SOVEREIGNTY IS FAR FROM DEAD
In his latest book, How Barack Obama Is Endangering Our National Sovereignty, John Bolton lays out what has become a consensus view on the American right. Those who argue that the United States must engage with international organizations to address global problems, he argues, are really saying we should "cede some of our sovereignty to institutions that other nations will also influence." And that, warns this U.N.-bashing former Bush administration ambassador to the United Nations, "is unquestionably a formula for reducing U.S. autonomy and reducing our control over government."
One wonders just where Ambassador Bolton has been for the past 362 years. Here's the truth: The United States regularly contravenes the 17th-century view of countries as autonomous entities, free of outside interference, and instead works with other countries to bring opportunity and greater safety to Americans. Asserting independence remains a preoccupation of some U.S. politicians-not to mention authoritarian leaders around the world. But their brittle interpretation of sovereignty is an old-fashioned, and even dangerous, notion in world affairs.
Stephen D. Krasner, a former top State Department official, argues that from the very beginning, this absolutist definition of sovereignty, which dates back to the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, has been, at best, "organized hypocrisy." After all, simply mailing a letter abroad requires countries to follow a common set of postal rules that no single one of them controls.
But globalization has increased the pace of sovereignty's erosion. Today, the United States lets external actors affect its internal decisions all the time; there are simply too many benefits to be gained in return for agreeing to a common set of trade rules so that, for example, Americans can profit from exporting farm machinery and eat bananas year-round. To settle disputes that could flare into costly trade wars, the United States submits to arbitration under the World Trade Organization. The likelihood of a nuclear accident or terrorist incident has gone down thanks to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires the United States and the other 188 signatories to allow inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency at their nuclear facilities.
Nevertheless, Bolton and others continue to make hay of "permission slips," pillory the international organizations that carry America's water far more often than not, and warn of dire consequences from just about any treaty that requires U.S. compliance, such as the New start nuclear-arms deal between the United States and Russia or the Law of the Sea Treaty. They imply, absurdly, that a little sovereignty offered up here and there, and soon the French will be drafting U.S. zoning regulations.
The real problem is not that norms of sovereignty are changing in the United States, but that they are not changing fast enough elsewhere. China, for example, clings to a very traditional, absolutist view that the U.S. right might appreciate. While Beijing has been the No. 1 beneficiary of globalization's international rules and treaties, it often demands at the same time that the world mind its own business. Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official insisted, was "a violation of China's judicial sovereignty." A major sticking point in climate-change negotiations has been China's refusal to allow international inspectors to verify reductions in its carbon dioxide emissions, and the head of its delegation at the 2009 Copenhagen climate-change summit explicitly invoked sovereignty to explain that stance. Chinese leaders have said the value of the yuan is a sovereign issue for Beijing-even though other countries, notably the United States, suffer from its artificially low level.
Despite the need for countries to be more flexible with their sovereignty, the nation-state is alive and well. Its authority to make decisions for the benefit of its people is unassailable. National governments retain the right to control their borders and govern as they wish-so long as they don't commit mass atrocities. States are still the main actors in international affairs, albeit under guidelines that they do not fully control individually.
And that's OK. The United States has to be the role model for a pragmatic, progressive view of sovereignty. If Americans cling to outmoded notions of national autonomy, they will be leading themselves, and the world, down a path of emboldened threats, stifled cooperation, and missed opportunities.
Nina Hachigian is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and co-author of The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise.