Frontier Justice

The Gypsy Scholar, Horace Jeffery Hodges, discussed the question of absolute national sovereignty in a recent post. It’s an important and difficult issue, and opinions vary greatly.

Here’s one view: national borders are never to be violated under any circumstances. Every nation has the right to conduct its internal affairs as it sees fit. In a world without an overarching and absolute standard of social rectitude, what right does any society have to criticize how another is organized? This nation may be a Western liberal democracy, that one an Islamic theocracy, that one a totalitarian dictatorship — but without any higher authority to which we may appeal, what could possibly justify one nation imposing its will upon another?

Here’s another: in the absence of such a higher authority, why should a nation not impose its will upon another? Within societies, individuals are part of a system of interlocking social obligations; to see to it that the network functions at all, individuals cede certain freedoms — most importantly, the freedom to impose their will upon others by any means they like — to the state. But nations stand in a different relation to one another: lacking any greater authority to which they may cede the use of force in the expectation of a just resolution of their differences, they confront each other in a Hobbesean “state of nature”. They will form alliances, and violate them, as they like; they may indeed enter into long-term cooperative agreements with suitable partners, and by honoring these treaties, increase their own reputations for trustworthiness — but at bottom it is power, and self-interest, that are paramount.

In such a “state-of-nature” relationship, there are enormous implicit costs: if my nation builds aircraft carriers, or increases the size of our army, yours must build them too, or lose military (and therefore diplomatic) parity. In fact, if your nation even thinks that this is what mine is doing, you must do so too, or risk all. The same principle can be seen, quite clearly, in nature itself: for example, a redwood tree makes a stupendous investment in trunk-building, for the sake of getting itself up above the other trees, up to where the sunlight is. Mightn’t they all just stop a few hundred feet lower, and save all that effort? Yes, but then those who violate the agreement would prosper easily, at the expense of the others. There is no mechanism here for punishing “cheaters”, so the trees simply strain upward to the limit of their natural ability, at enormous cost.

But we aren’t trees; we are rational agents. So perhaps all nations might work together to find a way out of this Hobbesean circle of arms-races and mutual distrust. The goal, it would seem, must be a functioning world government. But there are major obstacles.

The foremost is, of course, is the question of incentive. What do the most powerful nations stand to gain? When there are several of equal strength, they may indeed find in a world government a framework whereby they may be able to begin to “stand down”, freeing some of their wealth for diversion from military costs to improving the welfare of their own citizens. But the only way that such agreements are reliably enforceable is if the world body itself has the physical power of such coercion, and the only way this in turn can be is if the most powerful nations themselves have sufficient confidence in a world government that they are willing to place superior military power in its hands.

But for that to happen, not only must all parties trust that such a government will be above corruption, but there must also be broad agreement on the form of the government itself. What ought it to be? A numerically representative democracy? Would that not swiftly become merely an engine whereby the wealth of liberal nations, those of the slowest population growth, is voraciously consumed by teeming Third World countries? How can you ever expect a nation like the United States, which already stands alone in terms of power and influence, to submit to being tied down, like Gulliver, in this way? But without the actual concession of superior physical authority to a world government by the world’s mightiest nations, the project can never get off the ground.

What we have in fact seen, first in the League of Nations, and now in the United Nations, is a rudimentary and well-intentioned effort, helpful at times, but deeply and fundamentally flawed.

But in the absence of a reliable arbiter of international conflict, what, then, of the sovereignty of nations? Is it simply a “right”? I think that is utter nonsense; the very notion of “rights” is a purely human construction, and is subject to continuous revision. For that matter, what does it even mean to be an entity that might have a “right” to sovereignty in the first place? Is it purely a question of geographical borders? Of course not. How can a patch of land have rights? Whose rights, then, are violated when borders are? The citizenry’s? The government’s? What about situations where the government does not rule with the consent of the governed?

Well, that is still an internal matter, one might argue. If a government doesn’t rule with the consent of the people, then it is up to the citizens themselves, not other nations, to do something about it. But we will find ourselves on difficult moral ground here. If a sadistic megalomaniac succeeds in hijacking and imprisoning an entire nation, what then? Should the world give license to tyrants to use entire nations at their pleasure, simply because they have managed to subjugate them? And beyond the ordinary brutality one always sees in such situations, what about cases of genocide? And what about nations bled and ravaged by intractable civil war?

But there is more than just moral rectitude at stake. The noxious effects of toxic or dysfuctional governments can spill far beyond their own borders. Refugeeism, environmental destruction, and the creation of havens for dangerous international organizations are common results as well.

We have seen again and again how both the League of Nations and the UN, when confronted with such cases, have been paralyzed by internal disunity, philosophical incoherence, and, at bottom, their own inherent powerlessness.

So, when faced with other countries that are morally reprehensible (such as brutal, repressive, or genocidal tyrannies), toxic to their surroundings (such as failed states in constant turmoil, generating immense misery and hordes of refugees) or actually menacing (imagine a radical Islamic theocracy in possession of a nuclear arsenal), what are we to do? Until such time as a genuinely plenipotent world government exists — and don’t hold your breath — there is, I think, a rational procedure to follow, one that any nation that is sincerely interested in working toward a more united and peaceful world, but that is also sensible enough to recognize the Hobbesean realities of things as they actually are, should adopt (and, in general, they already do).

First, give the highest-level body — the UN — a chance. If such world bodies are ever going to work, then we must make every reasonable effort to give them the authority they need to do so. But as we saw in the UN’s feckless irresolution over Iraq, and the subversion of the US diplomatic effort by the corruption of the Oil-For-Food program, the UN simply cannot be relied upon to act.

Second, as broad a consensus, and as unified a coalition as possible, should be arrived at through normal diplomatic processes. If our position is really as reasonable as we think it is, then other like-minded nations ought to share our view as well. If they don’t, then we ought to be fully willing to take a long and searching look at why they don’t. We should make every effort not to act unilaterally.

But in the final analysis, and in the absence of a functional world government (and in the presence of a world still very much in a state of nature), we must continue to act in the defense of our interests, and to follow the guidance of our own conscience — together with friends and allies whenever we can, but, yes, alone if we must. But is there, in any meaningful sense, an absolute right of sovereignty, of inviolable borders? Absolutely not. The larger point is that the very concept of “rights” itself means little, in the absence of a framework in which they can be effectively guaranteed.

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