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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Releases > 2003

Sovereignty: Existing Rights, Evolving Responsibilities

Richard N. Haass, Director, Policy Planning Staff
Remarks to the School of Foreign Service and the Mortara Center for International Studies, Georgetown University
Washington, DC
January 14, 2003

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Thank you Bob, for that generous introduction. It is a treat to come to Georgetown University, particularly when one of your old friends is introducing you. Dean Gallucci and I have known each other for close to a quarter century, which – looking around this room – may be longer than some of you have known him or anyone. Bob and I share a number of things in common. For one thing, Bob is also an "in-and-outer" – someone who alternates stints in government with time in academia. For another, he and my wife both married Oberlin graduates. I will let you ponder the significance of this.

I also want to congratulate John Ikenberry, chair of the new Mortara Center for International Studies, which is co-sponsoring this event. John is one of our country’s leading foreign policy thinkers. His most recent book, After Victory, is a model of scholarship, blending first-rate history and theory with policy relevance. No doubt his professional success can be attributed to the year he spent on the Policy Planning Staff during the first Bush Administration. I know the Mortara Center, established to examine global change and American foreign policy, will benefit enormously from his stewardship.

As I was coming down the steps into this hall, I could not help but notice the words prominently displayed: "The age of nations is past." While I do not agree entirely with that statement, I cannot think of a more appropriate venue for my talk this evening on the topic of nation-states and the changing nature of sovereignty.

Normally, American foreign policy is considered one issue at a time. At the State Department, most in-boxes focus on single issues: Iraq or North Korea, Colombia or Cote d’Ivoire, the WTO or NATO. U.S. diplomats seldom have the opportunity to consider how these different pieces might relate to one another – or begin to form an overall pattern.

One of the perks of my job is the luxury to examine the bigger picture. For the past two years, as Director of Policy Planning, I have been privileged to be able to look at the entire mosaic of U.S. foreign policy. George C. Marshall created the Policy Planning Staff 55 years ago, to provide a broad strategic perspective that could guide and inform daily diplomacy. He gave George Kennan, its first director, just two words of advice: "Avoid trivia."

As any of you who have served in government know all too well, this is advice more easily given than heeded. Be that as it may, we try to anticipate both challenges and opportunities, question conventional wisdom, and identify long-term trends. This mandate has never been more relevant. Today, as in the late 1940s, the United States finds itself at the apex of global power. But new threats to U.S. national security are surfacing; old doctrines are of limited value. Our mission is to make sense of these global forces and craft effective policy responses to them. It is to make sure that America uses its primacy wisely.

Accomplishing this will not be easy, for international relations are being transformed in multiple ways. Rather than try to cover all of the relevant changes, tonight I am going to be selective and focus on one of the most profound: the reality that sovereignty is neither absolute nor unconditional. I will describe how views of sovereignty are evolving, how the United States is adapting to this new world, and how it affects us all.

History and Evolution
From Bosnia to Beijing to my birthplace of Brooklyn, just mentioning "sovereignty" can get people’s dander up. It goes to the heart of what it means to be independent. But when people invoke the word, they often mean different things. So let me begin by defining terms.

Historically, sovereignty has been associated with four main characteristics: First, a sovereign state is one that enjoys supreme political authority and a monopoly over the legitimate use of force within its territory. Second, it is capable of regulating movements across its borders. Third, it can make its foreign policy choices freely. Finally, it is recognized by other governments as an independent entity entitled to freedom from external intervention. These components of sovereignty were never absolute, but together they offered a predictable foundation for world order. What is significant today is that each of these components – internal authority, border control, policy autonomy, and non-intervention – is being challenged in unprecedented ways.

This may not be immediately obvious. Sovereignty is so fundamental, so embedded in our conceptions about the way our world works, that we often take its existence for granted. We should not. Anyone doubting this sentiment need only consider what history was like before the territorial state became the main bearer of rights and responsibilities in international society during the 17th and 18th centuries.

In Europe before sovereignty, political authority was shared by empires, kingdoms, duchies, and city-states. Complicating matters further, there was no clear boundary separating religious and secular authority. Popes and kings claimed – and fought over – the same peoples and territories. This patchwork of overlapping authorities proved flammable when the wars of religion ignited following the Reformation. This was the world that inspired Thomas Hobbes when he imagined life in a state of nature. For most people, life was "nasty, poor, brutish, and short."

