May 4, 2007


Politics without sovereignty is not politics at all: He may be a 'professional exile', but a new book reminds Frank Furedi that the ideal of national sovereignty is worth defending today: a review of Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique Of Contemporary International Relations, Christopher J Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe and Alexander Gourevitch (Frank Furedi, Spiked)

The ideal of sovereignty is rooted in the consent of citizens, and the principle that governments should be accountable for their actions. ‘To act as a sovereign is to claim the mantle of responsibility’, note the editors of this new book, Politics Without Sovereignty. However, sovereigns do not always possess the power, or the inclination, to behave responsibly. In recent decades many in the West appear to have lost faith in the principle of sovereignty. Today, international relations theorists, politicians and advocacy organisations claim that in the era of globalisation the nation state has become too feeble to exercise sovereignty in any meaningful way.

The idea of sovereignty is also derided today on the basis that it’s simply a very bad idea. Some proponents of cosmopolitanism celebrate an abstract human rights-based vision of world affairs that ‘transcends’ national interest. Others argue that the problems of the twenty-first century are global in character, and thus require global solutions. From this standpoint, it is often argued that national governments only get in the way of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are trying to do the right thing.

Rising numbers of disenchanted Western elites are also aiming their fire at sovereignty. They believe that the behaviour and actions of national governments – particularly national governments ‘over there’ – should be subordinated to the higher imperative of a human rights agenda. They prefer agendas that are drawn up by international bodies and NGOs which are not constrained by the exigencies of democratic accountability to a politically illiterate electorate (as many now view voters around the world).

These various assaults on sovereignty should be resisted. However imperfect the ideal of sovereignty, it at least contains the potential for expressing people’s democratic aspirations, for embodying human subjectivity. In contrast, contemporary critiques of national sovereignty are driven by powerful anti-democratic sentiments and an elitist disdain for citizens and their capacity to reflect on issues and to act responsibly. Today, when sovereignty is looked upon with scorn everywhere from the academy to global institutions, it is crucial to question the anti-democratic project that seeks to replace sovereign authority with bureaucratic authority. That is why the collection of essays in Politics Without Sovereignty is to be warmly welcomed. The editors and contributors do not naively or uncritically champion the tradition of sovereignty; indeed, they express their concern about the self-serving and particularist nature of sovereign states. However, they also expose how the new alternatives to sovereignty are in fact far more illiberal and anti-democratic than what went before.

It is also necessary, however, to include a normative component in sovereignty, requiring those with responsibility to behave responsibly (liberal democratically) or else lose their claim to sovereignty.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 4, 2007 11:28 AM

All power & rights originate with the people (OK, actually they originate Somewhere Else...) who give certain powers to the government. Governments such as those in Iraq, Syria, North Korea, etc., cannot claim to have been legitimized by their people, and so have no claims to sovereignty deserving of respect.

Posted by: b at May 4, 2007 12:13 PM

The only reason not to write of so-called "sovereignity" instead of sovereignity is that the concept was never more than an imaginary diplomatic construct.

Your use of the word "claim" in your closing remark gives it all away.

Posted by: Lou Gots at May 4, 2007 12:33 PM

The NGO's are better than thou, have hearts purer than thou, have education better than thou, the illiterate electorates. Of course they should rule over you and make more money than you, the inferior masses.

Posted by: ic at May 4, 2007 3:39 PM