The Sovereignty and Frailty of Institutions

by John Carlson

The tension between “the sacred” and “the sovereign” proposes that rival claims of “ultimacy” are meted out in international arenas of religious and political encounters.  Oversimply, religious and moral claims about “the sacred” could be said to represent ideals that are inspired by or known with reference to a transcendent horizon beyond which no other authority has supremacy.  Many who believe in the imago dei, for example, accept that the source and form of human creation imparts to all persons an innate dignity, the worth of which ought to be preserved through inviolable human rights.  “Sovereign” is the imprimatur of political supremacy that states bear.  Sovereignty underwrites states’ legitimacy and authority to define the terms of human pursuits and interactions within their boundaries.  Of course, these are reciprocal, if not at times convertible, terms: some religious and faith-based claims regarding sacredness would grant ultimate sovereignty to no other entity than God, while states often attach a so-called “sacred” status to their claims of sovereignty. 

As a way to gain purchase on these competing claims, I want to make use an "institutional perspective," an approach that uses moral theory to reflect upon the role of the existing structures, organizations, and institutions of international political and religious life. (Erik Owens' piece in this issue approaches the sacred-sovereign tension from the perspective of religious and intellectual traditions.)  Remarks that Robin Lovin, Susanne Rudolph, and Robert Gallucci delivered at the Divinity School's conference "The Sacred and the Sovereign" last fall are especially germane to moral reflection on the role of institutions.  Lovin noted that his approach is not primarily oriented toward preserving a moral theory (as he claimed just war thinking is inclined to do) but, instead, toward rethinking “religious ideas about the possibilities and limitations of any international order,” especially with respect to the institutions that constitute that order.  In short, in his speculations on the future of sovereignty, Lovin asks: What are the social and political conditions and choices available to us, starting from where we are now, for moral deliberation and action? 

Susanne Rudolph sketched out her view of the current institutional scenery that consists, in part, of transnational organizations (e.g., World Summits, the World Council of Churches, etc.) that vie with sovereign states for global influence.  Equally important, she observes, these global organizations also depend upon states to abide by international laws and enforce transnational norms of proper conduct.  While Rudolph welcomed the weakening of “monopoly sovereignty” (which has, in the past, provided sovereign states with a prima facie defense for human rights violations perpetrated against their own citizens), she also worries when powerful nation-states are the only, or even the principal, agents of enforcing human rights.  These "overstrong" state actors, Rudolph argued in comments about universal religious freedom, will inevitably impose their own imperial agendas on smaller sovereign states still in much need of preserving their own autonomy and national identity.  Rudolph’s view is consonant with Lovin’s concern that as international institutions grow stronger (as they must) and supplant the nation-state sovereignty scheme, if unchecked, they will also develop interests independent of—even opposed to—the parties they seek to represent.

Viewing international engagement through the perspectival lens of political institutions is no less apropos for Robert Gallucci, a U.S. State Department special envoy.  In a talk detailing several U.S. military interventions in which he was involved, he reinforced Lovin's and Rudolph’s views that sovereign states, for the moment, still retain the bulk of the power and resources needed to enforce international legal and moral norms.  He, too, argued that the days of a uni-polar, hegemonic order are over; nations must work in conjunction with regional and international institutions to protect common interests, especially when the use of force is in question.  Gallucci, however, resisted any ideological commitment to respect unqualifiedly other nations’ sovereignty when U.S. interests may be at stake—a view that, in many ways, undermines the legitimacy of the sovereign state institution that he represents.  For example, the claim to sovereignty does not (and never did) preclude the United States from intervening in another country when, as he put it, “it is the right thing to do.”  This may sound shrewd, though it is not at the expense of genuine moral concerns that are thoroughly integrated into the foreign policy decision-making process.  Care for the lives of real people has been a driving force in several U.S. military operations, a point illustrated in the foremost question President Clinton asked of Gallucci regarding Somalia:  “If a thousand children are dying each day, how long after we intervene before it stops?”  This is no moral window-dressing that Gallucci proffers, but, arguably, the kind of reasoning that Lovin might advocate—a view that asks: What moral possibilities can be pursued within the given institutional resources available to us now?

