Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Notes on democratic sovereignty, post 1/3

(Notes on the nature of democratic sovereignty, drawn from a brief talk at a symposium on sovereignty at the University of Texas law school, April 2005. Three posts.)

1. What is "sovereignty" in relation to, and as against, "global governance"?

I will not attempt here to define sovereignty and variations in the concept of sovereignty – in the way that, for example, Krasner does in his realist book. Instead, I will simply take at face value Lincoln’s classic definition of sovereignty as “a political community, without a political superior.”

2. It is tempting, but a sleight of hand, to define away the problem of sovereignty by suggesting, as some writers writers have done, that sovereignty is compatible with strongly transnational and supranational notions of global governance if only we think of a “new” sovereignty, a concept of sovereignty that relies on the idea that we express our sovereignty by getting rid of it. It might very well be the case that a nation state benefits, net, by getting rid of its sovereignty – net gains in wealth, security, and so on – but it is still a loss of sovereignty, even if offset by benefits.

3. Sovereignty, in the traditional literature of international relations, has been associated with realism, for the reason that realists have asserted, as a matter of descriptive fact, that states seek (material) power and that sovereignty is an expression and channel of that power. Internationalism that undermines sovereign power, by contrast, has traditionally been associated with international law and idealism about law and international society, on the view that states do not merely seek to maximize their power and hence their sovereignty. It is important to note, however, that although the IR realist proposition that states seek power and, hence, typically aim to preserve their sovereignty is a descriptive proposition, the defense of sovereignty is usually a normative one, normative in the same way that the defense of internationalism at the expense of sovereignty is normative.

4. Despite the traditional divide of sovereignty/power realism and internationalism/legal idealism, the debate over global governance and sovereignty has actually shifted to a debate among forms of idealism. Idealism about global governance and order is no longer limited to the idealism of a kind of legal internationalism, international law internationalism, eroding-sovereignty idealism. At least within the United States, a new idealist movement is growing that supports, on normative and idealist grounds, the value of sovereignty. It does not regard it merely as an observable trait of nation states, but instead puts it forth as a proposition – sovereignty, or at least a certain species of sovereignty, is a good thing; it, rather than some for of transnational or globalizing order, is the right form for organizing and governing political communities on the planet.

5. In my review of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2004 book, A New World Order, here, I lay out a continuum of available idealist positions on the question of global governance. In summary fashion, they are: pure sovereignty, democratic sovereignty, sovereign state multilateralism, multilateral pooled sovereignty (looking toward global federalism), global governance through public private global policy networks, liberal internationalism, and parliamentary world government.

6. Each of these is an idealist position, a normative position. None depends on the realist-idealist debate; indeed, it is striking to see how much the realist position is today subordinated to the debate among these idealisms. I say this despite the fact that the hot new book is Jack Goldsmith and Eric Posner, The Limits of International Law – it purports to be a realist account of international law. Yet it is quickly evident that its version of realism goes so far beyond merely “material” power of states to incorporate the values of states and societies that this “realism” winds up being in support of one or another form of idealism. And, for that matter, perhaps the best explanation of the evolution of the views of a longtime realist such as Secretary Rice is that she has come to the conclusion that some form of idealism is the “new” realism – the old realism of stability was no longer stable, and the “realist” position could only work with an infusion of values and ideals, and treating them as the ground of a new form of stability. One may disagree with either the values or the ability to make them efficacious in the circumstances, say, of Iraq, but it might be thought the best explanation of this mysterious conversion apparently from realism to idealism. We are all idealists now – even if we are realists in the service of one or another idealism.

7. The central debate is between a particular version of the sovereignty positions and a particular version of the internationalist positions. That is, the central debate is between democratic sovereignty and liberal internationalism. What makes the democratic sovereignty position “democratic” is its insistence that democracy – constitutional democracy, including counter-majoritarian institutions such as courts – is the only acceptable basis for the legitimacy of a modern political community. What makes it “sovereign” is its insistence that sovereignty – the requirement that this democratic political community have no political superior – is the protective shell of power within which the true value, the one that really matters, democracy, is sheltered.

8. What makes liberal internationalism “liberal,” by contrast, is its insistence on universal liberal values, values of human rights. What makes it “international” is its insistence that the way to universalize these universal values is through international, and ultimately transnational and supranational, institutions of global governance.

Professor Slaughter, in her book, has ingeniously and heroically proposed a means to resolve the tension between these two positions, by proposing – normatively as well as descriptively – a new world order based on global government networks to enable the necessary global governance while preserving the democratic legitimacy of local political communities. I have argued, contra Slaughter, that this effort finally collapses in favor of liberal internationalism, at the expense of democratic sovereignty, but I will not repeat my argument here.