Sunday, April 20, 2014
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Whose Sovereignty?

MADRID – Despite the huge sums expended to write down Greece’s foreign debt, there has been an outcry ofcensure against “interference” with the country’s national sovereignty. True, in exchange for considerable European aid, Greece’s ability to maneuver independently will be limited. But are complaints that Greek sovereignty has been severely impaired justified?

The idea of a nation-state’s sovereignty is rooted in the seventeenth-century Treaty of Westphalia, which embraced non-interference by external agents in states’ domestic affairs as the guiding principle of international relations. But, taken to its logical extreme, national sovereignty would require the complete physical and social isolation of states from one another. Indeed, an excessive emphasis on national sovereignty leads to serious problems: after all, any international agreement, whether political or economic, entails a certain transfer of sovereignty.

Europe’s aid to Greece is an example of a cooperative agreement whereby the various parties negotiate with the others’ interests in mind. Greece asked its fellow European Union members for help, and they have obliged with an enormous amount of aid. In addition to €130 billion in loans (more than 40% of Greek GDP, on top of the €110 billion loaned to Greece in 2010), a 50% “haircut” has been imposed on Greece’s private creditors, and the European Central Bank has waived expected returns on its holdings of Greek bonds.

Regardless of whether this is technically and economically the best solution to Greece’s problem, it is logical that the EU participated in designing it. Participating in the collective life of the international community of states implies bearing others in mind and, when necessary, giving up certain prerogatives of sovereignty.

For example, when Spain decided to join the World Trade Organization, it ceded sovereignty by accepting the WTO’s rules and regulations. It had to abandon commercially preferential treatment to some countries and treat all WTO members alike. Spain accepted this in exchange for being able to trade on equal terms with the rest of the world.

British sociologist Anthony Giddens rightly describes such examples as cases of integration or union in exchange for global influence. States cooperate because it is advantageous for them to do so, but at the same time they lose control over certain internal matters. They shift from unilateral to cooperative decision-making.

Whether this is a violation of sovereignty depends on our conception of sovereignty. As with the concept of individual freedom, national sovereignty depends on how its components are defined. In his classic On Liberty, John Stuart Mill used the “harm principle” to express the view that a person’s individual liberty could be limited only in order to protect others and avoid harm. The debate consists in how we define “harm” to others.

In the same way, the debate about the meaning of national sovereignty consists in what we consider “domestic” matters.  Depending on where we place the emphasis and how wide our focus is, we prioritize either a “global” (or at least “federal”) dimension to sovereignty, or a “national” dimension.

The EU seems to represent a halfway point between these two conceptions of sovereignty. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine the difference between purely domestic matters and those that require international collective action.

Globalization has made frontiers more porous. We see how one country’s policies, whether pertaining to work, the environment, public health, taxation, or myriad other issues, can have a direct impact on others. And we see such interdependence even more clearly in their economic performance: China’s annual GDP growth rate, for example, will slow by two percentage points this year, owing to sluggishness in the United States and the EU.

Likewise, more countries (and more varied in their character and historical trajectory) are emerging strongly on the global scene: Brazil’s GDP recently surpassed that of the United Kingdom. Their emergence holds important implications for global governance at a time when the imbalance between existing problems/threats and the means available to states to guarantee their citizens’ safety increases.

On a global scale, this complex and interdependent world needs an organization of states and structures of governance oriented towards responsible dialogue, the aim being to mitigate abuses of power and defend global public assets. Without such structures, the world risks a competitive and disorderly race to the bottom among states – as often occurs with taxation – together with a protectionist backlash. History has shown that such developments often lead to disastrous conflicts.

On the European level, legitimacy is essential and – let’s be realistic – won’t be achieved unless and until Europeans overcome certain antiquated ideas about sovereignty. Paradoxically, when the crisis struck, the EU was criticized for its lack of integration. Now that it seeks to advance in that direction, the Union is accused of crimping national sovereignty.

Citizens must have the feeling that the institutions that govern them account for their interests and make them part of the decision-making process, which implies a union based on rules rather than power. The fact that the EU does not instantly have all of the answers to a problem does not mean that it has no future. The EU is a new and marvellous experiment, which, as with all experiments, entails a degree of uncertainty. But that should not make us ignore the opportunity cost of a more “national” conception of sovereignty.

Indeed, the dynamics of interdependence have become well established – so much so that they cannot be reversed. To adhere to a narrow Westphalian concept of sovereignty in this world is an unwise anachronism at best, and a dangerous gamble at worst.

The poet Jose Angel Valente might call this a desire “…to wait for History to wind the clocks and return us to the time in which we would wish everything could start.” But, in the prosaic world of the here and now, the concept of sovereignty has already moved on.

