The Myth of State Sovereignty

A state ruled over by Hobbes' Leviathan - the ultimate sovereign

By Babak Moussavi

Greek anger over the infringement of its sovereignty is misplaced.

A common complaint heard by the Greeks nowadays is that the conditions set by the EU and IMF in exchange for a bailout amounts to infringement of their nation’s ‘sovereignty’. Sovereignty is the concept that traditionally underpins the system of international relations, declares that nation-states are the sole actors in the global system, and that they should – and largely, do – retain full control over their own domestic affairs.

These super-national organisations, composed largely of unelected technocrats, are deciding issues that affect the Greeks’ domestic space. The Greek demos does not get a say.

This abuse of Greek national sovereignty was, the critics claim, demonstrated most clearly when the former Prime Minister, George Papandreou, boldly proposed a referendum on the agreed EU bailout. Other EU leaders, particularly Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Angela Merkel of Germany – the so-called ‘Merkozy’ duo – forced Mr Papandreou to relent, thus sealing his fate. He was replaced by a government of technocrats, and the Greeks did not get to vote on the matter.

Whether the conditions of the EU bailout constitute the ‘best’ policies for Greece is, to be sure, a debate of great importance. As my colleague, Joseph Markus, considered in a recent post, are the financial and macroeconomic arguments alone the ones that should be evaluated, or would social justice not dictate that we further integrate the social and democratic cost into the equation?

My concern here is with the Greek criticism laid out above. The argument based on sovereignty – which declares that the forced conditions of the bailout amount to an infringement of that nation-state’s equivalent of property rights – is, I suggest, misguided. For while it may be true that we should have a concern about the democratic deficit in the decision-making process, relying on the concept of sovereignty is not the answer. For this form of sovereignty does not even exist.

Sovereignty has had a rough history. Since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, it has been the concept that underpins the international system. Traditionally, the international system has been conceived of a global anarchy, made up of nation-states, with no ruler above those states. The states rule themselves, under the principle of sovereignty, and how they do so, be it through the use of a Hobbesian Leviathan, or a democratic government, is not the concern of other nation-states. Domestic affairs, therefore, are the exclusive domain of the domestic rulers; other nation-states have no right to intervene.

This system of sovereignty is said to have ensured stability in global politics. Indeed, it is something that the mainstream schools in the discipline of International Relations, agree upon. But it is an historical fantasy, and the illusion bears no correspondence with the globalised reality today.

Since its inception, this system of state sovereignty has always been abused. One does not need to be a political Realist to argue that powerful states have routinely intervened in the domestic affairs of weaker states. Power, as Joseph Nye points out, comes in many forms, the most common being ‘hard power’ (manifested in military strength), ‘soft power’ (cultural and societal attraction), or ‘economic power’ (“you need my money and markets, so do as I say”). Occasionally, the infringement of sovereignty starts wars; at other times it just forces the weaker parties to submit and adjust their policies. This is the goal behind placing sanctions on Iran or North Korea, just as it was when President Eisenhower’s wielding of a big economic stick forced the French and British to withdraw from Suez.

The Greek situation is no different. The Greek demos has not voted on the policies it must now adopt. But similarly, the people of the other states of the Eurozone – and the world – did not vote for the prior Greek policies that led to its insolvency, which sparked the crisis in the first place. Domestic policies in a globalised world always affect other states, even if there is coercion involved: it could be one state’s decision to build a potentially leaky nuclear power plant next to a shared river; or another state’s inability to regulate its mortgage market properly that leads to financial contagion. This is something that nationalists, with their narrow, “only way forward is back” slogans, have failed to understand.

Moreover, the abuse of sovereignty in the post-war era by new, independent states exercising their ‘rights’, often led to atrocities by rulers against their own people, regularly causing outflows of refugees into neighbouring states. People in North Korea, Burma, and many African states, amongst others, have suffered from the manipulation of this concept. Indeed, this is not an infringement of sovereignty; rather, it is the consequence of taking non-intervention to its extreme.

Stephen Krasner has called the system of sovereignty one of “organised hypocrisy”. We should not be surprised if it is infringed. There is no point relying on it; there is no point criticising its violation.

Sovereignty is not a concept that the Greek people should invoke when arguing against the bailout terms. Nor is it a concept that delivers social justice. For both those ends, they would do much better by sticking to a more established, respected, and valuable idea that even originated in Greece itself: Democracy.


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