Politics without sovereignty is not politics at all

He may be a 'professional exile', but a new book reminds Frank Furedi that the ideal of national sovereignty is worth defending today.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique Of Contemporary International Relations, Christopher J Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe and Alexander Gourevitch (eds), University College Press, 2007.

As a professional exile, I have always been drawn towards universal principles and internationalism. Not for me the confines of parochial nationalism. I have long thought that government-by-national-interest was a rather unimaginative and futile project – an attempt by governments to impose order on a world over which they could actually exercise only a pretence of control. Back in the Seventies and Eighties, I would have never imagined that one day I would wake up and find that there are some virtues, and important ones at that, in the classical ideal of sovereignty. (I say ‘ideal’, because even at the best of times the exercise of sovereignty is limited by global economic and political realities.)

The ideal of sovereignty is rooted in the consent of citizens, and the principle that governments should be accountable for their actions. ‘To act as a sovereign is to claim the mantle of responsibility’, note the editors of this new book, Politics Without Sovereignty. However, sovereigns do not always possess the power, or the inclination, to behave responsibly. In recent decades many in the West appear to have lost faith in the principle of sovereignty. Today, international relations theorists, politicians and advocacy organisations claim that in the era of globalisation the nation state has become too feeble to exercise sovereignty in any meaningful way.

The idea of sovereignty is also derided today on the basis that it’s simply a very bad idea. Some proponents of cosmopolitanism celebrate an abstract human rights-based vision of world affairs that ‘transcends’ national interest. Others argue that the problems of the twenty-first century are global in character, and thus require global solutions. From this standpoint, it is often argued that national governments only get in the way of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are trying to do the right thing.

Rising numbers of disenchanted Western elites are also aiming their fire at sovereignty. They believe that the behaviour and actions of national governments – particularly national governments ‘over there’ – should be subordinated to the higher imperative of a human rights agenda. They prefer agendas that are drawn up by international bodies and NGOs which are not constrained by the exigencies of democratic accountability to a politically illiterate electorate (as many now view voters around the world).

These various assaults on sovereignty should be resisted. However imperfect the ideal of sovereignty, it at least contains the potential for expressing people’s democratic aspirations, for embodying human subjectivity. In contrast, contemporary critiques of national sovereignty are driven by powerful anti-democratic sentiments and an elitist disdain for citizens and their capacity to reflect on issues and to act responsibly. Today, when sovereignty is looked upon with scorn everywhere from the academy to global institutions, it is crucial to question the anti-democratic project that seeks to replace sovereign authority with bureaucratic authority. That is why the collection of essays in Politics Without Sovereignty is to be warmly welcomed. The editors and contributors do not naively or uncritically champion the tradition of sovereignty; indeed, they express their concern about the self-serving and particularist nature of sovereign states. However, they also expose how the new alternatives to sovereignty are in fact far more illiberal and anti-democratic than what went before.

Many now argue that the idea of ‘sovereignty as autonomy’ should be replaced by a wider form of juridical or international authority; this is portrayed as a progressive demand that will help to alleviate human suffering at the hands of sovereign states, by curbing the power of repressive governments and their national institutions in the name of protecting human rights. For example, NGOs, UN officials and Western politicians frequently argue that an ‘international community’ should have the right to intervene in and reorganise the affairs of unstable, weak or ‘rogue’ sovereign states.

In Politics Without Sovereignty, co-editor Philip Cunliffe incisively questions this contemporary attack on the ideal of self-determination and on freedom from external interference. Cunliffe argues that ‘one of the virtues of the traditional understanding of sovereignty’ is that ‘it clarifies the exercise of power’. He criticises the promotion of ‘humanitarian intervention’ because not only does it confuse power relations between states; it also ‘nullifies the political responsibility of individuals for their own societies’. Cunliffe’s critique of the attempt to make national sovereignty accountable to some external, international form of responsibility shows that these moves actually have the perverse effect of encouraging political irresponsibility. This point is echoed in Christopher Bickerton’s essay ‘State-building: exporting failure’, in which he explores the consequences of technocrats displacing the ‘popular will’.

Probably the most important observation in the book is that the disenchantment of Western elites with sovereignty is linked to their loss of confidence in their own authority. This point is well made in Alexander Gourevitch’s essay ‘National insecurities: the new politics of the American national interest’. Gourevitch notes how the weakening of party politics has encouraged a shift from domestic to foreign policy interests. And this attempt to re-legitimate domestic politics through foreign adventures has not only weakened America’s capacity to express its ‘national interest’; it has also further weakened the authority of its political institutions. So as Washington has attempted to pursue a unilateralist foreign policy, its neglect of domestic authority has encouraged scepticism about America’s political institutions. James Heartfield’s article on the European Union develops this central theme, showing how the demise of national authority and loss of legitimacy is one of the main drivers of European integration.

Today’s attack on sovereignty is also motivated by what we might call an anti-political imagination – by an outlook that views political and social problems as technical ones best dealt with by technocrats. Tara McCormack’s contribution, ‘From state of war to state of nature’, shows how the expansion of ideas about ‘human security’ serves to depoliticise everyday life. Ultimately, the subjugation of sovereignty to the dictates of a technocratic agenda calls into question people’s very subjectivity. So in essence, ‘politics without sovereignty’ is not politics at all. This collection of essays provides a useful antidote to those theorists of international relations who cannot see the creative potential in the exercise of sovereignty. It provides important insights into one of the central developments in international relations: the subjugation of sovereign decision-making to arbitrary actors that are accountable only to themselves.

Many of the essays break new ground, offering an enlightened alternative to the illiberal turn in international relations theory. Overall the book provides an eloquent argument in favour of reaffirming the politics of sovereignty.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist and author. Visit his website here.

Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique Of Contemporary International Relations is edited by Christopher J Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe and Alexander Gourevitch and published by University College Press. Buy it from Amazon (UK).

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Topics Politics


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