May 25, 2007 | First Principles Series Report on Political Thought
I have no special expertise about Iraq, but this disability does
not inhibit the stars of broadcast journalism nor the philosophers
of Hollywood from trying to enlighten us on this subject. I will
stick, in any case, to the most obvious points-points so clear and
indisputable that they might be described as "blindingly obvious."
From there, I will proceed to my main theme: why what ought to be
so obvious is so infrequently noticed and so rarely
The basic reason, I believe, is that the most obvious lessons of our experience in Iraq run counter to prevailing hopes of so many contemporary pundits. It does not require advanced psychology to grasp the character of this pathology. As was said long ago, "There are none so blind as those who will not see."
When it comes to claims about sovereignty, however, what we find hard to "see" today was a central principle for the American Founders. I will only offer a brief sketch here of the way the American Founders thought about sovereignty. I have written more extensively about that elsewhere. But I would like to emphasize, in the last sections of this paper, some aspects of their understanding which are rarely given adequate attention but may be particularly pertinent to our current season of doubt.
Sovereignty Before Our Eyes
Many questions about our experience in Iraq will be disputed for years to come. Some will even deserve to be. No close study is required to affirm some basic lessons, however. The most important lessons are visible right on the surface of events. Three, in particular, deserve emphasis.
First, people around the world think there are rules that govern the relations of one nation with another-but disagree about what they are or about when and how they apply.
This was the obvious lesson from the months of debate that preceded the American-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. The U.N. Security Council was prepared to agree that Saddam's government had failed in its obligation to cooperate with international inspectors and account for weapons of mass destruction. The council was prepared to agree that sanctions should be maintained, limiting Iraq's ability to convert oil revenue into new weapons programs. The council was not able to agree that the proper next step was a military invasion. Still, some three dozen nations, including Britain, Australia, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and others, did ultimately contribute to the U.S.-led coalition that toppled Saddam's government. The debate which started then has continued, and in some ways has intensified, in the years since.
We have learned-or have been reminded-that many people around the world look at the United States with fear, suspicion, or resentment and readily attribute the darkest motives to American actions; but we have also seen much indignation among peoples who, before the war, were not so inclined to anti-American feeling. Meanwhile, for all the indignation expressed in so many countries in Europe and elsewhere, we did not see any serious movement toward a gathering of disapproving governments and peoples into an ongoing anti-American coalition. Nor did countries previously allied with the U.S., such as NATO partners in Europe, show any disposition to build up their own military capabilities as a counter to American power.
Many people are angry about the American effort in Iraq, not because they regard America as a relentless and remorseless aggressor in the world, but precisely because they do think the United States has committed itself to live by established rules and then violated those rules in Iraq. Nobody seriously expected that the United States would follow up its invasion of Iraq with an invasion of Canada, but much of the world-perhaps most of the world-was not satisfied that war against Saddam was justified in the spring of 2003.
I do not want to rehash the contending arguments but simply to emphasize the underlying lesson of the debate. Most people think it is wrong to invade and overthrow another government except under very unique and special circumstances. Most Americans, even most American government officials, hold the same view. There are supposed to be limits, but we disagree about what they are or where they apply. Even in Europe, most people do not imagine that these limits can be settled by a majority vote of all nations, large and small, advanced and backward: one nation, one vote. Even in Europe, most people do not hold seriously to the idea that the U.N. Security Council must decide every disputed case. So, for example, the NATO war against Serbia in the late 1990s was not rejected in European opinion even though it was not authorized by the Security Council.
It matters that most people think there are limits on what one nation may do to impose its will on another, even the most powerful in dealing with the weakest. It matters because it shows that most people do not think international politics is simply a jungle of predators with no serious possibility for cooperation or the opportunity to differ in peace. And people are right to reject this vision because much experience goes against it. We do see that most countries live at peace with most others, most of the time. War is exceptional, while cooperation-in trade, in travel, in cultural and scientific exchange-is pervasive.
