Sovereignty has two opposite attributes – it makes the sovereign immune to interference by other sovereigns in its internal affairs and it gives every sovereign the right to wage war. In spite of the pious declarations about peace, war has been never outlawed. Even the Charter of the UN allows war when approved by the Security Council or when a nation wages war in self-defence, which Putin claims to be doing at present. The world has believed in this fiction of just and unjust wars, the former being considered lawful and the latter unlawful. Yet, just and unjust remain matters of opinion and the two sides in a war invariably hold different opinions. The concept of state sovereignty is becoming hot even in domestic politics with rivals accusing each other of compromising state sovereignty.
Globalization, the formation of the EU and human rights issues are all said to be impinging on sovereignty. The New York Times’ diagnosis of the French Far-right leader Le Pen’s support of Putin puts it bluntly. Putin is seen as “the defender of the nationstate, family and Christianity against border-eroding multilateralism and irreligious cultural decay.” Marlène Laruelle, a director at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian studies at George Washington University echoed the same sentiment, “It’s all about sovereignty. The sovereign state against international organizations; the sovereign traditional family against L.G.B.T.Q. rights.” Thus, globalization is perceived as not only hurting the economic interests of nation states but also cultural and moral values and through all these, subtracting from sovereignty. If a prominent leader and an academic of a large nation like France, that is a permanent member of the Security Council, feel that an open world is a threat to sovereignty, one can imagine the sentiment in smaller and poorer nations that are militarily and economically at the mercy of nations like France and that follow such nations linguistically and culturally.
So, is sovereignty under threat? The then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said on June 28, 1998, “Small States, especially, are fearful of intervention in their affairs by great Powers. And indeed, our century has seen many examples of the strong “intervening”, or interfering, in the affairs of the weak …” He referred to Article 2.7 of the UN Charter that forbids even the United Nations from interfering “in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State”. Yet, the crucial word is “essentially” and is amenable to interpretation as the article itself says that these provisions “shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII”.
Ambiguity is an inseparable part of the evolution of the concept of sovereignty starting with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that applied it mainly to the Kings. With the American Declaration of Independence in 1776 shortly followed by the French Revolution, the former having declared the British Crown illegal in America and the latter having guillotined the French crown, the idea of sovereignty started moving from the crown to the people. A concept emerged that a ruler who was anti-people violated the sovereignty of the people and was no more the repository of sovereign immunity. Yet, whether force can be used against such a ruler remained a matter of debate. The US secretary of state John Quincy Adams said in 1821 that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”, and should decline to become the “dictatress of the world”. Yet, seven decades later in 1898, President William McKinley, evoked the people’s cause to intervene in Cuba to end Spain’s rule over the island. When the UN Charter was framed, it was recognised that nations failed to act collectively in time to halt the progress of the Nazi evil and Chapter VII was incorporated in the Charter authorising the Security Council to allow such collective action. That, of course, meant that permanent members of the Council are beyond the scope of Chapter VII as they have Veto power. We have seen this in operation recently when Russia reportedly used its Veto power against all resolutions brought in the Council regarding its invasion of Ukraine.
“The time of absolute sovereignty and exclusive sovereignty has passed; its theory was never matched by reality” said UN Secretary General BoutrosGhali in 1992. Earlier Kofi Annan, during the lecture quoted above, had affirmed that the “The Charter protects the sovereignty of peoples. It was never meant as a licence for governments to trample on human rights and human dignity”. He cited with apparent approval the 1971 intervention by India in the then East Pakistan to save people from the Pakistani army’s atrocities, the 1978 intervention by Vietnam in Cambodia against the murderous Khmer Rouge and the 1979 action by Tanzania in Uganda to overthrow the cruel Idi Amin. Given that the five permanent members of the Security Council are immune from UN collective action for all practical purposes, the intervention has been limited to such small states as are not so closely linked to one of the permanent members as to invoke a Veto. The US opposed the cause of the East Pakistanis in 1971 as Pakistan was then a close ally and so the UN could not come to their help forcing India to take the burden on itself in spite of the US Seventh Fleet menacingly anchored in the Bay of Bengal. Today, collective action cannot be taken against Russia as it occupies the permanent seat belonging to the former Soviet Union in the Security Council, that it occupied in a legally questionable way when the Soviet Union imploded. Thus emboldened by its recognition as a successor state to the Soviet Union, Russia lays claim to a firm sphere of influence over the former Soviet Republics that are now sovereign states.
Putin’s denial of the sovereign right of Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet Republics to join NATO is a reminder of the Monroe Doctrine enunciated by the US president James Monroe in his State of the Union address to the Congress in 1823. He said, “ … the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” Obama’s Secretary of State declared in 2013 that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” It could take Russia a few more decades to get rid of the Soviet legacy. Meanwhile, other states with no permanent member as a big brother, have to keep reminding themselves that in the real world, only they are supposed to zealously safeguard human rights, international law, intellectual property and a lot more of international morality like the middle class in any society carrying that burden. Critics of India’s middle-path policy in Ukraine should factor this aspect of realpolitik in their mental calisthenics. /