Angels only, not men, could live in freedom, tranquillity and happiness, if they all exercised the sovereign power. -- Simón Bolívar.

AT THE present stage of the world's development the principle of the sovereignty of states constitutes the firmest groundwork of international organization. Sovereignty is to the community as liberty is to man: a fundamental right which may not, because of its very nature, emanate from an alien will. Exercising its sovereignty, a nation adopts the institutions its people want. By virtue of that sovereignty it enacts its own laws, defends its territory, declares and wages war, concludes alliances, signs treaties, accredits and receives diplomatic and consular representatives. In a word, it orders its own existence and coördinates it with that of others on a footing of juridical equality, mutual respect and harmonious creative collaboration. In this broadest sense sovereignty is indispensable.

The present stage of dwelling together of the nations may thus be defined as "the degree of balance between sovereignties." An upset of this balance implies the appearance of disorder, sooner or later ending in violence. It follows that whoever aims to eliminate war as a means of settling controversies between peoples must begin by strengthening the safeguards surrounding the sovereign, free and independent action of their governments.

This is the classic thesis. On it the political life of the American democracies has rested. To uphold it we have not only made incalculable moral sacrifices, but also have endured a whole succession of struggles and privations and have put forth efforts which are an index to the majestic nature of our destinies. In some cases they have led us to participate in conflicts which apparently had no connection with our own future.

It must, however, be pointed out that this crystal clear concept, which today seems incontrovertible, has not existed at all times in the past. The very word "sovereignty" as understood today was not included in the vocabulary of political theories until quite recently. So far as is known, it was Bodin who first used it, in 1577, in his treatise on "Republics." He then broadened the meaning which the word carried during the Middle Ages, when its sole connotation was to define the capacities of a monarch, or of some great lord who recognized no higher authority in his field of action than his own.

Concepts, like peoples, are subject to change. They are the fruits of creative imagination, which adapts the thinking machinery of the individual or of the human group to the temporary and variable reality of events. If they become fixed and rigid, paralysis ensues. Immobility is an admission of automatism. This permanent metamorphosis explains the modifications which the principle of the sovereignty of states has undergone through the centuries.

Pufendorf, in "De Jure Naturae et Gentium," laid down the rule that sovereignty is not an all-embracing and unrestricted power. In fact, the sovereignty of a nation must, if it is active, be limited to itself. This limitation is contained in the political institutions of the peoples.

But there is more to it than this. During the eighteenth century sovereignty admittedly was neither uniform nor homogeneous. Confederations of states stressed the need of distinguishing between the total sovereignty of the whole and the relative sovereignty of the component members. Throughout the nineteenth century, moreover, and still more after the First World War, statesmen gradually adopted a more flexible and human interpretation.

In 1932, a distinguished former Rumanian Minister of Foreign Affairs, M. Titulescu, asked: "Does the sovereignty of states constitute an obstacle to peace?" His answer was in the affirmative. In point of fact, unlimited sovereignty must necessarily lead to wars. The whole of international law is founded on the doctrine of sovereignty; but it would automatically cease to exist if sovereignty were not voluntarily confined within certain limits. Such limits do exist, and are called treaties. Thanks to them, two or more governments are able to subordinate their own individual rights in order to obtain a balance, either economic or political. Examples are commercial agreements, agreements regulating armaments, agreements for the common use of streams which serve as boundaries, etc. Every such agreement specifically results in some curtailment of freedom of action.

We thus find ourselves in the presence of a situation which outwardly is paradoxical: without sovereignty there can be no international law; yet in practice the notion of unrestricted sovereignty would overthrow order in the world. Alive to the seriousness of this, a French jurist, Le Fur, wrote: "To reconcile the sovereignty of the state with the rights of the international community is the crucial problem of Foreign Public Law."

The solution lies in a happy mean, similar to that which has made life within each country possible. The independence of the individual is indispensable to the welfare of the community; but the community would disappear if that individual independence were not organized in accordance with a system of legal and moral restrictions. Similarly, the sovereignty of every member is a basic requirement of international society, yet collective peace and progress require a partial relinquishment of separate national rights. The secret does not lie either in absolute independence or in complete submission, but in the reciprocity of mutual dependence.

The history of the nations has heretofore been nothing but an endless series of cruel struggles and deceptive and transitory appeasements. Sovereignty, appealed to by the weak in the hour of defense, is seized upon by the powerful as a weapon when they launch their onslaught. We find a similar phenomenon in natural history. The same substance which makes the defensive armor of the tortoise serves also for the lion's claw.