So most of the world thinks there are limits on when and how even powerful states can impose their will on others. But at the margin, when it comes to hard cases like Saddam's, there are differences, and there is no accepted international method for resolving these differences. Hence, in the extreme situations, which may be rare but still carry enduring consequences, nations must decide for themselves.
In other words, the fundamental fact about international affairs is the sovereignty of nations. Sovereignty is not in opposition to rules or norms in international affairs. To the contrary, to claim sovereignty is to claim a recognized status among nations, whose rightful prerogatives are more or less defined by existing rules of international conduct. Sovereign states are bound by rules in their mutual dealing. That is what makes it possible for distinct sovereignties to coexist rather than have all fall under the sway of one or two great empires. But nations may disagree about particular applications of the general rules and insist on their right to act on their own views. They may insist, that is, on their sovereign rights.
We have learned a closely related lesson from more recent experience:The community of nations is not a very strong or reliable community.
We can see this point much more clearly from what happened after the war against Saddam. In the summer of 2004, all members of the Security Council put aside their previous disagreements about the appropriateness of the initial invasion. With Saddam gone, with Iraqis working to establish a new government, all agreed that the new government deserved international assistance. The council called on all U.N. member states to provide what help they could to the struggling new government.
Despite this call from the Security Council, however, few nations offered much assistance, apart from those already contributing to the original coalition. Germany's offer was so grudging and qualified-it would train Iraqi police but not in Iraq, nor even in the Middle East-that it was rejected out of hand by Iraq's new government.
The paucity of international assistance is all the more striking because no government in the world openly embraced the shadowy terrorist groups already starting up a very nasty insurgency against the new government in Iraq. Certainly no Western government wanted terrorists to prevail in Iraq. Not even Russia and China can have wished success to the insurgency, since they faced their own long-term threats from Islamist terrorist groups who would likely be energized by terrorist victories in Iraq.
But deepening crisis in Iraq did not prompt governments outside the initial coalition to step forward with offers of significant assistance, let alone with additional troops. Governments around the world looked on the war as controversial because the initial decision to intervene remained controversial. It might be a bad thing for Iraq to fall into chaos, but few governments were prepared to take serious action to avert this bad result. It was easier to leave the burden of defending the new Iraqi government to the United States and its original allies. A resolution of the Security Council could not, by itself, mobilize commitments to act in a serious way.
In other words, international machinery for consultation and coordination-which is what the U.N., at its best, can afford-is no substitute for actual powers to legislate and enforce new laws, to raise revenue by taxation, to raise and deploy armies. International machinery is no substitute for sovereignty.
So violence escalated in Iraq. It continued to escalate even as Iraqis voted for an interim government, voted in larger numbers to ratify a new constitution, voted in still larger numbers for parliamentary parties which then negotiated a broad coalition government.
This experience shouts the final lesson: Sovereignty is not merely a legal construction, conferred by legal resolution and recast to suit outside preferences. Sovereignty means effective governing capacity and is crucial for decent life in the modern world.
So it was one thing for the Security Council or the United States to affirm the "sovereignty" of the new government in Iraq. It was something else again for all Iraqis to accept the new government's authority. If the new government could not protect its people, it could not demand their obedience to its laws or their cooperation with its policies. Iraqis sought safety in the tribe, the sect, the local strongman, or the charismatic chieftain.
In retrospect, we should not be surprised that a government which lacked effective military and police forces was not able to command respect and that people gravitated to loyalties or hopes that seemed more substantial or reliable. The historic purpose of national sovereignty was to put a check on such impulses, to tame the force of local, ethnic, or sectarian loyalties. When there is not an effective sovereign authority, these latent loyalties reassert their claims, as in the violent past. Without the restraining force of established sovereignty, the result is wretchedness.
