Much Ado about Something: Confusion and Controversy over Sovereignty
Sovereignty is among the most frequently invoked, polemical, and vexing concepts in politics—particularly American politics. The concept wields symbolic power, implying something sacred and inalienable—the right of the people to control their fate without subordination to outside authorities. And yet there is little consensus in the United States about what sovereignty actually entails. Individuals can use the term to mean very different things, and they often employ it as a cover for underlying anxieties about an American national identity they see at risk or a country they fear is in terminal decline. Often lost in these heated discussions is that sovereignty has at least three dimensions—authority, autonomy, and influence—and that advancing U.S. interests in a complex world sometimes requires difficult trade-offs among defending the U.S. Constitution, protecting U.S. freedom of action, and maximizing U.S. control over outcomes. Navigating these choices requires sober thinking.
Given its emotive pull, however, the concept of sovereignty is easily hijacked by nationalists, as well as political opportunists, to shut down debate. By playing the sovereignty card, they can curtail more reasoned discussions over the merits of proposed international commitments by portraying supporters of global treaties or organizations as (in effect) enemies of motherhood and apple pie. Secretary of State Dean Rusk bemoaned this dynamic half a century ago in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The problem with discussing the question of American “sovereignty,” he noted, was that “immediately people wrap the American flag around themselves and resort to that form of patriotism which Samuel Johnson once referred to as ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel.’ ”
The discourse over American sovereignty has only grown more heated over the past five decades. During the 1990s, Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, angered a generation of liberal internationalists by blocking U.S. membership in multilateral treaties and withholding U.S. dues to the United Nations (UN) in an effort to impose reform on the world body. In more recent years, John Bolton, who served as U.S. ambassador to the UN under President George W. Bush, has warned of “the coming war on sovereignty.” John Fonte of the conservative Hudson Institute frames the choice for the United States as a binary one in his book Sovereignty or Submission: Will Americans Rule Themselves or Be Ruled by Others? On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, more than two dozen senators have formed the “Sovereignty Caucus.” According to Representative Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), one of its cofounders, the group was established to “protect and defend the rights of American citizens and the interests of American institutions from the increasing influence of international organizations and multilateral agreements. It will promote policies and practices that protect U.S. self-determination, national sovereignty, and constitutional principles and defend American values from encroachment by transnational actors.” Not to be left out, state legislatures from Idaho to South Carolina to Texas have passed resolutions reasserting U.S. sovereignty.
On the campaign trail for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, the New York real estate mogul Donald J. Trump used his first major foreign policy speech to excoriate the “false song of globalism”: “The nation-state remains the true foundation of happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down. And under my administration, we will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.” Accepting the GOP nomination in Cleveland that summer, Mr. Trump pledged to put “America first,” resurrecting the pre–World War II phrase associated with American isolationists like Charles Lindbergh. Candidate Trump promised U.S. citizens that if elected he would help them take their country back—and make it great again. This agenda included renouncing international agreements that he claimed hamstrung U.S. freedom of action, including the Paris Accord on Climate Change; restoring U.S. control over the country’s southern border with Mexico; disowning “awful” trade deals struck with other countries; and pulling back from entangling overseas alliances and commitments.
Trump’s surprising election in November 2016 as the forty-fifth president of the United States placed front and center the question of whether and how the United States can reconcile long-standing sovereignty concerns with the requirements of sustained and effective international cooperation.
In his dark inaugural address, Trump promised to pursue the hypernationalist agenda on which he had campaigned. In his first days in office he drafted several provocative executive orders intended to advance U.S. sovereignty, as he conceived it. He directed his administration to begin construction of a wall along the border with Mexico, to withdraw from the planned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade bloc, to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to suspend all refugee admissions to the United States, to ban immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries deemed hotbeds of terrorism, to begin a process to slash U.S. contributions to the United Nations, and to impose a moratorium on all new multilateral treaties. If one conviction animated these disparate actions, it was that the world order the United States had created after World War II no longer served U.S. interests. Americans had to restore their sovereignty—by regaining control of their borders, adopting economic protectionism, withdrawing from global bodies, and reconsidering multilateral conventions.
