This essay is dedicated to exploring the concept of sovereignty in the modern world. People talk a lot about globalization moving the world towards multipolarity and erosion of the state boundaries, but are its effects really significant? In this essay I will comment on globalization from different perspectives, while trying to determine what the concept of sovereignty means in the context of each on them and what does globalization change in its different manifestations. The main idea of my text is
that the concept of sovereignty has changed over time in multiple ways, and as globalization certainly has some influence on what sovereignty is considered to be, we can not really say that the concept was “eroded” in some way – because we really never had a norm, which could be counted as a starting point.
All the reviews of the thought on globalizations usually begin with naming Francis Fukuyama’s “The end of history” and refuting him. But thoughts on economic and political globalization do not necessarily include the concept of the “end of history”. As Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt claimed in their famous book in 2000, in the modern world we cannot really conceptually talk about separate states interacting with each other – but rather about a united Empire. Founded on the basis of
worldwide capitalism, the Empire pursues a goal of economic and cultural unification: everything, which is outside the Empire, is considered by it to be barbaric – and therefore, standing not just out of culture per se, but out of time and space, existing as if only by the means of natural laws, not human ones.
Therefore, political conflicts between states take place, but the states still present a political unity – a decentralized Empire, where capital reigns. In this logic, it is not really possible to talk about sovereignty: states consider themselves to be sovereign, however Marxist IR theorists would say that it is a manifestation of false consciousness: all the political conflict take place in order to hide an initial
consensus, based on capital. However, this remains more of a polit-theoretical claim, than a concept which can be fully applied to analysis of international relations. The same goes for Jurgen Habermas’ project of a postnational constellation and European Union, united under one Constitution – the Constitution, despite the followers of a habermasian pro-globalization project, was not yet approved by the European countries.
Of course European Union is still a very important example of international ooperation of states and an exercise of distributed sovereignty. However, as Brexit case shows, the real foundation of the European Union and possibility of creating a united political organization based on consensus and deliberative ethics is doubtful. The latest decade was marked with an uprising of ring-wing populist parties in western democratic countries. Donald Trump won the presidential election in the USA,
Emmanual Macron and Viktor Orban – in European countries. More and more young people tend to become eurosceptics. As Ernesto Laclau state in his book “On populist reason”, the rise of right-wing populism in contemporary Europe has a structural cause. According to Laclau, populism functions as a creation of empty signifiers to center the discourse around: the key role here play the signifiers of a nation, “the people”. In this sense, populism confronts globalization, as it centers itself around
Fukuyama F. sovereignty of decisions of “the people”, which are made in accordance with their affects and feelings,not to some procedure of global universal deliberation.
Moreover, talking of political globalization, it is hard to miss the fact that globalization brought with itself a drastic change in the concept of war. States are no longer main actors of international warfare: they are still usually the sides of conflicts, but they do not wish to explicitly announce themselves as being involved into an open military conflict. If during most of the human history sovereignty was seen as something, what states show by exercising power and clearly marking the
monopoly on legitimate use of violence, in the contemporary world we can see that states avoid openly engaging into conflicts. In some sense, we can say that all the states became much less sovereign: nuclear weapons mean that states can not start wars with each other at will; international organizations memberships means that diplomacy has become much more complex than in used to be, for example, during the Cold War or earlier; economic globalization and interconnection mean that a state is dependent upon sanctions of the international community. Of course, the level of interconnection is not that big: authoritarian regimes can be still engaged in military actions with their neighbors or assassinate people; but they still have to negotiate with international community. If before globalization it would be considered a norm and a realization of the interest of the state, nowadays authoritarian regimes have to
shift towards a more hybrid ones, with one hand performing all the same authoritarian practices, but still negotiating with international community with the other hand. Before globalization this would be considered interference into internal affairs and a threat to sovereignty. Nowadays no one can say, that this really means that a state seized to be sovereign: an authoritarian regime remains to be authoritarian, and can not be easily overthrown by sanctions or by the fact that it now has troubles with
declaring a war. This means that the notion of sovereignty has gradually changed. Instead of openly showing brutality and ability to do anything a dictator now has to do quite the opposite to remain sovereign: skillfully hide his involvement into military actions by saying that it was not his army, but some private organizations or volunteers, or addressing legal documents or Constitution when accused
of power abuse. A sovereign now is someone who admits his non-sovereignty in some spheres and acts in accordance with the local restrictions.
