This is where the buck stops

April 27, 2007

Anti-globalisation activists and US academics may be united in their disdain for sovereignty, but it is still the most effective way to ensure that power is accountable, argues Christopher Bickerton

Sovereignty lies at the heart of modern politics. The idea of a supreme authority, the most elementary meaning of sovereignty, underpins our secular understanding of politics. Pre-modern political life was dominated by mystical forms of authority. Arbitrary acts of power were routinely justified in the name of God, natural accidents and historical precedent. The concept of sovereignty emerged in line with a growing awareness of the capacity for human creation. Investing supreme authority in a secular public institution ensures that society and politics have the stamp of human authorship. With supreme power comes responsibility, and sovereignty is, above all, a public and visible claim to both. The sovereign state is where the buck stops in politics.

And yet in contemporary international politics the excoriation of sovereignty has become a full-time occupation. Earnest human-rights activists, hard-nosed government bureaucrats and elegant international lawyers all agree that sovereignty is a mask behind which Third World dictators tyrannise their own people. Sovereignty is viewed as an obstacle to a more progressive kind of politics. Anti-globalisation demonstrators participate in "global civil society", a new political space beyond the national boundaries of sovereign states. Radical scholars Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri provide these movements with their intellectual ballast: their bestseller Empire is an onslaught on sovereignty. More pragmatic critiques come from the likes of Stephen Krasner, a distinguished Stanford University professor of political science currently serving as director of policy planning at the US State Department. Krasner dismisses sovereignty as "organised hypocrisy" and argues for interventions in hot spots with the aim of rebuilding weak states. This requires that sovereignty be divvied up between different international agencies. Only after the judges and the police forces have been trained and the anti-corruption squads put in place is sovereignty given back, under the munificent gaze of international luminaries.

The critics of sovereignty ask: in a world of non-governmental organisations, multinational corporations and international organisations, what sense is there in imagining international affairs as purely interaction between states? In an age of rampant neoliberal deregulation, where goods and capital are exchanged in a global market, does the national control of economic processes remain relevant today? Has globalisation not liberated capitalism from the straitjacket of sovereignty? And with alternatives such as the supranational European Union should we not celebrate the demise of sovereignty as a step towards a more cosmopolitan future?

Over the past two years, the Sovereignty and its Discontents working group ( www.said-workshop.org ) of the British International Studies Association has explored the meaning of sovereignty in international politics today and examined the alternatives that are offered in place of the sovereign state. The results of its work are published in Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations . Chapters in the book cover the theoretical critique of sovereignty in the discipline of international relations, and interrogate specific alternatives to sovereignty. These include the EU and global civil society, and various attempts to redefine sovereignty in line with concepts such as human security, participatory development, "sovereignty as responsibility" and state-building.

The book argues that critics confuse sovereignty with tyranny and arbitrary power. In fact, sovereignty places accountability and responsibility at the heart of politics. It is the alternatives to sovereignty that do not provide any effective way of making power accountable. Instead, they mystify the location of authority, sharing it out across "non-hierarchical networks" - for example, what the British Government does with its multiple quangos. This leaves us with a diminished set of political possibilities.

Unable to hold power to account properly, it is all too easy to imagine that no one is responsible for what happens around us. This feeds our current predilection for invoking the spontaneous forces of globalisation or planetary catastrophe as explanations for all that goes on in international affairs.

A world of "politics without sovereignty" is not a step towards a brighter future. It is a step backwards. This is well illustrated in the fashionable doctrine of "responsibility to protect", the subject of one of the chapters of Politics without Sovereignty . This doctrine redefines sovereignty as a responsibility that states owe both to their own people and to the international community. When a state violates the human rights of its citizens, its rights are forfeited and the international community has a responsibility to intervene.

The idea that sovereign authority can be made more accountable by tying states to international rules of conduct is very popular today. The trouble is that this idea does the opposite of what is intended: it makes power more, not less, arbitrary. Responsibility to the "international community" in practice means scattering responsibility across a variety of actors - local, national and international - that make up this amorphous "community".

The result is greater uncertainty about where authority lies and who should be held responsible for actions undertaken. In humanitarian interventions, does authority lie in the UN Security Council? Or in the intervening states and the support of Western publics that they covet for their actions? Or in the human rights of the victims in whose name the interventions are justified? Power will be exercised responsibly only when it can be held properly to account. A local population has virtually no control over the international troops that patrol its streets. The doctrine of "responsibility to protect" leads to a politics of irresponsibility.

Attempts to re-establish sovereignty in so-called failed or collapsed states throw up similar problems. The assumption here is that sovereignty can temporarily be transferred to an international body such as the UN. In the case of East Timor, political authority was for a time located on a boat in the harbour of the capital Dili. In practice, this has never worked as intended. After ten years of trying to make Bosnia into a viable state the country still needs an external prop to survive, which today comes from the EU. In Iraq, the country is formally sovereign. Yet the Americans are brazenly building in Baghdad what will become the biggest embassy in the world. Why the fanfare over handing sovereignty back to Iraqis if the Government remains entirely dependent on US support? Without knowing who calls the shots, can anyone be held to account for the chaos and the violence?

Sovereignty is not something that can be broken then put back together again. It is a relationship between a population and its own governing institutions. If they are built in ways that do not engage the local population, these institutions will remain weak. State-building interventions seek to rebuild states, but they do so without the crucial ingredient of the will of the people.

Sovereignty remains the best means of establishing clear lines of political authority and accountability. In a chapter in Politics without Sovereignty , US international relations theorist James Der Derian remarks that sovereignty has a vampire-like quality: for all the attempts to drive a stake through its heart, it still haunts international politics.

Sovereignty ultimately draws attention to the fact that politics is a human activity, and its vitality rests on our willingness to see in the events around us products of our own actions. International politics remains the work of men and women. This makes sovereignty both indispensable and worth defending against its multiple critics.

Christopher J. Bickerton is a PhD student at St John's College, Oxford University. He is co-convener of the Sovereignty and its Discontents working group and co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (UCL Press, 2007).

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