Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Return of Sovereignty

As we slowly gain perspective (we don't have it yet), it may one day become clear that the 1990s were the apogee of the multilateral moment. The end of the Cold War gave the EU a tremendous boost. International institutions and internationalist concepts forged in a radically different post-war context in the late 1940s seemed poised to acquire Utopian goals such as the end of particularism, or the ascendancy of universal values such as human rights over such outdated concepts such as national sovereignty. In our own small corner of the world, those were the days when people such as myself earnestly explained to incredulous folks with lesser education that what with sovereignty on its way to the dustbin of history, we could afford to relinquish parts of it in order to achieve peace with our Palestinian neighbors. (Yossie Beilin and Shlomo Ben Ami, being prominent politicians and also interesting intellectuals, were the top two purveyors of this line of reasoning).

Part of the fury directed at George Bush had to do, I have no doubt, with how he seemed to be harking back to an earlier age, one that should have been on its way out were it not for his obstructionism. Some of the acrimony surrounding the definition of the enemy facing humanity after 9/11 had to do with the degree people were willing to admit that the emerging new world order was perhaps not realistic after all.

Last November, when I added the "multilateral sovereignty" tag to this blog, it was in response to the audacity of the Goldstone Report in admonishing Israel for minor issue with no bearing on its mandate, and the insistence of a law professor that yes, the Report is fortunately the face of the future.

Probably not. A major weakness of the entire philosophical edifice is that it's based on Europe - the rich but declining former center of the world - and assumes everyone else is interested in following. What if they aren't, all the rest? What if lots of people are actually enjoying their national sovereignty, and have no intention of whittling it away anytime soon? What if this camp is headed by the rising power: China?
In Brussels it is hard to overestimate the shock caused by the EU’s failure to achieve its goals at December’s climate-change summit in Copenhagen. In the EU hard problems are fixed like this: call a summit of leaders, set out public goals for action, declare a final deadline and then thrash out a compromise behind closed doors. Deals are done with a judicious blend of appeals to principle, arm-twisting and redistribution towards less wealthy nations. That model failed utterly in Copenhagen...
China was amazingly rude at Copenhagen, sending a deputy minister to shout at with Mr Obama, for instance. Such assertiveness punctures happy Euro-dreams of a multipolar world. It turns out that the only thing that alarms Europeans more than a swaggering American president is one who seems weak. And Copenhagen popped yet another bubble—the idea that leading by example can be used to coerce others. Europe’s strategy was to press others to match its own concessions on carbon emissions. But the EU barely existed at the talks.
Much that China does is regrettable; many of the particular values of the post-sovereignty brigade are appealing. That's life; that's human history. It's not about to change. Live with it.

(PS. If they'd ever get their act together, the real rising power could be India, which would be a more appealing proposition; and the US isn't going anywhere, and will likely stay at the top for this century, at least - so democracy and its fine attributes aren't on their way out. But that's a matter for another day).

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't rule us Europeans out as yet. For example if a power struggle between the US and China/India/Russia should get earnestly into gear we could remember our old skills at tipping the balance (Z√ľnglein an der Waage). I do not trust our present posturing as proponents of the good in the world one moment I feel sure we haven't lost any of our millenia old capacities of being troublesome and reckless.

BTW Paul Berman in his book about present French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner and others made it look as if Kouchner was the first to disregard successfully state boundaries (independent of big international outfits) when going into Biafra and who propagandized for doing away with them for humanitarian purposes ever after.

The problem I see of course is who is going to define what are worthy humanitarian purposes and thus I fear for Israel's sovereignty whenever the descriptions of suffering in Gaza reach new heights.
Silke

Victor said...

Funny you write about this now... I just heard a segment on National Public Radio in the US on how Confucianism - with its focus on social harmony (i.e. order) - is being propagated by the Chinese as an indigenous ideological counterweight to Western liberal democracy.

And of course, the same people who are at the forefront of Western progressive liberalism, consumed with hatred for all things "fly over country" (conservative), melt in self-effacement and heap praise on the sensibility of restrictive social norms advocated by the Chinese.

PetraMB said...

Walter Russell Mead, at his (relatively) new blog at The American Interest, has written several fascinating posts on the decline of Europe which I generally found cheerful reading -- though it's of course true, a world dominated by Chinese interests may not really turn out to be particularly cheerful. Yet, for the next few decades (and I won't have to worry about more), the US will still be the dominant power, and therefore it's nice to think that Europe will be shown its place.

Lee Ratner said...

Recently there was a NYT review of a book on China's rise to power by a Guardian reporter, yes I know but he seems to have good points. The central thesis of the book was that China is rising into world power status without really adjusting its' way of thought. The Chinese government is certainly not becoming more democratic or supportive of human rights. Like Victor pointed out, the CCP is abandoning communism in favor of Confucianism and kind of works something like a traditional Imperial dynasty rather than as a political party.

India seems to have struck a better balance and is keeping what is good of traditional Indian thought and culture while absorbing at least some concepts of democracy and civil liberties from the West.