Sovereignty At Century's End

by Jean Bethke Elshtain

Excerpted from J.B. Elshtain, New Wine and Old Bottles: International Politics and Ethical Discourse (University of Notre Dame Press, 1998):6-24. 
© 1999. Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author. 

When we think of states we think of sovereignty. The locution—the sovereign state—springs readily to our lips. That this is so is in some ways remarkable. The sovereignty of political bodies is a particular historic creation. But sovereignty, encoded and ongoingly reproduced, came to seem something of an inevitability were a state to attain its full stature and recognition in a world of states. Sovereignty is the insignia of membership in the club. Sovereignty at [twentieth] century's end [or twenty-first century’s dawn] remains the "essential qualification for full membership in international society, or, to express the point more comprehensively, the qualification which makes a state eligible for full membership. " Given this fact, sovereignty serves as a goad to political action for those peoples who have not yet attained full international recognition. How did sovereignty become so pervasive and so perduring a feature of international relations? The answer, unsurprisingly, is tremendously complex. In order to explore the matter, it is helpful to begin by taking up the ways in which alternatives to sovereignty are most commonly presented.

For those who yearn for a universal order, a new and better Pax Romana, sovereignty embodies a sullied and destructive particularism. They seek a more cosmopolitan scheme of things, perhaps a universal political regime that guarantees peace by stripping individual political bodies of one central feature of sovereignty—the right to declare war should one's security or territory be threatened. Mind you, sovereignty doesn't really go away in such visions. It is lofted upward, escaping the confines of the state to take up residence in the rarefied temples of a universal order. This is an unattractive and even pernicious idea to defenders of sovereignty, for in their eyes, sovereignty is the best way human beings have devised to create and to defend diverse cultures and the integrity of particular peoples and their histories. They ask: Would not a universal order that presupposed for its attainment the destruction of state sovereignty become a tyranny of a sort hitherto unknown, even in the darkest moments of mid-twentieth-century totalitarianism?

If the universal alternative to particular sovereignties is an entity of sufficient power to keep all the kingdoms under its thumb, to stop all war, and to defend all those who present grievances, that would be a concentration of power awesome and terrifying to behold. And there would be no power to check that awesome power should it become overweening, suppressive, and destructive in its urge to homogenize, the better to control. Why isn't this endorsement of a new and better Pax Romana a recipe for legitimation of hegemony? Who sets the terms for the new universalism? How is such an escape from the perils of state sovereignty to be specified meaningfully in political institutions and life? Perhaps the defender of state sovereignty against sovereign universalism would recall the warning of Hannah Arendt from Men in Dark Times. Arendt wrote:

Nobody can be a citizen of the world as he is the citizen of his country . . . . The very notion of one sovereign force ruling the whole earth, holding the monopoly of all means of violence, unchecked and uncontrolled by other sovereign powers, is not only a forbidding nightmare of tyranny, it would be the end of all political life as we know it. Political concepts are based on plurality, diversity, and mutual limitations. A citizen is by definition a citizen among citizens of a country among countries .... Philosophy may conceive of the earth as the homeland of mankind and of one unwritten law, eternal and valid for all. Politics deals with men, nationals of many countries and heirs to many pasts; its laws are the positively established fences which hedge in, protect, and limit the space in which freedom is not a concept, but a living, political reality. The establishment of one sovereign world state, far from being the prerequisite for world citizenship, would be the end of all citizenship.

And it is the case that for Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and other leaders of the democratic independence movements that spear-headed the peaceful revolutions against Soviet domination, any endorsement of such a universal order is a recipe for hegemony. Those just now tasting the fruits of political independence after a half-century of domination are unlikely to be persuaded by attacks on sovereignty as run-amok particularism, even the political triumph of a malevolent, masculinized "war-system."' What they know instead is that they were forced for years, under the heel of Communist universalism, to crush difference, "to make everything the same." Writes Havel: "The greatest enemy of communism was always individuality, variety, difference—in a word, freedom. From Berlin to Vladivostok, the streets and buildings were decorated with the same red stars. Everywhere the same celebratory parades were staged. Analogical state administrations were set up, along with the whole system of central direction for social and economic life. This vast shroud of uniformity, stifling all national, intellectual, spiritual, social, cultural, and religious variety, covered over any differences and promoted the monstrous illusion that we were all the same."

