Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Sovereignty Problem

Sarkozy visited Russia today and "negotiated" Russians out of Georgia (at least, all of Georgia but the breakaway provinces) by mid-October. In addition, the EU and Russia largely agreed that this was somehow America's fault, and they're not quite sure how, but that it makes sense at this point to blame the United States, hug, have some tea, and move on with their lives.

Why the Russians need well over a month to move troops out when it only took them a few hours to hurl them on in is beyond me. The Georgian state didn't collapse and the Georgian army didn't dissolve--I'm sure the Georgians wouldn't mind taking care of it at this point.

But more to the point, we ask: What about sovereignty? Why did Sarkozy walk out with an "okay, fine, mid-October," and even then! only after an agreement to pull out of "non-breakaway" Georgia--Russian troops will remain in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which the EU recognizes as Georgian territory, to continue the slow (but now easy) process of annexation?

Well, sovereignty has been out the window for a long time. I know you're all thinking this is George Bush's fault, after the invasion of Iraq. But it started long, long before that.

Afghanistan isn't it, either--if a state is assisting a group in its borders to attack another country, it violates that other country's sovereignty first, even if the assailants are not on the official payroll. That one was pretty open-and-shut.

I'm speaking more to operations that we tend to want to look back on with nostalgia: the Humanitarian 90's. US or NATO or UN incursions into places like Ethiopia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda (sortof...), etc, all had slowly eroding effects on sovereignty. They pressed on without asking much the question of whether sovereignty was an issue at all.

There were some arguments for this. The best was that our enlightened western liberal ideas taught us that sovereignty lay in the hands of the people; if a government was slaughtering its own people, then it has abandoned its mantle of "sovereign," and should be taken down on behalf of the people. But what if a democratic majority decides to genocide a small minority? The sovereignty argument falls apart, and we must simply say that the moral good of saving lives overrules sovereignty.

Pre-1960 (convention on genocide), sovereignty was a hard-and-fast rule: you didn't violate it unless your target had done so to you or someone else. But when you think of some moral goods that overrule sovereignty, you can use those moral goods to justify a lot of stuff--or, when the precedent is out, you can think of other moral goods: stopping WMD proliferation, for example, or rooting out drug cartels. Just how morally good does something have to be for sovereignty to be violated? It's largely up to statesmen, and the whim of the Great Powers in the international order. And then, you're just back to balance-of-power politics, with rules custom-tailored to make the Great Powers' lives easier.

This was the justification George Bush used in Iraq--Saddam Hussein voided Iraqi sovereignty by massacring/terrorising his own people, and having a WMD program. Many were quite happy with that argument (assuming it was more justifiably factual, at the time). Russia used this argument, too--the Georgians were indeed bombing South Ossetians, and even people with Russian passports. Was that enough to violate Georgia's sovereignty? In the old days of the Cold War, the the West would have been on an all-out blitz to stop this. Now, we shake our heads and sigh. We know that sovereignty isn't a dead-man switch anymore, because we've spent decades eroding it. And now, it's biting us in the rear.
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