Stoner – United States Sovereignty and World Order
Department of Political Science
Louisiana State University
States Sovereignty and World Order
Speech before The
April 21, 2001
My topic this morning is United States Sovereignty and World Order.
Now it would warm my heart, and perhaps yours, if I could say, “The
world is in order because America has wisely and bravely exercised her
sovereignty”– though being conservative means, I suppose, trusting a clear
mind at least as much as a warm heart, and so reserving for statements like this
a prudent doubt. Still, since much
of what I am going to say concerns the threats to U.S. sovereignty in the
emerging world order, I think it is important to assert at the outset that there
is some truth to that heart-warming statement: Thanks to American and British
resolve, sometimes reiterated on the European continent, and thanks to the
stirring courage of many central and east Europeans, the world is indeed in
better order than it was for many years, now that Soviet totalitarianism has
collapsed. Moreover, thanks to the
prudence of the United States and our trading partners in devising a regime of
widespread free trade while the world has been at peace or at least not in open
war, much of the world has experienced a vast expansion of material wealth and,
in the last couple decades of the twentieth century, a surge in technological
development. In addition, the fight
against twentieth century totalitarianism, the hot war of the 1940s and the cold
one for forty years thereafter, elicited reserves of virtue and wisdom that
pessimists in the early years of the century would never have predicted; and no
small part of that story involved the withering away of a once dominant
historicism, and a rebirth of interest, in philosophy, in literature, in music,
in art, and even in architecture, in classical ideas and forms.
And yet, all this said, who among us has not had the uneasy sense in the
last decade of the twentieth century that America has in its foreign policy been
adrift? Liberals have reverted with
renewed energy to updated versions of some of the same schemes that contributed
to the crisis in the first place, while traditionalists have often failed to
articulate an alternative. We live,
after all, in ambivalent times — an age of both religious revival and deepening
public nihilism — and our foreign policy, reflecting as it so often does how we
think about ourselves, has also been ambivalent.
Actually, to be honest, for most of the last decade the cutting edge of
that foreign policy has joined wholeheartedly with a worldwide movement of
liberal internationalism with ambitious plans for world government reminiscent
of the 1920s. This movement poses,
I think, a genuine threat to U.S. sovereignty, not to mention to world peace and
justice. In the remarks that
follow, I want to outline that threat and suggest how to think about formulating
a cogent response to it. My
argument is not that we must insist unthinkingly upon every traditional
attribute of U.S. sovereignty and let world order be damned.
But it is that world order will for the foreseeable future depend on the
continued strength of American sovereignty, or in other words, on the American
capacity to govern ourselves even or especially in the projection of our power
on the world stage.
New Liberal Internationalism
The new push of liberal internationalism has two dimensions, closely
The first involves the insistence that the use of military
force be made in concert with other nations, preferably under the aegis of the
United Nations and with the mission of “peace-keeping.” Collective security
and increasingly humanitarian rescue are the only acceptable justifications of
military action, on this understanding, and multilateral joint commands are the
only acceptable means. Indeed, even
multilateralism is suspect, if it is used to circumvent the United Nations, as
in the NATO action in Kosovo: Writes William Ratliff in the Harvard
International Review, not as liberal a publication as you might infer from
its name, “Most international law scholars…have concluded that NATO’s
action in 1999 was illegal because it lacked UN authorization,” though he adds
that they thought the bombing “necessary to accomplish a positive
Never mind that the massacre and expulsion of Albanian Kosovars began in earnest
only after the bombing had begun, or that the favor was returned by the Kosovo
Liberation Army when they returned after NATO forced Milosevic to retreat:
Liberal internationalists presented the mission as humanitarian and claimed
victory. And they can congratulate
themselves on their pragmatism in using NATO rather than the UN when Russian or
Chinese intransigence made the latter impossible: Their commitment to doing good
is not slave to any rigid form.
The second dimension of contemporary liberal internationalism is its
development of a vast array of United Nations conventions and other initiatives
designed to universalize liberal public policy on issues that range from the
protection of the environment, to women’s rights, to the designation of
international landmarks, to prohibitions on chemical and other weapons, to
promises of political freedom, to provision of Western-style birth control, and
much more. It goes without saying
that some of these objectives are noble, but others are profoundly misguided.
Sometimes the end might be good, and easy to trumpet before world opinion, but
the means are perverse: Consider the 1997 Kyoto Protocols for the reduction of
greenhouse gases thought responsible for global warming, imposing on the
developed world Draconian standards almost certain to cramp their economies,
while giving a free ride to developing economies such as India’s or China’s
where population alone insures a greater environmental impact.
