Notebook, 13 March 2011: Sovereignty vs. Intervention

For the record (hold onto your hat, MB, I’ll return to this), I’m not in favor of a no-fly zone over Libya. Not only is it a slap in the face to international norms, it’s needlessly dangerous.

One can envision the line of universal monarchs, of great empires, stretching from the Pharaohs in Egypt, through Persia, Macedonia, Rome to the Holy Roman Empire and Ottomans. Today, the notion of empire, of a universal regime, is not all that far behind us. Cpl. Frank Buckles, the last WWI veteran died just 13 days ago as I write. A man who fought in the war that brought down the last two empires left in Europe.

And of course, there’s always PNAC.

The western notion of state sovereignty has largely been endorsed by the entire world. It was not easily won. Perhaps eclipsed only by WWII and the holocaust, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) was one of the worst catastrophes ever visited on Europe. Over a majority of the territory now part of Germany, one third of the population vanished. Throughout large swaths of that territory—almost half—the figure rises to 66%.

It is out of this carnage that the modern state arose, and here’s how it happened.

“In other words, states do not receive credit in any world for doing what is right; they are only rewarded for being strong enough to do what is necessary.”

   —From Diplomacy, Henry Kissinger, another throwback.

So France, under Louis Xiii and lead by Armand-Jean du Plessis, Cardinal duc de Richelieu, feared encirclement by the Habsburgs (monarchs in Spain, the Netherlands, Austria as well as Holy Roman Emperor) more than Louis cherished his status of “Most Christian King” and supported the Protestant nobles in their rebellion to the rule of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II and through him, Rome. The events in Bohemia and Germany had already gotten ugly, with Catholic churches being seized by Protestant nobles, then retaken by imperial forces, and the iconoclasm of the sixteenth century was still fresh in the memories by 23 May 1618, when imperial officials were tossed out of a window at Prague Castle by Bohemian Protestants. (The story goes that they landed on a midden, and survived. The imperial dignity, however . . . let’s just say that the implied malodorousness of the Holy Roman Empire and the Papcy was now made manifest for all to breathe.)

Three decades of war was finally ended as an exhausted Europe gathered in Westphalia, where the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor found himself in the unenviable position of having to grant the requests of his German subjects in order to have any empire left at all. Thus the following provisions dealt a blow to the empire as well as the theory and practice of a universal monarch:

Article XXVIII: That those of the Confession of Augsburg, and particularly the Inhabitants of Oppenheim, shall be put in possession again of their Churches, and Ecclesiastical Estates, as they were in the Year 1624. as also that all others of the said Confession of Augsburg, who shall demand it, shall have the free Exercise of their Religion, as well in publick Churches at the appointed Hours, as in private in their own Houses, or in others chosen for this purpose by their Ministers, or by those of their Neighbours, preaching the Word of God.

Article XLVI: As for the rest, Law and Justice shall be administer’d in Bohemia, and in all the other Hereditary Provinces of the Emperor, without any respect; as to the Catholicks, so also to the Subjects, Creditors, Heirs, or private Persons, who shall be of the Confession of Augsburg, if they have any Pretensions, and enter or prosecute any Actions to obtain Justice.

Those belonging to the “Confession of Augsburg” were the Lutherans. The imperial court lost the right to mandate the religion of its citizens, and though the centuries old institution of state religion in Europe wasn’t quite finished, it had afterwards been made to serve the state rather than the Church. The last and only organizing principle for a universal monarchy in the West was never going to make a comeback.

However, nothing happens without a reason. Attempts were made to reverse the effects of the Peace of Westphalia, but a few decades later, William of Orange (1650-1702), now King of England (1689), had replaced Richelieu as the diplomat of note in Europe, and initiated England’s policy toward any conflict on the mainland: support the weaker side and maintain the continental balance of power. In practical terms then, European states, lead by rulers becoming more unhitched from divine moral authority, would survive, and the idea of a universal monarchy was effectively finished.

Which didn’t leave other reasons for European rulers to go to war, especially fear of being weak, relative to your hungry neighbors. However, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1713), the Great Northern War (1700–1721), the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-1748), the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) all passed without a decisive alteration of the European state system. It even survived Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm and Adolf Hitler. Indeed, the system received a boost from The Concert of Europe (1815-1916), which called for any aggression on the part of any Great Power be opposed by the others.

To be fair, the Congress of Vienna also resulted in the atavistic proposal of Tsar Alexander I, the Holy Alliance, comprised of Russia, Prussia and Austria in an attempt to revive the standing of religious, if not universal, monarchies. Practical considerations, however, meant that this idea was dead on arrival.

The Revolutions of 1848 also color our thinking today of statehood. Less as an ideologically driven movement, this was the greatest expression of nationalism Europe had yet seen, and in thirty years, Germany and Italy had reunited and the Great Power map had changed—successfully this time. Forty years after this, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans were broken up, and Britain was shortly to begin transitioning from empire to commonwealth.

Empire had all but disappeared from Europe.


But, let us return to Prague now, in the year 1968, year of the Prague Spring. If Cairo and other cities have their Tahrir Square, for the Czechs, we’re talking Václavské náméstí. Wenceslas Square. The revolutionary heart of Bohemia. It runs all the way from Narodní down to the National Museum, sitting there on an ugly, terrible street to cross, Wilsonova. (I am fine dashing across city streets. Been doing it since I was 5. Wilsonova, however, is virtually a highway, and crossing it at night was scary.)

But, Wilsonova?

Indeed. Named after an erstwhile hero of the Czechs, the one person at the Versailles Peace Conference who championed the sovereignty and safety of smaller nation-states, Woodrow Wilson.