Man has a natural proclivity to consider every matter from the standpoint exclusively of its advantage to him. The result is that he instinctively tends to stress his rights, which are a benefit, and to neglect his duties, which imply an obligation. However, both ethically and politically there is not a single right that does not involve an immediate and accompanying duty. Social facts are like coins which bear on their obverse the effigy of something pleasant -- skill, security, abundance -- while on the reverse we see the austere figure of duty. Each side justifies and supplements the other. Even the most celebrated of all democratic proclamations -- the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen -- is largely conceived in the form of prohibitions, constituting a defensive safeguard for the individual against the power of the community.

Man is free, not because of the truth of Rousseau's romantic theory based on an erroneous assumption as to the original liberty of the "happy savage," but because society -- without which the life of the individual is inconceivable -- grants him that liberty in exchange for a series of checks and curbs that subordinate his actions to a common ideal.

In the "state of nature" spoken of in the "Contrat Social," each one was entitled to possess whatever he could win by his own strength. Even under a collective scheme of existence we have not wholly succeeded in emancipating ourselves from that situation of disorder and uncertainty. Might is right. And when the stronger does not gain his end by force of arms, he resorts to the artifices of diplomacy or achieves it by means of economic imperialism, bringing to bear the weight of his superior wealth.

Only one legitimate means of remedying this evil occurs to the mind of the investigator: to limit and coördinate sovereignties. Such limitation may be effected in one of two ways. It may be done by main force, the method advocated by the totalitarians. Or it may be done through the acceptance of an international superstructure, like that aimed at by the free nations united under the glorious canopy of democracy.


History teaches us that both these procedures have up to the present time failed. But while greed for power has failed because of congenital and natural incapacity, there is nothing to prove that humanity is fundamentally unable to achieve through collaboration and justice that which no empire has yet succeeded in gaining enduringly through arbitrary power and violence. In contrast, the repeated defeats suffered by imperialism are clear proof that peoples cannot be coördinated by a conqueror.

The cohesion which Hitler dreams of imposing on Europe as a basis for the general servitude of all the continents is neither new nor original. Before the wizard of Berchtesgaden embarked upon that adventure other men much more logically minded than he -- Alexander, Caesar and Charlemagne, to say nothing of Charles the Fifth and Napoleon -- attempted to unify the known world by force.

Three of these rulers, Alexander the Great, Caesar and Napoleon, started from a clearly Mediterranean conception of culture. The universe, in their opinion, ought to revolve around the idea which Greece or Rome or Paris (the latter as a synopsis of Græco-Latin evolution) had formed of civilization and of the rôle of man. In the case of the other two -- Charlemagne and, centuries later, Charles the Fifth -- their aspirations after unity were from the outset vitiated by a somber Gothic frenzy. In it the historian may, without undue effort, detect the stifling moral fogginess of the Germanic way of being. All five of them, however, left the same ruin behind them. And their action, which was directed at forging a powerful union of territories and institutions, ended by promoting a vast process of dissolution. Alexander's career signals the end of the Hellenic period. The exploits of Julius Caesar mark the peak of Rome's upward course; after it came the decline that paved the way for the barbarian invasion. Charlemagne's empire disintegrated at Verdun; Charles the Fifth's in Westphalia. And Napoleon's was wrecked in the flames of Moscow, the snows of the Berezina and the shell-scarred walls of Saragossa.

Hitler's adventure is still under way. But who doubts the eventual fate of this latest megalomaniac? However imposing the victories won so far by the Nazi armies may seem, their defeat is only a matter of time. The beast of the Apocalypse already bears in its flank the fatal arrow.

Imperialistic efforts, often tried, have invariably ended disastrously. Per contra, we may assert that world conciliation has never yet been tried in a properly integrated way. Even the League of Nations was not participated in by all the countries. Its failure to achieve the expected degree of success was certainly not because the fundamental idea was vague or impracticable. It was designed for universal action, but very soon, by the force of events, it became a European association. Some few states in the Americas, Asia and Africa were also present, but symbolically rather than otherwise.

The fact that the decline of the League of Nations coincided in point of time with the rise of Nazism and Fascism goes to prove that the course recommended by those statesmen who were erroneously criticized as "Versailles idealists" was after all the right and practical path -- the only path, in fact. Further proof is that the purposes defined now by the democracies in the midst of their struggle square absolutely with the ideals of the League, as witness the Atlantic Charter, signed on August 14, 1941, by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill.