Sometimes the end is itself perverse: Consider here the efforts of the
population control elites to treat the abortion license as a human right, in
open disregard of many peoples’ religious convictions, not to mention of
biological fact. Sometimes the
ambition is vaunting, as in the recent effort to establish an International
Criminal Court with a worldwide special prosecutor (I’m not making this up)
responsible for punishing all genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and
aggression. Sometimes it is seems
to be mere meddling, as in the 1995 visit of the UN World Heritage Committee to
inspect proposed mining operations near Yellowstone Park, which did not exactly
further one-world sentiment in southwest Montana.
In all these matters, the aim seems to be to build up a body of world
opinion and “soft law,” which can influence and perhaps eventually even
determine legal outcomes in particular societies.
Indeed, through creative lawyering and in reference to the
Alien Tort Statute of 1789 (I’m not making this up, either), these bodies of
so-called “customary international law,” even when the treaties on which
they are founded have not been ratified by the United States Senate, are
starting to find their way into American courts.[ii]
With reference to ideals such as environmentalism and human rights, the
internationalists are deliberately undermining the choices different societies
make in ordering their own affairs and thus their capacity for self-government
or sovereignty. But two things need
to be noted about this immediately. First,
the apologists for liberal internationalism (not least, plenty of political
scientists) deny that sovereignty is being undermined at all.
To them, the real threat to sovereignty is global capitalism, whose most
powerful players escape the authority of most states.
Since sovereignty must be understood on two dimensions, the
argument goes, as both independence from outside control and as successful
domestic control, the rise of international authority in these matters simply
involves a limited sacrifice of the former for the sake of the latter.
In other words, the international imposition of liberal policies enhances
the domestic sovereignty of regulatory liberalism, allowing them through the
pressure of world opinion and sometimes with the help of international resources
to control elements of their own society that previously would have gone
ungoverned; from this perspective, what is lost by the sacrifice of external
sovereignty except the capacity to do wrong?[iii]
The second thing to notice is that the United States has often played an
important role in the formulation of what eventually emerge as standards so
contrary to our interests or understandings that even mainstream liberals are
reluctant to urge their acceptance. This
is a phenomenon that Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted as long ago as the 1970s in
his critique of contemporaneous developments in the United Nations, but it seems
somehow to repeat itself even once it has been exposed: With the International
Criminal Court as with the Law of the Sea Treaty some twenty years before,
Americans have found themselves forced at the last minute to withdraw from
international conventions they had promoted.
More seems to be involved here than ordinary political oscillation, the
repudiation by one administration of its predecessors’ more partisan
achievements: There seems to be a deep confusion about what American attitudes
towards world order ought to be.
Government By Consent
This, then, is the crux of the problem: America was founded on universal
principles — indeed, on the priority of human (or natural) rights — and we
feel drawn to modern reformulations of those rights as if to an expansion of our
Moreover, though we have a strong tradition of insisting on
our ability not to be entangled in our action on the world stage, we have from
the beginning been strong advocates of international law — indeed, as a
commercial nation, we have always depended upon it as a guarantor of free trade.
The problem is, as Jeremy Rabkin has shown in his brilliant but
undernoticed book, Why Sovereignty Matters, published as a policy study
by the American Enterprise Institute but in fact researched as a major
theoretical statement, we have come to misunderstand our own principles.[iv]
Our Declaration of Independence asserts for us a place in world affairs
in the name of international law and human rights, but it does so precisely
through the establishment of constitutional government, of government based on
consent of the governed and accountable for its decisions to those subject to
its rules. The great fault of the
new internationalism, according to Rabkin, is that neither in the making of
these new standards nor in their enforcement do the people of the world have a
real say, and there is no subsequent accountability for the damage they might
do. The example of European
integration is instructive here, for Europe is modeling liberal plans for world
government and, given the influence of European states in international
organizations, even driving them. An
international bureaucracy, accountable to voters only indirectly, is becoming
the locus of power in Europe, and its program develops inexorably, despite bare
margins at the polls when voters get a rare chance to voice their opinion.
The usual means of constitutional control are lacking, certainly the wide
variety of means we Americans are used to, including not only elections but the
separation of powers, judicial independence, and the like.
One almost feels as though Nietzsche’s dream is coming true: the
cultivation of a new caste of “Europeans” to rule the world, though perhaps
he didn’t mean for it to be a caste of “last men.”
Can We Do?
What can be done? First, as
Professor Rabkin suggests, we need to restore a sense of constitutional limits
on what treaties can be made, and at the very least, we need some principles to
guide us as to which multilateral agreements are sound, and which are not.
