Countries Should Mind Their Own Business

Two cheers for a classic idea that’s been out of fashion for too long: state sovereignty.

US President Donald Trump attends the UN Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23, 2019 at the United Nations Headquaters in New York City.
US President Donald Trump attends the UN Climate Action Summit on Sept. 23, 2019 at the United Nations Headquaters in New York City. JOHANNES EISELE/AFP via Getty Images

What’s the dumbest idea affecting the foreign policy of major powers? There are plenty of candidates—the domino theory; the myth of the short, cheap war; the belief that a particular deity is “on the side” of one nation and will guarantee its success; etc. But right up there with those worthy contenders is a country’s belief that it has found the magic formula for political, economic, social, and international success and that it has the right, the responsibility, and the ability to spread this gospel far and wide.

In some cases, this impulse arises from (mostly) benevolent aims: The leaders of some country genuinely believe that spreading (through force, if necessary) their ideals and institutions to others will genuinely benefit the recipients. Defensive motives may also be operating: A state may believe that it cannot be reliably secure unless other countries have similar if not identical institutions. U.S. leaders once worried that America could not survive alone in a world dominated by fascism, and Joseph Stalin believed the Soviet Union needed “friendly” countries on its borders, by which he meant countries governed by Leninist parties patterned after the Soviet model.

Of course, such claims may simply be a reassuring story that ruling elites propagate to justify aggressive actions undertaken for more selfish reasons. Whatever the motivation, if their efforts were successful the world would gradually converge on a single model for political, economic, and social life. Individual national variations would be modest and declining in importance, limited to purely local concerns (such as national holidays, cuisine, preferred musical styles, etc.). In theory, even some of these features might begin to lose their individual features over time.

This hasn’t happened, however, due to an intriguing paradox. Thus far, the only political form that has commanded nearly universal global acceptance is the territorial state itself, along with the closely related idea of nationalism. As Hendrik Spruyt, Stephen Krasner, Dan Nexon, and others have explored, the territorial state was only one of several political forms coexisting in early modern Europe, and its eventual emergence as the dominant political form was a contentious process that might have turned out differently. Many factors contributed to its ultimate success, and one of them was the idea of sovereignty: the principle that every government got to run its own affairs as its rulers (or, eventually, its citizens) saw fit. And once that principle took firm hold, individual local variations were reinforced and entrenched.

Add to this notion the emerging idea of nationalism—the belief that different groups of people have distinct identities based on language, culture, shared history, etc. and that such self-aware groups are entitled to govern themselves—and you have a couple of powerful and mutually reinforcing ideals. As John Mearsheimer argues in The Great Delusion, nations want their own state so that they can protect themselves in an insecure world, and states often encourage nationalism in order to unify the population and enhance state power.

The gradual spread of these twin ideas—nationalism and sovereignty—has had far-reaching if uneven effects. Nationalism undermined and eventually destroyed the Spanish, Portugeuse, British, French, Belgian, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Soviet empires, and decolonization eventually swelled the United Nations from its original 50-odd members to nearly 200 states today. In this way, the territorial state became the dominant political form in the contemporary world, but the specific content within each state still varied enormously. Democracies, monarchies, oligarchies, one-party authoritarians, military dictators, religious regimes, etc. all coexisted within the basic framework of the sovereign state, along with a number of different economic systems.

Throughout this process, a number of countries have at one time or another seen themselves as models for the rest, and they have tried in various ways to convince others to adopt their formula. The leaders of revolutionary France sought to topple foreign monarchs and spread liberty to Europe and beyond, and Napoleon subsequently tried to impose his own order on the countries he had conquered. Soviet Russia was explicitly committed to spreading its particular form of socialism, and pan-Arabists, Nasserites, and assorted Islamic fundamentalists have sought to convince or coerce others into adopting their preferred model within the Arab and Islamic world.

Although Americans were initially ambivalent about whether their newfangled republic could be a model for others, confidence that other states would benefit if they become more like the United States grew as the country rose to great-power status and became the world’s strongest power. The impulse to remake the world in America’s image kicked into overdrive when the so-called unipolar moment arrived: The tides of history seemed to be running America’s way, liberal democratic capitalism was said to be the inevitable end point of political and social development, and there were no rival great powers who could prevent the United States from wielding its vast economic and military power in the service of liberal ideals.

Not surprisingly, in the unipolar era the United States increasingly favored a one-size-fits-all approach to other countries. Foreign countries may still have been regarded as formally sovereign, but the United States increasingly sought to influence (if not dictate) some of their national policy decisions. In the military realm, states that sought weapons of mass destruction were sanctioned, ostracized, attacked, or overthrown, even as U.S. leaders declared that America’s own nuclear arsenal was still essential for its security. Rising powers such as China were advised to forgo “advanced military capabilities” on the grounds that this was “an outdated path” that would “hamper its own pursuit of national greatness.”  (For some strange reason, Beijing chose to ignore this friendly advice.) Where possible, the United States sought to recruit new states into security institutions that it already led, thereby obtaining more influence over other states’ security policies.

In politics, Washington sought to promote democracy where and when it could, whether by providing money and advice to nascent civil society groups, supporting human rights more generally, or acting to topple regimes that were unlucky or unwise enough to attract Washington’s particular ire. The goal, as President George W. Bush put it, was “a generation of democratic peace,” and U.S. power could be used to speed up the timetable and get the globe there as quickly as possible.

