15 January 2003
Byliner: Richard Haass on the Changing Nature of Sovereignty
(State official explores rights, responsibilities of nation states)
(The following is adapted from remarks by Ambassador Richard Haass,
director of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, to the
School of Foreign Service and the Mortara Center for International
Studies at Georgetown University in Washington on January 14.)
Sovereignty: Existing Rights, Evolving Responsibilities
By Ambassador Richard N. Haass
(The author is Director of the Policy Planning Staff at the U.S. State
Department. The following is adapted from remarks he made to the
School of Foreign Service and the Mortara Center for International
Studies at Georgetown University in Washington on January 14.)
Normally, American foreign policy is considered one issue at a time.
At the State Department, most in-boxes focus on single issues: Iraq or
North Korea, Colombia or Cote d'Ivoire, the WTO [World Trade
Organization] or NATO. U.S. diplomats seldom have the opportunity to
consider how these different pieces might relate to one another or
begin to form an overall pattern.
One of the perks of my job is the luxury to examine the bigger
picture. For the past two years, as Director of Policy Planning, I
have been privileged to be able to look at the entire mosaic of U.S.
foreign policy. George C. Marshall created the Policy Planning Staff
55 years ago, to provide a broad strategic perspective that could
guide and inform daily diplomacy. He gave George Kennan, its first
director, just two words of advice: "Avoid trivia."
As any of you who have served in government know all too well, this is
advice more easily given than heeded. Be that as it may, we try to
anticipate both challenges and opportunities, question conventional
wisdom, and identify long-term trends. This mandate has never been
more relevant. Today, as in the late 1940s, the United States finds
itself at the apex of global power. But new threats to U.S. national
security are surfacing; old doctrines are of limited value. Our
mission is to make sense of these global forces and craft effective
policy responses to them. It is to make sure that America uses its
Accomplishing this will not be easy, for international relations are
being transformed in multiple ways. Rather than try to cover all of
the relevant changes, tonight I am going to be selective and focus on
one of the most profound: the reality that sovereignty is neither
absolute nor unconditional. I will describe how views of sovereignty
are evolving, how the United States is adapting to this new world, and
how it affects us all.
History and Evolution
From Bosnia to Beijing to my birthplace of Brooklyn, just mentioning
"sovereignty" can get people's dander up. It goes to the heart of what
it means to be independent. But when people invoke the word, they
often mean different things. So let me begin by defining terms.
Historically, sovereignty has been associated with four main
characteristics: First, a sovereign state is one that enjoys supreme
political authority and a monopoly over the legitimate use of force
within its territory. Second, it is capable of regulating movements
across its borders. Third, it can make its foreign policy choices
freely. Finally, it is recognized by other governments as an
independent entity entitled to freedom from external intervention.
These components of sovereignty were never absolute, but together they
offered a predictable foundation for world order. What is significant
today is that each of these components -- internal authority, border
control, policy autonomy, and non-intervention -- is being challenged
in unprecedented ways.
This may not be immediately obvious. Sovereignty is so fundamental, so
embedded in our conceptions about the way our world works, that we
often take its existence for granted. We should not. Anyone doubting
this sentiment need only consider what history was like before the
territorial state became the main bearer of rights and
responsibilities in international society during the 17th and 18th
In Europe before sovereignty, political authority was shared by
empires, kingdoms, duchies, and city-states. Complicating matters
further, there was no clear boundary separating religious and secular
authority. Popes and kings claimed and fought over the same peoples
and territories. This patchwork of overlapping authorities proved
flammable when the wars of religion ignited following the Reformation.
This was the world that inspired Thomas Hobbes when he imagined life
in a state of nature. For most people, life was "nasty, poor, brutish,
In response, European rulers came to embrace sovereignty as a means to
maintain a basic level of order, both within individual countries and
in relations between and among them. A pivotal event in this process
was the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which recognized that states had
certain inherent rights, namely, exclusive jurisdiction within their
own territory, political independence, and full equality under
international law, including the right to conduct foreign policy. With
sovereignty came the norm against interference in the internal affairs
of other states. Within Europe, intervention became the exception
rather than the rule.
Sovereignty helped to stabilize Europe and, over time, the principle
spread. For China and Japan, recognition of their sovereign equality
by other states became a symbol of having arrived. Later, the desire
for sovereignty became the motivating force for the decolonization
movement that transformed international relations after World War II.