In response, European rulers came to embrace sovereignty as a means to maintain a basic level of order, both within individual countries and in relations between and among them. A pivotal event in this process was the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which recognized that states had certain inherent rights, namely, exclusive jurisdiction within their own territory, political independence, and full equality under international law, including the right to conduct foreign policy. With sovereignty came the norm against interference in the internal affairs of other states. Within Europe, intervention became the exception rather than the rule.

Sovereignty helped to stabilize Europe and, over time, the principle spread. For China and Japan, recognition of their sovereign equality by other states became a symbol of having arrived. Later, the desire for sovereignty became the motivating force for the decolonization movement that transformed international relations after World War II.

Sovereignty has been a source of stability for more than two centuries. It has fostered world order by establishing legal protections against external intervention and by offering a diplomatic foundation for the negotiation of international treaties, the formation of international organizations, and the development of international law. It has also provided a stable framework within which representative government and market economies could emerge in many nations. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, sovereignty remains an essential foundation for peace, democracy, and prosperity.

At the same time, sovereignty is being challenged from both within and without. Weak states struggle to exercise legitimate authority within their territories. Globalization makes it harder for all nations to control their frontiers. Governments trade freedom of action for the benefits of multilateral cooperation. And outlaw regimes jeopardize their sovereign status by pursuing reckless policies fraught with danger for their citizens and the international community. We need to adjust our thinking and our actions to these new realities.

Strengthening Weak States
One challenge to sovereignty arises when states have too little of it. Around the world, many governments lack the legitimacy and capacity to translate their nominal sovereignty into effective governance. Some weak states find themselves confronting insurgents bent on their overthrow or warlords seeking to dominate ungoverned regions. Neighboring states may exploit these vulnerabilities to foment rebellion or secessionist movements. Even where unified states exist, government institutions may be crippled by corruption or captured by criminals. When states cannot exercise their sovereign powers, they court instability, even anarchy. They may collapse entirely and enter the category of "failed states."

Until recently, we viewed states with a sovereignty deficit primarily through a humanitarian lens. Failed states piqued our moral conscience, but they appeared only loosely connected to national security. During the 1990s, Somalia and Afghanistan tugged at our heartstrings – and sometimes our purse strings – but we tended to dismiss them as possessing little or no strategic relevance.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 reminded us that weak states can threaten our security as much as strong ones, by providing breeding grounds for extremism and havens for criminals, drug traffickers, and terrorists. Such lawlessness abroad can bring devastation here at home. One of our most pressing tasks is to prevent today’s troubled countries from becoming tomorrow’s failed states.

How should we respond when weak states lack sovereign capacities? In extraordinary circumstances, when a country collapses or is unprepared for formal independence, the world community may need to assume many of the responsibilities of a sovereign government. This is the role the United Nations has played in East Timor, helping it make the transition from a disputed province of Indonesia to a fully independent state. Halfway around the world, the UN and NATO continue to serve as the custodians of sovereignty in Kosovo, pending a determination of its final status.

Where failing states are concerned, however, the old adage rings true: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The United Nations estimates that the eight most expensive cases of state collapse during the 1990s cost the international community in excess of $250 billion. How much cheaper it would have been to bolster state capacities before they collapsed, rather than trying to put the pieces together afterwards. With this end in mind, the United States is using its economic, technical, and military assistance to give vulnerable countries the tools they need to fulfill the responsibilities of sovereignty.

At the Monterrey Summit last March, President Bush announced the creation of a Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), designed to strengthen states willing to embark on the path to stability and development. The MCA will increase U.S. foreign assistance by fifty percent over the next three years. But this bold initiative goes beyond dollars; it represents a new approach to foreign aid, based on the principle of co-responsibility. To be eligible for this new source of U.S. resources, governments must commit themselves to ruling justly, promoting economic freedom, and investing in people.

Around the world, the United States is helping partner governments defeat violent challenges to their sovereign authority. In South America, we are assisting the Colombian government in battling narcoterrorists who threaten the very fabric of society. From the Caucuses to Southeast Asia to the Horn of Africa, we are working with countries on the front lines of terrorism to improve their capacities to respond to internal threats. In both Georgia and the Philippines, for example, we have launched "train and equip" programs to enhance national militaries.