Now, the critic of sovereignty could bounce back in this way. He or she could argue that sovereignty is itself a form of homogenization and hegemony Doesn't the sovereign state operate under an urgent imperative to make everything internal to its borders ‘the same'? Just follow the trail of human tears. How many indigenous peoples have been wiped out or shoved into nooks and crannies in the wider order? How many immigrants to new countries have found and continue to find themselves under assault as threats to the political order? In the United States in the World War I era, a veritable orgy of anti‑immigrant hysteria swept the land, fueled (alas) by the highest reaches of government including President Woodrow Wilson. Perhaps offering a flavor of that moment shows the drive to internal homogeneity that has certainly been one pervasive feature of sovereign bodies historically.

We learn that the history of the United States is not entirely reassuring on precisely this score. A case in point is the sustained attack on so-called "hyphenated Americans" in the World War I era. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson committed himself to universal conscription, not just for defense in case of the outbreak of hostilities but to help mold a new nation. Two years before the United States entered the war, Wilson himself had attacked hyphenated Americans in harsh words: "There are citizens of the United States, I blush to admit, born under other flags, but welcomed under our generous naturalization laws to the full freedom and opportunity of America, who have poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life .... Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out .... The hand of our power should close over them at once."  Congress responded in kind by passing legislation to check espionage and treason that vested the government with powers to censor the press, to punish interference with activities of the armed services, including recruitment, and to control the mails to prevent dissemination of allegedly treasonable material-all measures subject to a laxity of interpretion and temptation to abuse. Vigilantism against alleged slackers and traitors received public sanction. The lynching of Robert Prager, a young German-born immigrant who had tried to enlist in the American Navy but had been rejected for medical reasons, took place before a cheering crowd of nearly five hundred souls near St. Louis, Missouri. When the leaders of the lynch mob were tried, their defense counsel called their offense "patriotic murder," and a jury returned a not guilty verdict. Even those who deplored such excesses contributed to the public mood by attacking all who raised questions about the wisdom of American entry into the war.

A dream of unity lurks here. In the minds of the architects of national unity through what I have called elsewhere armed civic virtue, the presence of millions of immigrants was an ongoing irritant. "Americanization" became the goal, the watchword; for some, the threat: one nation indivisible. To be sure, genuine regard for the welfare of immigrant groups lay at the base of much sentiment, including that expressed by the National American Woman Suffrage Association, which believed that separatism and heterogeneity were synonymous with inequality and marginality. But progressive and liberal opinion proved particularly susceptible to the cry for unity because of its stress on popular sovereignty and its embrace of the notion that there must be some strong civic glue to bind the nation as one. As notable a figure as the great philosopher and progressive, John Dewey, could wax eloquent about the war's "social possibilities."

In light of these and other historic examples, many of them far worse, the critic of sovereignty would have a pretty strong case, it seems, in urging that sovereignty's excesses have been so common they appear to go with the territory, quite literally. But to reach this conclusion would be to ignore the extraordinary richness of constitutionalism and the intricate, elaborate, and powerful ways that sovereignty domestically has been check‑mated in the West and is being circumscribed in many of the newly emergent democracies through the codification of human rights, separation of powers, representative government, due process, protection of minorities, and other features of constitutionalism with which we are familiar. So we can guard against the internal excesses, the defender would say. State and sovereignty do not form an unproblematic unity.

This wouldn't be nearly enough of a concession to a strong critic of sovereignty, one, let's say, who celebrates a principle of difference rather than universalism as the best way to organize political life. For example, there are contemporary multiculturalists who want more fragmentation; more representations of diversity; a veritable festival of officially recognized differences. They aver that in a political world dominated by mutual claims to recognition, sovereignty would simply become supererogatory; other ways of forging political bodies would have been achieved through what might be called plural constitutionalisms and, in some cases, separatism. The defender of sovereignty at this juncture would surely charge the multiculturalist with his or her own form of absolutism—absolutizing the principle of difference—and, as well, presupposing for the fleshing out of his or her ideal the very thing sovereignty providesa regime of civic order and domestic peace, however rambunctious the democratic contestations. For multicultural engagements can only be peaceful and relatively benign when their excesses are, in principle, checkable and when the engagements themselves are structured and mediated by countervailing political forces. Otherwise one winds up not with a "relatively peaceful coat of many colors," in Isaiah Berlin's phrase, but with Balkanization, an old term that has, alas, become apt once again. …[I]t is important to note here that if a temptation of sovereignty has been a search for absolute mastery over spatial territory, a danger in deconstructing sovereignty altogether in favor of what is always presented as a more benign alternative is that civic order itself comes under siege. You don't have to be Machiavelli to fret about the political naivete embedded in some multicultural visions.