But we would be making a fatal mistake if we thought that peace, when the hour of victory comes, is going to be any less difficult to win than the war itself. The world will then be in an utterly exhausted and famished condition. Reconstruction will be imperative. On the wreckage we shall have to set to work to erect the splendid new world of tomorrow. The task will be long and hard. We shall have to put forth the maximum possible energy, without pause or indecision. Trade, industry and agriculture will have to be organized on a basis entirely different from that which kept the world in unbalance in the period after the last war.

To undertake the task successfully, to overcome all the incalculable material difficulties in the way, it will be essential that every nation sacrifice some of that aggressive pride which has distorted the notion of sovereignty. The new order which will arise from this terrible conflagration will not be, of course, Hitler's vandal and sterile "new order," but one based on law, more elastic yet stronger. All the states will have to collaborate in it by curbing their individual ambitions, cutting down their armies, and building up a system in which war is outlawed, in which differences between nations may be settled without the idiotic resort to force.

Some kind of a universal structure will have to be created, including a coördinating council on which all the nations are represented. This body will act as a board of arbitration, as an international court of justice and as an official mediator in every conflict. But aside from this, it will be indispensable to give a new meaning to what we today term national sovereignty. In future, no country may, as a function of its own independence, endanger the independence of others. The liberty of each shall be respected to the extent that it does not injure any other. But license to work evil will be curbed by moral, commercial, economic and legal sanctions which will render impossible the hegemony of any one state. Machinery will have to be constituted to put such sanctions into effect. In a world where sovereignties are unrestricted the weak are at the mercy of the strong. So long as equality of rights is not coupled with equality of opportunities and equal access to resources, the arbitrary dictum of unlimited sovereignty -- like that of absolute liberty of the individual in domestic life -- will benefit the powerful and give an advantage to the aggressive. Now in reality there is no such thing as natural equality. States, therefore, if abandoned to the dialectical play of action and reaction, will invariably revert to inequality so long as there does not exist a higher agency which is able to curb the stronger in favor of the weaker, and further, as between the powerful themselves, establish a clear and equitable balance. In enforcing international law, that agency would not curtail any sovereignty; it only would coördinate it with other sovereignties, just as in the democratic balance within a republic the liberty of citizens is not reduced merely because they entrust the exercise of some of their rights to a central authority which acts on their behalf and sees to it that order is observed by all.

No disarmament, whether of armies or of the spirit, can be attained so long as the exaggerated notion of national sovereignty which prevailed throughout the nineteenth century and in the early years of the twentieth is still entertained. Nor should we overlook the fact that it was by virtue of the inordinate notion of sovereignty that Germany restored military service and reoccupied the Rhineland, that Mussolini took the diplomatic steps which preceded the invasion of Ethiopia, and that the three dictatorships of Germany, Italy and Japan betrayed their international commitments and, breaking away from Geneva, combined to attack the whole of peace-loving humanity. Such cases must never be repeated.


The Americas, because of their history, their nature, their common worship of liberty, are called upon to play a leading part in the work of conciliation necessary to the future interdependence of the nations. The experience gained by inter-American conferences shows that continental understanding can be achieved without pressure from outside. The settlement of the controversy between Colombia and Peru, from 1932 to 1935; of the conflict between Bolivia and Paraguay, which lasted from 1928 to 1935; and, more recently, of the difficulties between Ecuador and Peru, are evidence of the spirit of coördination which distinguishes our hemisphere. They recall Bolívar's happy phrase: "The New World should be constituted by free and independent nations, united among themselves by a body of law common to all of them, to govern their foreign relations."

That control of which the Liberator speaks is not a step backward but forward, along the road which will lead the nations to dwell together in a civilized community. We have seen how rights and duties supplement one another. In future a higher principle will prevail over the idea of national sovereignty -- the idea of international solidarity. "In the notion of solidarity," wrote Léon Duguit, "the idea of liberty as a right will disappear, to yield its place to liberty as a duty, liberty as a function of society." A century before Duguit stated his proposition, Auguste Comte had already outlined this fundamental principle: "The word right must be discarded from the genuine language of politics, just as the word cause should be dropped from the genuine language of philosophy. Every one has duties towards every one else and nobody has more than a single right: fully to perform his duty."