The United States is also doing its share to rebuild countries emerging from war and strife. In Afghanistan alone, over twenty U.S. agencies operate on the ground, delivering $840 million worth of aid that we have committed to humanitarian and reconstruction efforts. Working with Afghan and international partners, we are helping local authorities resettle refugees, restore physical security, build government institutions, and jump-start economic activity. You can see similar efforts in the Balkans, where the United States is working with NATO, the EU, the OSCE, and countless nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to complete the task of making Europe whole, free, and at peace.

Regulating Globalization’s Downside
The second great challenge to sovereignty is posed by globalization, which is straining the capacity of all states to police their frontiers, regulate cross-border flows, and protect citizens from foreign threats.

Globalization is the sum total of connections and interactions – political, economic, social, and cultural – that compress distance and increase the permeability of traditional boundaries to the rapid flow of goods, capital, people, ideas, and information. It goes beyond simple interdependence, which implies that states affect one another. It describes an explosion of cross-border transactions and flows, driven primarily by non-state actors that frequently operate outside the effective control of national governments.

Besides providing tangible "goods," globalization facilitates the flow of numerous "bads." The same networks that channel billions of dollars in investment capital around the world every day can also transmit financial contagion. The same structure of global production that brings opportunity to poor regions can generate trans-boundary pollution. The same Internet that links continents can be used to coordinate criminal enterprises. The same flow of scientific expertise that enables medical breakthroughs can put the power to kill thousands in the hands of terrorists.

Globalization requires regulation. Governments must devote political will and resources to regain sovereign control over cross-border flows that endanger their well being and security. The United States must act – alone at times, but mostly with others – to track down terrorist networks, attack the global drug trade, end trafficking in human beings, stem the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, control the spread of infectious diseases, and mitigate the destabilizing impact of rapid financial flows.

The global struggle against terrorism shows how we are adapting our conceptions of sovereignty to deal with today’s threats. Over the past year, the United States, working on a bilateral basis as well as with such multilateral forums as the G-8 and APEC, has championed the Container Security Initiative. This effort is designed to prevent terrorists from exploiting international trading networks while simultaneously ensuring that legitimate goods can move more efficiently than ever. Accordingly, U.S. Customs officials are now working the docks of Halifax and Rotterdam alongside their foreign counterparts. Soon they will be in Hong Kong and Singapore. In parallel fashion, our foreign partners will dispatch inspectors to help us check outbound cargo in American ports.

We are taking parallel steps to control other dangerous cross-border flows. As part of our arms control and non-proliferation efforts, we have helped strengthen export controls to prevent the spread of weapons. These supplier groups, including the Missile Technology Control Regime, the Nuclear Suppliers Group, and the Australia Group, which restricts the spread of chemical and biological weapons-related materials and know-how. We are pursuing a similar arrangement to regulate trade in portable rocket launchers, weapons that – as we saw last month in Kenya – represent a growing danger to civil aviation.

We have also supported initiatives to combat money laundering by criminals and terrorists. For example, we have helped reinvigorate the Financial Action Task Force, an international regime that improves transparency in global financial flows by promoting "best practices" – and "naming and shaming" those who do not adopt them.

Finally, we are responding to infectious diseases that threaten the lives of millions. We have offered the largest single contribution to the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, an innovative public-private partnership established to battle the world’s most dangerous plagues.

Delegating Sovereignty
The third challenge to sovereignty is the trend toward voluntarily pooling or delegating sovereign rights to gain the benefits of multilateral cooperation. As the distinction between "foreign" and "domestic" fades and as national economies become more integrated with global markets, all peoples and governments are finding it harder to achieve security, prosperity, and well being through purely national efforts.

Debates over ceding sovereignty voluntarily can prove heated, as citizens imagine the implications for their national identity and democratic institutions. We see this today in Europe, where countries are relinquishing independence to a degree not seen since the age of Charlemagne. In a step inconceivable two generations ago, the mark, franc, and lira have been replaced by the euro. Even as it plans a new round of expansion, the European Union is hard at work at a federal constitution that is likely to require extensive grants of sovereignty from national governments to a stronger European Parliament, Commission, and Council – and perhaps even a European president. This transformation is reminiscent of (and potentially as profound as) the transition that our own country made more than two centuries ago, when we moved from a loose collection of states under the Articles of Confederation to an effective federal union under the Constitution.

Outside of Europe, few countries are prepared to grant such authority to supranational institutions. But all nations confront a basic, recurrent dilemma: when to trade off freedom of action for enhanced capacity to shape their future. Experience has taught that it often makes sense for countries, even one as powerful as the United States, to delegate sovereignty to international institutions, in return for tangible benefits that might not otherwise be within reach.

