Sovereignty: It's not Just Theoretical

With what might best be described as a Season of Revolution currently unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, questions have begun to arise (in my mind at least) as to the changing role of states as well as that of the international community in the midst of revolution and civil unrest. As such conflicts erupt, governments and citizens alike must come to an understanding of who is responsible to whom, and to what extent power and control equate or call for responsible action in the interest of the citizenry. The ultimate question being: does sovereignty rest with the government of the state or the citizenry of the state? The answer to this question is crucial, as it ostensibly informs the actions not only of the state in question, but of the international community at large.

I am aware that for many this notion of sovereignty seems far too theoretical and disconnected from the practicalities of daily life. It seems to be a word thrown about by those far more concerned about debating the hypothetical than solving the practical. However, if the past few months in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya (to name a few) have taught us nothing else, it is that sovereignty is more than simply a discussion topic for your political theory class. Answers to questions of the ownership of sovereignty have an enormous impact not only on the actions of states dealing with unrest, but with the interactions of states globally. As we find ourselves in an ever more interconnected world, we are forced to continually rediscover our roles in relation to each other. As Immanuel Kant explained, we are all, each of us, unavoidably side by side. Consequently, we must continually work toward defining what exactly that means for our actions and interactions as states and as citizens of this global community.

These questions of sovereignty inform decisions such as whether it is the international community's place to step in when a leader such as Gaddhafi attacks civilians. Francis Deng, whom I am in general agreement with, argues that sovereignty ought to be seen not as a right of states but rather a responsibility of states. In other words, a state is not entitled to its sovereignty, but must earn it through acting responsibly in the interest of its citizens. In subscribing to such a belief, the actions of leaders such as Gaddhafi would lead one to the understanding that in attacking civilians he has lost his right to soveriegnty and opened Libya up to international intervention.

Acceptance of Deng’s proposition of the responsibility of states requires a new conception of sovereignty; one in which the people of a state are at the center, and where a community of states establishes a set of widely accepted moral guidelines for how states ought to respect the rights of their peoples. The Responsibility to Protect is a prime example of such a set of guidelines. This movement toward responsibility and away from control draws from Kant’s notion of cosmopolitan ideals and highlights the growing reality that what exists now is not hundreds of individual states but rather a global civil society of states. Kant speaks of the need to view international society as a global society of states where states legitimize their sovereignty through acceptance and promotion of global norms of morality.

Within this conception, individual humans are at the center of moral concern and there is equality among individuals, peoples and states. Moving away from the isolationist ideal of Westphalian sovereignty, cosmopolitanism acknowledges the “complex interdependence” of states today. The need to work within the global community is furthered by the accepted reality that states have become undeniably interconnected. As a result, some issues must be dealt with on the level of a society of states, not within individual states. This is illustrated perfectly in the international communitiy's recent involvement in Libya. Were we still tied to isolationist ideals, there would have been no need to intervene in a far off land. Libya would have been left to deal with its own struggles.

What I am hoping for, and what I believe these past few months give us a glimpse at, is the possibility of moving even further away from the outdated Westphalian conceptions of sovereignty where the state is at the center and "in control of" rather than "in service to" its citizens. What we are moving towards, ideally, is a more liberal/cosmopolitan conception where sovereignty rests with the people who might in turn confer that sovereignty on the state with the understanding that it will act in their interest.

Egypt is a perfect example of a movement toward this cosmopolitan ideal of sovereignty. While the state took a while to cave, it eventually acknowledged the will of the people and acquiesced to the desires of the citizenry. As this Season of Revolution continues to unfold, let's hope we see more Egypt's and less Libya's. We are coming to a point in our history where it is becoming impossible to deny our interconnectedness and to continue clinging to isolationst ideals.

Sovereignty, R2P