International endorsements are no substitute for sovereignty. Democratic elections are no substitute for sovereignty. A free press-which Iraq has indeed developed-is no substitute for sovereignty. Nor are formal guarantees of religious freedom, which the new Iraq also has. All of these are fine things, as are free exchange of goods and services and openness to trade and exchange with the outside world, which Iraqi law now also permits. The law does not mean much because the government lacks power to enforce it or ensure protection for those who obey it. Without a secure sovereignty, the benefits of freedom-the free practice of religion, of commerce, of inquiry and debate-cannot be enjoyed.
It is all so very obvious. Why don't critics see this? What critics emphasize, instead, is the failure of "unilateralism"-that is, the futility of sovereignty.
Opposition to the American-led effort in Iraq traces back, of course, to the way the war began. Critics, especially in Europe, rallied to the claim that war against Saddam's government could be lawful and legitimate only if authorized by the Security Council and that, since war was not explicitly authorized, it was indeed unlawful. Lacking the endorsement of all major powers, the war was, in essence, "unilateral"-at least as critics depicted it. "Unilateral" efforts, as they are morally questionable, do not deserve to succeed. Subsequent developments in Iraq, in all their tragedy and misery, should have been expected, say critics.
It is surely not hard to resist such claims if one has a mind to do so. They do not express a serious argument so much as an amorphous climate of opinion. Was the war against the Serb government of Milosevic in the late 1990s bound to fail because it was not authorized by the Security Council? Were the entirely unilateral American interventions in Panama in the early 1990s and Grenada in the late 1980s bound to fail because they were so entirely unilateral?
What magic is there in U.N. endorsements, anyway? The war in Afghanistan had full U.N. approval from the outset, but the Taliban continues to recover strength because very few countries have been prepared to offer actual fighting forces to shore up the new Afghani government. The Security Council insists that Iran must not continue its nuclear program without international safeguards and inspections. There is no indication that the government in Tehran is in any way impressed by the force of these impeccably multilateral admonitions.
People who insist that "unilateral" ventures are bound to fail must suppose that the world has been transformed in some way at least since the time when wars, even major wars, could be won without full international endorsement for one side in the conflict. Those who insist that the age of sovereignty is behind us can say-as they have, quite insistently, since the early 1990s-that international politics is no longer restricted to sovereign states.
True, we now have intergovernmental organizations, starting with the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, the European Union and NAFTA, and a whole catalog of smaller or more specialized organizations. We have an even larger stock of nongovernmental organizations which are internationally active, including major churches and religious organizations, relief organizations like Doctors Without Borders or the International Red Cross, and advocacy groups like Amnesty International. And of course there are transnational corporations-oil companies, manufacturing firms, transportation and communication companies, etc.
The more sober economic historians caution that our era is not, by many measures, more "global" in its trade and investment patterns than the era before the First World War. Influential "non-governmental organizations" are not a novelty of our times, either, as the history of religion will confirm. But we can stipulate that international communication, among nongovernmental entities as well as governments, is wider and deeper than ever before. That stipulation will still not bring us within range of the conclusion that critics of "sovereignty" embrace.
The world is richer than ever before, and more people have more time for political and even international engagement than ever before. What follows? Do they all agree? Do transnational oil companies agree with international environmental advocacy organizations just because they both operate in many countries? Does al-Qaeda agree much with the Roman Catholic Church just because both are international and nongovernmental? When they disagree, who decides what law is binding in what territory?
It simply does not follow that because international civil society is deeper, national sovereignty is less relevant. Even if many differences are worn away by increasing international contacts, new ones appear. Within the United States, Americans have more opportunity to communicate with each other than ever before, with cell phones that can transmit pictures and Internet technology that can make video segments available at all hours to everyone. Is the country more united than it was 60 years ago?
To imagine that increasing international contact will lead to increasing consensus, you have to embrace an additional premise: that fundamental differences are illusory, or at least that they are on their way to disappearing. You must assume that we can talk our way through all conflicts or evolve our way past them. You must assume that with patience and goodwill, we can continue talking and negotiating until we will finally recognize that our conflicts were rooted in misunderstanding, so conflict can give way to a new and broader consensus.
