Don’t tread on me! July 4th and U.S. sovereignty
July 3rd, 2011
01:56 PM ET

Don’t tread on me! July 4th and U.S. sovereignty

Editor's Note: Stewart M. Patrick is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (where he writes the blog The Internationalist) and Director of the Program on International Institutions and Global Governance.

By Stewart M. Patrick

As the nation celebrates its 235th birthday, I'm taking a break from beer and barbecuing to reflect on American sovereignty.

This is a controversial topic, to say the least. John Bolton, former UN ambassador and potential GOP presidential candidate, warns of “The Coming War on Sovereignty,” (Commentary), with President Obama in the vanguard. The American Enterprise Institute, Bolton’s institutional home, hosts an impressive website, Global Governance Watch.  It’s dedicated to exposing the machinations of rogue international bodies, unaccountable NGOS, and progressive international lawyers - and documenting their alleged assaults on the U.S.  Constitution, democracy, and freedom of action.

Exploring the further reaches of cyberspace - where such anxieties become extreme, even paranoid - I’m often reminded of Brigadier General Jack Ripper. He’s the unhinged Air Force officer in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, who detects an “international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.”

As director of CFR’s own International Institutions and Global Governance program, I get my share of colorful emails, a few suggesting my work is “treasonous.” Some of these missives are informed by Scripture, at least superficially. My personal favorite: “Beelzebub tried Global Governance at the Tower of Babel and it didn’t work for him. It won’t work for you either.”

Given the overheated rhetoric, one might be tempted to dismiss all sovereignty concerns as the ravings of flat-earth cranks, John Birchers, or devotees of the Rapture. But the reality is more complex.

The sovereignty of all nations is being challenged by a combination of forces, including deepening global integration, rising security interdependence and developing international law. Multilateral cooperation does pose dilemmas for traditional concepts of U.S. sovereignty. It’s important to think clearly about the implications of these trends, about what U.S. prerogatives must be protected and about what circumstances might warrant adjustments in U.S. psychology and policy.

The place to begin is by getting clarity on what’s at stake. The sovereignty debate actually encompasses several categories of concern:

For some, the basic problem is a loss of U.S. freedom of action. As the nation becomes enmeshed in multilateral institutions or treaties, it may well find its room for maneuver constrained, whether the issue is the use of force (governed by the UN Security Council) or trade policy (where the U.S. has accepted a binding WTO dispute resolution mechanism).

Read: The false peace-justice tradeoff.

The U.S. rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) as well as the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel land mines were efforts to retain flexibility in U.S. national security policy. The growing U.S. predilection for “minilateral” groupings, from the G20 to the Proliferation Security Initiative (Foreign Affairs), reflects a desire to maximize U.S. freedom of action, something harder to achieve in universal, treaty-based bodies.

For other critics, the principal worry is that the United States sacrifices domestic policy autonomy, as new international rules compel it to adjust its regulatory frameworks (by accepting new global financial standards, for instance) or to abide by intrusive global inspection regimes (as under the Chemical Weapons Convention). And yet even some conservatives recognize that deepening security interdependence, including the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), require adjustments. A case in point is Michael Chertoff, former Secretary of Homeland Security, who has sought to reframe national sovereignty for an age of catastrophic threats.

In principle, protecting U.S. national sovereignty should be easy. After all, the President and Congress can simply weigh the costs and benefits of proposed organizations, treaties, or arrangements, rejecting those that impose too great a cost. The U.S. did just that in rejecting the Kyoto Protocol and the Rome Statute of the ICC. So obviously, the United States retains the power to stand apart, rejecting the chains that Lilliputians would use to bind Gulliver. So what’s the big deal?

Read: Half-baked UN report on drugs.

The problem, according to Bolton, Jeremy Rabkin, and fellow “new sovereigntists,” (Foreign Affairs) is that global legal trends and international organizations are challenging the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution and eroding the foundations of American “exceptionalism”.  This argument rests on several claims.

To begin with, as John Fonte of the Hudson Institute contends, progressive activists and their NGOs allies are seeking to create new legal “norms” at the global level, in fields ranging from human rights to the environment. Unable to prevail domestically, left-wing political actors are essentially making an end-run around U.S. democracy, using UN conferences and “global civil society” to establish new international norms on issues ranging from small arms to the death penalty.

Second, conservatives are agitated by what they consider misguided trends in “international law” (a phrase they surround with skeptical quotation marks), which they believe threaten the supremacy of the U.S. Constitution. One bone of contention is whether foreign law should be cited by the U.S. Supreme Court (New York Times). The moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy has endorsed such an approach, in writing the majority opinion in the 2005 Roper vs. Simmons case (which struck down the death penalty for juveniles). Justice Antonin Scalia, taking the Federalist Society line, has offered a scathing riposte: “The basic premise of the court’s argument - that American law should conform to the laws of the rest of the world - ought to be rejected out of hand.”

Third, conservatives (as well as some liberals) are convinced that international organizations, not least the United Nations, are inherently undemocratic. Within such bastions of cronyism and corruption, unaccountable elites pursue their own agendas, often at odds with the interests and desires of the American people.