Sovereignty has been a source of stability for more than two
centuries. It has fostered world order by establishing legal
protections against external intervention and by offering a diplomatic
foundation for the negotiation of international treaties, the
formation of international organizations, and the development of
international law. It has also provided a stable framework within
which representative government and market economies could emerge in
many nations. At the beginning of the twenty-first century,
sovereignty remains an essential foundation for peace, democracy, and
At the same time, sovereignty is being challenged from both within and
without. Weak states struggle to exercise legitimate authority within
their territories. Globalization makes it harder for all nations to
control their frontiers. Governments trade freedom of action for the
benefits of multilateral cooperation. And outlaw regimes jeopardize
their sovereign status by pursuing reckless policies fraught with
danger for their citizens and the international community. We need to
adjust our thinking and our actions to these new realities.
Strengthening Weak States
One challenge to sovereignty arises when states have too little of it.
Around the world, many governments lack the legitimacy and capacity to
translate their nominal sovereignty into effective governance. Some
weak states find themselves confronting insurgents bent on their
overthrow or warlords seeking to dominate ungoverned regions.
Neighboring states may exploit these vulnerabilities to foment
rebellion or secessionist movements. Even where unified states exist,
government institutions may be crippled by corruption or captured by
criminals. When states cannot exercise their sovereign powers, they
court instability, even anarchy. They may collapse entirely and enter
the category of "failed states."
Until recently, we viewed states with a sovereignty deficit primarily
through a humanitarian lens. Failed states piqued our moral
conscience, but they appeared only loosely connected to national
security. During the 1990s, Somalia and Afghanistan tugged at our
heartstrings and sometimes our purse strings but we tended to dismiss
them as possessing little or no strategic relevance.
The attacks of September 11, 2001 reminded us that weak states can
threaten our security as much as strong ones, by providing breeding
grounds for extremism and havens for criminals, drug traffickers, and
terrorists. Such lawlessness abroad can bring devastation here at
home. One of our most pressing tasks is to prevent today's troubled
countries from becoming tomorrow's failed states.
How should we respond when weak states lack sovereign capacities? In
extraordinary circumstances, when a country collapses or is unprepared
for formal independence, the world community may need to assume many
of the responsibilities of a sovereign government. This is the role
the United Nations has played in East Timor, helping it make the
transition from a disputed province of Indonesia to a fully
independent state. Halfway around the world, the U.N. and NATO
continue to serve as the custodians of sovereignty in Kosovo, pending
a determination of its final status.
Where failing states are concerned, however, the old adage rings true:
An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The United Nations
estimates that the eight most expensive cases of state collapse during
the 1990s cost the international community in excess of $250 billion
[$250,000 million]. How much cheaper it would have been to bolster
state capacities before they collapsed, rather than trying to put the
pieces together afterwards. With this end in mind, the United States
is using its economic, technical, and military assistance to give
vulnerable countries the tools they need to fulfill the
responsibilities of sovereignty.
At the Monterrey Summit last March, President Bush announced the
creation of a Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), designed to
strengthen states willing to embark on the path to stability and
development. The MCA will increase U.S. foreign assistance by 50
percent over the next three years. But this bold initiative goes
beyond dollars; it represents a new approach to foreign aid, based on
the principle of co-responsibility. To be eligible for this new source
of U.S. resources, governments must commit themselves to ruling
justly, promoting economic freedom, and investing in people.
Around the world, the United States is helping partner governments
defeat violent challenges to their sovereign authority. In South
America, we are assisting the Colombian government in battling
narcoterrorists who threaten the very fabric of society. From the
Caucasus to Southeast Asia to the Horn of Africa, we are working with
countries on the front lines of terrorism to improve their capacities
to respond to internal threats. In both Georgia and the Philippines,
for example, we have launched "train and equip" programs to enhance
The United States is also doing its share to rebuild countries
emerging from war and strife. In Afghanistan alone, over 20 U.S.
agencies operate on the ground, delivering $840 million worth of aid
that we have committed to humanitarian and reconstruction efforts.
Working with Afghan and international partners, we are helping local
authorities resettle refugees, restore physical security, build
government institutions, and jump-start economic activity. You can see
similar efforts in the Balkans, where the United States is working
with NATO, the EU, the OSCE, and countless nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs), to complete the task of making Europe whole,
free, and at peace.
