Sovereignty Ain’t What It Used To Be

Global problems require global solutions. We’ve entered an era when no single nation can do much of anything on its own.

Sovereignty is commonly thought to be synonymous with freedom. The people living within any given border should be able to determine their own destiny. Who could possibly argue otherwise, especially in this day and age?

But nations, like individuals, are not islands. And like their citizens, countries have always had a tendency to overestimate the amount of control they had in any given situation.

Sovereignty is a concept born in an era when travel and communication were equally slow. If it took a few weeks for a letter to cross the Atlantic, it took just as long for a person to do so. Not so anymore. Communications travel at light speed and the Atlantic is now fondly referred to as “the pond.”

While instantaneous communication and the ability to be on the other side of the planet in little more than the time it takes the earth to complete one rotation was beyond even the wildest dreams of yesterday’s monarchs, the idea that gases emitted in China or the United States could threaten the very existence of remote islands in the South Pacific would have seemed literally impossible to them.

Yet in spite of these technological and environmental transformations, the year 2016 seems, at first glance, to have been an excellent year for the notion of sovereignty. The citizens of the United Kingdom narrowly voted yes to becoming an island figuratively as well as literally. A few months later, the candidate that won the presidency believed that a wall on America’s southern border could function the same way in the age of automobiles and airplanes that walls often did, at least for a while, during the Crusades and the Ming Dynasty.

But here we are just a couple of months into 2018, and already it’s clear that the premises given in support of the “solutions” offered by the winning side in both the UK and US elections were false. With each passing day calls for another referendum on Brexit grow louder as it dawns on all concerned that integration with Europe will continue whether the UK is a member of the European Union or not. Though voters in the UK remain split on the issue, Brexit negotiators are spinning their wheels trying to figure out how to square the circle that is retaining all the advantages of the European market without paying any dues in exchange for receiving them. All that Brexit looks likely to accomplish is a UK left without a seat at the EU table while still having to play largely by EU rules. So much for greater sovereignty on that front.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond cities, states, and much of the business community are thumbing their noses at Washington D.C.’s efforts to back out of the Paris climate accord and not a single shovel’s worth of dirt has been turned on the construction of a southern border wall. In spite of all the noise being generated by the current administration, what if any substantive long-term changes it has really inaugurated remains to be seen.

Indeed, it’s entirely possible that one of Trump’s signature campaign promises, saving the coal industry is, in fact, being undermined as a consequence of his actions. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. The federal government’s abandonment of the Paris climate deal has caused many local and state governments to move even more aggressively on global warming than they otherwise would have as politicians rush to pledge their jurisdictions will still meet (or exceed) the Paris targets. Many of these governments are passing stronger regulations and enhancing incentives for renewable energy development beyond anything the federal government was ever likely to seriously consider. As a result, the date for the coal industry’s funeral has, I suspect, inadvertently been moved up rather than set back by the current administration’s decision.

Sovereignty is a word that is strongly identified with both individual and national control or freedom. Though not an explicitly guaranteed individual right, as a concept it is woven into our cultural DNA none-the-less. Consider the debate regarding a woman’s right to choose. Implicit in this argument is the claim that a woman is sovereign over her own body, at least up to the point the fetus becomes viable.

When it comes to the nation-state, political autonomy becomes the key defining feature of sovereignty. It is for this reason that international institutions and treaties are often viewed cautiously by lawmakers and citizens alike. Though a country may be benefiting from greater peaceful cooperation with one or more other countries via these types of arrangements, the nation is ceding some of its independence through the creation of a legal agreement that transcends its borders in order to win this benefit.

As technology brought nations closer together in time, if not in space, facilitating faster communication, travel and trade in the process, sovereignty began to increasingly give way to international agreements. The pace of this change is only quickening. As it became apparent that industrialization and the globalization of the economy that followed in its wake wasn’t all upside, global agreements were likewise often the only viable means to address these issues, however imperfectly.

This trend toward multinational agreements and institutions with broader mandates than any one participating state shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The United States saw a similar decline in individual state power as transportation and industrialization increasingly generated products, services, and byproducts (i.e. pollution) that crossed state boundaries. This increased the federal government’s portfolio at the expense of state and local governments often relegated to implementing federal mandates rather than developing their own.

It is only as the federal government has increasingly abdicated its responsibility in this regard that many states and communities have begun taking it upon themselves to change minimum wage laws or implement their own tough environmental standards. But even as they do so, manufacturing companies in particular still find it more efficient to produce a single product that meets the toughest state requirements out there — usually California — rather than producing a different product for each individual regulated market. As a result, as long as California enjoys the right to impose tougher emissions standards than the federal government requires, no matter what state you buy your car in odds are it will meet California’s stringent standards. So even in a system that is, at least for the time-being, devolving into a more balkanized condition globalization still carries the day.