As we can readily see, sovereignty ongoingly generates a number of difficult problems: questions of universalism and particularism; definitions of international relations in terms of the presence of sovereign states as primary actors while the "system itself" is defined by the absence of sovereignty. The historic discourse of sovereignty is a formulation of mastery over internal or domestic space and vulnerability in the external zone of competing sovereignties. Alternatives to sovereignty as traditionally and currently presented are either a cure through a thorough-going universalism or else shock treatment by getting more of what sovereignty fears—more competing political or identity groups with strong claims to recognition. Such alternatives trail in their wake a whole series of other, seemingly insuperable problems. So are we just stuck with sovereignty? Why do our choices so often seem so extreme—either two hundred sovereignties vying with one another in a competitive field, or the imperial or transnational supercession of sovereignty, or quickening the pace of political particularism? Perhaps a brief genealogical reconstruction of sovereignty's sway will help us to understand its ascendancy and its continuing hold on our politics and our political imaginations.

Sovereignty is a heroic narrative, a story of the bringing of order and civic peace and unity, on the one hand, and of the inevitability of war and state violence, on the other. This narrative gained ascendancy as a particular historic configuration, a response to concrete pressures and problems. How come? For one thing, the way was paved by historic transformations in Western theology of the imago Dei or image of God. My argument will be that political meanings in the West got layered over potent images of the sacred. Indeed, the OED reflects this by showing that power as a characteristic of political or national strength is a "late use" preceded by "a celestial or spiritual being having control or influence; a divinity." Claims to earthly power or potestas as dominion and rule are themselves parasitic upon constructions of a sovereign deity for much of their force.

I want to be careful here. There is no single imago Dei that dominated Western Christian theology. Prior to the Reformation, God was construed as relational (three persons in one) and as the site of an amplitude of reason; a fullness of Being; a plenitude and lushness of power. God brought forth all the things that swim, and creep and crawl, and fly. Man (male and female) become somewhat akin to God in several senses, theologically speaking. We are created in God's image. But after the Fall, we also take upon ourselves certain godlike powers. In some sense we begin to act like God: man (plural as male and female) as co‑creators. This gets us into heavy theological waters pretty fast but I hope you will follow me for a moment or two as I try to shed light on just how the extraordinary powers we attribute to sovereigns and sovereignties came into being.

Although the human being becomes godlike he or she remains under God's sovereign dominion. In post-Occam theology (this means after the fourteenth century), God is less and less represented as the fullness of reason and goodness in His relational complexity and more and more embodied as the site of sovereign will. God's volitionality trumps other features of the imago Dei. A monistic conception partially squeezes our more relational understandings. God's power in this vision is not only absolute but even somewhat arbitrary. God's right is coterminous with His sovereign power: it is a right of dominion, rule, possession, "all-pervasive and efficient . . . omnipotent and undefeatable." This vision came to dominate sovereignty talk and helped to lay the basis for the juristic conception of the state, when man decided he, too, could be sovereign in this way. Writes the controversial German theorist Carl Schmitt, "All significant concepts were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver . . . the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts."

In my book, Women and War, I wrote about "the Protestant Nation-State," for it is only with the break-up of medieval Christendom, the shift to post‑Occam theologies, and the reemergence of Roman private law as a law for centralizing monarchies, that the architecture of the early modern nation-state really comes into focus. The first completely developed theory of sovereignty is Jean Bodin's Six Books of the Commonwealth. Sovereignty is the summum imperium (rumblings from the Roman Empire can be heard in the background at this point), that which can neither be delegated nor divided. "Sovereignty is that absolute and perpetual power vested in a commonwealth which in Latin is termed majestas . . . it is the distinguishing mark of the sovereign that he cannot in any way be subject to the commands of another, for it is he who makes law for the subject, abrogates law already made, and amends obsolete law…."  Thomas Hobbes, in his masterwork, The Leviathan, depicts the sovereign's awesome sway in nonpareil terms, this from chapters 17 and 18 respectively: "The only way to erect such a Common Power . . . is to conferre all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men, that may reduce all their Wills . . unto one Will.... This is more than Consent or Concord; it is a reall Unitie of them all, in one and the same Person .... This is the Generation of that Great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) of that Mortall God, to which wee owe under the Immortall God, our peace and defense .... And that he carryeth this Person, is called Soveraigne, and said to have Soveraigne Power; and every one besides, his Subject...."