As his chief strategist, the new president chose Stephen K. Bannon, former executive chairman of the website Breitbart News, a media focal point of the white nationalist “alt-right” movement, which—among many other constituencies—had helped propel Trump to power. Bannon’s “worldview, as laid out in interviews and speeches over the past several years,” the Washington Post helpfully explained, “hinges largely on [his] belief in American ‘sovereignty.’ ” Among other convictions, “Bannon said that countries should protect their citizens and their essence by reducing immigration, legal and illegal, and pulling back from multinational agreements.”
Trump and Bannon had tapped into a strain of populist nationalism that commands powerful support in some quarters of American society—but which internationally minded U.S. elites had long ignored. Its adherents depict U.S. sovereignty as under siege, to the detriment of American liberties and U.S. freedom of action. And its rhetoric flows hot. One need not probe deeply on the Internet to find would-be defenders of U.S. sovereignty who warn ominously about nefarious global bodies determined to undermine U.S. constitutional government. They include outfits like Americans for Sovereignty, Council for America, InfoWars, and WorldNetDaily, which invites visitors to its site to sign a “Re-Declaration of Independence: Petition to Protect U.S. Sovereignty.”
No doubt these vigilant netizens see themselves as modern-day “minutemen,” patrolling cyberspace to expose an insidious international conspiracy—enabled by domestic fifth columnists writing for organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations or the New York Times—to deprive the United States of its God-given sovereignty. But they often traffic in hysteria reminiscent of the fictional general Jack D. Ripper of Dr. Strangelove, who famously warned that Communists had designs on Americans’ “vital bodily fluids.” As such, their most persuasive role is to serve as exemplars of what the historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics.”
Such alarmism does the nation a disservice. It stokes groundless fears that the U.S. constitutional system is at risk, even as it invokes an imaginary past in which the country enjoyed complete freedom of action. It also ignores the extent to which the United States, in pursuit of its own national interests, has already integrated itself into a system of international rules largely of its own making. Finally, such polemics distract Americans from what is really at stake in the sovereignty debate: namely, the ability of the United States to shape its destiny in a global age.
This book is aimed at readers bewildered by the sovereignty debate—including those who wonder what all the fuss is about or find themselves unsure how to weigh competing claims. It is unlikely to win over die-hard, self-styled “defenders” of American sovereignty. But I hope it will reassure those puzzled by current controversies, persuading them that the United States can indeed reap the benefits of international cooperation without significant incursions on its constitutional authorities or undue restrictions on its freedom of action.
To be sure, deepening economic integration, rising security interdependence, and developing international law do pose dilemmas for traditional U.S. conceptions of national sovereignty. The United States cannot successfully manage globalization, much less insulate itself from cross-border threats, simply on its own. As transnational challenges grow, the nation’s fate becomes more closely tied to that of other countries, whose cooperation will be needed to exploit the shared opportunities and mitigate the common risks inherent in living on the same planet.
To advance their interests and aspirations in today’s world, Americans need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of what sovereignty means. And their government must adopt a more pragmatic approach to navigating inevitable trade-offs among its various components. The first steps are to think clearly about the implications of current trends, about what U.S. prerogatives must be protected, and about what circumstances might warrant adjustments in U.S. policy and psychology.
One impediment to a more candid conversation is a widespread failure to recognize that sovereignty has multiple dimensions. Indeed, when Americans invoke the term, they often imply very different things—and thus talk past one another. Disentangling these meanings can help us distinguish between symbolic but often specious claims and real, practical dilemmas—including painful choices between opposing objectives that sometimes arise. Once we recognize that sovereignty can be disaggregated, we see that it is possible—even desirable—to voluntarily trade off one aspect of sovereignty for another.
© Stewart Patrick 2017.
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