Lastly, as my colleague Dani Rodrik argues convincingly, U.S. efforts to promote what he calls “hyperglobalization” led other states to alter their domestic arrangements in ways that would attract foreign capital, expand trade opportunities, and bring them into greater conformity with U.S. preferences. Whether in the form of the 1990s Washington Consensus or trade agreements like the stillborn Trans-Pacific Partnership, a world with fewer barriers to the movement of goods, people, or capital left national governments less able to chart their own course or insulate their populations from global market forces. As practiced, globalization meant states either had to put on what Tom Friedman dubbed “the Golden Straightjacket” or fall by the wayside.

The past 15 years has not been kind to this ambitious vision of a world increasingly united by shared values and similar institutions. Efforts to prevent adversaries from acquiring WMD were only partly successful (and at considerable cost). Key states such as China did not liberalize as expected yet continued to prosper. The spread of democracy slowed, stalled, and then went into reverse, and the state of America’s own democracy become deeply troubling.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, a broad backlash against globalization was underway, whether in the form of Brexit, Trumpism, the growing segmentation of the internet, and the partial decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies. As I’ve written elsewhere, the pandemic has accelerated and deepened these tendencies, and raised the walls that the United States and others had been trying to lower before the arrival of Donald Trump.

The common taproot to these various trends is simple. It is the desire of leaders or peoples in different states to have a greater say in how they live, even if it means somewhat less material prosperity. The leaders of the Brexit campaign may have been supremely cynical in the many false claims they made to sell their scheme, but the supporters who voted to “take back control” were utterly sincere. They wanted to defend a particular way of life against changes they saw as disruptive and as threats to a cherished “way of life.” Much the same instinct lies behind efforts to curb immigration in many countries, or the every-state-for-itself impulse that is leading many nations to seek a COVID-19 vaccine for themselves first and others later.

What we are seeing, in short, is a reassertion of sovereign independence on the part of great and small powers alike. The Westphalian model of sovereignty has never been absolute or uncontested, but the idea that individual nations should be (mostly) free to chart their own course at home remains deeply embedded in the present world order. The territorial state remains the basic building block of world politics, and, with some exceptions, states today are doing more to reinforce that idea than to dilute it.

Although there are clearly areas where our future depends on states agreeing to limit their own freedom of action and conform to global norms and institutions, greater respect for sovereignty and national autonomy has some obvious benefits. First, states that interfere in foreign countries rarely understand what they are doing, and even well-intentioned efforts often fail due to ignorance, unintended consequences, or local resentment and resistance. A stronger norm of noninterference could make some protracted conflicts less likely or prolonged.

Second, trying to impose a single model on other countries inevitably raises threat perceptions and increases the risk of serious great-power conflict. The Westphalian idea of sovereignty was created in part to address this problem: Instead of continuing to fight over which version of Christianity would hold sway in different countries (one of the key drivers of the wars that preceded the Westphalian peace), European states agreed to let each ruler determine the religious orientation of their realm. Similarly, a powerful state’s efforts to shape the domestic arrangements of another country will inevitably be seen as threatening by the target: Just look at how Americans now react to the possibility of Russian interference in our political system.

Third, creating a more stable international economic order while preserving most of the benefits of trade and comparative advantage will require fashioning trade and economic arrangements that permit great national autonomy, even at the price of slightly lower global growth rates. Not only might this reduce the risk of global financial panics, but allowing individual states greater freedom to set the terms of their international economic engagement could also reduce the anti-free trade backlash that is currently fueling costly trade wars.

Finally, a world in which a single political and economic model prevails is probably impossible anyway, at least for the foreseeable future. To believe that one size could fit all ignores the enormous diversity that still exists in the world and the powerful tendency for ideas and institutions to morph and evolve as they travel from their point of origins. Take pop music: Elvis Presley creates a new amalgam of rhythm and blues, gospel, and rockabilly (with a jolt of testosterone), his influence arrives in England and helps inspire the Beatles, who lead the “British invasion” of America in the 1960s, which then combines with Bob Dylan and the folk music movement to create the sound of groups like The Byrds. Or look at how Lin-Manuel Miranda combined hip-hop with his deep appreciation of traditional Broadway styles to create something new like Hamilton. These examples just scratch the surface of how music changes when different cultural streams begin to interact; I could just as easily have cited examples from Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, or the Silk Road.

Because humans are boundlessly creative social beings who resist conformity, and because no social or political arrangements are ever perfect, dissidents will always arise and contending visions will emerge no matter how fiercely they are repressed. Institutions created in one place may travel to other locations, but they will mutate and evolve in the process and exhibit different forms wherever they take root.

And that’s why I’ll raise two cheers for the (partly) sovereign state. A world made up of contending nationalisms is hardly a utopia, with the ever-present possibility of conflict and war and many obstacles to mutual cooperation. But trying to fit a diverse humanity into a uniform box is doomed to fail—and no small source of trouble as well. Even if we hold certain values to be sacred and are tempted to act when other states violate them, continued respect for boundaries and sovereignty is also a norm that can keep simmering rivalries in check. Libya would not have multiple powers interfering in it today had Britain, France, and the United States not decided to meddle there back in 2011.

As A.J.P. Taylor once archly observed, leaders in the 19th century “fought ‘necessary’ wars and killed thousands; the idealists of the 20th century fought ‘just’ wars and killed millions.” Looking ahead, greater respect for national sovereignty and fewer efforts to force the whole world into one way of living will help emerging rivalries stay within bounds and help countries with very different values cooperate on those critical issues where their interests overlap.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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