Missed this on Friday. From the Globe and Mail, via Brian Leiter and Matt Yglesias:
The formal announcement Thursday that Canada will refuse any further participation in the controversial U.S. missile-defence shield was met with an immediate warning that Canada had given up its sovereignty.
Although Prime Minister Paul Martin said Canada would “insist” on maintaining control of its airspace, U.S. Ambassador Paul Cellucci warned that Washington would not be constrained.
“We will deploy. We will defend North America,” he said.
“We simply cannot understand why Canada would in effect give up its sovereignty – its seat at the table – to decide what to do about a missile that might be coming towards Canada.”
Now the reality is that if the United States manages to construct a working ballistic missile shield, and if some rogue state then manages to develop ballistic missiles capable of hitting the United States, and then if that state chooses to fire a missile at the United States, and — finally — if that missile is routed such that it passes through Canadian airspace, we’re going to fire our anti-missile missile at the hostile missile and the government of Canada isn’t going to stop us.
Which is all very true, and makes the discussion here seem kind of absurd. What fascinates me, however, is the understanding that the Bush administration is putting forth regarding sovereignty. We know, for example, that the administration did not consider the Taliban government of Afghanistan to be “sovereign” in any kind of meaningful sense. This is demonstrated not so much by the invasion as by the treatment of elements of the former regime; instead of prisoners of war, we get unlawful combatants, even if the individuals in question have nothing to do with Al Qaeda. The approach to sovereignty in the Iraqi case was also curious. The administration largely abided by standard legal norms in the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, but only after determining that it didn’t need to, as the Iraqi government represented less a true, sovereign state than a gang of criminals. For an nice example of how the Bushies understand sovereignty in such states, check this out:
Pseudo-states control areas and populations subject to personal, clan or tribal rule. A leader supported by a small clique (like Hussein and his associates from Tikrit) or a tribal faction (like the Pashtuns in Afghanistan) rule. Political institutions are weak or nonexistent. Loyalties depend on personal relationships with tribal chiefs, sheiks or warlords, rather than allegiance to the nation.
Quasi-political bodies such as the Iraqi Baathist Party, the Taliban or even the Saudi royal family exercise government power. Defeat of the “national” leader or clique typically results in the complete disintegration of the regime.
A treaty like the Geneva Convention makes perfect sense when it binds genuine nations that can reciprocate humane treatment of prisoners. Its existence and its benefits even argue for the kind of nation-building that uses U.S. troops and other kinds of pressures in places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq; more nation-states make all of us safer. But the Geneva Convention makes little sense when applied to a terrorist group or a pseudo- state. If we must fight these kinds of enemies, we must create a new set of rules.
This is quite remarkable, and given that it was written by two Bush administration Justice Department officials can be understood as genuinely reflective of Bush policy. I daresay that the above definition would exclude probably half of the nation-states currently recognized as such in the world. Since international law only applies to nation states, these “pseudo states” exist in the legal wilderness, making it fair to fuck with them any time we want. It is something of an understatement to say that this interpretation of sovereignty has revolutionary implications for international law. Let’s be absolutely clear; the argument here is that the United States need pay no attention to international law, including the Geneva Conventions, when dealing with a “psuedo-state”. Abiding by civilized prisoner of war regulations can be seen as a courtesy rather than as a legal obligation. Moreover, since the definition of pseudo-state is so expansive it can be applied to any potential US foe, including the People’s Republic of China. Defining away the sovereignty of unpleasant states also makes it easier to understand the pre-invasion incursions into Iraqi territory, the incursions into Iranian territory, and (perhaps) the failed coup in Venezuela. A territorial unit with no rights has no legal standing and cannot be “violated” in any meaningful sense.
The statements above by Ambassador Celluci go a step farther. According to the logic of Delahunty and Yoo, at least modern, democratic nation-states get to keep their sovereignty. I think, however, that Celluci’s argument is reflective of a deeper set of beliefs in the administration about the institution of sovereignty. Canadian sovereignty is defined as “a seat at the table.” This is really a very curious way of defining sovereignty. I suppose that you could interpret this as a commitment on the part of the Bush adminstration to an international standard of deliberative democracy, in which we only truly become sovereign through participation, but somehow I doubt this is where they’re going. Rather, I think that nation-states hold sovereignty by virtue of their willingness to go along with US policy. I hasten to add that this is a TRULY revolutionary understanding of sovereignty, since a state only becomes sovereign when, well, it gives up its sovereignty. Only by abasing yourself before the United States do you become free. Now that I think about it, I suppose there’s a nice (and disturbing) parallel between this understanding of international law and Protestant theology, with the US playing the role of Jesus.
Finally, I don’t think that there’s anything particular inconsistent about the approach the administration is making. Whereas some would argue that international law is an extension of the liberal project, Bushies would argue that the liberal project is bound to the fate of the largest, oldest, and most important liberal state. As the US goes, so goes liberalism. To the extent that international law, including sovereignty, restricts the US, the liberal project is endangered. The dangers (and contradictions) of this view are clear, and I don’t think I need to go into them here.