Hobbes, and Bodin before him, helped to give centralizing monarchies a potent theoretical justification and rationale. The difference between the powers they enumerated for the earthly Sovereign, and God's, is that the earthly Sovereign, although untrammeled (more or less) in his power in a territorial space is, in the final analysis, subject to God's grace or judgment. But this divine check becomes ever more anemic. For having taken unto himself all the features of the deity, save individual immortality—although the Kingdom is perpetual, hence immortality is in some sense assured—there is precious little constraint in these classic formulae on the sovereignty of the dominus over a bounded earthly territory, an extended "domestic" space.   The Thomistic denial of absolute sovereign power to any of the component communities of Christendom, including papacy and empire, gives way to the construction of a perpetual, supreme power, a King's body that could not be dismembered. The Sovereign becomes the final judge. All in all, these are remarkable developments, and explanations for the emergence of sovereign triumphalism tend to fall into two broad categories, each at once explanation and justification, and each ignoring the theological backdrop.

The first explanation holds that in situations of sometimes terrible disorder, with chaos threatening, guaranteed order and civic peace, at whatever price, become overriding imperatives. The fragmentation and chaos (in a negative characterization) of medieval Europe, divided as it was into too many kingdoms under the overarching (if underawing) Holy Roman Empire, with the pope meddling as well, are most often cited as an explanation of the need for sovereign states. For the medieval system was "a patchwork of overlapping and incomplete rights of government . . . inextricably superimposed and tangled" with different "juridical instances . . . geographically interwoven and stratified, . . . plural allegiances, asymmetrical suzerainties and anomalous enclaves" abounding.  Is this any way to run a continent? The sovereigntists answered with a resounding "no" and the nation state was off and running. Thus the defenders of the move toward state sovereignty reason.

The second explanation, and one having greater plausibility, remarks that the rediscovery "from Roman law of the concept of absolute private property and the simultaneous emergence of mutually exclusive territorial state formations" go together. Rome transmitted the concept of the sovereign in terms of the emperor's imperium to the Middle Ages. But this redolent little seed didn't germinate meaningfully until legists, mostly French, crystallized the idea of state sovereignty with metahistorical justification drawn from Roman law and imperial practice. One brief example, a 1443 statement updating Roman law from Bologna University, famous for its law school, claims, in part: "There is one judge from whom the final decision of cases comes, lest with many judges contending, and no one supreme, litigations would never be finished. Also, no family, no community, no kingdom can remain in its full status, unless it has one supreme ruler; because from divisions of heads there easily arises division and schism among the members.  The king becomes emperor in his kingdom and the formulation rex imperator et re suo is laid on, becoming especially potent when combined with the cujus regio rule of Augsburg.

The standard narrative, or classical theory, then, holds that sovereignty is indivisible and inalienable. It defines the supreme, the above all else. This is far more than a legal theory or task. It involves notions of civic order, identity, and images of well-being or danger. Sovereignty shifts from king to state and the state "can no more alienate its sovereignty than a man can alienate his will and remain a man."  Hendrik Spruyt's recent work, The Sovereign State and Its Competitors, underscores these points. He remarks that the choice of French kings to favor Roman law as the basis of political authority involved a "staggering shift of beliefs." For Roman law was radically different from the legal systems of German and Frankish tribes. It departed from the particularism induced by feudalism. As well, the idea of exclusive authority over territorial space corresponded with the definition of property rights in Roman law. The medieval idea of possession, by contrast, was embedded in a network of overlapping rights and claims. The content of Christian doctrine was biased against private property. Roman law, by contrast, granted to the owner exclusive use and rights.  With the coming of sovereign prerogatives, all intermediate bodies and their corporate privileges came under pressure to succumb or to conform—whether cities, guilds, feudal principalities, or the Church itself.

