Sovereigntism on Steroids

by Peter Spiro

Just when you might have thought it a little safer to go out at night, we have a strong offensive articulation of a sovereignty-based foreign policy to twin with the more traditional defensive one. Anna Simons and her co-authors set out “The Sovereignty Solution” in the latest edition of The American Interest (unfortunately available neither online or Lexis, but perhaps with a lengthy John Bolton interview worth the $8.95 newsstand price – or just take away what I give you here for free) by way of a new entry in the continuing Name Our Next Foreign Policy sweeps. The basic idea: let others be sovereign, too, except if they bother the US, in which case they should be blown to smithereens.

The piece reflects a sort of nostalgia for the order that sovereignty used to represent. To the extent “there is no habitable space on this planet that does not nominally belong to a government somewhere,” if we make governments accountable for the space they nominally control, well, everything will be okay. Simons et al. would divide the world into partner states, struggling states, adversary states, and failed states, all according to their willingness/ability to control threats to the US emanating from within their territory. Watch out if you’re an adversary state, with respect to which the sovereignty solution “dictates that the US government go ugly early.”

As for failed states, “somebody represents authority within every population on earth, and therefore bears responsibility for failing to adequately police his population.” If that entity – a warlord, “a group of elders” or the like – doesn’t respond to US demands to control a threat, “the reaction will be an overwhelming application of force to obliterate the violators and their supporters.” Civilians? Not a problem: “whole neighborhoods may need to be considered accessories to terrorism, and, if so, we should not hesitate to hold all of those people responsible for violations of our sovereignty when we use force.” No word on how we really figure out who is actually responsible for what, as if sponsor states and other actors, including whole neighborhoods, will stick “kick me” posters on their backsides.

By way of legitimizing the approach we have this puzzling formulation: “holding states accountable for their actions is sustainable because it draws power from the U.S. Constitution, resonates with how Americans typically behave toward one another, and is not a policy that can be shattered by surprise or attack.” Oh, and “U.S. government-sponsored foreign aid welfare needs to stop.”

Not surprising that Simons’ three co-authors are identified as officers of the US Army Special Forces (she is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School). I would dismiss this as borderline nut-stuff if not for the placement in a respectable policy journal (the last issue carried a much more moderated manifesto for a Concert of Democracies). I don’t think we really have to worry about any of this getting anywhere close to an inter-agency memo, but it’s an interesting articulation of the sovereignty logic at an extreme.

(Speaking of old New Sovereigntists, I was glad to see that political scientist Jeremy Rabkin has joined the law faculty at George Mason, where he will now presumably be even more in circulation in IL circles. One can count on Rabkin for an articulate and uncompromising sovereigntist perspective, at the same time that he is happy to mix it up with those of us who are not exactly fellow travelers. Welcome, Jeremy!)

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