Chimeric sovereignty

The appeal to “sov­er­eign­ty”, in inter­na­tion­al debates, like the appeal to “patri­o­tism” in domes­tic pol­i­tics, is the “last refuge of scoundrels”: bq. The world’s 20 poor­est coun­tries are just about as poor today as they were 40 years ago. That can be changed only if they start to func­tion quite dif­fer­ent­ly from before, which will take a great deal of out­side help. But it will also require rad­i­cal domes­tic trans­for­ma­tion. If the sov­er­eign­ty of such dys­func­tion­al states is pro­tect­ed, their peo­ples will remain impov­er­ished. If their peo­ple are to be helped, the sov­er­eign­ty of their states must be chal­lenged. This is a dilem­ma, which will not be solved by plat­i­tudes about good gov­er­nance and respect for human rights. (Mar­tin Wolf, “Finan­cial Times”: [sub]) “Sov­er­eign­ty” is one of those con­cepts bound­ed, in the imag­i­na­tion of some peo­ple, only by ambi­tion even when the pow­er to act with unlim­it­ed ‘sov­er­eign’ inde­pen­dence is lack­ing. Over and over, in ple­nary ses­sions of inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ences where 150 or more nation­al state­ments are broad­cast to small, dis­tract­ed audi­ences, you hear stern refusals to con­sid­er any lim­its on ‘sov­er­eign rights’ from rep­re­sen­ta­tives of gov­ern­ments that have mort­gaged the pub­lic debt sev­er­al times to for­eign lenders or that have accept­ed the ‘secu­ri­ty’ guar­an­tees of neigh­bor­ing coun­tries or that can­not feed their pop­u­la­tions in two years out of five with­out gifts of food from abroad. Yet these gov­ern­ments’ sense of their own sov­er­eign­ty would be offend­ed by accep­tance of oblig­a­tions, shared with all oth­er gov­ern­ments, to man­age eco­nom­ic reg­u­la­tions such as invest­ment reg­u­la­tions or trade bar­ri­ers in a par­tic­u­lar way. Any treaty, by divert­ing unspecified—and there­fore unbounded—comity, which is the foun­da­tion of rela­tions between sov­er­eigns, into spe­cif­ic mutu­al under­tak­ings might be said to lim­it sov­er­eign­ty. So what? The net­works of glob­al exchanges (goods, ser­vices, funds, infor­ma­tion) that under­write the wealth of every econ­o­my are bound by links that mean no gov­ern­ment, not even the most pow­er­ful, has unre­strained inde­pen­dence of action. But there are domains where these net­works of oblig­a­tions do not reach, yet. For exam­ple, only in 1995 with the adop­tion of the Gen­er­al Agree­ment on Ser­vices Trade was there any attempt to lim­it ‘sov­er­eign’ rights to reg­u­late trad­ed com­mer­cial ser­vices such as edu­ca­tion or trans­port or ‘out­sourced’ call-cen­ters. Even that exten­sion of oblig­a­tions was lim­it­ed (‘nation­al treat­ment’ of import­ed ser­vices is an option not an oblig­a­tion). The most dif­fi­cult debates in future WTO nego­ti­a­tions may be about the accept­able bound­aries of the domains in which glob­al agree­ment is nec­es­sary and effec­tive: all of the ‘Sin­ga­pore issues’ that led to the dis­agree­ments at Can­cún, for exam­ple, have at their heart a debate over the val­ue of lim­its on a gov­ern­men­t’s actions in some domain such as invest­ment or com­pe­ti­tion pol­i­cy where, in the­o­ry, there have been no pre­vi­ous lim­its. There is no doubt, how­ev­er, that sov­er­eign­ty may be lim­it­ed in this way with­out harm to such inde­pen­dence as most states enjoy or that such lim­its to sov­er­eign­ty have opened oppor­tu­ni­ties for immense wel­fare gains on a glob­al scale.

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