By Ignas Kalpokas
Sovereignty, once the key organising principle of the international system, has become increasingly problematic in today’s world. Globalisation, migration, the rise of international organisations, human rights, and transnational businesses – all of them have put sovereignty in question in their own ways. And yet, this post argues that the West currently faces a completely new sovereignty challenge, one that is, ultimately, also a question of the self. Drawing some inspiration from a 2010 book by Wendy Brown, I will endeavour to show that sovereignty, instead of being relegated to the margins of the modern world, has simply been disconnected from its usual referent – the state – and has taken new forms. And, the argument has it, this transformation underpins the West’s inability to deal with some of the most pertinent current crises.
In very general terms, sovereignty refers to the ultimate authority, decision-making capacity, and commandment of loyalty. It signifies exclusivity of power and non-interference from outside. In practical terms, however, sovereignty has always been connected with an idea, which legitimised the sovereign power and gave reasons for the latter’s exclusivity as well as for unconditional loyalty. First, this idea was the divine right of kings, later – the constitutive power of the people. Nowadays, it seems, the ultimate authority is becoming increasingly dispersed, with domestic decision-making and demands from outside state borders becoming more and more inseparable. However, this change has only led to new sovereign articulations. Only two such articulations will be looked at here: religious fundamentalism and (new) calls of national purpose. When faced with these articulations, the West, it transpires, is currently only capable of expressing deep concern and crazing over ice bucket challenges. Both have one trait in common: they are self-deceptions about doing something whereas real action is beyond wildest imagination.
Religious fundamentalism has been a concern for some time. However, until recently, it was mostly about terrorist networks, which caused general anxiety among the public in the West, and insurgencies somewhere beyond the everyday interests of the Western public. In contrast, the flow of Western citizens to fight in the Syrian conflict and the rise of the Islamic State (as well as the less headline-grabbing Boko Haram’s caliphate in Nigeria) has brought the issue at the forefront. The new Islamic State (IS) is different from, for example, the Taliban government in Afghanistan: whereas the latter was still territorial, somewhat attached to the idea of the state, the new caliphate is universal in its aspirations. Consequently, it cannot be fought against in the same way as a territorial enemy can be. And that difference is mirrored in the Western leaders’ indecision over how to deal with this new threat. Ultimately, the current IS could be defeated or severely weakened but the idea cannot. A certain interpretation of religious dogma is capable of commanding supreme authority, inducing unconditional loyalty, and making ultimate decisions of law and non-law, life and death – the precise attributes of sovereignty. And there seems to be very little to be done to counter the threat.
Of course, sovereignty can remain attached to a state. For that, however, a potent national ideology has to be formulated. That seems to be an old model but it is, in fact, a new twist in today’s world. In an era of pronounced internationalism, a bounded and aggressive ideology of the state at one point had seemed almost unimaginable. And yet, certain states, but Russia first and foremost, have proved the internationalists wrong. Driven by an inherently aggressive and expansionist Eurasian identity, purporting Russia to be a separate grand civilisation in and of itself, the Putin regime has embarked on military campaigns, first against Georgia and now against Ukraine. Tipping into and actively fostering the ideas of national grandeur and international dominance, Putin has been able to command astonishing support (with his personal ratings well over 80%) and take the international community by surprise. The inability of the West to adequately respond to the Russian threat is, to a significant extent, down to the inability to understand this renewed link between state and sovereignty. A corresponding mentality and vocabulary no longer exists in the West, and this is why the language of negotiations and sanctions continues indefinitely – as if Russia was playing by the same rules as the West. Meanwhile, any counter-balance is non-existent.
What is to be done, then? The ultimate challenge for the West (and, perhaps, the last one if it is failed) is the articulation of a new, potent, idea of the self, capable of fending off any challengers. The West must step up and enter the contest of new sovereignties under a new, joint, sovereign banner or be written off to the dustbin of history. This new, joint, sovereign banner is not a call for a new super-state as this would only amount to renewed commitment to old sovereignty. Instead, an overarching idea, capable of exerting supreme authority and commanding loyalty, one that is seen as worth being fought for, is needed. Human rights, equality, dignity – all of them could be seen as characterising the West but none of them are strong enough in the public psyche to make people fight for them. Prosperity and quality of life? Well, these ideas themselves are the opposite of fighting as they can be put in jeopardy by standing firm for something. Any religious identity is, obviously, out of question as well. And that is the real crisis and the real security challenge.
Far from being a call for some ‘clash of civilisations’, this post does make a call for new, bolder and more self-confident West. In a world of new sovereignties, a new Western sovereignty is crucial.
Ignas Kalpokas is a PhD student in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham
Image credit: Wikipedia Commons