Regulating Globalization's Downside
The second great challenge to sovereignty is posed by globalization,
which is straining the capacity of all states to police their
frontiers, regulate cross-border flows, and protect citizens from
Globalization is the sum total of connections and interactions
political, economic, social, and cultural that compress distance and
increase the permeability of traditional boundaries to the rapid flow
of goods, capital, people, ideas, and information. It goes beyond
simple interdependence, which implies that states affect one another.
It describes an explosion of cross-border transactions and flows,
driven primarily by non-state actors that frequently operate outside
the effective control of national governments.
Besides providing tangible "goods," globalization facilitates the flow
of numerous "bads." The same networks that channel billions [thousands
of millions] of dollars in investment capital around the world every
day can also transmit financial contagion. The same structure of
global production that brings opportunity to poor regions can generate
trans-boundary pollution. The same Internet that links continents can
be used to coordinate criminal enterprises. The same flow of
scientific expertise that enables medical breakthroughs can put the
power to kill thousands in the hands of terrorists.
Globalization requires regulation. Governments must devote political
will and resources to regain sovereign control over cross-border flows
that endanger their well-being and security. The United States must
act alone at times, but mostly with others to track down terrorist
networks, attack the global drug trade, end trafficking in human
beings, stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, control
the spread of infectious diseases, and mitigate the destabilizing
impact of rapid financial flows.
The global struggle against terrorism shows how we are adapting our
conceptions of sovereignty to deal with today's threats. Over the past
year, the United States, working on a bilateral basis as well as with
such multilateral forums as the G-8 [Group of Eight industrialized
nations] and APEC [Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum], has
championed the Container Security Initiative. This effort is designed
to prevent terrorists from exploiting international trading networks
while simultaneously ensuring that legitimate goods can move more
efficiently than ever. Accordingly, U.S. Customs officials are now
working the docks of Halifax and Antwerp alongside their foreign
counterparts. Soon they will be in Hong Kong and Singapore. In
parallel fashion, our foreign partners will dispatch inspectors to
help us check outbound cargo in American ports.
We are taking parallel steps to control other dangerous cross-border
flows. As part of our arms control and non-proliferation efforts, we
have helped strengthen export controls to prevent the spread of
weapons. These supplier groups, including the Missile Technology
Control Regime, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Australia Group,
which restricts the spread of chemical and biological weapons-related
materials and know-how. We are pursuing a similar arrangement to
regulate trade in portable rocket launchers, weapons that, as we saw
last month in Kenya, represent a growing danger to civil aviation.
We have also supported initiatives to combat money laundering by
criminals and terrorists. For example, we have helped reinvigorate the
Financial Action Task Force, an international regime that improves
transparency in global financial flows by promoting "best practices"
and "naming and shaming" those who do not adopt them.
Finally, we are responding to infectious diseases that threaten the
lives of millions. We have offered the largest single contribution to
the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, an
innovative public-private partnership established to battle the
world's most dangerous plagues.
The third challenge to sovereignty is the trend toward voluntarily
pooling or delegating sovereign rights to gain the benefits of
multilateral cooperation. As the distinction between "foreign" and
"domestic" fades and as national economies become more integrated with
global markets, all peoples and governments are finding it harder to
achieve security, prosperity, and well being through purely national
Debates over ceding sovereignty voluntarily can prove heated, as
citizens imagine the implications for their national identity and
democratic institutions. We see this today in Europe, where countries
are relinquishing independence to a degree not seen since the age of
Charlemagne. In a step inconceivable two generations ago, the mark,
franc, and lira have been replaced by the euro. Even as it plans a new
round of expansion, the European Union is hard at work at a federal
constitution that is likely to require extensive grants of sovereignty
from national governments to a stronger European Parliament,
Commission, and Council and perhaps even a European president. This
transformation is reminiscent of (and potentially as profound as) the
transition that our own country made more than two centuries ago, when
we moved from a loose collection of states under the Articles of
Confederation to an effective federal union under the Constitution.
Outside of Europe, few countries are prepared to grant such authority
to supranational institutions. But all nations confront a basic,
recurrent dilemma: when to trade off freedom of action for enhanced
capacity to shape their future. Experience has taught that it often
makes sense for countries, even one as powerful as the United States,
to delegate sovereignty to international institutions, in return for
tangible benefits that might not otherwise be within reach.
In our own daily lives, exchanging absolute freedom of action for the
long-term collective good is something we do all the time. When we
drive a car, we obey traffic laws, both for our own safety and the
safety of others and we count on others to do the same. Imagine the
chaos if some of us drove on the left rather than the right, or if
some drivers kept their headlights off at night.
