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
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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.

There is something awkward about recognizing the "sovereignty" of a government that lacks the capacity to control its own territory. A government dependent on outside troops does not seem to be independent. Even if one thinks of sovereignty as a legal status, it is a status that normally depends on effective control. Jean Bodin, the 16th-century French jurist who published the first systematic analysis of sovereignty, put the point quite succinctly at the outset: "He who controls the use of force, controls the state."

If the interim government does, on the other hand, demonstrate its full independence by calling for the departure of foreign troops, it may plunge Iraq into still more strife and chaos. As in Afghanistan, the departure of foreign troops might lead to a new terrorist threat, which would nullify the benefits of the original intervention. So perhaps the world should not be overly eager to see the withdrawal of foreign troops.

But France and Germany opposed the war against Saddam in 2003, while they endorsed the war against the Taliban two years earlier. They have repeatedly decried the notion that any power is justified in resorting to war without U.N. approval--except if there is NATO approval (that is, French and German approval), as in the war against Serbia in 1999 that led to the subsequent NATO occupation of Kosovo. Paris and Berlin were prepared to see Serb sovereignty ignored. They were prepared to see Saddam's powers limited. They were not prepared to accept U.S. intervention without their approval. The issue is not so much whether Iraq's sovereignty should be curtailed but whether it can be curtailed by an American force, outside of "international" control.

In effect, the underlying issue for Europeans is not the sovereignty of Iraq but the sovereignty of the United States. They worry that in a world without international controls, the most powerful state will predominate. No country will be sovereign so long as the United States remains sovereign. Rather than demand sovereignty for every territory, they urge international controls--especially for the United States.

It is, from a certain perspective, quite logical. Historically, the central purpose of European integration was to eliminate any danger from the revival of Germany. Neighboring states were prepared to diminish their own independence in order to establish controls on Germany. What the E.U. did for Germany and Europe, many Europeans hope the U.N.--or the International Criminal Court or some other scheme--can do for the United States and the wider world.

But we have no reason to think that a world authority can act with the necessary decisiveness or effectiveness to maintain security. The E.U. itself could not reach a common view on Iraq in 2003, with many members joining the U.S.-U.K. coalition even as France and Germany strenuously opposed the Anglo-American policy toward Saddam. Although other nations are prepared to sacrifice their sovereignty, moreover, the American people are not. Even Senator Kerry insists that "American security must never be ceded" to international authorities.

So the United States must remind the world that we are not Germany--a standing menace to others while we retain our independence. We also need to persuade others that they stand to lose by the extension of international controls more than they can hope to gain by constraining the United States. There is something seductive about international control. It holds out the hope that, after yielding their independence, nations can allow themselves to relax their own efforts and evade their own responsibilities. We need to remind others that a world on autopilot--a world in which no action is taken until everyone agrees--is not a safe world.

Sovereignty is a way to allow different states to go different ways. In that sense, it seems to answer the problem of differing priorities in different nations. But precisely because differences remain, we are also going to be arguing about what sovereignty means. The argument is likely to continue, whatever happens in the next few years in Iraq.

A good outcome, however, will certainly give more credit to American aims and motives. The prestige of American sovereignty--and perhaps of sovereignty as a general principle--is tied up, then, with the the current transition to genuine Iraqi sovereignty. So we must hope that last week's U.N. resolution is, whatever its incongruities, another step toward assuring a good outcome in Iraq.

Jeremy Rabkin's latest book, The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence, has just been published by the American Enterprise Institute.