TCS Daily

Overcoming the Constraints of Sovereignty

By Sidney Goldberg - January 21, 2005 12:00 AM

A chief bugaboo in todays political discourse, and one that President Bush addressed forthrightly in his second inaugural speech, is the concept of sovereignty, a notion that has been analyzed since Hugo Grotius, the Dutch 17th century philosopher. Grotius set the stage for centuries of debate on international law, proclaiming, for example, that there are "open seas" over which nations may not make sovereign claims. He also set forth rules on when nations can use military force, usually in self-defense.


A chief complaint against the Bush inaugural speech is that he seems to ignore the constraints of sovereignty, which prevent the United States from encroaching on the legitimacy of even the most evil of regimes and proclaims their borders sacrosanct.


But sovereignty often has nothing to do with ethics and one can respect sovereignty and commit ethical crimes in doing so. Was it ethical to abide by the sovereignty of Sudan while it was committing genocide? Is it ethical for us to sit on our hands while millions of Africans are maimed or slaughtered?


Remember the movies in which a gang of criminals would rob a bank and then outrace the county police to the border of another county, cross the border, and leave the county police fuming in frustration because their authority prevailed only in their own county? I used to think this was the most stupid situation from an ethical point of view, even though the law was being upheld.


Take this hypothetical case: You're walking along the border of a neighboring country and there's nobody in sight on either side, except for a guy who's beating up an old lady in the neighboring country. You're bigger and stronger than that guy and you know you could stop him, but to do so you would have to illegally cross the border. What to do? It's a no-brainer because saving the woman's life is on a much higher ethical plane than abiding by the laws of sovereignty. So you chase off the perpetrator and save the woman's life.


What if two guys with baseball bats are beating up the old lady, who certainly will die from the blows? In this case, you don't go to her help, because they will kill you, too, and there will be two deaths instead of one.


Extrapolating to the big picture, where the United States finds a people who are suffering under the yoke of a tyrant, and it is a tyrant that we can eliminate and thereby ease the suffering, we should go ahead and do it. This would violate the laws of sovereignty in favor of the obligations of ethics. This action should be taken unless it causes even more deaths and suffering than the existing tyranny. In that case we have to put it on a back burner until a better opportunity for change occurs.


What we have to do, and I'm sure the President has thought this through, is go after the horrible but easy cases first, just as a good salesman makes the easy sales first and works his way up to the most difficult for last. He sells refrigerators first to people who have none and only at the very end of his campaign will he attempt to sell refrigerators to people who already have them. Therefore, China and Russia shouldn't be at the top of our list for "regime change." As the easier tyrannies open up to greater freedom, China and Russia will become more vulnerable and therefore subject to our pressure and influence.


President Bush understands that "sovereignty" can be the greatest cover for evil and that respect for sovereignty is a minor if sometimes necessary virtue compared to ignoring it in the interest of doing what is right and easing human suffering. We do this in our personal life and we should do it as a nation. What the President has chosen to do is accept the challenge of doing the right thing. Sometimes you can get away with it. If he achieves only 25% of his immensely difficult goals during his tenure, he should be enshrined on Mt. Rushmore.


Sidney Goldberg is a New York media consultant and frequent TCS contributor.


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