The Magazine

Bait and Switch at the U.N.

All of a sudden, sovereignty is all the rage.

Jun 21, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 39 • By JEREMY RABKIN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

AFTER THE COLLAPSE of communism in the early 1990s, visionaries foresaw a new global consensus. After the "end of history" came, logically, the end of sovereignty. Why would the world need independent governments when everyone agreed on fundamental questions?

Meanwhile, the launching of the European Union seemed to demonstrate that national governments could submit to higher authority on an expanding range of policies, without transferring all the attributes of sovereignty to that higher authority. Sovereignty need not be relocated. It could simply be transcended. The president of the American Society for International Law, a legal scholar of impeccable credentials, urged in 1993 that the very term "sovereignty" should be "banished from polite or educated society."

Now suddenly, the debate about Iraq has come down to squabbling about whether the new interim government will have "full sovereignty." Last week the U.N. Security Council endorsed a U.S.-U.K. resolution "looking forward," in the words of its preamble, "to the . . . assumption of full responsibility and authority by a fully sovereign and independent Interim Government by June 30, 2004." To quell doubts--particularly those expressed by France and Germany--the resolution stipulated that American-led forces in Iraq would remain only so long as the interim government agreed to their presence. Washington and London insisted that by "full sovereignty" they meant full, fully full sovereignty.

So are we all in agreement now that sovereignty is the fundamental principle in international affairs? Not quite. Islamists still preach the restoration of the caliphate, whose authority would extend not only to all territories with predominantly Muslim populations but also to Muslim minorities in other lands. Europeans still enthuse over international authorities with wider reach, such as the International Criminal Court, which is supposed to determine when it is lawful to resort to military action almost anywhere in the world.

Even the Security Council, it turns out, is not always so fussy about the prerogatives of sovereign states. Successive resolutions about Afghanistan, for example, while ritually intoning support for a "sovereign" government there, do not indicate that the continued presence of U.N. peacekeeping forces in that territory is conditioned on the consent of the Afghan government. Resolutions regarding the continuation of an international military presence in Kosovo do not even mention "sovereignty." Technically, Kosovo is still a province of Serbia, but no U.N. resolution has ever suggested that foreign military forces can only remain in Kosovo with the consent of the government in Belgrade.

It is true, of course, that the withdrawal of international peacekeepers from Kosovo might well lead to more anti-Serb violence, provoking new rounds of conflict in the region. In Afghanistan, withdrawal of international peacekeepers might well lead to the return of Taliban or terrorist forces. The withdrawal of outside forces, in other words, might produce the very results which the U.N.-authorized deployments are supposed to prevent. So the U.N. has not bothered to pretend that outside forces in these territories are simply there at the sufferance of local sovereigns.

Even in regard to Iraq, the Security Council was not always so squeamish about the claims of sovereignty. It readily agreed to impose unique restrictions on the government of Saddam Hussein, restricting its right to fly aircraft in its own airspace, its right to sell oil without special controls, its right to develop weapons of mass destruction. What the Security Council could not agree on was action by the American-led coalition to overthrow Saddam's tyranny. So the Council now insists that "full sovereignty" must be restored to Iraq at the end of this month.

There is nothing wrong with this in principle. It was always American policy to restore Iraqi independence eventually. The handover of "full sovereignty" on the current schedule--which was formulated by the Bush administration, before it was endorsed by the U.N.--may well help to reassure Iraqis and drain sympathy for terrorist or guerrilla insurgencies. But, as its new prime minister explained to the Security Council, the Iraqi interim government still depends on the American-led coalition to maintain order in the country and defend its borders from terrorist infiltration.