Popular sovereignty, if anything, deepened these ideas. For example, as articulated by the architects of the terror during the French Revolution, popular sovereignty constituted internal enemies on a par with external foes. The Jacobin Committee of Public Safety, identifying its will with the general will, declared: "Whereas the French people has manifested its will, everyone who is opposed to it is outside its sovereignty; everyone outside the sovereignty is an enemy... Between the people and its enemies, there is nothing in common but the sword."  Notice that sovereignty in this construction redefines the boundaries. The rule of force ordinarily reserved to foreigners now pertains among citizens. There is no appeal to any higher court than the sovereign, and if this sovereign is identified with "the people," and certain persons or groups are declared no longer part of the people, then they, too, become foreigners even worse, enemies. One distinguishing mark of the sovereign is here articulated in its potentially most repressive form: the legal freedom of every sovereign country in the regulation of its own domestic affairs. "There is no appeal to any higher court," writes Arnold Brecht, "no arbiter, avenger or ultimate guardian of peace and justice."

Where does this leave us? Even those who lament the excesses of sovereignty, whether in its monarchical, statist, or popular forms, cannot, it seems, do without it. All critiques take it on as a point of reference if not a starting point. Indeed, it is the least interesting treatments of the theme that simply condemn sovereignty and move on to construct an imagined world that would come into being were it dissolved altogether. Knowing, as we do, that sovereignty is supreme and that the state as an independent, territorial monopoly of political power triumphed historically, does not commit us to the tacit teleology embodied in F. H. Hinsley's declaration that sovereignty is the culmination of a movement of something akin to historic inevitability. The concept was "sooner or later unavoidable because men have thought of power in terms of sovereignty," he writes, and because human beings experience "a primary need to insure effective exercise of power . . . . " It follows that we have little choice but to stick with sovereignty for one very good reason: "The internal mechanism of the modern body politic would grind to a halt if the assumption that there was a final and absolute authority within it were to be abandoned. In international practice the existence of a sovereign authority within the separate community is universally recognized as the essential qualification of its membership in the international community... "  Hinsley's beginning point and end point come full circle. A pre‑given set of needs (for the final say, for effective exercise of power) dictates an end (state sovereignty). Or, as Luther might quip, "Frogs need storks." Sovereignty is both a first principle and a necessity.

Although classical liberal theorists are less preoccupied with sovereignty than with the terms under which a civic order can, in some sense, be said to be both robust and limited by law and the action of citizens, they, too, remain preoccupied with who shall have the final say in matters of dispute. In and through a complicated set of historic transformations that cannot be unpacked here in any detail, constitutionalism emerged in a way that called democratic republics into being yet built in limits to the sway of sovereign excess internally—constraints all too often transgressed, as my example from World War I in the United States above reminds us. But at water's edge, the full panoply of pre‑constitutional sovereignty kicks in. The United States Supreme Court weighed in early, tipping the scales toward a strong definition of external sovereignty. An early court decision, Chisholm v Georgia (1793), includes Justice Wilson's famous words: "To the Constitution of the United States the term sovereign is totally unknown. There is but one place where it could have been used with propriety. But, even in that place, it would not, perhaps, have comported with the delicacy of those who ordained and established that constitution. They might have announced themselves ‘sovereign' people of the United States: But serenely conscious of the fact, they avoided the ostentatious declaration."  But just nineteen years later, in The School Exchange v M'Faddon (1812), Chief Justice Marshall embraces the ostentatious version of sovereignty as a territorial imprimatur: "The jurisdiction of the nation within its own territory is necessarily exclusive and absolute. It is susceptible of no limitation not imposed by itself. Any restriction upon it, deriving validity from an external source, would imply a diminution of its sovereignty to the extent of the restriction . . . . " A 1936 decision, US. v Curtiss‑Wright Export Corp, reaffirms Marshall: "Rules come and go; governments end and forms of government change; but sovereignty survives. A political society cannot endure without a supreme will somewhere. Sovereignty is never held in suspense. Sovereignty takes on a kind of metaphysical status here—"it" exists whether an actual political body does or not. A government may go. But sovereignty perdures. Here sovereignty as a first principle trumps any argument from necessity or, perhaps better, the two are fused—political society cannot be ensured without a supreme will.

