Politics Without Sovereignty: A Critique Of Contemporary International Relations, Christopher J Bickerton, Philip Cunliffe and Alexander Gourevitch (eds), University College Press, 2007.
As a professional exile, I have always been drawn towards universal principles and internationalism. Not for me the confines of parochial nationalism. I have long thought that government-by-national-interest was a rather unimaginative and futile project – an attempt by governments to impose order on a world over which they could actually exercise only a pretence of control. Back in the Seventies and Eighties, I would have never imagined that one day I would wake up and find that there are some virtues, and important ones at that, in the classical ideal of sovereignty. (I say ‘ideal’, because even at the best of times the exercise of sovereignty is limited by global economic and political realities.)
The ideal of sovereignty is rooted in the consent of citizens, and the principle that governments should be accountable for their actions. ‘To act as a sovereign is to claim the mantle of responsibility’, note the editors of this new book, Politics Without Sovereignty. However, sovereigns do not always possess the power, or the inclination, to behave responsibly. In recent decades many in the West appear to have lost faith in the principle of sovereignty. Today, international relations theorists, politicians and advocacy organisations claim that in the era of globalisation the nation state has become too feeble to exercise sovereignty in any meaningful way.
The idea of sovereignty is also derided today on the basis that it’s simply a very bad idea. Some proponents of cosmopolitanism celebrate an abstract human rights-based vision of world affairs that ‘transcends’ national interest. Others argue that the problems of the twenty-first century are global in character, and thus require global solutions. From this standpoint, it is often argued that national governments only get in the way of international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that are trying to do the right thing.
Rising numbers of disenchanted Western elites are also aiming their fire at sovereignty. They believe that the behaviour and actions of national governments – particularly national governments ‘over there’ – should be subordinated to the higher imperative of a human rights agenda. They prefer agendas that are drawn up by international bodies and NGOs which are not constrained by the exigencies of democratic accountability to a politically illiterate electorate (as many now view voters around the world).