Having fought British tyranny two centuries ago, the United States confronts a more insidious, faceless bureaucratic foe. For sovereignty-minded conservatives, the European Union is something of a bête noire, an unnatural supranational agglomeration in which once-proud nation-states have sacrificed their independence in a misguided desire to “pool sovereignty.” Their nightmare scenario is an eventual system of “global governance” based on an expanded EU model.

Finally, and most fundamentally, conservative critics fear that trends in global governance will increasingly erode the foundations of American exceptionalism - the conviction, embedded in U.S. political culture since the earliest days of the Republic, that the United States is a beacon among nations, a “city on a hill” (in John Winthrop’s phrase), a righteous country founded on inviolable political principles of eternal truth and guided by a special providence to act abroad in furtherance of those values.

Read: Our dying oceans.

What such critics overlook, of course, is that the doctrine of American exceptionalism has been invoked not only by conservative icons like Ronald Reagan but indeed by nearly every U.S. president, including liberal internationalists like Woodrow Wilson, FDR and Truman, who used it to justify  U.S. leadership in building the core multilateral institutions of world order (an argument I make in The Best Laid Plans) (Foreign Affairs).

What drives conservatives batty about Barack Obama, among other things, is his apparent diffidence in asserting the uniqueness and superiority of the American experiment. As the President declared in his first trip to Europe, “Yes, I believe in American exceptionalism , just as the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believed in Greek exceptionalism.” For Bolton, such sentiments are enough to make Obama “the first post-American president”.

No doubt, the debate over American sovereignty will be one of the most contentious in U.S. foreign policy in the coming decades. Like the Fourth of July, it should generate a lot of fireworks. At the end of the day, I suspect that my boss at the Council, Richard Haass, has it right: seizing the “opportunity” of global integration will require accepting “a little less sovereignty.” But how much less - and under what terms - are matters we have only begun to debate as a nation.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Stewart M. Patrick.

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Topics: Politics • Strategy • United States

soundoff (16 Responses)
  1. Onesmallvoice

    America may be a superpower, but we don't have to be the bullies of the world to prove that point. In fact, it would be a great time to readopt a policy of isolationism, which like I said before, is a very good idea whose time has come.

    July 3, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • jdg

      Oh great idea. Just as China begins their rise. They are worse than the USSR, far more insidious and deceptive.

      July 4, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Reply
      • ketchupisfun

        I see you complaining about China and what it "will" do. But let me ask you this, what exactly has china done to the US or to the world? It sells cheap stuff at a fraction of the price. If you don't want it, don't buy it.

        Is china going around the global bombing everything in sight? No, that's the US.
        Is China going around stealing resources and overthrowing dictators and place its own dictators? No. China is basically buying resources–unlike the US.

        So tell me, what exactly is China doing that's so evil and a threat to the US? What unfair market practice? It's called "free market", not fair market. It's your own fault for failing

        July 5, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • ChicagoRich

      @onesmallvoice I would point out that the last two times we were generally isolationist did not work out so well for the World, and the weapons of the World's millitaries are much more deadly now. In addition, we are no longer self sufficient as a Nation and rely on trade to keep our society functioning. I don't think we would survive all that long if we did crawl back within our own shell, although I do believe that fixing our own internal problems so that our systems are stable should take precedence over most of the international problems.

      July 4, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  2. j. von hettlingen

    "The sovereignty of all nations is being challenged by a combination of forces, including deepening global integration, rising security interdependence and developing international law. Multilateral cooperation does pose dilemmas for traditional concepts of U.S. sovereignty."
    I understand the reluctance of many nations to comply with international law, as they see their sovereignty violated and their own legislation questioned.
    What I find ironic is that the Americans see in international law a Leviathan and they fear that their maneuvers could be constrained by this legal bondage. In fact it was their idea to found the United Nations with the goal to maintain peace after World War Two and to curb aggression among member states. The idea was, when everyone obeys the law, it would make their behaviour the more predictable, Now over time many nations have caught up and our world is getting more complex. Hostile nations demand for new legislation that the US finds unfavourable. The John Bircher Society and people like John Bolton are the strong opponents of America's international involvment.

    July 3, 2011 at 6:29 pm | Reply
  3. Gary Dee, Portland, Oregon

    Most of the (mostly right wing, but also a little left) presumes an imposition of new control from above. But in the EU, it is the TRANSFER of some powers (mostly economic regulation) where member states deputize the European Commission.

    One should consider the erosion of national sovreignty from another angle: below – with increased individual freedom and private enterprise.

    July 3, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  4. Keith

    Mr. Patrick, nice commentary but you left out multinational corporations. Let us explore an example of how blindness to multinational corporations will lead to the essential failure of all sovereignties.

    We all know what would happen if the US government came to each citizen and said “We want to implant a chip under your skin so if you lose consciousness, emergency workers can still find out who you are and whether you have any chronic medical conditions (epilepsy, etc).” Yep, it would be an absolute and complete uproar over government intrusion upon the individual. People would start equating it with the government wanting to brand “666” on you. Okay, fair enough.

