Saturday, September 3, 2011

Does the 'sovereignty debate' matter?

Update: I've now read Slaughter's latest entry in the debate, and at least on a theoretical level I tend to agree with the "walk and chew gum" formula: sovereignty as it's coming to be understood implies both a state's monopoly on the legitimate use of force within its borders (at least in the normal run of things) and a duty to act in non-exterminatory ways toward its citizens. As Slaughter herself appears to acknowledge, this hardly resolves all the practical problems, but as a general formula it seems unobjectionable.
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I would be lying if I'd said I have read with extremely close attention the recent blog posts by A.-M. Slaughter (here), J. Foust (here), D.P. Trombly (here), and others about the implications of the Libya intervention for the notion of state sovereignty. But the gist is that Slaughter wrote a post at The Atlantic saying that R2P and its application in Libya means that the "nature of sovereignty has fundamentally changed," Foust and Trombly took exception, and they were off.

Guess what? None of them is completely right. (You knew I was going to say that.) I think Slaughter is probably exaggerating when she implies that the notion of sovereignty as it is traditionally understood by international lawyers is dead -- to the extent she has implied that -- and Foust and Trombly are wrong to suggest that the 19th and 20th-century (note: their periodization) concept of sovereignty is as much about preventing civil war as it is about preventing external intervention in a state's 'internal affairs'. The modern idea of state sovereignty as enshrined for instance in Art. 2(7) of the UN Charter has more to do with the prerogatives of governments (states) than anything else. R2P has widened and formalized a traditional exception rather than completely upended the received notion of sovereignty, or so I would be inclined to argue.

Anyway, does the whole debate matter? I'm not sure it does. It gives IR types another subject to argue about, but whether it has any real importance beyond that is questionable. Governments will continue to make decisions about intervention for a variety of reasons, but whether any policy-makers will first sit down and reach a position on whether sovereignty has 'fundamentally changed' is, I think, doubtful. But this is, admittedly, pure speculation.

Added on 9/5: See also J. Ulfelder here.

9 comments:

filarena said...

I haven't followed the debate very closely either, but I agree with everything you said above.

hank_F_M said...

LFC

Great links.

This is a question that has been brewing in the back of my mind for some time, no brilliant answers yet..



Hank’s Eclectic Meanderings

LFC said...

Thanks.

(I may at some later point try to make time to write on this subject at slightly more length. But I have made that resolve with other subjects on other occasions and not managed to keep it.)

LFC said...

My "thanks" was to Phil (b/c I hadn't seen Hank's comment yet), but I'll thank Hank for chiming in too. :-)

filarena said...

It seems like once every decade or so, we rediscover the fact that states "suddenly" seem to not have a very strong commitment to the idea of sovereignty. Maybe the norm is even weaker now than it once was, but it hasn't meant what our intro textbooks say it does for a good long time, as far as I can tell.

LFC said...

Yes. The norm has long been violated in various ways -- this was Krasner's main pt in 'Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy.' But one would have to look at the kinds of violations over time to decide whether the norm is weaker now (I think it probably is somewhat), and by how much.

As someone whose dissertation (cough) contained the word "sovereignty" in its title, I should have some really profound thoughts on this. [On second thought, maybe that doesn't logically follow. :)] But it's late and I have to get up to play tennis tomorrow morning.

LFC said...

P.s.
Perhaps one reason this debate is going on now is precisely that no one is sure whether R2P is just one more exception/violation or whether, as the Slaughter position (I must go back and read that post more properly) has it, the actual 'content' of what it means to be a sovereign state is changing. (there's a Millennium piece from '98 on this I must look at again)

filarena said...

That seems like a reasonable conjecture.

Enjoy tennis tomorrow. :)

LFC said...

Thanks.