The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Still Soveriegn After All These Years


June 12, 2008

Madeline Albright’s op-ed in the NYT yesterday bemoans the fact that

the concept of national sovereignty as an inviolable and overriding principle of global law is once again gaining ground.

I think she doth protest too much, as the claims of sovereignty’s demise seem to have been slightly exaggerated.

Albright, of course is thinking back to the heady days when she was Secretary of State, when

the international community would recognize a responsibility to override sovereignty in emergency situations — to prevent ethnic cleansing or genocide, arrest war criminals, restore democracy or provide disaster relief when national governments were either unable or unwilling to do so.

The rhetorical slight of hand here, though, is to assume the “international community” where in fact no such actor exists. After all, what is the international community but for a group of powerful states who are able to intervene when they deem it appropriate. Namely, the US and its key allies. The examples she cites are all US led, US-supported interventions:

The administration of George H. W. Bush intervened to prevent famine in Somalia and to aid Kurds in northern Iraq; the Clinton administration returned an elected leader to power in Haiti; NATO ended the war in Bosnia and stopped Slobodan Milosevic’s campaign of terror in Kosovo; the British halted a civil war in Sierra Leone; and the United Nations authorized life-saving missions in East Timor and elsewhere.

Its not that the International community is ignoring Darfur–there have been European calls for action, and African peacekeepers dispatched to the region, but they are lacking the muscle, legitimacy, and systemic power that serious US involvement brings to the table. The obvious reason for this is Iraq–the US is too bogged down there to do much else, and the ‘international community’ is now very wary of any further US interventions following Iraq.

Albright does end on an important question, though.

At the heart of the debate is the question of what the international system is. Is it just a collection of legal nuts and bolts cobbled together by governments to protect governments? Or is it a living framework of rules intended to make the world a more humane place?

But she deliberately creates a false dichotomy here. Missing? Maybe the world is simply a collection of states seeking to protect themselves from other states by amassing what power they can. Or, maybe the world is really an American show, and as America changes its rules for intervention and identity in the eyes of the rest of the world, so too does reshape its ability to muster an ‘international community’ to bring wayward governments into compliance with its rules.

All that aside, I think she raises some good discussion points, and I’m thinking of adding this article to my syllabus for my freshmen in Intro to World Politics this fall.
(And we’ll see how smart they are, if they can find this blog post when we discuss it in class!)

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.