A conference on sovereignty

Remembrance (picture Freefoto.com)

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to attend a conference on the defence of sovereignty in the 21st century. It was an academic conference, not a political event, so it was intriguing that one should be held with such an approach. I think it’s a good thing, not a bad one, that the academic study of politics results in political opinions. I find it baffling that people can study political issues in any kind of depth without reaching conclusions on those issues.

The old blog I wrote on yes-campaign.net had a few entries on sovereignty, so I won’t try and repeat them here (there is a link on the left-hand side on this page if you want to go back to and have a look at them) but there is something that sprang to mind that I want to write down here.

One of the speakers explained that in a world based on the notion (and defence) of sovereignty, each state had the right to decide its own system of government. I asked about how to deal with cases where the system of government chosen by a state has an adverse impact on other states. Well, it was explained, each state does not have the right to take decisions that have such an impact. Fine, but this means that states are not absolutely sovereign, even in theory, and do not have the right to choose their own systems of government. Altiero Spinelli wrote in the 1940s of how one state’s constitutional system is of vital interest to its neighbours, and he was right.

Left unsolved from this explanation that there are limits to sovereignty – from someone who wants to defend it, remember – is how to decide what those limits are. A rejection of the idea of authority over individual states leads to the conclusion that each state decides those limits for itself, in which case we don’t really have limits to sovereignty at all.

War inevitably is invoked at this point as the last resort in deciding these questions. And as a theory it looks like a good description of the way we live now. However, federalism is not just a description of the practice of federal government but also an expression of the values of federal government.

Federalism does not presuppose the end of state violence, but it insists that such violence becomes legitimate only to the extent that it upholds the federal order. (It is akin to the actions of a police force, not an army.) A world of state sovereignty treats state violence as legitimate if its perpetrators think it is. This is a much lower hurdle to cross.

On Remembrance Sunday, a day when we remember the millions who died in the world wars, the aim of making state violence less necessary rather than more seems to be the right one.

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