One final brief restatement of the classical theory, then: (a) internally, sovereignty is the power to order a domestic arena without external interference, (b) externally, sovereign power exists in a system of at least theoretical independence and equality whose relations are controlled by principles of force as the court of last resort. Central to this classical account are ideas drawn from Roman law. I have already mentioned one—the Roman law of private property. But there is another point to be made, that of "legal subjectivity," lodged in two carriers: the paterfamilias, and the force of command or will in law, jus, derived from the populus Romanus construed as a unified subject. Just as the paterfamilias were the "sole, self-determined, and in their sphere sovereign representative(s) of right," so the "multiplicity of equal wills" composed of all multiple "fathers" culminated in a center of "common legal subjectivity," the will or voice of the abstract, collective legal personality.

We are a long way indeed from the Roman dominus in late modern industrial Western societies, but traces of this construction appear in all early modern theories of sovereignty and are borne forward to the present. Consider, if you will, the fact that one overarching preoccupation of sovereigntists is the setting of boundaries, especially between the "domestic" and the "foreign." The domestic arena is a particularly fascinating field to explore. For domesticity is the realm we usually associate with woman. The word comes from the Latin, domesticus, domus, and it is "of or pertaining to the household or family, as domestic duties." This suggests that the domestication of the household is a central if under‑theorized and submerged feature of the classical theory of sovereignty. Roman private law, remember, is a law of absolute possession, always ameliorated in practice and always involving requirements for provision as well as sanctifications for power.

But perhaps this Roman law backdrop and the domestic origins of our notion of state sovereignty—if my hunch bears any critical weight—help us to understand the preoccupation of sovereigntists historically with a unified will. There must be one voice, one final will brought to bear against cacophony and chaos. As the singularity of God's will prevails in the post-Occam imago Dei, so must the Sovereign's will be singular and his power irresistible. For Bodin, the family lacks perpetual and absolute sovereignty, being a "right ordering of a group of persons owing obedience to the head of a household," but a commonwealth is the right ordering of a number of families by a sovereign power. The two are analogized and within the family, as within the commonwealth, power is singular, deriving from the head. The power, authority, and command a husband has over his wife is, according to Bodin, "allowed by both divine and positive law to be honourable and right," and the father alone has a "natural right to command," standing as he does in the image of God. Hobbes gives dominion to both husband and wife but the family lacks sovereignty and is not, for him, a major concern; however, the masculinized face of the Sovereign is retained. This "personalization of sovereign power arose out of a continuation of the arguments from unity and peace .... It achieves this purpose of providing a point of resolution for the conflicts arising within a society "

As I suggested above, even liberal theorists who reject strong dominion theories in the pre-constitutional tradition remain concerned with who shall have final say in matters of dispute. Although the master of the family lacks the sterner attributes of the Roman pater, and although his role and identity are much softened and chastened given Christian notions of stewardship, partnership, mutual marital fidelity, and the like, still, order is needed and in a case of marital dissension, rule "naturally falls to Man's share as the abler and stronger"—or so insisted Jeremy Bentham, who goes on to offer a rather homey example on settling competition between husband and wife over whether the meat shall be boiled or roasted. Finally, someone has got to decide or we should never eat dinner! This leads to his insistence that the "Man's share" prevails?

This but scratches the surface on a topic on which gallons of ink have been spilled, to which thousands of trees have sacrificed their lives, but more importantly, one that is arguably at the heart of many of our troubled globe's most horrific atrocities as well as its most glorious achievements. Sovereignty is no simple matter. If that were the case, one could celebrate or condemn and have done with it. This the careful critic cannot do. But there is much to be done. I will conclude this [section] by offering up intimations of ways to continue to plumb the depths of our indebtedness to sovereignty and to explore directions for rethinking power and the creation and sustenance of political bodies in late modernity.