The American peoples understood this from the very hour of their emancipation. In his draft for a Declaration of the Rights of the People of Chile, Mariano Egaña, a patriot of that nation, stated in 1810 that it is exceedingly difficult for any nation, even by dint of great sacrifices, to maintain by itself its own isolated sovereignty. In the same vein, the Colombian Government in 1823 announced that the time had come to set up a Pan American confederation which would serve as a point of contact in the face of common danger, as well as interpret public treaties and act as a court of arbitration and conciliation of differences. This Colombian message was imbued with the prevailing spirit of the period. While providing for an alliance and political confederation of the American states, both in peace and war, it expressly stated that the confederation should not in any way interfere with the exercise of the sovereignty of the contracting parties. In theory this condition placed certain bounds on Simón Bolívar's original conception.

The scruple against contracting strictly juridical ties, and the idea that the union of the Americas should above all be the result of historical and cultural assimilation, also inspired a Brazilian, Oliveira Lima, when he said that such a union would in reality be "a natural manifestation of the cordiality existing between the different political members of a group of nations destined to integrate an association lacking legal ties, but bound by ethical duties all the stronger in that they flowed from a sense of collective reponsibility emanating in turn from a sane and broad interpretation of human duties."

President Wilson also insisted this was the proper way to interpret inter-continental ties. He defined Pan Americanism as a union of the American Republics in their capacity of spiritual allies, "that march in accord because they think alike and are animated by common sympathies and ideals."

Since the First World War, and more especially since the Inter-American Conference for the Maintenance of Peace held at Buenos Aires in 1936, this purely moral quality of Pan Americanism has been made stronger and more efficient by practical commitments. Two factors in particular helped make the evolution very rapid: the policy of the Good Neighbor, advocated and carried into effect by the Administration of President Roosevelt, and the growing threat of the totalitarian Powers.

Danger is a great teacher in the life of states. Centuries ago, when the Greek states were threatened by invasion, they constituted the General Assembly of Ancient Greece, effected by the system known to us as "amphictyony."

In accordance with a similar principle, although ostensibly for purposes of trade, expansion and navigation only, the northern cities of Europe founded the Hanseatic League in 1241. They wished to resist the Kingdom of Denmark and to protect themselves from the attacks of pirates, the blackmail levied by freebooters and the tyrannous aggression of princes. The League grew remarkably in a very short time, enrolling such flourishing cities as Hamburg, Cologne, Riga, Lübeck and Danzig. The Hansa not only founded factories at Bruges, Bergen and Novgorod, but also, in 1367, adopted a true political constitution of its own, the Confederation of Cologne. Thanks to this it organized a common army and economic system. This strengthened it to such a degree that in the fifteenth century it defeated more than one monarch and concluded treaties with England. It thus managed to achieve rank as a state, in a manner until then unknown to the Western World.

Of lesser importance, and more temporary in character, was the coalition concluded in 1511 by Pope Julius the Second, Venice, Switzerland, Ferdinand the Fifth of Aragon, Henry the Eighth of England and the Emperor Maximilian to oppose the growing power of the King of France, Louis XII. Associations of this kind, of frequent occurrence in the course of history, are not properly to be compared to the preceding. They are by nature merely a response to a passing need and represent the personal will of a group of monarchs. But the associations mentioned in the first group were -- like the Pan American Union and the League of Nations -- the result of a widespread aspiration deeply rooted in public opinion and having practical and permanent aims. In a mere coalition the autonomy of the parties is not abridged. But in organic aggregations of broader scope the sovereignty of each individual entity must conform to the conditions required by the coördination of the whole.

The peoples of the New World aspire to form an association of this kind. It may properly be pointed out, in this connection, that the outstanding difference between the earlier Pan American hope and the present-day reality lies in one main fact. The politicians of the days of independence sought by achieving continental unity to counteract European action; while the politicians of today realize clearly that Pan Americanism must not and cannot be thought of solely as a bulwark for isolation but as a road leading to more efficient universal coöperation.

"The peace of Europe," said a Cuban internationalist, Orestes Ferrara, only a short while ago, "is the peace of the Americas." The converse proposition also holds true. No merely local settlement can be stable or final. Whether we like it or not, the modern world constitutes a single compact whole. This being so, any formulas that we may adopt in this hemisphere, however valuable from the standpoint of defense, will yield their full fruits only when the other continents likewise organize on a basis of close interdependence. They must associate in vast amphictyonies governed by the same law as that advocated by the Americas: the exaltation of liberty within a juridical system in which the sovereignty of the states shall at no time conflict with the general solidarity of the human race.

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  • EZEQUIEL PADILLA, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs of Mexico; Professor of Law in the University of Mexico; former Attorney General and former Minister of Public Education
  • More By Ezequiel Padilla