International order, like social order, depends on "rules of the
road." Cooperation among sovereign states is possible only if they
accept some restraints on their conduct and recognize reciprocal
obligations. This begs the question: When should the United States
delegate some of its sovereignty to join in multilateral institutions
or treaties? The only responsible answer is: "It depends." The
operative question when we consider any proposed international
institution is whether the benefits of a proposed arrangement which
may include greater predictability, burden-sharing, and international
legitimacy outweigh the costs including lost policy autonomy and
At times, a grant or delegation of sovereignty is warranted. Take the
case of trade. During the 1930s, countries tried to reduce
unemployment and increase domestic output by raising prohibitive
tariffs and other barriers to imports, as well as by competitive
devaluation of their currencies in order to encourage exports and
discourage imports. Other countries soon retaliated in kind. Global
commerce collapsed, and the world spiraled downward into the Great
Recognizing the peril of such "beggar thy neighbor" policies in which
everyone loses, the United States in the late 1940s spearheaded the
creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, a
forum for mutually agreed reductions in trade barriers. GATT proved
wildly successful. By the end of the twentieth century, global trade
volume was 22 times what it had been 1950. Still, this system proved
unable to resolve many of the toughest trade disputes. The result was
to limit the benefits of open commerce, notably higher growth, better
jobs, and cheaper consumer goods.
The creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 introduced
a robust multilateral system to resolve trade disputes. Under this
arrangement, WTO members must submit complaints to a binding dispute
settlement mechanism, instead of taking action unilaterally. If
members fail to comply, they must either provide mutually acceptable
compensation or open themselves to sanctions. The United States
supports this system of resolving disputes not because we are certain
that the tribunal will always rule in our favor, but because American
consumers, exporters, and investors have a fundamental interest in an
open trading system governed by the rule of law.
In a similar vein, the United States voluntarily gave up some freedom
of action in ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention. The CWC is the
first international agreement to outlaw the production, transfer, and
use of an entire class of weapons poison gas. Its inspection regime is
intrusive, requiring all parties to open their military installations
and chemical industry facilities to international scrutiny. But like
the WTO, the benefits of limiting freedom of action far outweigh the
costs. Having already foresworn chemical weapons, we have little to
lose from inspections. And we have a great deal to gain from a CWC
that helps us to verify compliance by 140 other signatories and
ostracize governments like Saddam Hussein s that continue to resist
the abolition of these horrific weapons.
Sometimes, however, we must decide to forgo participation in
multilateral endeavors. One example is our decision not to join the
International Criminal Court (ICC). The U.S. commitment to the
principles of international justice is well established. We were at
the forefront in creating ad hoc war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and
the Former Yugoslavia. At the same time, we have concluded that we
cannot support the ICC in its current form, because it would place
U.S. citizens at the risk of politically motivated prosecution, in a
system without basic checks and balances, and without the right of
A second case is our decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.
While we are cognizant of the problem of global climate change and
committed to mitigating its impact, we consider the treaty to be a
flawed document that would place a disproportionate burden of
adjustment on the United States, while imposing no binding commitments
on major countries in the developing world, including China and India.
Kyoto would deliver little environmental gain but much economic pain.
Not a Blank Check
The final challenge to sovereignty I want to highlight arises not when
states cede it voluntarily but when it is taken away. This is the
result of one of the most significant developments of the past
decades: the emerging global consensus that sovereignty is not a blank
check. Rather, sovereign status is contingent on the fulfillment by
each state of certain fundamental obligations, both to its own
citizens and to the international community. When a regime fails to
live up to these responsibilities or abuses its prerogatives, it risks
forfeiting its sovereign privileges including, in extreme cases, its
immunity from armed intervention.
I believe that exceptions to the norm of non-intervention are
warranted in at least three circumstances.
The first qualification of sovereignty comes when a state commits or
fails to prevent genocide or crimes against humanity on its territory.
The international community then has the right and, indeed, in some
cases, the obligation to act to safeguard the lives of innocents.
As Czech President Vaclav Havel said at the NATO summit in Prague in
November, "human life, human freedom and human dignity represent
higher values than state sovereignty." A growing body of humanitarian
and human rights law, enshrined in the Genocide Convention and the
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, recognizes that individuals,
as well as states, possess fundamental rights.