He suggests two criteria: international agreements should be about things
that cross borders, and the obligations of signatory nations ought to be
Treaties that would establish international regimes concerning
signatories’ domestic concerns should be avoided, as should those where the
failure of one or more parties to the treaty to adhere to the established
standards neither releases the compliant nor allows them to retaliate against
the noncompliant in any way. This
would save most of our trade agreements, at least those formed on the GATT
model, where disputes are sent to arbitration and trade improprieties can be
countered, though those provisions of NAFTA which purport to make joint trade
panel decisions binding on American courts ought not to be repeated or expanded.
Second, with regard to the question of military intervention, but also
more generally, we need to restore a sense of the national interest to our
considerations, and to restore this sense in light of universal principles.
We have the intellectual resources to develop the idea of the national
interest without having to rely on Machiavellian realism and the assertion of
collective selfishness. For
example, the principle of subsidiarity, much-developed in twentieth-century
Catholic social thought, insists that decisions that affect people’s lives be
made at a level as close to the person himself as is possible, allowing for
considerations of the common good. In
the American political tradition, the idea of federalism is analogous, though
its history is a warning of the tendency toward unchecked centralization.
Both ideas have the virtue of focusing attention not only on
individual human rights, but on the question of self-government and the
character of regimes. Especially
when we intervene militarily, we should focus on promoting a decent, locally
based regime, and we ought to avoid situations where we would become a permanent
force of police.
Third, we need to preserve the centrality of the Constitution in our
understanding of how our government works.
This means jealously guarding the treaty power in the Senate and the war
power in Congress as a whole. Both
have been seriously eroded over the course of the past century, and while there
may often have been pressing necessity or tactical advantage behind executive
agreements or Commander-in-Chief initiated military engagements, it is an irony
of contemporary international development that ceding power to the executive can
lead most easily to its slipping out of national hands altogether, as if the
branch most able to exercise our sovereignty is also the branch most apt to let
it slide away. Besides, the
executive can have domestic political incentives to negotiate international
arrangements that bind his successors in ways domestic executive orders do not,
since the latter are relatively easy to undo.
Probably executive authority to negotiate certain matters relating to
trade is now irreversible and even advantageous, but we must beware lest for the
sake of material advantage we trade away an important protection of
self-government. Besides, every
authority in which we acquiesce under the current President Bush becomes a
precedent for expanded use under, so to speak, the next President Clinton.
Finally, we need to restore clear thinking about international justice
and human rights, as was done to some degree and with some success under
For example, when we promote democracy, we should be clear
that we are promoting not just elections but constitutional democracy, where
popular consent and the rule of law temper one another.
When we are asked to endorse human rights, we should include
the rights of property, not just because these promote collective wealth —
though it would seem well proven now that they do — but because they buffer
liberty and teach responsibility. Above
all, when we promote individual liberty, it ought to be in a way more in accord
with the traditional understanding of liberty in America as dependent upon and
contributory to moral order, not as its mortal enemy, a liberty that knows
itself not to be license. The
intellectual groundwork for talking this way about human rights is, I think,
stronger now than it was twenty years ago, even though the decay of social mores
has progressed, catching up, as it were, with earlier bad ideas.
In short, we need to keep our institutions, thoughts, and words focused
on liberty understood as self-government, and on the self as an individual
conscience capable of deliberating and acting responsibly with others in the
communities of which it is a part.
In my adoptive hometown of New Orleans, there opened last year a museum
commemorating the Allied liberation of Europe that began on D-Day.
I urge you to attend next time you visit our city, and arrive there on
the half-hour, so you can start by viewing the very fine film that introduces
the exhibit, the best film in the genre I have ever seen.
It is a strange but remarkable fact that in Washington, D.C., there are
museums devoted to the victims of World War II, but it took someone in New
Orleans, of all places, to build a museum to its victors.
I do not mean to disparage the federal memorials, for they remind us of
the massive presence of evil in the world and of our duty as the world’s most
powerful nation not to abdicate our responsibility to prevent the harms within
our power to prevent that happen on our watch.
But we need to be reminded what it takes to win such a battle and to be
inspired by those who did. Self-government
is not only a right; it is virtue.
E. Ratliff, "’Madeleine’s War’ and the Costs of Intervention: The
Kosovo Precedent," Harvard International Review, vol. 22, no. 4
(Winter 2001), p. 70.
Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and the U.N. World
Heritage Committee visit to Montana are discussed in Jeremy Rabkin, Why
Sovereignty Matters (AEI Press, 1998), to which much of what follows is
for example, Stephen Krasner, "Globalization and Sovereignty," in States
and Sovereignty in the Global Economy, eds. David Smith, Dorothy J.
Solinger, and Steven C. Topik (London: Routledge, 1999), pp. 34-52; or
Samuel Barkin, "Resilience of the State: The Evolution and
Sustainability of Sovereignty," Harvard International Review,
vol 22, no. 4 (Winter 2001), pp. 42-46.
See esp. ch. 4.
ch. 6, pp. 69-70.