The beginning of COVID pandemic returned the concept of sovereignty into the public discourse: the Schmittian notion of a sovereign as “the one who has power over announcing the state of emergency” was hugely discussed among political and social scientists. Some countries quickly started to return to nationalist rhetoric, starting calling the virus “Chinese virus” and blaming China authorities in either incompetence or a planned attack. The borders quickly started to close and the concept of
national security was introduced to the discourse again. The main criteria for state capacity in the first months of the pandemic became whether it was showing concerns with the health of its citizens by introducing lockdowns and strict control over citizen movement. As Giorgio Agamben wrote in multiple articles, dedicated to the pandemic, it only made clear what was already present in the society – that
we are living in a constant state of emergency, when the biopolitical sovereign decides when it becomes more explicit.
However, the situation with the virus can be viewed from the other standpoint as well. As Bruno Latour states in his article “Is this a dress rehearsal?”10, the pandemic is only a beginning of non-human actors influencing human lives in a serious way. According to him, in order to learn to live in a new world we have to take non-human agency much more seriously, preparing not just to fight with the “answer” of nature to human actions, but to understand it and to negotiate with nonhumans, while trying to
mitigate the consequences of the global warming and human interference with nature. Globalization in this sense does not only mean the unification of our forces in the fight against natural disasters and global warming, but a globalization in the sense of growing interdependence between humans and non-humans. The sovereignty in its former sense does not exist anymore, because the actions, which influence ecology, have visible consequences for all the countries at the same time. “Ecological sovereignty” does not exist anymore: one country can “infiltrate” the other by doing things to a third party – to non-human actors, which can also behave in different ways, “supporting” one side and interfering with the other. As Slavoj Zizek states11, only international cooperation could possibly allow us to face the challenges of the future, where humanity will have to solve some serious collective action problems such as fighting digital dictatorships and global ecological problems. He claimed, that the
pandemic is a good starting point for establishing a global healthcare security system, which would react on such cases and mitigate them before them become global. Nowadays, after more than a year since the start of the pandemic, we do not see any sort of international security system or any serious reasons for it to emerge: the situation of a pandemic is slowly being normalized and people do not really care about the virus anymore. However, the scale of international cooperation in fighting coronavirus is
unprecedented – and we can say that despite different states reacting in a “sovereign-like” way with a lot of protective measures and detentions of foreigners, this reaction was to a large extent dictated by the fact that the virus was clearly showing, that it did not care about the “national interests” and “sovereignty”: for nonhuman actors our borders do not exist.
All of these examples show us, that the concept of sovereignty has gradually changed, seizing to include some spheres (like ecology, war or some fields of economics) and adapting to it, without states seizing being perceived as sovereign and pursuing their own interests. At different times of human history different topics were perceived as being crucial to sovereignty: if at the Modern era a sovereign state would fight for its monopoly on information and establish censorship, in the modern era the authoritarian states are quite used to the existence of the Internet – trying to censor it more out of the necessity to keep state apparatus busy with investigations and politically motivated arrests, then of setting up a real goal of preventing people from gaining access to some information.
In conclusion I would like to say that states are still the main actors on the international area, and, as it seems, they are not going to give up their position easily – there are yet no political models, which are able to replace them. The concept of sovereignty is, however, in itself quite liquid. If a state can not use any weapon it wants to; if it is forced to international cooperation in developing a vaccine; if
it is dependent of economic sanctions – is it still sovereign? The states, of course, still remain the main actors of international relations and do not seem to give this position up. Some things, which would be considered an unacceptable violation of sovereignty in the past, are quite common today – and are not viewed as a threat to state’s agency, wholeness or sovereignty. It can not be said that somewhere exists
a “golden standard” of sovereignty, which can be used to compare with. The complex interdependence of all the international actors is entangling more and more seriously – and it will be quite interesting to see what awaits us in the future and how the concept of sovereignty in itself will be slowly developing and changing.
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