September 25, 2007

Sovereignty and the problem of political relativism: Why we need a world without borders

A number of SentDev readers put me to task on my claim that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should have been arrested upon his recent entry into the United States. As I stated in the comments section, the post was largely rhetorical, but I meant it; I wanted to show how absurd it was that this political criminal is allowed to travel at will and be afforded diplomatic courtesies.

Arresting heads of state or inhibiting their mobility is not unheard of. Slobodan Milosevic was indicted in 1999 while he was the leader of Yugoslavia. The French failed to arrest Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe back in 2003 when they were thwarted by judicial authorities who ruled that, as a serving head of state, he had immunity from prosecution. Since that time the European Union and the United States have imposed a travel ban on Mugabe and over 90 members of his government. A similar ban is currently in effect for Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

The travel bans, which are more bark than bite, are stern messages sent to wayward leaders and their regimes. Given Ahmadinejad's track record, there’s no reason why he and his cronies shouldn’t have the same travel restrictions applied.

Murky territory

This is a very murky area of international law. Traditionally, heads of state are entitled to immunity from prosecution anywhere, even after they are no longer in power. This all changed when the United Kingdom attempted to extradite head of state Augusto Pinochet to Spain on charges of presiding over systematic torture in Chile while he was in power. As established by the British Courts, heads of state can now be subject to indictment once an international law is put into place -- in this case the UN Convention Against Torture which dates back to 1988.

Ahmadinejad’s regime is known for using torture, and is thus in violation of international law. So, too, are members of the Bush Administration for that matter. But there’s currently very little will or power to enforce these laws. Typically, only the disgraced and displaced get put to task for their crimes.

The issue of immunity brings to mind issues of sovereignty and political relativism. By what authority can the United Nations impose laws on sovereign states? And by what right can the ‘international community’ require nations to adhere to external political conventions?

Ultimately, if the goal is to reduce international conflict and strife, the concept of national sovereignty must be abandoned, along with notions of political relativism. Countries have no “right” to go it alone; today, given the catastrophe of climate change, resource pressures, economic and cultural globalization, and the burgeoning threat of apocalyptic technologies, there is far too much at stake for this petty convenience. Moreover, the imposition of a minimal yet standardized set of international laws is not too much to ask for; human rights violations are human rights violations no matter where and how they occur.

Man, the State, and War

Back in 1959, political theorist Kenneth N. Waltz wrote his seminal work, Man, the State, and War. In this book, Waltz argued that there is a tripod of despair which can account for much of human conflict. When it came to war, the primary factors included human nature (i.e. the actions of individual men, or outcomes of psychological forces), the presence of sovereign nation states, and the international system (or lack thereof, what Waltz dubbed "international anarchy"). Waltz posited that states' actions can often be explained by the pressures exerted on them by international competition, which limits and constrains their choices.

Combined, these three ingredients create a volatile mixture that typically results in geopolitical tensions and often all-out war.

Currently, there is not much we can do about human nature, although the transhumanists are busy working on that problem. As for the existence of nation states and a weak international governing system, those are problems that are immediately addressable.

What is required is the elimination of the sovereign nation state and the subsequent construction of an accountable world federalism.

The sovereignty myth

The key assumption of sovereignty is that a nation state has exclusivity of jurisdiction. Countries claim to have exclusive right to complete political authority over an area of governance, people, and itself. Consequently, what goes on within the borders of a sovereign nation is often considered its own business.

The claim to sovereignty, which has a rich historical context, forms the basis of the nation state model of global political organization. This model, however, is outdated and has been for some time, as witnessed by the catastrophic World Wars of the 20th century, the collapse of economic protectionism, the rise of cultural globalization, and even such things as the advent of virtual presence and the metaverse.

Sovereignty continues to be a problem because is often leads to a country’s exaggerated sense of importance and the notion that they are absolved from any kind of external standard. This is particularly problematic in authoritarian and despotic regimes where there are few democratic processes and virtually no accountability. This in turn leads to a misguided sense of political authority by their leaders, as exhibited by the heads of state in Iran, Zimbabwe, Belarus, and so on.

The negligence of political relativism

A politically criminal act is still a criminal act regardless of country. The issue, therefore, aside from enforcing the law, is to determine what is law given a richly multicultural planet. But while we tend to shy away from moral and cultural relativism, we should also be wary of political relativism – the idea that different people can and should be ruled by different political systems.

Supporters of political relativism argue that different political arrangements are acceptable in different countries given different precedents, traditions and realities; it is a denial of the assertion that there is only one or a truly fundamental means of governance.

One can interpret this is an apology for inaction and isolationism. Moreover, it is an abrogation of the larger global community’s humanitarian obligations. The “that’s their problem, not ours” mentality has arguably empowered some of the worst atrocities in recent times, including the genocide in Rwanda. Nation states allow people to cower under the shield of conceited isolationism and deny the presence of a larger human community. The is the fuel that allows renegade countries to ‘go it alone.’

