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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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.