The Duck of Minerva

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The Snowden Affair and International Hierarchy

July 2, 2013

Most of my public comments on Snowden have focused on how to evaluate his actions as a US citizen and someone entrusted with a high-level security clearance. Here I want to focus on an analytical concern–that of international hierarchy.

I don’t have a strong sense of the degree that other scholars associate me with the “new hierarchy studies,” but a major theme of my work is that we are better off understanding crticial aspects of international relations as structured by patterns of super- and subordination than as anarchical. Indeed, my sense is that two of the most prominent advocates of this view–Krasner and Lakeoverestimate the importance of anarchical relations in world politics. Still, both correctly note that de jure state sovereignty serves to deflect attention from the prevalence of hierarchical control among and across states.

One important dimension of this intersects with Krasner’s appropriation of “organized hypocrisy.” The US-led hegemonic order has always had a problematic relationship with state sovereignty insofar as it usually embraces norms of sovereign equality while de facto violating them. Sovereignty is, among other things, a marker of status. A state that is sovereign is formally the equal of its sovereign peers. Political subordination involves a diminution of status with respect to a superordinate state. Most hegemonic orders require lower-tier states to accept this diminution of status; indeed, the dominant power maintains control, at least in part, by explicitly manipulating the disbursement of status such as to pit subordinate polities against one another for position in the overall hierarchy.

The US has, of course, played these games–think about “special relationships,” Presidential visits, and the like–but it has done so in a much more plastic and ambiguous way than that of, say, Ming China. Indeed, the sovereignty rubric imposes some pretty significant constraints on the ability to formally recognize status differentials. At the same time, it requires all kinds of mechanism that reaffirm the sovereignty of subordinated states–precisely because explicit recognition of hierarchy damages both the legitimacy of the hegemonic order and the regimes of those states that belong to it.

With respect to the most powerful states in this system–those that, in many respects, enjoy the greatest autonomy and claim to status within it–multilateralism has proved a particularly useful way of managing these contradictions. After all, multilateralism recognizes the voice and authority–the high status–of participating states. For liberal internationalists such as John Ikenberry, this is all as it should be. But we should not lose sight of the degree that the bargain involves the selective concession of sovereignty rights.

Thus, it should not be surprising that many recent brushfires in US-European relations have involved moments that puncture the illusion of sovereign equality.

  • The Iraq War highlighted both the inability of leading European states to restrain their putative multilateral partner and the relative ease with which Washington could pivot to divide-and-control tactics in its relations with NATO members.
  • Revelations about extraordinary rendition made clear the degree that the United States–often with the complicity of NATO partners–could use its military bases in ways unfettered by European domestic law (PDF; new version forthcoming).
  • Something not altogether dissimilar is happening with respect to revelations about the extent of US data collection with respect to the citizens of its European partners.

Thus, while I find Luke’s phrasing imprecise, I can see why he writes “What is especially important about this information is how it provides real proof (not just hearsay) about the vast extent of U.S.-imperial surveillance operations…” I don’t see the form of hierarchy revealed here terribly imperial, but it certainly is not consistent with the general image we hold of relations between two sovereign states.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.