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Sovereign Man or Sovereign State?

ISSUE:  Winter 1945

Our international community received formal recognition in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648. Sloughing off the universalism of the decadent Holy Roman Empire, it was based upon the principle of nationality, recognizing the existence of states—such as England, Holland, Spain, France, and Sweden—which had been in process of evolution for several centuries. When this “system”—if we may call it such—was inaugurated, absolute monarchs were on all the thrones of Europe; it was natural to regard these monarchs as having absolute power both inside and outside their own countries.

Thus it came about, with,the aid of subservient legal scholars, that the doctrine of sovereignty emerged as the fundamental basis of interstate relations. No development could have been more illogical at the very time that governments and scholars were espousing the evolution of a new body of principles called international law. But politics and logic are often at odds. An attempted compromise between national statism and international legalism failed. The sovereign at home—the King or Emperor—was not to be controlled by internal or external law.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after the American and the French revolutions, democracy took its place beside nationality as a basic principle of both national and international organization. This marked the rise of popular education and the attack upon absolutism. Gradually democracy evolved from the idealistic to the practical stage. Representative governments were established in many countries. Monarchy either disappeared or became, as in England, constitutional. Unfortunately, nationalism did not die out with monarchy. On the contrary, it grew ever stronger, keeping pace with the spread of democracy. The prerogatives formerly attached to a person—the King— were now attached to the State, which was endowed with the mystical attributes of absolute power.

It is obvious that in every state there must be a supreme authority, the means of making and executing law. No one questions this principle. But in a democracy it is essential that the law shall evolve out of popular discussion and that its execution shall be entrusted to elected officers whose conduct in office shall be freely subject to criticism. The sovereign in a democracy is the people. The people of a democracy do not bow down to the State nor fear it. They regard it as their servant.

On the international plane, however, democracy has not yet been able to overcome a contradiction between its ideals and its habits. Indeed, it seems hardly conscious that the contradiction exists. This failure has been the root cause-so far as democratic peoples are concerned—of the failure to develop international government.

Peoples in whom democracy has made little headway or has been overwhelmed by dictatorship are less likely than democracies to be conscious of the contradiction. Where a people is unaccustomed to managing its internal affairs, it cannot be expected to seek control of foreign policy. This makes it all the more important that democratic peoples shall, by implementing democracy in international relations, lead other peoples to a realization of the full meaning of democracy. If, as we firmly believe, democracy is the best form of government, because it is the only form in which the moral standards of the individual are capable of being” reflected in political institutions, it must shoulder a responsibility corresponding to its superiority. It is for this reason that the continued deference of the individual in democratic countries to the sovereign state needs to be examined. Citizens of democratic states have not yet realized their own importance. The state system of international relations has operated against their self-appreciation. They are “forgotten men” in the international community, forgotten by others and by themselves.

Under international law the individual is called the “object” of the law, not the “subject”; states are the “subjects.” This means that the state is regarded as the responsible agency in making international law; and that it protects personal rights under that law. As “object” of the law, the individual must obey it; but he has no international means of redress if his interests are injured by actions of others; he must appeal to his own state, or to the courts of his own or a foreign state, for redress in such cases.

That this fact is not generally known is illustrated by the frequent attempts made by individuals to bring legal actions into the World Court at The Hague. Since that court has no jurisdiction over private parties, these attempts have all been unsuccessful. That they were made shows the real need of a comprehensive international judicature.

Citizens of the United States are not citizens of the international community. As citizens of the United States they take part in government by exercising the right to vote and to express opinions freely on political issues. A congress, state legislatures, city and village councils, a president, mayors, courts, and police carry out their will. They have the means of removing officials and substituting others if their will is not carried out. This is democracy in action. But they have no corresponding rights and agencies in the international community. They have no right to vote in that community. If they had it would do them no good because there is no one to vote for. There are no comparable international agencies—no congress, no executive, no courts, no police. In such circumstances there is no possibility of international democracy. Democracy is both body and soul.

It is not soul or spirit alone. To have reality it must have expression in political institutions. The democratic spirit would soon die out if it could not be expressed in voting, holding office, discussing policies and governmental action, writing editorials, working in political parties, and doing other things that make democracy an active, vital principle.

Deprived of direct expression because of the absence of international agencies of government, the democratic spirit has not, however, given up the fight for expression. It has tried hard to express itself indirectly through the influence it may exert upon the policies of national states, for example, in the making of treaties. But treaty-making is a secret process about which the citizen knows little; it is much more secret than legislation; by nature it is such, because each state has delicate relations with other states which its government does not wish to make public.