Sovereignty is a way of constraining conflict. It presupposes the ongoing potential for conflict. That is not necessarily a tragic thought: Conflict need not result in actual war; actual wars may be relatively brief; longer and harder wars may still be won. Still, to insist on sovereignty is to insist on the continuing relevance of security concerns, since providing security is the core purpose of sovereignty. At home, a sovereign state tries to reduce conflict by offering protection to citizens of varied views. Abroad, a sovereign state may hope to secure peace by demonstrating its willingness and capacity to use force to redress injury or forestall threats. But both at home and abroad, it is the potential for conflict which makes sovereignty seem necessary.
The modern world is filled with dreamers who envision a world in which even the possibility of conflict has vanished. Not all of these dreams are sentimental. Jihadist terrorist networks also look to a future of universal peace and harmony-under a single religious authority in an Islamicized world. At some level, the vision is not all that different from that which inspired Communists through much of the 20th century. And many Communist formations were also nongovernmental and transnational. It should not surprise us that heirs to the Communist or extreme left vision of globalism now make common cause with Islamist transnationalism on many issues and in many forums. They have many of the same hatreds-for example, of commerce, of freedom, of differing faiths, and the constitutional democracies in which these are all protected.
The soft vision of peaceful evolution toward global consensus certainly differs from such brutal dreams of world unity by world conquest. Yet these visions share, at least, a common premise: that differences will be overcome in the course of history or that the movement of history is already, in some way, assured. Those who see the world moving toward peaceful consensus ought to be strongly opposed to those who advocate unification by violence. Yet, in practice, countries that are the most insistent about respecting the authority of the United Nations have been notably reluctant to see U.N. authority invoked against terrorist violence or jihadism.
So, years after the 9/11 attacks, the U.N. has still been unable to agree on a definition of "terrorism," in part because too many governments fear to insist on a definition which would force them to take sides in ongoing controversies. The government of Iran, one of the leading sponsors of terrorism, has defied international controls on nuclear weapons technology, but the Security Council cannot agree on meaningful sanctions because governments in Europe, as in Russia and China, are engaged in direct confrontation with Tehran. During the Cold War, as well, advocates of "peace" were reluctant to denounce Communist arms buildups or "wars of national liberation" because "peace" might be threatened by emphatic opposition to aggression.
The difficulty of organizing the world against security threats ought to be seen as a clear argument for sovereignty. If the world can't organize itself to provide security, doesn't that show that individual countries must organize to defend themselves? But apart from hypocrisy and posturing, many people seem beguiled by the hope that somehow the effort at self-defense won't be necessary-or they despair that it won't be availing.
Looked at in this way, national sovereignty appears as the alternative to faith in, or resignation to, inevitable trends in the world. Sovereignty confers the legal right for nations to resist the prevailing tide, but it is not easy to exercise sovereign rights when people have lost confidence in their capacities and think adverse tides can only be accommodated or accepted.
Perhaps we ought to think again about the moral foundations of sovereignty.
The Moral Foundation of Sovereignty
It is common today to associate arguments for sovereignty with "realism." Usually, those who make this association disparage "realism" in favor of what is now called "idealism." If that is the choice, one might reasonably classify the American Founders among "realists." They certainly were not overly sanguine about the possibility of achieving peace simply by wishing for it.
Peace by treaty commitments? That was tried in Europe in the early 18th century, as Alexander Hamilton remarked in The Federalist:
[A]ll the resources of negotiations were exhausted and triple and quadruple alliances were formed; but they were scarcely formed before they were broken, giving an instructive lesson to mankind how little dependence is to be placed on treaties…which oppose general considerations of peace and justice to the impulse of any immediate interest or passion.James Madison, writing in the 1790s, was more restrained in his language but not much more optimistic: "A universal and perpetual peace, it is to be feared, is in the catalogue of events, which will never exist but in the imagination of visionary philosophers or in the breasts of benevolent enthusiasts."
Jeremy Rabkin, Ph.D., is a professor of government at Cornell University and a member of the Council of Academic Advisers for the American Enterprise Institute.