Montana Politics

The State of Sovereignty

Two stories caught my attention today regarding the evolving role of state sovereignty in the modern world. One was from Jamaica – a remarkable 60 percent of Jamaicans think they would have been better off never gaining independence from the British. Only 17 percent disagreed, with 23 percent saying they didn’t know (a safe answer whenever one deals in counter-factual history).

This may seem surprising, but it really shouldn’t. Compare Jamaica to Puerto Rico, which has managed to continue developing a vibrant and distinct national culture while retaining the benefits of being technically in a union with the United States. Obviously there’s no turning back now, but it’s an interesting reflection on the relative value of sovereignty.

On a much less surprising note, France has been criticized by Russia and the AU for supplying weapons to rebel forces in Libya. They argue that this violates all sorts of rules and runs the risk of creating anarchy or partition in Libya. The AU’s criticism in particular shows that they know what side their bread is buttered on – essentially, they make it clear that any outcome besides an unambiguous victory for Gaddafi is unideal

From one point of view, this is unsurprising – Gaddafi has been a friend of the AU and of Russia for some time now, and it’s natural that they have his back. But when Russia complains that weapons could get into the hands of the wrong people, you have an interesting philosophy going on. That is to say, it is acceptable from their point of view to support nearly any state, no matter how terrible. But to give aid to a non-state is a grave violation of the rules set between states – once in the club, you can count on any other recognized state to back you, at least against any non-state actor, no matter how brutal you may be. This philosophy is deeply embedded into the current functioning of intergovernmental organizations, and it is the basis of Russian and Chinese foreign policy.

Interestingly, it also forms the basis of American liberal isolationism. The extreme deference to sovereignty is not in the interest of the populations of other countries, however. It is merely a structure invented to maintain the power of established states. In its own right, the doctrine that calls for respecting sovereignty for its own sake has no moral grounding – it is the self serving ethics of an exclusive club unwilling to admit new members.

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