Of course, this institutional approach I am offering is hardly immune to the influences of moral and religious traditions; rather, it overlays and insinuates the traditions approach alluded to earlier.  For example, when Lovin does his “Christian realist thing” (as he puts it), he brings to bear a moral and religious tradition to provide an institutional analysis.  In part, he does so precisely because the tradition of Christian realism is premised on the important moral role that political institutions can play in international politics—a stance well-corroborated by Gallucci’s remarks. 

Another way to discern the connection between traditions and institutions is to accent how deeply institutions rely upon traditions for their guiding principles.  In order for the United Nations to set to the work of defending human rights, religious traditions play significant, some would argue essential, roles in solidifying the case for a “universal regime” of human rights.  R. Scott Appleby argued this point compellingly by exploring the strand of discourse he identifies as “Islamic rights talk.”  For Appleby, a tradition as a whole (e.g., Islam or Christianity) provides the setting of a “first-order discourse” about sacred symbols and meanings, within which conversations among differing strands of a tradition can occur.  Once such a process is undertaken, the move to “second-order discourses” among traditions becomes, one hopes, swifter and more sure-footed.  That said, such an undertaking is not without inherent risks, as Paul Griffiths’ response evinced.  Inevitably, he contended, a second-order discourse, because it is more likely to be adopted by international institutions, will “trump” a first-order discourse; the comprehensive claims of the first-order discourse (including sacred claims) may, thus, “fall out” or get watered down under the imperative of institutional consensus.

Let me attempt, in the remainder of this essay, to draw some conclusions that an institutional perspective onto the sacred and the sovereign suggests.  First, institutions render structure to international political life; as such, sovereign institutions need to be adequately empowered to do so.  Lovin articulated this theme through his discussion of  “awe,” an indispensable element from medieval conceptions of sovereignty that needs to be reclaimed by current international institutions.  Awe not only requires resources of power—many of which are supplied by independent nations, as Rudolph and Gallucci noted—but also must command the respect of nations’ citizens. 

Second, as several conference speakers intimated, there is good reason to give pause over the capacity, even the inclination, towards harm and misuse of resources that any institution with power can discharge.  Consequently, skepticism and due attentiveness to the limits of new designs of sovereignty are in order (particularly if one reflects how moral and religious claims can readily lapse into righteousness).  With this in mind, Griffiths admonished that—given that unintended results in NATO's humanitarian intervention in Kosovo constituted the rule, not the exception—state actors and institutions should take greater heed of the  epistemic limitations of their policy decisions.

Third, global institutions often lack the means needed to garner the allegiance of individual persons.  Where Lovin contends that citizens of the world need to envision international institutions as extensions of power representing and acting on their behalf, others, like Appleby and Rudolph, suggest that such “supra-loyalty” requires the mediation of particular religious traditions and localized national identities.  Griffiths would likely doubt any such political institutional allegiance is possible for many religious believers, since political sovereignty is often ultimately at odds with the unsurpassable claims of particular religious traditions, especially Christianity.

Finally, given these observations, it is far from a foreordained conclusion that state sovereignty is extinct.  While the sovereignty of states has surely been chastened (some would say “pooled”), nations continue to provide important bases of power, filaments of identity, and structures of order and cohesion.  Nations with such enduring traits need not be replaced by a “new world order” of international sovereignty, but ought instead to be brought into collaboration with international institutions, the duties of which include the preservation of national identity, memory, and self-determination—among important others, like defending human rights.  What might this post-Westphalian sovereignty arrangement look like?  Doubtful will it be any “overlapping consensus” of international rule as some idealists might hope.  More likely is an “overlapping scramble” of imperfect, but, one hopes, resilient, international institutions working in cooperation with, and sometimes at odds with, nations in need of preserving themselves in noble and humane ways.


John Carlson is a doctoral candidate in ethics 
at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

© 2001 University of Chicago (The Divinity School).  
Originally published in Criterion, Volume 40, Number 1 (Winter 2001).  
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