The majority of Wilson’s Fourteen Points touch on the ideas of self-determination in one way or another. I want to be clear on my terms here. The State refers to the citizens, territory, economy, trade, etc. of countries. The state is a legal and organizing entity both domestically and internationally. On the other hand, Nationhood is an ethnic, historical, social, linguistic, and cultural identity which, as we all know, ignores international boundaries and enjoys little, if any, legal status. Wilson’s idea redefines Richelieu’s raison d’état, linking the legitimacy of statehood to that of the nationhood of its citizens.

How much currency does the notion of the nation-state enjoy today?

. . . a survey would show that whereas in 1909 there were many states in Europe without a single overwhelmingly dominant nationality, by 2007, there were only two, and one of those, Belgium, was close to breaking up. Aside from Switzerland, in other words—where the ethnic balance of power is protected by strict citizenship laws—in Europe, the “separatist project” has not so much vanished but triumphed.

   —Jerry Z. Muller, “Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism”, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2008.

Now Europe seems more stable (and ironically, feels more inclined now to unite voluntarily) when pretty much all of its citizens feel represented by legal entities reflecting their own culture and heritage. An amazing achievement, but I must reflect that centuries of strife were necessary to reach this point, and it was only after four all-engulfing wars, plus the threat of nuclear annihilation posed by the cold war to bring this about. And this continues elsewhere in the world.

  • The Armenians in the small enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, supported by Yerevan, revolted against their Azerbaijani government.
  • The Tamils, supported by Tamils on the Indian mainland, did the same on Sri Lanka.
  • The genocide in Rwanda was an action of Hutu versus Tutsi.
  • The first new nation of the 21st century, East Timor, is the only predominantly Christian nation in Asia outside the Philippines.
  • The world’s newest nation, South Sudan, marks its border where North Africa meets Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Kosovo gained the protection of state sovereignty because nobody trusted, with justification, that the ethnic Slavs of Serbia could restrain themselves from another round of crimes against humanity, and Kosovo holds a special place in Serbian history.

I might suggest for your consideration that the idea of the nation-state is the only widely recognized criteria today for valid statehood.

And this is expressed with far more eloquence than I can ever muster in the Responsibility to Protect report (pdf):

1.32 In a dangerous world marked by overwhelming inequalities of power and resources, sovereignty is for many states their best – and sometimes seemingly their only – line of defence. But sovereignty is more than just a functional principle of international relations. For many states and peoples, it is also a recognition of their equal worth and dignity, a protection of their unique identities and their national freedom, and an affirmation of their right to shape and determine their own destiny. In recognition of this, the principle that all states are equally sovereign under international law was established as a cornerstone of the UN Charter (Article 2.1).

(Emphasis mine)


Our modern concept of statehood was the product of centuries of tragedy. I, for one, don’t want to undermine it needlessly. Similarly, the morphing of Richelieu’s raison d’état from a foundation of state polity with the qualification that it is valid for nations to seek the international recognition of sovereignty, to a broader, international context is just beginning to get underway (and meets its greatest opposition from today’s Great Powers: Russia, China and the US).

So the UN has a problem with Libya. The conflict remains an internal matter, which the UN is specifically prohibited from intervening in (pdf):

Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII.

There are three conditions under which even the UNSC may consider authorizing the use of force against any country, spelled out in the Chapter VII mentioned above: a threat to peace, a breach of peace and an act of aggression. Unless Colonel Gaddafi starts lobbing missiles at shipping in the Mediterranean, or if he sends his security forces across his borders, this remains an internal matter effectively beyond any sanction which is legal.

A fourth concern, that a regime fails or works against the well-being of its citizens, as expressed in the Responsibility to Protect report, is not yet enshrined in treaty or law. Were it so, about a third of the countries now in existence today would be illegitimate. It could devolve on an open season on these countries.

While we learn that yesterday, the Arab League asked the UNSC to authorize a no-fly zone. What they’re asking the West to do is to restrict the right of a sovereign nation to fly airplanes over its own territory through the use of force. An act of war.

Granted that the UNSC has been more and more likely to authorize military actions in the last 30 years, but I wonder if this might be the most blatant violation of international law the Security Council has ever considered.

In addition, what we’re seeing today is diplomacy’s worst nightmare: going back to the days when the Law of Fishes dominated. The EU and the US have thrown down the gauntlet, and perhaps for no other reason of state prestige, must now follow through. The real danger is that if we allow this, then the big five of the world, the US, EU, Russia, China, India and Brazil should feel free to absorb by force whatever smaller neighbors they wish. Think China and Taiwan, Russia and the Caucasus. or Serbia and Kosovo. Even though the US’s record in this is far from clean, I’d rather see us comply with international norms than break them.

Unless you’re one of those who would say, “Fuckit. We’re Americans. We’re a Great Power. Why shouldn’t we and what’s to stop us?”

Then you must be comfortable with the war of aggression in Iraq.


So I dislike the idea of a no-fly. It’s meant to be a minimally intrusive, leveling of the playing field between Gaddafi forces and the revolt, but the price of this small intrusion could be, and will be, high. Gaddafi has 400 anti-aircraft missiles. They will be used, and suppression measures (bombing) will be the reply. It is a dangerous extended operation to undertake whose unknowns only grow over time. And it will invite a terrorist retaliation.

I’d forgo my purity and hopes for international law (recognizing the coalescing political realities) as well as take my chances on a terrorist attack in the future, but not for a no-fly. If we’re going to flaunt international law like this, if we’re probably going to bomb anyway, I’d be more in favor of simply eliminating Gaddafi’s air force and mechanized units with a quick, decisive bombing campaign, than in putting airmen at risk day after day enforcing a no-fly with the risk of tragic accident, escalation and changing political winds.


In case you missed it, there was a loss in MB’s family recently. Please read and pass along your condolences.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s