In our own daily lives, exchanging absolute freedom of action for the long-term collective good is something we do all the time. When we drive a car, we obey traffic laws, both for our own safety and the safety of others – and we count on others to do the same. Imagine the chaos if some of us drove on the left rather than the right, or if some drivers kept their headlights off at night.

International order, like social order, depends on "rules of the road." Cooperation among sovereign states is possible only if they accept some restraints on their conduct and recognize reciprocal obligations. This begs the question: When should the United States delegate some of its sovereignty to join in multilateral institutions or treaties? The only responsible answer is: "It depends." The operative question when we consider any proposed international institution is whether the benefits of a proposed arrangement – which may include greater predictability, burden-sharing, and international legitimacy – outweigh the costs – including lost policy autonomy and flexibility.

At times, a grant or delegation of sovereignty is warranted. Take the case of trade. During the 1930s, countries tried to reduce unemployment and increase domestic output by raising prohibitive tariffs and other barriers to imports, as well as by competitive devaluation of their currencies in order to encourage exports and discourage imports. Other countries soon retaliated in kind. Global commerce collapsed, and the world spiraled downward into the Great Depression.

Recognizing the peril of such "beggar thy neighbor" policies in which everyone loses, the United States in the late 1940s spearheaded the creation of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade or GATT, a forum for mutually agreed reductions in trade barriers. GATT proved wildly successful. By the end of the twentieth century, global trade volume was twenty-two times what it had been 1950. Still, this system proved unable to resolve many of the toughest trade disputes. The result was to limit the benefits of open commerce, notably higher growth, better jobs, and cheaper consumer goods.

The creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995 introduced a robust multilateral system to resolve trade disputes. Under this arrangement, WTO members must submit complaints to a binding dispute settlement mechanism, instead of taking action unilaterally. If members fail to comply, they must either provide mutually acceptable compensation or open themselves to sanctions. The United States supports this system of resolving disputes – not because we are certain that the tribunal will always rule in our favor, but because American consumers, exporters, and investors have a fundamental interest in an open trading system governed by the rule of law.

In a similar vein, the United States voluntarily gave up some freedom of action in ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention. The CWC is the first international agreement to outlaw the production, transfer, and use of an entire class of weapons – poison gas. Its inspection regime is intrusive, requiring all parties to open their military installations and chemical industry facilities to international scrutiny. But like the WTO, the benefits of limiting freedom of action far outweigh the costs. Having already foresworn chemical weapons, we have little to lose from inspections. And we have a great deal to gain from a CWC that helps us to verify compliance by 140 other signatories and ostracize governments – like Saddam Hussein’s – that continue to resist the abolition of these horrific weapons.

Sometimes, however, we must decide to forgo participation in multilateral endeavors. One example is our decision not to join the International Criminal Court (ICC). The U.S. commitment to the principles of international justice is well established. We were at the forefront in creating ad hoc war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia. At the same time, we have concluded that we cannot support the ICC in its current form, because it would place U.S. citizens at the risk of politically motivated prosecution, in a system without basic checks and balances, and without the right of appeal.

A second case is our decision to withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol. While we are cognizant of the problem of global climate change and committed to mitigating its impact, we consider the treaty to be a flawed document that would place a disproportionate burden of adjustment on the United States, while imposing no binding commitments on major countries in the developing world, including China and India. Kyoto would deliver little environmental gain – but much economic pain.

Not a Blank Check
The final challenge to sovereignty I want to highlight arises not when states cede it voluntarily but when it is taken away. This is the result of one of the most significant developments of the past decades: the emerging global consensus that sovereignty is not a blank check. Rather, sovereign status is contingent on the fulfillment by each state of certain fundamental obligations, both to its own citizens and to the international community. When a regime fails to live up to these responsibilities or abuses its prerogatives, it risks forfeiting its sovereign privileges – including, in extreme cases, its immunity from armed intervention.

I believe that exceptions to the norm of non-intervention are warranted in at least three circumstances.

The first qualification of sovereignty comes when a state commits or fails to prevent genocide or crimes against humanity on its territory. The international community then has the right – and, indeed, in some cases, the obligation – to act to safeguard the lives of innocents.