First, because power lies at the heart of the matter, any critical unpacking of sovereignty must reveal how power is understood within sovereign discourse—both understood and constituted, it must be said. All political theorists are familiar with Hannah Arendt's worthy effort to rescue politics from war by severing power from violence. According to Arendt, by conflating the crude instrumentalism of violence with power itself, defined by Arendt as the human ability to act in concert and to begin anew, we guarantee further loss of space within which authentic politics is possible. In this way violence nullifies power and stymies political being. This is provocative—Arendt is always provocative—but by no means unproblematic. For when it comes to relations between states, Arendt simply throws up her hands and opts for the Hobbesian war of all against all, or so it seems. She notes offhandedly that we have wars because "there is no final arbiter in international affairs." To be sure, she decries the "sovereignty of the state" as the source of this Hobbesian nightmare. But that is as far as it goes, despite the fact that she declares the "identification of freedom with sovereignty" to be "perhaps the most pernicious and dangerous consequence of the political equation of freedom and free will," adding that the "famous sovereignty of political bodies has always been an illusion, which, moreover, can be maintained only by instruments of violence, that is, with essentially nonpolitical means." It follows that if men "wish to be free, it is precisely sovereignty they must renounce."

This is a terribly underdeveloped feature of Arendt's political thought that awaits further elaboration. Perhaps, in the context of the United States, exploring the distinction Sanford Levinson marks between the constitution identified with the "sovereign will of the people" (he cites the case Prigg v Pennsylvania, which upheld the 1793 fugitive slave act) and, by contrast, the constitution as a guarantor of justice would clarify matters and help us to appreciate the role of constitutionalism in either buttressing or ameliorating the classical theory and practice of sovereignty. But it would just skate on the surface of Arendt's arguments concerning politics, power, and action. What might flesh this out with some degree of robustness would be locating a number of really good examples that demonstrate the ways in which presuppositions of sovereignty quashed political action and destroyed authentic power in the Arendtian sense and, by contrast, a number of examples showing the ways in which less overweening notions of political incorporation and independence opened up space for political action. Under what circumstances does constitutionalism hold sovereigntist imperatives in check and when does this not happen? Given the realist insight that the strong are more likely to dominate the weak where rules, regulations, norms, constraints, and punishments do not exist, how are errant bullies reigned in? What checks states that themselves become bullies? Are we just inevitably drawn back into the agonistic arena of multiple, competing sovereignties in which an association of "good states" must ally to check the behavior of a "bad state"? Or does constitutionalism analogous to the domestic regimes of constitutional republics have a chance of replacing the world of selfhelp? There are dozens of studies that struggle with such questions. But the questions remain. The intractability of these matters surely has something to do with how sovereignty has been defined and enacted—set up as both first principle and tough necessity. Maybe if some of the luster were taken off the surface sheen of sovereignty, and if one could begin to view sovereignty as a practical necessity, not a sacral principle, more experimentation with alternatives that preserve a commitment to political independence and the yearning of peoples for security and stability but avoid strong sovereignty might be possible.

A second area worth exploring is the interrelationship between sovereignty on the level of states and late modern presuppositions of a sovereign self. We say states are sovereign when they decide for themselves, without interference. This has become a rough and ready operating definition of self-sovereignty. In the late modern West, we place a huge premium on autonomy understood as sovereignty. Indeed, we are urged everyday to "choose" for ourselves; not to permit others to deflect us from our chosen course; not to get so entangled in personal and familial life that we are not "free" to make the next big move, even to see ourselves as the possessors of ourselves, as owners of our own lives. Of late, even the human body itself is seen as a potential foe that we must reshape, control, dominate, manipulate. Celebrations of the brave new world of genetic engineering speak of human beings as like unto the gods, creatures who no longer need remain at the merry of genetic accident or blind evolution. No, we can control the forces that previously controlled us. What I am suggesting is that sovereignty has once again migrated. Even as sovereignty moved from theology and the attributes of the deity to politics and the powers of the monarch or the state, what we are now witnessing is a culmination of all that harnessed definitional energy and conceptual reification in the service of a redefined self—one that is sovereign in all things. Ironically, as all sorts of voices call for us to recognize our interdependence with other nations, peoples, and states, our interdependence with those concrete human beings we call friends and family and neighbors is undermined, even negated, by calls for a fully sovereign self. To say that this matter bears further exploration is to understate.