    Now, picture a marketing campaign by MasterCard. Replace your wallet full of credit cards that can be stolen with a simple chip implanted under your skin. You never have to worry about losing it someplace or forgetting it. On top of that, we at MasterCard are going to give you 5% cash back (wow‼!) if you switch to this chip because of the lower fraud risks we at MasterCard will be exposed to. (Small print: 5% cash back subject to change without notice in the future.) Yes, not everybody will sign up, but a LOT of people will. Certainly a LOT more people than would sign-up if the government asked.

    Want proof? What would be the reaction everyone would have if the government came to the citizens and asked them to provide a constantly updated profile of themselves on file with the government at all times. Absolutely unacceptable, right? It’s okay for Facebook to have the information, though.

    Back to MasterCard. 5 years after the initial campaign and a lot of people have the chip and a lot of people don’t. Oh well, you know those old fashioned credit cards? They really are getting to be a thing of the past and the fraud risk with them is SOOOOO high! I’m afraid we’re going to have to raise your interest rate by 10% if you have the old outdated credit card. But if you want to switch to the new chip, you’re all set! You’ll even get that 5% cash back (which is now only available for the first year).

    Then 10 years about the initial campaign and the new line becomes: Nearly everyone has the chip now and it’s just too expensive to keep supporting the old credit cards. We’re going to be discontinuing those old risky credit cards. Did you want a chip or not? That 5% cash back offer is no longer in effect. You don’t have to have a chip if you don’t want to, but of course we hope you like paying cash for everything because that’s the only other form of payment the merchants will accept.

    Oh yes… did I forget to mention? 7 years into the transition program MasterCard introduced chip readers in the door frames of stores and various other locations in malls, etc. The gas pump will automatically read your chip if you get anywhere near it. That’s all “for your convenience” of course. It’s so the merchant can offer you deals specially tailored to you and your spending habits – which MasterCard already tracks and will start combining with geographically tracking places you enter and leave.

    Now of course we don’t want “big government” interfering in the free market, so nobody’s going to actually pass any laws to prevent any of this from happening. Besides, big multinationals will have paid off all the politicians anyway to make sure they don’t interfere in the “free market”. Corporations are free to buy up as much of the government as they want to. It’s just free speech.

    The simple example I outlined will come to pass eventually without government regulation, but the example did not reach the point of destroying national sovereignty. However it did clearly outline the carefully calculated type of process whereby multinational corporations will go about destroying national sovereignty to the extent that any such sovereignty potentially conflicts with their global business endeavors. They will do it gradually, step-by-step and piece-by-piece. They’ll slowly destroy “national sovereignty” all while the citizens are busy complaining about “national sovereignty” being destroyed by other organizations.

    In fact, lobbying organizations funded by multinational corporations will be telling citizens that they need to be very afraid of NGOs and other “boogieman” organizations threatening to destroy “national sovereignty” all while the multinational corporations are busy destroying “national sovereignty”. It’s like a pickpocket telling you “look at that guy over there who might be trying to steal your car” while he steals your wallet.

    July 3, 2011 at 8:31 pm | Reply
    • skeetz

      You are right on the money, its happening, and the average citizen is powerless at this point. The only way to counteract this behaviour is that the consumer gets organized into a collective and can change this international corporate behaviour. Good example, use of a national sovereignty perspective by consumer to boycott Walmart for 6 months, what effect do you think that would have? Or boycott Apple products, or GM products? Or boycott any number of companies and their products. When the anger of the American consumer rises proportionately to be able to control dollars flowing well as leveraging the cooperation of citizens of other countries, the multinational corporations will feel it in the pocket book, behaviour will change. Destiny is ultimately with the consumer if they only understood how much power they collectively have, for now, its a nation of allowing pain to be dished out in heaps on the consumer by companies and the government. Without citizens and their inherent power, a country is nothing. Its time for the citizens to get organized to control what going on rather than being controlled. We the people do have the power to shape things provided everyone gets on the same page.

      July 5, 2011 at 9:48 pm | Reply
  5. dave

    I am rather less persuaded by calls from conspiracy theorists that MNC's are drawing us into conflict and more troubled by Pres. Obama's contention that he draws his authority to act in Libya from a resolution of the U.N., which he deems a higher authority than his own Congress. He adopted much the same tone of duty to the international community when he spoke to the Assembly in Ghana. He needs to be de-internationalized or replaced.

    July 4, 2011 at 11:38 pm | Reply
  6. derfy

    What about your allies sovereignty? Like Canada and the North West passage. you guys don't respect our claims to the North all your have is Alaska this not your concern It's between Russia Canada Greenland and Denmark. This article should be called what America wants is right and what the world wants is wrong. If it ain't American then it's wrong right? Praise the TRUE NORTH STRONG AND FREE. The greatest Country on earth.

    July 5, 2011 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  7. Wasabiwahabi

    America Rules! Canada Drools! Russia is and always will be a puppet dictatorship. And who the hell cares about Greenland and Denmark? Best thing about Canada is the beer, and even that isn't too much about which to brag.

    July 5, 2011 at 11:39 pm | Reply

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