Driving these sentiments are nativistic urges and over-the-top cultural identification. These orientations tread ominously close to far-right politics and have definite quasi-fascistic overtones. Other apologists for the nation state worry about a domineering global regime. They fear that all the political eggs will be in one global basket.

This concern doesn’t hold after closer scrutiny. First, for those of us living in popular sovereignties (i.e. democracies), we have conceded authority to our individual governments, so we are already making ourselves politically vulnerable. Given the onset of a despotic system, however, political change and insurgency would have to come from within; we would never hold out for liberation from outside sources. Second, democracy, as imperfect as it is, appears to be the best political system available to humanity. A world federalism, with minimal influence on individual regions (aside from the basics like security and enforcement of human rights), would be established and maintained by democratic processes. This is no Orwellian nightmare.

Destroy all nations!

The idea of a United Nations is hardly new. The same sort of thing was attempted in 1899 and 1907 with the international Hague Peace Conferences, and again in 1919 with the League of Nations. The United Nations is the most recent failed attempt to unify the global community.

Until national sovereignty is dissolved, however, these kinds of global models will not work. Powerful nations like the United States will continue to use the UN when it pleases them, and ignore it when it does not. Sadly, there is no effective prescription outside of coercion to compel a country to give up its sense of exclusive authority.

How this international system could actually come about is still a mystery. My own suspicion is that it will come through the maturation and merging of large political and economic entities like the the European Union. There is already talk of an African Union, with South American, North American and Asian unions not too far behind. Eventually these bodies will fuse into one large federation. Membership in these unions will be an attractive proposition. The benefits of a shared infrastructure will be substantial.

Ultimately, however, a world federalism would go a long way in reducing conflicts. Civil wars, localized violence and asymmetric threats would likely still emerge; no one is claiming utopia. But given this kind of arrangement, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that common security, an end to arms races, and the alleviation of cultural, political and economic isolationism would be a good thing. It’s part of the larger humanitarian mission.

It would be applied political Humanism.


Anonymous said...

Why not just offer political asylum to anyone who wants it (other than criminals and terrorists, of course)? It's a more realistic, non-violent solution.

Anonymous said...

What we need is less goevernment that are more local and more varied so that if you don't like one, you can move -- not a huge, faraway government that you can't escape from.

Sure, it might be benevolent at first, but giving it so much power over the whole planet is extremely dangerous.

Anonymous said...

The European Union is an interesting attempt to construct what you describe, although in baby steps.

It's not impossible to imagine the EU slowly expanding to take in border states until it becomes a single federal entity encompassing every part of the world except North America.

I doubt the US would ever cooperate in such an entity though.

m. s. said...

First, for those of us living in popular sovereignties (i.e. democracies), we have conceded authority to our individual governments, so we are already making ourselves politically vulnerable.

Yes I concede authority to my individual government. But in every moment, if I smell things go awry, I usually can escape. Maybe escaping is hard (see North Korea for example) but it is indeed possible. There is hope. In a global system, no hope for change is possible, apart from building your own Apollo 11 and start from there.

Given the onset of a despotic system, however, political change and insurgency would have to come from within; we would never hold out for liberation from outside sources.

I'm Italian, and -believe it or not- it was your country, among a bunch of well determined allies, that freed us from the Fascist dictatorship (same holds from Germany). Internal liberation movements were presents, but without Allies support, they would have been unable to do anything (especially in Germany).

Second, democracy, as imperfect as it is, appears to be the best political system available to humanity. A world federalism, with minimal influence on individual regions (aside from the basics like security and enforcement of human rights), would be established and maintained by democratic processes.

How can you be sure that those democratic processes will last forever?
People of every historical epoch seem to think that, with them, "history is finished": democracy exists, it more or less works, we're ok with that, we can only start better from that. We too often think of Fascisms like being a bunch of criminals making a coup d'├ętat and terrorizing population. This is just false. Fascist dictatorships were often voted democratically and/or had anyway large popular support. Are we so self-confident to think the same errors won't repeat?

m. s. said...

But while we tend to shy away from moral and cultural relativism, we should also be wary of political relativism

Why? You give a lot of moral reasons for that, but in a relativist context they are plainly moot, since it's your ethics, not The Great Ethics In The Sky so again, if I don't buy your ethics, I don't buy your arguments. Do you have objective reasons to refuse political relativism?

Note that in practice, I agree with your arguments. But they're simply my arguments and your arguments, I'm not sure they have true logical grounds.

Rasmus said...

Great elaboration, thank you.

As concerns the "humanitarian
obligations", I think you are being very ideological - which is ok. I just think that reality looks different.

Sure, "humanitarian
obligations" are always waved as banners - but in reality the contexts of any "liberation" or "war" are muddled with many more interests. If Iraq were not full of oil, do you think the argument of democracy would have started a war by itself?

So, so-called relativism may have certain pitfalls...but it is definitely more precise (!) when dealing with real conditions, cultures and millions of people.

You might destroy all nations - you will still be fighting local customs, religious nonsense, sadistic traditions.

