Middle East

War on Iraq: Implications for sovereignty
By Adrian Kuah

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.
Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Has the war on Iraq finally consigned sovereignty to the wastebasket of history? If sovereignty is taken to be the cornerstone of the international system, then the United States, by acting without a United Nations mandate, had surely broken the "rules of the game" and done as much to destabilize the international system as what Iraq might have done.

Yet the current crisis could also be seen as the unabashed vindication of realist thought. If so, then sovereignty, along with "power" and "interest", has never been more important since the end of the Cold War. Sovereignty, it seems, is caught between the realists/unilateralists and the liberals/multilateralists.

Right and responsibility or power politics?
One way to understand the implications on sovereignty is through a recent exercise in rethinking sovereignty undertaken by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. Its controversial report supplements "sovereignty as a right" with the added dimension of "sovereignty as responsibility". The crux of the report is that when states fail or act irresponsibly, thereby putting its own people at risk, the international community has an obligation to intervene.

Given this radically augmented conception of sovereignty as both a right and responsibility, the US's actions appear to fulfill the criteria for justifiable intervention: despotic regime, repression of society, human suffering, hence responsibility to protect. Why was there a lack of support within the UN for the war?

One reason could be that intervention did not fulfill the criteria for justifiable intervention. Another could be that the "regime change" rationale was really just a smokescreen for US interests. Whichever the case, it is clear that the "sovereignty as responsibility" doctrine is highly problematic. Obtaining a consensus on what makes a good case for intervention is extremely difficult. And in the event, the responsibility principle failed simply because it was viewed as a realist agenda in a benign liberal guise. Ironically, too, the greatest skepticism about US intervention in the name of regime change came from the liberals themselves.

Current norms and past practices
The current norm of sovereignty is enshrined in the United Nations Charter, which declares that all states are equally sovereign. Sovereignty has come to mean the mutual coexistence of the great powers, and the restraint in dealing with weaker states. More crucially, sovereign equality was in some sense underwritten externally by the UN and other international norms.

However, there is a "power politics" dimension that predates the UN system and which stems from historical practices of sovereignty, for example in China of the Warring States period. No external guarantees of sovereignty existed: territorial expansion against the weak was not only regarded as fair game, but as the whole point of the game. In Orwellian language, some states are more sovereign than others. The US's behavior should then not seem so surprising: strip away the rhetoric of regime change and the idea of "responsibility to protect", and what obtains is the archetypal great power behavior in the pursuit of national interest.

The question "is sovereignty dead?" turns on the further question: "which aspect of sovereignty?" Certainly, US unilateralism has brought the normative dimension of sovereignty into a crisis. At the same time, the reversion to power politics has reinforced the all-important link between sovereignty and the will and power to assert it. In one sense, sovereignty is in crisis; in another, sovereignty is alive and well, and has never been more robust.

Unresolvable contradiction
Can "sovereignty as responsibility" be meaningful when there is always an ultimate recourse to "sovereignty as a right"? Or when that right is very much linked to the ability to assert it?

The war in Iraq has demonstrated that the normative liberal dimension of sovereignty remains very much dominated by the imperatives of statesmen and policy makers who are, by their very nature, realists. Any attempt to elevate the current discourse on sovereignty into a "post-sovereign" dialogue of "the responsibility to protect" will face obstacles and objections, especially since the language of politics remains heavily dominated by the realpolitik vocabulary of power and interests. And given the lack of international consensus on when and how to intervene, US primacy and unilateralism will combine to render multilateral dialogue and consensus building more and more difficult, if not irrelevant.

Sovereign equality is essentially a fiction maintained by the international community. Nevertheless, it was a convenient fiction that has endured because it provided a useful social framework for international life. As with all international norms, their viability relies on the continued engagement of the great powers. With unfettered US supremacy and unilateralism, that norm is unraveling even as the "power politics" interpretation of sovereignty is in ascendancy. It would appear that the liberal ideal of "sovereignty as responsibility" will have to remain simply that: an ideal.

Adrian Kuah, Associate Research Fellow, Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.
Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

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May 14, 2003

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