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  1. CommentedMATTHEW M

    Perhaps before the world rushed into Global One it should have had agreement on basic foundations. Food, shelter, access to clean air, water, energy, education and health. From there, the next layer of the house could have been built: global uniform accounting standards, exchange and trading rules, normalized taxing structures, wage/work rules, pollution laws, and human rights.

    But rather then Unicode that even "moves" all of global finance around still has problems in its 7th or 8th generation translating many of the Asian languages. We cannot even adequately "speak" with each other, but let's jump into bed together.

    The lack of getting fundamental agreement on what world was collectively envisioned merely allowed global finance and global corporations to exploit everything from cheap labor to taxes to dumping toxins into rivers, air, earth/soil.

    This lack of fundamental agreement of course probably designed this way since globally politicians are owned. We have run away, run amok fascism everywhere.

    Owned governments and billions of people enslaved/indentured. The globalization of poverty and mass suffering.

    When are some real "thought" leaders going to speak out against this tragedy that has been perpetrated on a scale never before seen in human history?

  2. CommentedKir Komrik

    Thank you for providing an overview of the relative nature of sovereignty.

    The problem facing the EU is elementary, foreshadowed by prior knowledge and understanding and thus predictable. The Maastricht Treat left gaping holes in the EUs ability to issue law and regulations that could be applied uniformly throughout the Union. The result of this is that objective economic policy - to include things as basic as the full legal backing of a common currency - could not be applied consistently and uniformly.

    The EU desperately needs a stronger federal structure such as General Federalism (kirkomrik.wordpress.com), something that all parties involved in the creation of the EU knew or should have known at the time of the Treaty signing.

    "The fact that the EU does not instantly have all of the answers to a problem does not mean that it has no future. The EU is a new and marvellous experiment, which, as with all experiments, entails a degree of uncertainty. But that should not make us ignore the opportunity cost of a more “national” conception of sovereignty."

    Any notion of national sovereignty should have been eliminated with the Maastricht Treaty. The EU will indeed have no future unless it strengthens its form into a true federal form.

    - kk

  3. CommentedStephen R. Ganns

    Note: Below was my comment regarding an excellent editorial by Dani Rodrik, The Nation State Reborn. To think otherwise is a futile effort in un-workability--devoid of pragmatism

    "Thank you. Excellent commentary: on a subject which doesn't get much press. The proposed architecture of the "global" financial system seems to want to trump most Westphalian or “sovereign nation state” principles.

    People demonstrably live in homogeneous groups--because of similar bonds of cultural and political realties.

    Additionally, the nation states exist in different stages of social and economic evolution--I'm still not sure what's wrong with that."

    Stephen R. Ganns

  4. CommentedZsolt Hermann

    An important part of the article:

    "...Globalization has made frontiers more porous. We see how one country’s policies, whether pertaining to work, the environment, public health, taxation, or myriad other issues, can have a direct impact on others. And we see such interdependence even more clearly in their economic performance: China’s annual GDP growth rate, for example, will slow by two percentage points this year, owing to sluggishness in the United States and the EU..."

    Frontiers are not only porous, but basically non-existent in a global, interdependent world.

    National independence on the practical level does not exist any more, and in truth we have been completely intermingled for a long time any way.

    The change we have to make is purely psychological, and here the responsibility of the leaders is vast. It is politicians, activists who usually inflate nationalistic tendencies, try to maintain fragmented, polarized world views to advance their own selfish agendas, when in fact no polarization or fragmentation exists in the world today.

    If we look at financies a handful of international financial establishments influence the whole global financial scene. In terms of culture, the American, Hollywood type culture flooded the whole globe including the most traditional nations, Japan, China, India and so on, some of them exerting some of their own influence on others. In the shops we are buying the same producys regardless of our locations, we eat similar food, and visit very similar or the same websites.

    As a result of mass scale migration, immigration most of the European countries for example totally lost their traditional character, and this is still a development in progress, while countries like the US, Australia, New Zealand for example never had a traditional national character on their own. And the public on the street level has absolutely no problem with this unless the media and politicians start inflating differences for subjective reasons. A very good example is the almost complete buyout of English soccer clubs by international individuals, including foreign players, coaches and owners, and seemingly the public adores the teams and players just as much as they did before with the purely British teams.

    Thus the responsibility of the leaders is huge in helping the people understanding, or more precisely leaving them alone to feel that today we are all interconnected within the same system, and at all levels of life we depend on each other thus we have full responsibility towards each other.

  5. CommentedAndrés Arellano Báez

    ... and should move even more. The world Internet's world is only one, not one formed by 180 countries. In the times of Whestpahlia, what happened in one country it happened just there and the rest of the world ignored it. But in this world, I am from Colombia and I am concerned of what happen in Greece, in Africa, in Asia... The moment that tecnology make us all part of the world, make us participant of the issues in the world and becuse of that in the future we are going to eliminate the states as we know it today.

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