1 March, 2007Issue 6.2Politics & SocietyWorld Politics

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The Contest Over Sovereignty

Robbie Shilliam

Christopher J. Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe and Alexander Gourevitch (eds.)
Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations
Routledge, 2007
244 pages
ISBN 0415418070

These days, the foreign policies of Western powers might seem to an observer of the evening news to be almost schizophrenic. On the one hand, the rule of law and human rights for all are proclaimed as the essential foundations of a twenty first century international community. Long gone are the Cold War days of UN deadlock, and even NATO—that archetypal organisation of geo-political power politics—has re-invented itself as a guarantor of human security. But on the other hand, there have been a steady stream of military interventions by Western coalitions around the world, some with dubious grounding in international law (Iraq being the most notable).

These contradictions could, of course, be explained in terms of ‘might makes right.’ And yet there is much evidence to say that Western policy makers have attempted to pursue their interests through the framework of and by reference to the liberal interpretation of the values of ‘Western civilisation’. Robert Cooper, a key architect of the Blair doctrine of the ‘international community’ has perhaps summarised this schizophrenic state of Western identity most honestly in his notion of a new ‘liberal imperialism.’ It would be nice to have the same rules covering all states, Cooper laments, but as long as the social and political fabric of world affairs is so uneven as to disallow for one cut of the cloth, it is best to fashion world order from two different cloths: one, cut from the rule of consent and equality, the other, cut from the rule of dictation and (temporary) subordination. To complicate matters further, a sense of a ‘democratic deficit’ has also developed within the populations of the West with respect to the liberal inadequacies of many Western backed international institutions. There is, for instance, disillusionment over the voting mechanism for a European Constitution and the limited accountability of economic organisations such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

For some international relations scholars, such schizophrenia signals a transformation of traditional understandings of sovereignty and the nation-state. The editors of Politics Beyond Sovereignty, a collection of scholarly essays, fall squarely in this camp. But far from acquiescing to the transformation, they offer some theoretical resistance. Any abrogation of the principle of state sovereignty, they argue, is an abrogation of collective responsibility—and with that, of political agency itself. Far from obsolete or undesirable, the sovereign nation-state still provides the best, if imperfect, framework for the organization of collective political life. Valorising an amorphous ‘international community’ serves only to dissolve political accountability.

The volume makes several important contributions to existing political science research. For one thing, it affirms the ideological quality of sovereignty as a political concept. Contrary to the Anglo-American take on Weberian sociology, it is not a technical typology of governance but something that tied to political argument and contest. Moreover, the volume directly challenges the arrogance of some Western leaders that their new architectonic of global governance is beneficial to all. It does this by adeptly turning the question back on the questioners: what form of governance in the current world best guarantees accountability and responsibility of political action?

There is, however, a difficulty with the volume’s use of theory. While the editors draw on a number of different philosophical traditions, they fail to explain in detail the theory behind the ideas they discuss. This is important because the theoretical framework of the editors’ introduction is used heavily to structure the arguments of all the following chapters. Three sources inspire their thinking: Hegel, Marx and Weber. And their analysis offers a synthesis of the three’s understandings of agency and political authority.

It begins with Hegel’s fictional state, in which political authority represents the singular expression of a collective will. Looking outwards, the sovereign expresses this collective will as a ‘national spirit’ (often in competition with other nations). Yet it is only with a Marxist supplementation that the editors are able to make sense of this: it is through a division of the public and private in the modern capitalist state that the individual in civil society can be linked to the collective will. It is a convenient move, but Marx himself argued against the Hegelian ideal of singular authority. Sovereign authority was never unproblematic as Hegel presumed. For Marx, the public sphere was not the expression of a collective will, but rather of the particular collective will of private property owners—of the capitalist class. It was not that the representative depth and extent of modern civil society was imperfect, but that for systemic reasons it could never be the ‘universal’ sphere it professed to be.