As Czech President Vaclav Havel said at the NATO summit in Prague in November, "human life, human freedom and human dignity represent higher values than state sovereignty." A growing body of humanitarian and human rights law, enshrined in the Genocide Convention and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, recognizes that individuals, as well as states, possess fundamental rights.

Governments that commit such offenses – or out of choice or weakness allow such offenses to occur – must be held to account. Non-intervention is no longer sacrosanct, even at the United Nations, a body formed by and committed to sovereign states. As UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared in September 1999, "States bent on criminal behavior [should] know that frontiers are not an absolute defense… that massive and systematic violations of human rights – wherever they may take place – should not be allowed to stand."

Within the developing world, too, there is a budding recognition that sovereignty must have limits. We see this in the founding act of the African Union, which recently replaced the Organization of African Unity (OAU). In contrast to the OAU, which regarded non-interference as a bedrock principle, the new African Union commits all members to respect human rights and good governance, establishing a peer review mechanism to monitor compliance with these commitments. We witness a similar evolution in the Western Hemisphere, where all the members of the Organization of American States except Cuba have committed to a Democratic Charter, pledging to oppose any interruption of democratic processes.

We see a comparable change in international views of state responsibilities to fight terrorism. This is the second point of growing global consensus: Quite simply, countries have the right to take action to protect their citizens against those states that abet, support, or harbor international terrorists, or are incapable of controlling terrorists operating from their territory.

As President Bush declared in releasing the National Security Strategy, "All nations have important responsibilities. Nations that enjoy freedom must actively fight terror." The United States stands prepared to assist governments in meeting this solemn responsibility. And when states are reluctant or unwilling to meet this baseline obligation, we will act – ideally with partners, but alone if necessary – to hold them accountable.

Finally, states risk forfeiting their sovereignty when they take steps that represent a clear threat to global security. When certain regimes with a history of aggression and support for terrorism pursue weapons of mass destruction, thereby endangering the international community, they jeopardize their sovereign immunity from intervention – including anticipatory action to destroy this developing capability.

The right to self-defense – including the right to take "pre-emptive" action against a clear and imminent threat – has long been recognized in international law and practice. The challenge today is to adapt the principle of self-defense to the unique dangers posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Traditionally, international lawyers have distinguished between pre-emption against an imminent threat, which they consider legitimate, and "preventive action" taken against a developing capability, which they regard as problematic. This conventional distinction has begun to break down, however. The deception practiced by rogue regimes has made it harder to discern either the capability or imminence of attack. It is also often difficult to interpret the intentions of certain states, forcing us to judge them against a backdrop of past aggressive behavior. Most fundamentally, the rise of catastrophic weapons means that the cost of underestimating these dangers is potentially enormous. In the face of such new threats and uncertainties, we must be more prepared than previously to contemplate what, a century and a half ago, Secretary of State Daniel Webster labeled "anticipatory self-defense."

The Responsibilities of Sovereignty
In all three of the situations I have just outlined – stopping genocide, fighting terrorism, and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction – the principle remains the same: With rights come obligations. Sovereignty is not absolute. It is conditional. When states violate minimum standards by committing, permitting, or threatening intolerable acts against their own people or other nations, then some of the privileges of sovereignty are forfeited.

The world is still groping towards consensus on the obligations of sovereignty and on the steps that are warranted when states refuse to live up to them. In all cases, the bar to armed intervention must be set high. It cannot be a blanket response to every unsavory despot. The Bush Administration is mindful of the need for prudence and restraint in taking action against another state’s sovereignty. As Secretary of State Powell said on September 6, 2002, any such action "must be used with great care and judiciousness and with a clear understanding of the obligations that we have as a responsible member of the international community."

The reason for prudence is clear-cut. Although sovereignty is less absolute and more contingent than in the past, it remains, as it has been for the past three and a half centuries, a central pillar – and arguably the central pillar – of world order. We do not want to return to a world in which governments routinely intervene in one another’s affairs. In an age of advanced conventional weapons and new instruments of mass destruction, this would be a recipe for catastrophe. Accordingly, there should be a general presumption in favor of respecting sovereignty. But as my remarks this evening suggest, we need to strike a new balance between the rights and responsibilities of states. This new conception of sovereignty must adjust to the needs of weak states, adapt to the forces of globalization, accommodate the need for cooperation, and address the problem of outlaw regimes. Our capacity to achieve this new balance will go a long way toward determining whether we are able to create a world that is more secure and more just.

Released on January 15, 2003

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