National sovereignty – the claim of a state (that is to say by its government) to be judge and jury in its own cause – has been an assumed right in Europe for over 350 years. It was for centuries the bedrock of accepted international law and text-books explained how its workings established the system of relations between different countries. Upon its theoretical inviolability the states of Europe, with one or two exceptions like Poland, had a continuous history of independent existence. It was considered to be the natural basis for international order and diplomats, politicians and others were usually ready to defend it as God-given or at least unchallengeable as the sole way of organizing that order.
Yet its whole basis was the ability of a state to maintain itself by its own power or, if that was lacking, by the tacit consent or written agreement of its neighbours and perhaps of the other states. When this was lacking, permanently or temporarily, as in the cases of Catalonia or Poland, the state disappeared; and other groups, such as gypsies, that were insufficiently powerful, never had a state. In those countries where a state existed, the claim to national sovereignty was usually made, although some formerly independent territories, like Wales and Ireland, were conquered.
The apogee of national sovereignty was reached at the time when it was almost at its last stage. The 19th Century, with its European passion for national self-determination, saw more and more claims for independence. The disaster of the First World War then broke down the European system and the Treaty of Versailles, by creating a rash of new sovereign states spelt the ruin of the system. By rendering most of Europe an easy prey for Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy it ensured that national sovereignty was no longer a workable option for the continent. Disastrously, however, the apparent success of sovereign states had convinced the colonial peoples that it was, in turn, essential for them.
Because it was tied to the necessity for a state to exist by its own power and sometimes in order to demonstrate that, national sovereignty also came to be associated above all with the right to declare and wage war. This obviously made for a warlike European continent and had the unfortunate by-product of fostering an aggressive nationalism, encouraged by governments and politicians to bolster and uphold their own power. Without it, the temper of a population that might at any time be called up for sacrifices to ensure the survival of the nation-state could not be guaranteed.
The disillusion that set in after 1945 made clear that alternatives were needed and from 1951 the long haul to create a new system was embarked upon. Despite the explicit basing of the United Nations upon the membership of equal sovereign states, the impossibility of that to provide a peaceful system became clearer year by year. Nor was there any consistency in the UN Charter, where after proclaiming the sovereign equality of all members the privileged position of the five leading victorious Powers was then established. But in Europe where a more solid structure was erected the national sovereignty of member-states was explicitly curtailed.
The years of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union dragooning its satellite states and the United States corralling its equally supposedly sovereign states, saw a steady understanding of the realities. As was realised, the followers often had the choice of being bribed or bullied by the principals, sometimes being able to bargain and haggle about the course of their dealings. But the negotiations were often tricky and sometimes very dangerous and they came to an end with the collapse of the Soviets. Since that time, the world has been left with one dominant power which looks increasingly as if it is to be the sole holder of any effective national sovereignty.
Now, however, with the refusal of American allies France, Germany and Belgium, with the aid of Russia and the sympathy of China, in refusing to go promptly to war against Iraq at the behest of the US, a change may be with us. Even if the Americans can still persuade the UN Security Council, by whatever means (and we can assume that some pretty shady deals will be struck) the writing is on the wall. National sovereignty, be it Iraqi, North Korean or Iranian, is not going to withstand American pressure without the help of a coalition of political pressure applied by other states. But this is likely to be forthcoming, at least on occasions. The US cannot guarantee to ensure its own success in bending the UN to its will.
So the near future death of national sovereignty looks assured. Not even the United States can now exercise it. Even the present attempt to sabotage the International Criminal Court and ensure the supremacy of American presidential authority over international law looks doomed. Not immediately, but in the longer term. It has been a long time a-dying but should certainly not be mourned, except by the sentimental, but we have to make sure that its successor is concerned not with the rights of states, but of the citizens of the world.
This article was written by John Roberts as World Letter 378 in February 2003. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.