October 18, 2004


A Sovereign Nation?: Jeremy Rabkin Makes the Case for American: a review of The Case for Sovereignty: Why the World Should Welcome American Independence by Jeremy A. Rabkin (Adam Wolfson, September 8, 2004, The Weekly Standard)

Today, because the United States failed to win U.N. authorization for its use of force, the Iraq war is widely viewed among both European and American liberals as an illegal, immoral war. It's tempting to chalk this up to mere politics or resentment against American power. Yes, France wants to serve as the great counterweight to the American "hyperpower," and Democrats long for a Kerry victory in November. But, as Rabkin demonstrates, deeper forces are at play. A moral revolution has taken place over the last several decades, one that rejects the notion of national sovereignty. What's needed, Rabkin believes, is not merely a political argument in favor of Bush's foreign policy, but a moral defense of the idea of sovereignty, as such. Only then will America's recent actions be seen in their proper context and thus become intellectually respectable and morally defensible.

This is the service Rabkin's book performs. The Case for Sovereignty provides us with a historical and intellectual genealogy of the idea of sovereignty, as well as its would-be replacement, global governance. Today, as Rabkin concedes, national sovereignty is widely thought to be a selfish concept and, worse, the cause of conflict among nations. It is also thought to be antidemocratic and chauvinistic. Yet, by means of several forays into intellectual history, Rabkin shows this to be utterly mistaken. Sovereignty is the friend of democracy, human rights, and political pluralism, while global governance is the abettor of dictatorship, lost rights, and a worldwide political monoculture.

In the history of political thought, sovereignty is a relatively new idea. It emerged only with the Enlightenment. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe was wracked by unlimited wars. Crusading, transcendent faiths--religious and other--demanded universal allegiance. Borders were of no consequence. It was to impose order on this dire situation that the idea of sovereignty was first invented by such early thinkers as Grotius and Bodin, among others. They viewed it as a way of consolidating and confining political power and thereby limiting the reach and effects of war. Thus, in their treatises, these political philosophers attempted to identify what was essential to the proper exercise of sovereignty: the power to make laws, the power to tax, and the power to declare war as well as to terminate hostilities. The lists were long and varied, but as Rabkin recounts, the attributes of sovereignty were neatly summarized hundreds of years later by Abraham Lincoln when, in defense of the rights of the Union, he declared sovereignty must mean at the very least "a political community, without a political superior."

The acceptance of the idea of sovereignty led over time to the formation and spread of nation-states--which are powerful political units indeed and not always to the good, as nationalism is a sword that a variety of dictators and adventurers would find useful. But sovereignty has worked, Rabkin argues, most of all as the handmaiden of many of our most cherished liberal democratic ideals. It encouraged the growth of democracy, particularly by enforcing the notion that consent of individuals is the ultimate source of political authority. It allowed political pluralism to flourish. It cultivated the ideal of religious toleration, with citizenship open to all consenting individuals regardless of faith. And it has been the friend of limited government, since sovereignty begins with the rights of individuals.

Rabkin calls this "the moral argument for sovereignty," and the alternative mode of organizing political life, he argues, has always been a "crusading faith"--as demonstrated, most recently, in the liberal dream of global governance.

Even as we defend American sovereignty from transnationalist threats we need to acknowledge that America itself is the greatest threat to traditional sovereignty in the world today. The Taliban and Saddam Hussein, after all, were deposed for no other reason than that they violated our standards of democratic legitimacy. Our own crusading faith emboldened us to completely ignore the sovereignty of Afghanistan and Iraq--and we're not done yet...

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 18, 2004 9:10 PM

"The Taliban and Saddam Hussein, after all, were deposed for no other reason than that they violated our standards of democratic legitimacy."


Posted by: NC3 at October 18, 2004 10:29 PM

In the 20th century, sovereignty meant that as long as you kept your nastiness within your borders, you were free to do just about anything. The first case where that principle was violated in a major way was with South Africa and the apartheid sanctions. Then there were the interventions with Serbia's managment of its war against breakaway provinces. (Compare to Nigeria's handling of the war against the Ibos in Biafra in the 1960s.) Removal of the Taliban and Saddam is just an extension of this principle— that no longer are you immune just because you keep the nastiness at home. (And it's been demonstrated that both were exporting their nastiness, which has always been a reason/excuse to violate another country's sovereignty.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at October 18, 2004 10:36 PM

Yo! Beyond the pale is the land where your sovereignty evaporates. Says who? Says we. US.

That's right. Beyond the pale. And that's the big change wrought by September 11: if that had been a nuke, then any sovereign government that smiles and winks and abets that kind of mischief while murdering its own citizens and neighbors GOES DOWN. Sez who? Sez US.

And we don't abuse that capability. If anyone thinks we do, they're wrong (and most everyone knows it.) We just make sure we don't abuse that.

How do you win this argument in a bar?

"French superpower? Yeah, right. A Croatian superpower? I'd like to see a Croatian superpower. How about a Russian superpower? Who wants to be a superpower? Who do you trust? Drop dead. Whose round?"

Posted by: george at October 18, 2004 10:55 PM

George, you are some kind of mean drunk.

Posted by: joe shropshire at October 19, 2004 1:45 AM


Traditional sovereignty of nations? Or of people? The former was more dominant in the past. The latter is the more important in the future.

Posted by: at October 19, 2004 3:09 AM

People aren't sovereign in themselves, only when gathered into nations. Sovereignty requires the exercise of power.

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2004 8:46 AM

Couldn't you also say that maintaining sovereignty requires the proper exercise of that power?

Posted by: Bartman at October 19, 2004 1:13 PM


Yes, but it's important to note that's an entirely new and ahistorical concept of sovereignty.

Posted by: oj at October 19, 2004 1:18 PM

Oh, I can think of lots of other countries that have, or should have, violated our view of our standards, and we haven't said boo to 'em.

We viewed the Taliban with great complacency, too, until they were linked to bothersome murders on our soil. We sure didn't mind murders on their soil.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 22, 2004 4:46 PM