States rights in a globalized world, it turns out, just means states take on the role of the federal government when the federal government isn’t functioning. States are even reaching agreements with Canadian provinces now, and sending delegations to China to negotiate trade deals. Decentralization, it turns out, has little to no impact on globalization as such. What it does accomplish is an increase in the number of players with seats at the table, and many of these players represent governments more accessible to the people than the federal government has historically been. So, in a strange twist, conservatives may end up winning the argument regarding the democratic virtue of states rights while being wrong about what enhanced state and local government power means for their agenda.

The America First mantra isn’t new. American foreign policy, especially in its own hemisphere, has with very few exceptions always been about putting itself first. As anyone familiar with the history behind the term Banana Republic knows, the US has rarely concerned itself much with raising the standard of living of those within the region. It is largely for this reason it now finds itself with an immigration problem.

In an increasingly globalized world, relying on BC era technology like walls to stop or regulate migration isn’t going to work. Indeed, even in the centuries before Christ, walls weren’t ultimately all that effective at keeping people from moving from one city or region to the next.

Perhaps, after thousands of years of wall building AND continuous migration, it’s time we try another approach: making the areas people are migrating from more appealing to the people living in them. Instead of investing billions on walls and rounding up El Salvadorans, Hondurans, Mexicans, etc., alienating actual or potential allies in the process, how about investing billions to make these regions more livable? What if we began incentivizing better governance and more equitable wealth distribution in these countries? In other words, what if we helped transform countries like El Salvador into places the people born there generally wanted to spend their lives in? The same, of course, goes for Europe with regard to its migration problems from the Middle East and Africa.

This is going to mean another blow to national sovereignty I’m afraid, and that’s going to be hard for a lot of people to swallow. It’s going to mean loosening the flow of goods, services, and capital to other parts of the globe rather than restricting it. It will mean treating poorer developing nations as equals on the international stage instead of as reservoirs of raw materials and cheap labor. And any such proposal will inevitably be greeted with a lot of fear mongering about the impact of such a policy on the American worker from those ideologically committed to linear zero sum thinking.

It’s way past time we reject that kind of thinking, however. We need to adopt a greater tolerance for the flow of people back and forth, not less. If the poorer regions of the globe are going to become more prosperous, then the free flow of ideas is going to be as important, if not more so, as increased infusions of resources. Ideas move in heads as well as across wires. Until their own institutions are better established, these countries will continue to rely heavily on foreign schools and remittances from expats working in the developed world. Restricting access to these centers of learning and sources of income will only make it more difficult for less developed nations to break the cycle of poverty and poor governance that incentivizes immigration to wealthier parts of the world in the first place.

The approach to immigration I’m arguing on behalf of here is going to require a change of attitude across the entire political spectrum. It will require the right to drop its xenophobia. On the left it means abandoning knee jerk charges of neocolonialism every time a former imperial/colonial power attempts to do something in the developing world. Both xenophobia and historically motivated resistance to greater involvement in particular regions are isolationist impulses that fail to grasp reality. The question must always be how best to operate in this dynamic interconnected world we find ourselves in, not whether to do so.

Of course, ideally it will always be the local people making the decisions and doing most of the hard work of transforming their country into a place where they will want to raise their children. Certainly they must always have at minimum an equal seat at the table. But it will be necessary for the developed world to not just get off their backs, but also aggressively invest in their effort. Whatever strings are attached to this investment will need to have enough slack to absorb false starts as well as adapt to unintended consequences or other unforeseen events. This is the kind of patience that the more affluent nations have sadly not been known for exhibiting in the past. Giving the developing world the freedom to make mistakes is difficult, but making mistakes is an integral part of the learning and development process that can’t simply be swept away by top down planners parachuting in from the developed world.

With each passing year the super powers of the past find themselves more diminished. The world has become too complex and connected for them to police it on their own. The influence of nations like the US and UK will increasingly be felt in the form of resources and by (hopefully) modelling good governance. Military power or other means of dictating terms to the rest of the world was never ideal and will only be decreasingly practical moving forward. In fact, I think we’ve passed a tipping point. It’s now the case, Donald Trump’s rhetoric not withstanding, that it is the US which more often than not must concede to the demands the world is placing upon it.

From climate change to immigration, our major problems are global, not local or regional in scale. The list of things the US can manage on its own, or even in cooperation just with its allies, is short and shrinking fast. Ecological and economic crises are not like fixing potholes, or even building highways. They can spread quickly like a contagion, impacting corners of the world few of us have ever heard of let alone visited. Likewise, contagions we never anticipated can originate in those corners and infect us as well. Governance has become global and diffuse, involving NGOs and businesses as much as it does heads of state. That there are few politicians willing to say it or voters eager to hear it doesn’t make this any less true. Even local governments must now play some part on the international stage. The sooner we end our denial about this new reality, the better. Sovereignty ain’t what it used to be, and it never will be again.

Follow Craig Axford on Twitter. You can now also read articles by Craig on 71Republic.

Other recent articles by Craig Axford include: Banning Discomfort in the Classroom Advances Racism in the Culture & Expression isn’t difficult, but it can be awfully hard to tolerate.


US citizen residing in British Columbia, Canada. Degrees include anthropology and environmental studies. Activism, politics, science, nature.

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