Third and finally, can we imagine a secure politics in the absence of the strong theory and practice of sovereignty? Certainly such a politics now exists in theory. Much of the political writing by Central Europeans over the past several decades embraces precisely this possibility. I have in mind those who, before 1989, theorized civil society as an alternative to, or even in opposition to, an authoritarian sovereign state apparatus. The alternative they posed to state-dominant sovereign discourse was often quite suggestive and subtle. For example, Adam Michnik seeks to hold tradition and change, claims of community and individual freedom, and effective power and robust ethics, in fruitful tension with one another. He insists that if the state, in the name of sovereignty, intervenes decisively on one side or another in permanently contestable matters (say, community v. individual), "pluralism is destroyed." Vaclav Havel downplays sovereignty in favor of civil society as both a domestic and international imperative, noting that perhaps states that, historically, have been more acted upon than free agents are in an ideal position to articulate an alternative to sovereigntist triumphalism. A third important theorist whose work bears serious attention is Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II), who has elaborated an alternative to statist versions of sovereignty, addressing the theme along these lines: "The state is firmly sovereign when it governs society and also serves the common good of society and allows the nation to realize its own subjectivity, its own identity.” Here the notion of sovereignty is located in neither the state per se, nor in the unmediated construction of the sovereign will of the people, but in the various associations of civil society in dialogue with one another as "subjects." This authoritative dialogue, in turn, sustains the state as an entity whose legitimate purpose is to see that rules for civility are followed and the various loci of human social existence, necessary to human dignity and freedom, are protected and served. The coexistence of overlapping, porous entities is assumed. Rights inhere in communities and groups as well as individuals; thus, more power devolves to mediating institutions or flows from them than in statist theories.

This chastened version of sovereignty is protective of plurality internally and universal aspirations externally. The possibility of agreement and alliances and agonistic encounters is always open. The state is not a hard-shelled, impermeable entity; rather, it exists in an international society in which sovereignty is necessarily limited. States are nested in wider societies, in strategic cultures, if you will. Attunement to this stubborn reality lends itself to an analysis at odds with all austere, de-historicized theories and accounts. For the nation-state is a phenomenon that cannot be imagined or legislated out of existence. Needing others to define ourselves, we will remain inside a state-centered discourse, for better and for worse, so long as states remain the best way we have thus far devised for protecting and sustaining a way of life in common. But taming and limiting the demands of sovereignty is a more exigent requirement than ever. I have in mind a politics that would also profoundly shift the focus of political loyalty and identity such that we would no longer be seen as civic beings mobilizable to certain ends and purposes but as citizens who are responsible to and for one another and for what they hold in common and for articulating and embodying their differences in ways that do not create enemies, in part because the presupposition of an enemy is not the place from which one starts.

Identification with a nation-state is a complex thing, tapping particularism and universalism. Indeed, one might argue that modern nation-state civic life is composed of normatively vital aspects of both ethnicity and universal values, organic integration and voluntarism. Human beings require concrete reference groups in order to attain and secure individual identity. But too complete immersion in such groups limits the boundaries of identity and identification to fixed familial, tribal, or territorial lines. What this yields is not only a complex political orientation but a subtle ethical stance, or what I have called an ethic of responsibility in contrast to the will-to-sacrifice I associate with the war and mobilization features of sovereigntist ideologies. For sovereignty historically has also called forth, even mandated, sacrifice of the most extreme sort. Sof­tening that regime doesn't eliminate the possibility of civic duty and sacrifice but relocates it as flowing from something more akin to what Simone Weil called "love and concern" for one's country rather than from reflected glory in her triumphs and boastful puffed-up pride in her power to dominate and to control. The pre­emptory sovereign self here gives way to a vision of men and women as free citizens, standing before one another in relations of trust and arenas of struggle, sometimes at odds, sometimes shoulder to shoulder, accepting the burdens of free responsibility and undertaking tasks that are always carried out in that twilight that attends human affairs. It is a vision of a world in which sovereignty is wisely reserved to God alone, and imperfect and incomplete human beings resist the temptation to sacralize their earthly arrangements, as the classical notion of sovereignty demands they must.


Jean Bethke Elshtain is Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics in the University of Chicago Divinity School, the Department of Political Science, and the Committee on International Relations. 

© 1998  University of Notre Dame Press.  Reprinted with permission of the publisher and author.
Click the image below to return to the S&S home page.

Return to S&S Home Page