But to explain the present day dissolution of sovereignty, agency and collective will, the editors look to Weber’s notion of ‘disenchantment.’ Through this notion Weber passed judgement upon the ethical inadequacies of the instrumentalisation and rationalisation of modern bureaucratic rule wherein the ‘ends’ of political action were increasingly redefined solely in terms of the efficiency of the ‘means.’ There is, however, a discontinuity unrecognised by the editors. If somewhat sympathetic to Marx, Weber denied that modern bureaucratic rule and the rule of capital emerged from the same historical sources—or even from the same historical societies (Germany being the former and Britain the latter). The best that could be said, Weber believed, is that these phenomena shared ‘elective affinities,’ that is to say that their historical relationship was contingent rather than causal. Moreover, Weber denied Hegel’s claim that the collective will held any agency as an expressive thing in and of itself. Rather, it functioned only as an ideological smokescreen for particular individual ‘wills to power.’

The point is not that the editors of Politics Without Sovereignty must hold their sources of political theory in high fidelity. But as they themselves claim, the meaning of abstract concepts do not come alive so much through logical analysis but though contestation with other ideas. Furthermore these ideas, again as the editors note, are produced in the context of real historical processes. If this is the case, then there is much disagreement between Hegel, Marx and about the historical basis of modern sovereignty and the bearing of the social forces that accompanied its emergence. However one gets the sense that the volume by and large proceeds by judging current affairs against an abstract concept of sovereignty deemed in principle to be coherent and decontested. The result is question begging. By closing down the contested nature of theoretical constructions of sovereignty, we can risk limiting our understanding of the political possibilities implicated in current transformations of state sovereignty.

With this in mind, a caution seems required. Is it reasonable to make sense of and judge the present condition of developing or Third World states using a concept of sovereignty that was never experienced by their populations? Useful reference points here can be found in Christopher Bickerton and Philip Cunliffe’s respective chapters on state building and humanitarian intervention. Bickerton argues that the notion of the ‘failed state’ rests upon a re-conceptualisation of the sovereignty of non-Western states by reference to the potential threat they pose to the West. Policies of state building based on this conceptual model attempt to detach the process of re-constructing sovereignty from the collective will of the people that are to be governed by this new authority. Cunliffe compliments this position by arguing that any intervention designed to hand over the sovereignty of ‘failing states’ to a more ‘responsible’ international community robs the target population of the chance to determine for themselves the future form of their society. An international politics based on the sanctity of self-determination is preferable to intervention. For then, any oppressed group that organizes itself sufficiently to fight for its own ends would be able to force recognition of its demands at home and abroad.

And yet, in modern history, and certainly from slavery and colonialism onwards, Third World populations never worked with a political agency that was endogenously determined. No less than that paradigm of Third World independence—Haiti (the present fate of which Bickerton discusses lucidly) —enjoyed only twenty years of partial self-governance (much of which encompassed civil war) before being forced in 1825 to accept an onerous French indemnity for the loss of the colony. This effectively mortgaged the Haitian economy to French banks, and by the 1840s Haitian liberal elites were engaged in what would become known as ‘neo-colonialism’—colonialism by economic rather than politico-military means.

The point here is that in the context of the historical Third World, sovereignty, as defined by the editors, appears as purely an abstract category divorced from the historical experience of once-colonised populations. That these populations have often struggled for self-determination (through articulations that have often been more than simple duplicates of the apparently Western original) is not to be denied. What is to be questioned is the judging of such struggles against standards of sovereignty derived from Western experiences. This almost ideal-typical standpoint might even be said to veer towards an imperial decree on what is the ‘right’ kind of political agency. It ignores how political agency is differentially constituted according to history and geopolitics.

In the end, however, such criticisms serve only to underscore the greatest merit of the volume: its ability to draw out the analytical and (especially) ethical implications of the schizophrenic nature of Western foreign policies in current world affairs. In short, the volume is an example of how one might intelligently debate the seemingly endless irrationalities of international politics. In fact, Politics Without Sovereignty does more: it engenders a controversial debate on the possibilities for holding onto or reconstructing a meaningful politics at the global level. For this reason alone, the volume is essential reading for anyone concerned with international political authority and sovereignty.

Robbie Shilliam is Hedley Bull Junior Research Fellow in International Relations at Wadham College, Oxford.