A great part of international law is custom or customary law. Customary law is simply an accumulation of historical precedents: one state takes a certain action and other states soon follow suit. For example, one state grants special privileges and immunities to another state’s ambassador. Over many years other states follow the same principles. A precedent develops, which is respected universally. This precedent we call a rule of customary law. To a certain degree, these precedents reflect the same moral principles we find in municipal law; the moral standards of municipal law are lower than those of individuals in the same community. But to a much greater degree than municipal law, international law is distinct from private morals, for the reason that it reflects the interests and policies of states.

One may instance the right of acquisition of territory by conquest, which is recognized by international law; contrast this right with an individual’s position if he attempts to appropriate a piece of land or to force another man to work for him. Another illustration: in international law, war is by most authorities regarded as a legal form of action; others call it nonlegal, but very few call it illegal. In war, mass killing is legal. In private law, an individual acts illegally if he ,kills another individual. True, he may be exonerated on certain grounds, but his action was none the less illegal.

International law is much narrower in scope than international relations; such important matters as trade, raw materials, migration, citizenship, et cetera, are not controlled by international law. Thus the relations of states out of which war is most likely to arise are not within the rules of law. Why are they not regulated by law? The answer to this query is found in the nature of the state.

The state is a “sovereign” entity; it has no superior; it can be bound only by its own consent. International lawyers maintain that a state cannot withdraw its consent jto treaties or customary law, but this assumption is illogical and not, in fact, historically valid. Apart from its legal status a state has no existence. No one ever has seen a state; one cannot feel a state, nor taste it, nor smell it. It can be perceived only in the individuals who compose its population, and in its territory, which obviously is inorganic. Yet the state is regarded as a sentient thing, with a sense of honor and dignity; people glorify it; they die for it. Actually, it is the people themselves who have these attributes and who deserve to be glorified and defended to the death. Only if the state expresses their moral ideals is it worthy of the adulation it receives.

Apparently the state is at once bound by international law and not bound by it. If a state, being a sovereign thing, has no superior, how can it be bound by the law? If it were, the law would be superior to the state. There are courts of arbitration and the World Court; but a state need not enter such a court unless it so desires; thus a state which violates international law cannot be penalized by judicial processes. In practice this means that each state is its own interpreter of international law; naturally it interprets that law so as to secure its own interests; the only real preventive of selfinterested interpretation is the fear of retaliation by other states and of war. International law is observed in many cases because it is to the mutual interest of states that it should be observed. Constant lip-service is paid to it. But the instances of failure to observe the law are so frequent, and its scope is so much narrower than the panorama of interstate dealings that the individual tends to feel contempt for it and to regard the state as the sole embodiment of law. Convinced of his dependence upon it, he comes to put the interests of the state above the interests of men; a legal abstraction stands between the peoples of different nations.

They develop what the psychologists call stereotypes. One of these is the belief that their own national culture is superior to all others. This stereotype has been raised to the nth power in Germany; but it is found in all nations. “Britannia rules the waves”; America is “God’s Country”; the Chinese once called the rest of mankind barbarians; the Japanese think that all Japanese are gods incarnate.

Another stereotype is that of disinterest in other national cultures. They are different; hence they are inferior. Why bother to study them? A third is suspicion of other nations’ motives. Frequent reference is heard to the selfish intrigue and greed of other states. This suspicion makes it almost impossible to consider altruistic plans for post-war order. Since other nations are selfish, any nation not selfishly motivated is a fool.

And a fourth stereotype, among others that might be mentioned, is the confidence ‘of every people in the purity of its own motives. It takes this for granted, forgetting the Biblical injunction to cast the mote from its own eyes before exclaiming over the beam in the other fellow’s.

What happens is that political values are confused with cultural. Peoples come to believe that only by maintaining complete national independence can they preserve, their cultural heritage. They become unquestioning patriots, not subjecting their states to the moral standards they demand of themselves and of each other. Anyone who questions state action or policy is likely to be suspected of disloyalty.

Some one may argue that in a democracy war does not occur unless the people want it or believe it to be unavoidable; it is said that in a democracy foreign policy is the will of the people; and that since war is the weapon of foreign policy, the people must support war in order to assure the success of their foreign policy. To a certain extent this is true and the purer the democracy the greater the extent of its truth. But granting it to be true to the fullest extent, that wars are made by peoples operating by means of states, the crucial fact remains that individual thinking and—what is more important—individual emotions, are bound up with a particular, sovereign state. Thus individuals react to any slur or injury, not so much as coolly detached, impartial beings, but rather as highly partisan citizens of a particular country.

This situation must prevail so long as the world is divided into sovereign states. Self-preservation is the first law of statehoqd as it is of nature. If men were not devoted to their countries they would perish. There is no finer sentiment than loyalty. The question is whether or not that Sentiment can be applied on a world plane. This is another way of asking whether men can think in terms of all mankind instead of sections of mankind framed in states.

