to allies, demonstrations of power, or protection of economic resources. Not sure that’s a virtue, given that I agree that westphalian sovereignty is a weak description of the way the world works, but, as they saying goes, it’s an ethos.

  5. Justin says:

    As bunk as they may be in/out group indenities are usually more important than allegiance to any moral system. Most people would prefer to be ruled poorly by their own in-group than ruled well by outsiders. Historians can point out to people how constructed and contingent those identities are until we are blue in the face, but I doubt doing so will be an effective strategy in moving towards people to the more values-based foreign policy/approach that it sounds like you are advocating for. Nor do I think there is any real international consensus on what such a policy/approach might consist of. And most of the time I think that is a good thing actually.

  6. CarlD says:

    I think this is all right. So then it seems to me that the conceptual domain in which sovereignty makes sense is also problematic, the domain in which there are individuals (States, persons), in principle separate and independent, who have rights and reasonable expectation of autonomy and a readily definable equality with each other and so on. But this picks out something that isn’t and arguably couldn’t and shouldn’t be true of the world, at the expense of the communities, networks, interpenetrations and interdependences that do exist. These are catastrophically weakened by the various disembedding activisms (liberal and not), and could perhaps be strengthened and redirected by a different kind of mindful activism.

    This domain of political / moral theory seems analogous to me to the kind of medicine that prescribes antibiotics for every sniffle and the kind of pesticidal monoculture that ends up collapsing bee colonies and such. There’s a lot to appreciate about the sovereignty / disembedding agenda in actionable simplification. But it works very badly as description, so the prescriptions it gives off tend to run us into all sorts of troubles.

  7. CarlD says:

    Dang, did I kill another thread? So sorry, that’s really not my intention. I don’t seem at all like a troll to myself, my cats like me and my wife thinks I smell nice.

    Anyhoo, I’m just now reading Harrison White’s Identity and Control, in which he’s talking about “the Sargasso Sea of social obligation and context,” which strikes me as a vivid metaphor for the kinds of stuff you’re getting at in all these posts working through a reorientation of activism toward the fullness of complexity. Cheers!

  8. Doug says:

    Not killed; threads here just grow slowly, writers not necessarily addressing the items raised by previous commenters, but items and ideas accreting over time.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Just so! A low-interest intellectual account whose capital builds up bit by bit.

  10. In the provinces says:

    What you say about sovereignty isn’t really accurate. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War, did not establish sovereign states as the norm: the Holy Roman Empire, whose “constitution” was largely established by the Treaty was anything but a sovereign state, as we now understand the term. Even old regime countries that look more like sovereign states, such as the Kingdom of France, had more porous borders and “foreign” powers exercising authority within the kingdom itself.

    What made modern sovereign states were the American and French Revolutions, and here’s where the problem lies. Sovereignty was connected with democracy and the will of the nation. And such sovereign nation-states remain the way democracy is exercised in the contemporary world. Larger governmental units, whether the UN or the EU (to say nothing of now defunct polities like the British Empire or the USSR), are characterized by their lack of democracy and democratic legitimacy. Of course, this connection of sovereignty and democracy can be used, and has been, to justify gross human rights abuse up to and including genocide. But until some way is found to create democratic legitimacy across a wider unit than the nation state, this will remain a chronic problem.

  11. CarlD says:

    Wouldn’t it be possible to push sovereignty, as an assertion of disembedded autonomy, back to the Reformation; and then, after a lot of misery, the Edict of Nantes? And so on. Point being the process of that empowered disembedding, which not surprisingly took centuries to become a settled regulative ideal, working both up from individuals and down from collectivities. As I recall Toulmin tells this story well in Cosmopolis. But this is a perpetually unfinished revolution, because in fact the embeddings are all about.

  12. LFC says:

    The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, ending the Thirty Years War, did not establish sovereign states as the norm

    First, to be picky, it’s the Peace of Westphalia, not the Treaty of Westphalia, since there was more than one treaty. Second, students of int’l relations who are aware of what the Peace of Westphalia did and did not establish (b.c in some cases said students have taken the trouble to read the relevant literature and/or the texts of the treaties of Munster and/or Osnabruck) may still use “Westphalian sovereignty” as a shorthand phrase even while realizing that it has, on many accounts, rather little to do w the Peace of Westphalia. This is what, for ex., Krasner does in Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy.

    On the more substantive pt in the ‘In the Provinces’ comment about the connection betw modern sovereignty and democracy: yes, I think that is a pt worth making.

    This comment does not address the OP itself, which regrettably I don’t have time to do just now.

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