Governments that commit such offenses or out of choice or weakness
allow such offenses to occur must be held to account. Non-intervention
is no longer sacrosanct, even at the United Nations, a body formed by
and committed to sovereign states. As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi
Annan declared in September 1999, "States bent on criminal behavior
[should] know that frontiers are not an absolute defense that massive
and systematic violations of human rights wherever they may take place
should not be allowed to stand."
Within the developing world, too, there is a budding recognition that
sovereignty must have limits. We see this in the founding act of the
African Union, which recently replaced the Organization of African
Unity (OAU). In contrast to the OAU, which regarded non-interference
as a bedrock principle, the new African Union commits all members to
respect human rights and good governance, establishing a peer review
mechanism to monitor compliance with these commitments. We witness a
similar evolution in the Western Hemisphere, where all the members of
the Organization of American States except Cuba have committed to a
Democratic Charter, pledging to oppose any interruption of democratic
We see a comparable change in international views of state
responsibilities to fight terrorism. This is the second point of
growing global consensus: Quite simply, countries have the right to
take action to protect their citizens against those states that abet,
support, or harbor international terrorists, or are incapable of
controlling terrorists operating from their territory.
As President Bush declared in releasing the National Security
Strategy, "All nations have important responsibilities. Nations that
enjoy freedom must actively fight terror." The United States stands
prepared to assist governments in meeting this solemn responsibility.
And when states are reluctant or unwilling to meet this baseline
obligation, we will act ideally with partners, but alone if necessary,
to hold them accountable.
Finally, states risk forfeiting their sovereignty when they take steps
that represent a clear threat to global security. When certain regimes
with a history of aggression and support for terrorism pursue weapons
of mass destruction, thereby endangering the international community,
they jeopardize their sovereign immunity from intervention including
anticipatory action to destroy this developing capability.
The right to self-defense including the right to take "pre-emptive"
action against a clear and imminent threat has long been recognized in
international law and practice. The challenge today is to adapt the
principle of self-defense to the unique dangers posed by the
proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Traditionally,
international lawyers have distinguished between pre-emption against
an imminent threat, which they consider legitimate, and "preventive
action" taken against a developing capability, which they regard as
problematic. This conventional distinction has begun to break down,
however. The deception practiced by rogue regimes has made it harder
to discern either the capability or imminence of attack. It is also
often difficult to interpret the intentions of certain states, forcing
us to judge them against a backdrop of past aggressive behavior. Most
fundamentally, the rise of catastrophic weapons means that the cost of
underestimating these dangers is potentially enormous. In the face of
such new threats and uncertainties, we must be more prepared than
previously to contemplate what, a century-and --half ago, Secretary of
State Daniel Webster labeled "anticipatory self-defense."
The Responsibilities of Sovereignty
In all three of the situations I have just outlined stopping genocide,
fighting terrorism, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass
destruction, the principle remains the same: With rights come
obligations. Sovereignty is not absolute. It is conditional. When
states violate minimum standards by committing, permitting, or
threatening intolerable acts against their own people or other
nations, then some of the privileges of sovereignty are forfeited.
The world is still groping towards consensus on the obligations of
sovereignty and on the steps that are warranted when states refuse to
live up to them. In all cases, the bar to armed intervention must be
set high. It cannot be a blanket response to every unsavory despot.
The Bush Administration is mindful of the need for prudence and
restraint in taking action against another state's sovereignty. As
Secretary of State Powell said on September 6, 2002, any such action
"must be used with great care and judiciousness and with a clear
understanding of the obligations that we have as a responsible member
of the international community."
The reason for prudence is clear-cut. Although sovereignty is less
absolute and more contingent than in the past, it remains, as it has
been for the past three-and-a-half centuries, a central pillar -- and
arguably the central pillar -- of world order. We do not want to
return to a world in which governments routinely intervene in one
another's affairs. In an age of advanced conventional weapons and new
instruments of mass destruction, this would be a recipe for
catastrophe. Accordingly, there should be a general presumption in
favor of respecting sovereignty. But as my remarks this evening
suggest, we need to strike a new balance between the rights and
responsibilities of states. This new conception of sovereignty must
adjust to the needs of weak states, adapt to the forces of
globalization, accommodate the need for cooperation, and address the
problem of outlaw regimes. Our capacity to achieve this new balance
will go a long way toward determining whether we are able to create a
world that is more secure and more just.
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)