Is current planning for the post-war world aware of the problem under discussion here? The answer is “yes” and “no” —as it so often is with political problems. U. N. R. R. A. is designed to save the war-ravaged peoples from hunger, unemployment, disease, and despair. Much thought is being given to international methods of education, rebuilding schools and libraries, and providing for exchanges of scholars and students. On the other hand, what is developing in the realm of world government?

Adequate evidence as yet is lacking, but the evidence available suggests that the three great allied powers—the United States, Soviet Russia, and the British Empire-—intend to set up a system of control. The Dumbarton Oaks proposals foreshadow a United Nations Security Council which they would dominate. Apparently they contemplate dividing the world into spheres of influence. Small nations of Europe are, in some cases, to disappear; in others, to become satellites of Great Britain or the Soviet Union; recognition will be given to their independence through an “advisory” assembly. Colonies are to remain colonies.

This is not internationalism; it is imperialism. It pictures a system based upon the military power of a few nations. It will not endure because the three great powers will not hold together and the other nations will not accept it; they will overthrow it as soon as they regain the power to do so.

The scheme is described as temporary and as looking toward the evolution of world organization. It is said that other states will be admitted as soon as the world is orderly, and aggressive states have become law-abiding. But they will not become orderly and law-abiding under a system of forcible control by a few states; many states already orderly and law-abiding will resent such a system. The people of the colonies, India, Indo-China, Burma, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies, should have assurances of early freedom. Otherwise we are fighting to pave the way for another war against an even stronger alignment.

Do these apparent plans represent the views of the peoples of the United States, Great Britain, and Russia? One may doubt it, remembering the enthusiasm in 1919 of American and other peoples for a genuine world order, based upon law, to assure peace and justice. Woodrow Wilson was exalted all over the world because he represented this idea. It may be believed that now more than then the peoples desire a governed world, not a world dominated by a few powers. The scheme of three-power control does not reflect the views of the “forgotten man.” It perpetuates the old system under which he has been forgotten. It expects him, as always, to accept without question what the states think is good for him.

What is the answer? Clearly it is that men shall do in international affairs what they have, in democratic countries, done in national affairs. That is, put the individual first; make the state his servant, not his master; that is what is meant by democracy.

Granted that democracy cannot, overnight, be applied to international relations. For that there must be a world-wide sense of the supreme value of the individual. But it is only by appreciating his value themselves that democracies can influence other peoples to realize it. Only when it is realized universally can they expect to establish a world state. That is the ultimate ideal, not a present practical objective. In the meantime, democratic peoples can work toward this ultimate ideal by insisting upon recognition, by refusing any longer to be “forgotten men,” by thinking and feeling as members of a world community. This only means to project one’s attitude toward his fellow-citizens outward, to include the peoples of other countries.

In terms of political action it means the substitution of the sovereign individual for the sovereign state. In terms of post-war planning, it means repudiation of imperialism, recognition that peoples misled into war by dictators are not responsible for the war and must be treated as we in similar circumstances would wish to be treated, full participation, by all peoples willing to participate, in international planning and in whatever international order is established, and democratic consideration of the needs and interests of all peoples in the planning and conduct of post-war international relations.

It means also that peoples refuse to be frightened by the term “World State” and begin to think about it calmly and seriously. In order fully to realize democratic ideals it is necessary, as noted above, to embody them in institutions, i. e., in governmental procedures like voting, and in governmental agencies: an executive, a legislature, and a court. Without them there is no direct means of carrying into effect the will of the people.

To think in these terms would indeed be difficult in the absence of experience with the federal principle of government. Fortunately we have that experience. In the United States, in Switzerland, in Canada, in Australia, and to some degree in the Soviet Union, federalism has worked. The powers of government have been divided between a central government and a varying number of state governments. At times there have been conflicts between them as to their respective powers, but these have been settled by legislation and judicial action.

World government would be federal government; those powers needed to control matters of world-wide concern would belong to the central or world government; those of concern only to the member states would, as in the United States, be reserved to them. States and their cultures would be preserved. The scope of central power need not be large at first. With experience and confidence it would increase naturally. Constitutional law would thus replace international law. Perhaps we should talk more of constitutional law, to which we are accustomed, and less of a World State.

We cannot have international democracy so long as we preserve the dogma of state sovereignty. And it follows from this fact that a democratic people—particularly democratic youth—should refuse to be blinded by traditionalist oratory which pretends to rest upon the democratic faith. Our young men and women are fighting to preserve democracy in America. But not for that only. They are fighting to destroy the tyranny that throttles democracy in other countries. If out of their sacrifice the world can move further along the road toward a constitutional system, by so much will the danger of another war be lessened.


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