Special Report

Sovereignty

Sovereignty — the notion that governments are free to do what they want within their own territory — has provided the organizing principle of international relations for more than 350 years. Thirty-five years from now, sovereignty will no longer be sanctuary. Powerful new forces and insidious threats will converge against it. Nation-states will not disappear, ...

Sovereignty — the notion that governments are free to do what they want within their own territory — has provided the organizing principle of international relations for more than 350 years. Thirty-five years from now, sovereignty will no longer be sanctuary. Powerful new forces and insidious threats will converge against it.

Nation-states will not disappear, but they will share power with a larger number of powerful non-sovereign actors than ever before, including corporations, non-governmental organizations, terrorist groups, drug cartels, regional and global institutions, and banks and private equity funds. Sovereignty will fall victim to the powerful and accelerating flow of people, ideas, greenhouse gases, goods, dollars, drugs, viruses, e-mails, and weapons within and across borders. All of this traffic challenges one of the fundamentals of sovereignty: the ability to control what crosses borders. Sovereign states will increasingly measure their vulnerability not to one another but to forces of globalization beyond their control.

Impersonal forces aren’t the whole story, though. States in the future will sometimes choose to strip sovereignty from their fellow states. Similarly, a government that lacks the capacity or will to provide for the basic needs of its citizens will forfeit its sovereignty. That reflects not just moral scruple but also a hardheaded understanding that neglect — benign or otherwise — can generate destabilizing refugee flows and trigger state failure, which creates openings for terrorists. The 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo, which forced Serbia to give up control of the restive province after years of abusive rule, may well be a prototype for the future.

Implicit in all this is the notion that sovereignty is conditional, even contractual, rather than absolute. If a state sponsors terrorism, develops weapons of mass destruction, or conducts genocide, then it forfeits the normal benefits of sovereignty and opens itself up to attack, removal, or occupation. The diplomatic challenge will be to gain widespread support for principles of state conduct and a procedure for determining the remedy when these principles are violated.

States will also willingly choose to shed some of their sovereignty. This trend is well under way, most clearly in the trade realm. Governments agree to accept the rulings of the World Trade Organization because, on balance, they benefit from a rules-based international trading order, even if a particular ruling impinges on their right to protect national industries. Global climate change is also prompting limits on sovereignty. The Kyoto Protocol, which runs through 2012, requires signatories to cap greenhouse gas emissions. One can imagine an even more ambitious accord in which a larger number of governments, including the United States, China, and India, would accept stricter limits based on a recognition that they would be worse off if no country accepted such restraints.

All this adds up to a world that is not fully sovereign. But nor is it one of either world government or anarchy. The world 35 years from now will be semi-sovereign. It will reflect the need to adapt legal and political principles to a world in which the most serious challenges to order come from what global forces do to states and what governments do to their citizens rather than from what states do to one another.

Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The World: A Brief Introduction, to be published in May by Penguin.

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