Anonymous said...

excellent article George! I completely agree with you on the whole world government issue. Hopefully one day the EU will become a sort of the United States of Europe, and there will be United States of Africa, Asia and South America.

admin said...

I think "international anarchy" aptly describes the problem. In an increasingly interconnected world (economically, culturally, etc.), a world with increasingly powerful existential threats, some sort of meta-government seems unavoidable.

I should point out, however, that while the rest of the international community is quick to point out the human rights violations of the United States / Bush (as you did), the US is one of the most active defenders of human rights in the world. The international community sits on their hands while human rights abuses run rampant.

The Darfur crisis is a poignant example. There is no moral ambiguity in this crisis: the reigning Muslim faction is committing genocide against African natives. Where is Germany, or the United Kingdom, or France, or Canada on this problem? Why don't they intervene? The US military is a bit stretched at the moment, in case you didn't notice. Sitting idly by is the moral equivalent of doing nothing as you watch someone die by the side of the road. The blood of the victims is on their hands.

Ultimately, a strong world government will only arise by force, just as laws within a nation are promulgated by force. Protesting in the streets is not enough. It is this part that the international community seems reticent to participate in.

Rasmus said...

I must admit, I find the whole "world government" idea extremely unlikely.

It's a romantic dream, that is good as a ideological target - but practically impossible.
Just now, the EU has loads of problems sticking together. Any further integration is suspended because Europeans feel estranged towards the project - that's democracy for you :)

America is special in that all states have a relatively common cultural reference point. Europe is utter chaos in comparison.

Imagine expanding that 4 or 5 magnitudes to the rest of the world - the UN shows that the larger, the more toothless.

So, yes, it IS impossible to imagine "the EU slowly expanding to take in border states until it becomes a single federal entity encompassing every part of the world except North America."

m. s. said...

Dvorsky, I'm quite puzzled by the fact you have posted another couple of posts, yet you still haven't answered to the discussion in the comments. Not that you're obliged to, but if there's no feedback, comments look quite worthless.

George said...


I admit, I'm bad when it comes to responding to comments. Part of the problem is that free time to blog is very rare for me; I'm constantly "stealing" cycles to do it, which sucks. Thus, I have to prioritize -- which essentially means I'd rather write and research new articles than spend too much time in the comments section. For this I make no apologies, but I do ask for your understanding.

If, on the other hand, you're insistent on a conversation, we can conduct it via email.


Roko said...

I've posted a resonse to this on my blog:

The true solution to our problems is to change the human mind to a new kind of mind which is more intelligent, less prone to hatred, and has a positive sum reward system. The human mind – as it is at the moment with its Zero-sum notions of happiness – will lead to our destruction, no matter what system of government you put on top of it. read the whole post

I wish you could do trackbacks on blogger!

Zeroth Posclegomer said...

As transhumanists, why don't we move in the other direction?

When future science and technology allow the average transhuman to start with powers equivalent to approximately 15 United States's, each transhuman jets off into her own corner of the cosmos and live as "god" of that region of space. Since there are at least 170 billion galaxies in this universe, there are enough galaxies to give 28⅓ galaxies to each human being currently on Earth, assuming all 6 billion human beings transcend around 2030~2045 to become transhumans.

The beautiful thing about this scenario is that each transhuman will finally have absolute independence and control over their own lives. I don't have to live under Ahmandinejad's propaganda and tyranny anymore than I have to live under Bush's propaganda and tyranny or anyone else's. No government can tell me what to do or collect taxes from my wallet. I am my own government, my own state, heck, I am my own "god" and also "god" of all the virtual reality worlds that I run using matrioshka brains powered by my galaxies. Ultimately, I aspire to develop the technologies to create my own universe and live in it.

It's just like what Lao-Tzu said in his Tao Te Ching: "There should be a neighbouring state within sight, and the voices of the fowls and dogs should be heard all the way from it to us, but I would make the people to old age, even to death, not have any intercourse with it." The development of agriculture lead to the development of organized society and civilization which is the root of all evils that we witness in the world wars and brutal totalitarian and hypocritical governments. Organized societies have been the cradle of transhumanism, but now we have to outgrow this cradle. It is time to shutdown this show of states, nations and governments, and to start our quest for personal transhumanism, which is what it's about all along.

It's just like what Leon Fuerth, former national security adviser to vice president al gore, said at the 2002 foresight conference: "These guys talking here act as though the govenrment isnot part of their lives. They may wish it weren't, but it is. As we approach the issues they debated here today, they had better believe that those issues will be debated by the whole country. The majority of Americans will not simply sit still while some elite strips off their personalities and uploads themselves into their cyberspace paradise. They will have something to say about that. There will be vehement debate about that in this country." Except that transhumanism is about eventually escaping from government and organized society one day and jet off into our own parts of the cosmos (or creating our own new individual cosmos). I find it surprising to see most of the commenters in this blog still debating about the virtues and vices of a world government. When the real focus for us transhumanists should be about finding the third way -- to become a transhuman and get the hell off of this planet and have nothing to do with humanity or human societies and states for all eternity.