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The United States has less reason to worry about its sovereignty than any other country in the world. No other country enjoys as much freedom from external interference—military, economic, or diplomatic. Which is why other national leaders find it perplexing that U.S. presidents addressing the United Nations invariably find it necessary to proclaim yet again that they will never allow any arrogation of U.S. sovereignty.
“We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” U.S. President Donald Trump declared this week in his second UN General Assembly speech. “America is governed by Americans.” He was hardly the first U.S. president to make the point. George H. W. Bush put it positively in his 1991 address to the General Assembly, seeing international institutions as an asset in service of an international order “in which no nation must surrender one iota of its own sovereignty.” George W. Bush had a UN ambassador—John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser—famous for his fierce defense of sovereignty. Even Barack Obama, despite his reputation for openness to global cooperation and multilateralism, strongly defended U.S. sovereignty in his 2013 address at the UN: “Different nations will not agree on the need for action in every instance, and the principle of sovereignty is at the center of our international order.”
What’s so strange about this repeated message, and the underlying anxiety it reflects, is not just that there is in reality so little threat to U.S. sovereignty. It’s that to the extent there is a threat, it comes not from international institutions and agreements but from other sovereign states, as well as from rapid technological advances that are changing the relative power of state and nonstate actors, companies, and groups. There’s a real debate to be had about how to protect sovereignty in the twenty-first century; it’s just not this debate.
To get a sense of how odd the U.S. obsession with international institutions violating its sovereignty is, consider the position of other countries. From a formal and legal point of view, all countries are equal and inviolable in their sovereignty, a legal principle enshrined most forcefully—ironically, given the U.S. perception of the institution—in the founding Charter of the United Nations. In reality, many states are unable to fully protect their sovereignty and have genuine worries that other countries and international institutions—in this, usually acting on behalf of Western powers—will trample on it.
For all the U.S. rhetoric against the sovereignty-encroaching dangers of multilateralism, there are only four important ways in which multilateral institutions have, on paper, the authority to intervene in major countries’ sovereignty.
The oldest of these is the UN Security Council itself, which under Chapter VII of its charter can take action against a country if the council deems that country a threat to “international peace and security.” But the United States can use its veto to block anything it wants at the council. (For the 188 countries that don’t have that blocking power, to have Washington moan about the UN threatening its sovereignty induces serious eye rolling.) The second is the World Trade Organization, which can adjudicate violations of its trading rules and impose its decisions on its members. Of course, countries can choose to ignore the WTO, but only at the cost of throwing hugely profitable trading relations into chaos.
There’s a real debate to be had about how to protect sovereignty in the twenty-first century; it’s just not this debate.
A newer way that the international system can encroach on sovereignty comes from the authority of the International Monetary Fund to monitor the economic performance of major economies without the consent of the government in question. Yet this isn’t a new power for the IMF; it’s just that until recently, the United States was the one country in the world exempt from this monitoring. In 2008, George W. Bush extended the authority of the IMF to allow it to oversee the U.S. economy as well.
Finally, there’s the International Criminal Court. The ICC has the authority to begin investigations of Americans suspected of committing war crimes and ultimately to indict them. There are two safeguards here. The ICC can’t implement this authority unless the country in question isn’t using its own domestic legal provisions to handle suspected war crimes; when it comes to the United States, the U.S. legal infrastructure for dealing with alleged violations of the laws of war by its own citizens is second to none. What’s more, the UN Security Council can block ICC investigations if the council decides they are destabilizing.
Those safeguards aren’t perfect. The ICC prosecutor recently began considering an investigation into an American citizen, suggesting that she might use her own judgment to determine whether the state in question had indeed acted sufficiently, weakening the first check on the ICC’s power. And Washington might reasonably worry that it couldn’t muster a coalition in the Security Council to block an ICC move against the United States. Under normal circumstances, the combination of U.S. diplomatic muscle and the votes of other great powers, which in general are just as concerned about the ICC encroaching on their sovereignty, would allow the United States to mobilize the necessary coalition to defeat the ICC. But in the current climate of geopolitical tension and anti-U.S. sentiment, it’s impossible to rule out a European veto or the ten rotating members of the Security Council banding together to protect the ICC. Bolton’s firebrand speech about the ICC in the run-up to the UN General Assembly reflects real concern about these developments.
When U.S. presidents defend sovereignty at the UN, they are often dismissed as simply playing to their base, especially when it’s a Republican president. Yet that is too simplistic. Protectiveness about American sovereignty is a sentiment widely shared among U.S. national security professionals and politicians. In this, the United States frequently acts and speaks on the world stage in a manner quite similar to that of non-Western powers, such as Brazil, China, India, and Russia, and unlike that of its European allies. Those who have the most sovereignty guard it most jealously.
For that reason, the ICC was always at risk of running afoul of great power politics. Although the court has admirable objectives, its early efforts have been mixed at best, proving at least as destabilizing as humanizing. But the biggest concern is different: it’s risky to establish an important multilateral body with neither the support of the reigning global superpower nor that of its rising challenger. China was opposed to the ICC, although at the time it had insufficient diplomatic weight to block it. Not only will that institution lack diplomatic muscle if the leading powers don’t back it, but establishing it against their strong preferences risks eroding wider support for the multilateral system. We’re now seeing that price beginning to be paid.
This raises a wider point about the U.S. discourse about sovereignty and multilateral institutions, which often suggests that those institutions have power and can act against states. But other governments and most policy professionals see them as, first and foremost, tools for states to use as they work with one another. What’s more, over the past 30 years, a number of states—those in the West and, above all, the United States——have used international institutions to project their power and values into the developing world, while keeping their fingerprints off it.
That said, sovereignty is under growing threat. The challenge comes not from multilateral institutions but from the digital frontier. There are three main dynamics. First, Western security agencies increasingly see the need to ensure a constant flow of information from territory beyond their borders, from countries such as Egypt, Pakistan, and Yemen, to understand in real time how terrorist groups recruit and mobilize their members inside Western cities. States have always engaged in espionage against one another, but the scale and constancy of data collection on overseas citizens today is unprecedented. Then there’s the very different challenge of governing the technology giants, whose information platforms have outsize effects on billions of people across almost every country by shaping the information they receive and the decisions they make. And most acute, there’s the threat of election tampering and political interference via information technology. Russia got there first with its attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but China’s expansive espionage efforts and digital maneuvering within the United States suggest that others will not be far behind.
Given these very real threats to the United States, Trump could have sparked an important debate about how countries defend their sovereignty against outside pressure or, more controversially, extend their sovereignty to deal with nonstate threats. He chose instead to contrast “the ideology of globalism” with what he called “the doctrine of patriotism.” It would be a surprise to Chinese cyberspies to discover they were part of a “globalist” experiment, just as it would be a surprise to UN officials to discover that they have the power to intrude on U.S. sovereignty. Americans need to stop worrying about nonexistent threats and wake up to the real ones.