Sovereignty in 2017: It’s Meaning for Canada and the World

Sovereignty in 2017: It’s Meaning for Canada and the World

by

 

Howard Adelman

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi is visiting the White House today. Donald Trump has consistently expressed admiration for Sissi. In return, Sissi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump on his election victory. The mutual admiration society is understandable. Both leaders have rejected the position that any country or any international group of countries has the right to intervene in the domestic affairs of another country unless it is in the country’s interest to do so.

Trump has championed “America First” and, with it, the irrelevance of any moral responsibilities towards the population of another state. The doctrine, that Canada was in the forefront of developing, “The Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, has been thrust aside, not because it was not working as intended – there is a consensus on that conclusion – not because it was unworkable, a conclusion still in dispute but with weakened support, but because R2P did not fit in with the traditional doctrine of sovereignty – that each state was responsible for its own territory and the population in it and that a state should enjoy a monopoly of force to ensure the interests of the state were protected and advanced.

Hence, Trump has been in the process of dismantling the international liberal order and the role of the U.S. as the leader of that order. Sissi has abandoned the conception of Egypt as the leading power in the Arab world with a primary responsibility for the region and not just its own interests. At the same time, domestically, each state has moved to free itself from the constraints of an international human rights regime and able to define human rights through its own particular lens where some may have many more rights than others.

The path to the resurrection of the old and well-established doctrine of sovereignty has been turbulent. Egypt went through a pro-democracy uprising, the victory of a theocratic party in a democratic election, and a military counter-coup that suppressed the Islamic regime. America is going through its own version of democratic turbulence in which its leader blatantly rejects the doctrine of universal transparency and accountability, and admires “tough” approaches while openly disparaging human rights.

The conception of sovereignty is in play. Therefore, it was timely that Massey College this past Friday held a roundtable on the doctrine of sovereignty. True to the spirit of the new world disorder, the examination had a distinctly Canadian slant, but one in which R2P was rarely mentioned.

The highlight, at least for me, was a presentation by Dr. Elizabeth Riddell-Dixon, author of Breaking the Ice: Canada, Sovereignty and the Arctic Extended Shelf (Dundurn Press, April 2017, but not yet available). She is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Bill Graham Centre for Contemporary International History at the University of Toronto, a former professor of international relations at Western and a senior fellow at Massey College. She has written other books on women, on the role of NGOs internationally, on external constraints and domestic determinants in international policy, on the Canadian mosaic, and on the UN. She has been a prolific scholar with a very evident interest in issues dear to the liberal approach to international relations.

Her publisher’s blurb for her latest book begins with the following: “The Arctic seabed, with its vast quantities of undiscovered resources, is the twenty-first century’s frontier.” But that was NOT the thrust of her talk and, I suspect, not of the book. She made clear that the exploitation of natural resources in the Arctic was a long way off because of huge distances from settled society, the tough and unpredictable climate and terrain, and alternative sources of fossil fuels with far easier and more economic means of accessibility. Instead, she made clear that rather than being a frontier for material competition, the responsibility for the Arctic, rather than any benefit from it, was proceeding apace based on agreed international norms embodied in the authoritative international law of the sea and scientific studies undertaken cooperatively by the five countries surrounding the Arctic basin – Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the U.S.

Riddell-Dixon’s approach did not start from any liberal conception of sovereignty and a doctrine that it was urgent to develop an international order to govern areas of mutual interest. Rather, her approach was distinctly functional. Here is what is happening with one major disruption to the process of systematically establishing spheres of responsibility – the misguided effort of Prime Minister Harper of Canada to claim Canadian sovereignty over the North Pole. That was much to the chagrin of the Danes, for there was a general consensus that the North Pole fell clearly within Danish territory. The Danes then responded to the outlandish and aggressive Canadian leader’s claim with their own even more aggressive counter claims.

However, with the exception of this temporary digression, the process has been an example of the responsibility to protect, of R2P, not of human populations, for there are no human settlements there and the areas in dispute lie 800 nautical miles beyond the northernmost Canadian outpost of Alert which itself is another equivalent distance from our northernmost Inuit settlement. Instead of competition, what has taken place has been based on an authoritative international regime already in place, the international law of the sea, which defines spheres of territorial ownership (10 nautical miles into the sea) then spheres of economic interest (200 nautical miles into the sea), and, finally, extensions if the continental shelf extends beyond that distance, the extant of the continental shelf being determined by scientists from all five countries.

This is a doctrine of sovereignty that begins with a marriage of responsibility with interests rather than placing the two conceptions at odds, with the emphasis that, on the basis of these international norms and empirical science to determine the application, it is not the UN but each nation that has the responsibility for determining its sphere of international interests and responsibilities.  This is realism at work, not idealism, but realism rooted in internationally agreed legal norms and applied through the use of detached scientific evidence. Thus, rather than the monopoly over force and the expression of material interest as the forefront for determining the boundaries of the sovereign state, the key ingredients are international law and internationally accepted principles and practices of science to establish facts on the ground, or, more literally, in the sea.

This constructivist conception was haunted by three other views of sovereignty, one of idealism’s R2P lurking in the background, the traditional hard-headed (a description chosen deliberately to convey both toughness and resistance to being shaped by experience) realism and, finally, a romantic view that would displace the concept of state sovereignty with populist sovereignty, this time rooted in the sensibilities and conceptions of the peoples of the north of each country, including Canada’s Inuit.

The latter was presented at the roundtable clearly and articulately by Sara French-Rooke, a public policy leader and advocate with expertise on northern and indigenous issues who has had a career building collaborative strategic networks among northern communities of the Arctic. While Riddell-Nixon had been unequivocal in stating that pan-Arctic people’s power had virtually no role in determining state borders and responsibilities in the Arctic Basin, French-Rooke has had a leading role in bringing attention to the clean-water crises of remote northern communities, mercury contamination, housing and health issues, including the pandemic of suicides among youth.

I have dubbed this a “romantic” view of sovereignty, not to be dismissive, or to link it with escapism and fantasy, unrealizable idealism and aspirational politics, but to root the ideas embedded in the expression of economic realities and injustices, social concerns and political debates, in patterns and priorities that can be traced back to the origins of the modern nation-state and that have had very prominent expressions in the history of modern political theory. Whereas R2P stressed an idealistic view of a common humanity which, of necessity, has remained the leading edge of the climate change debate well articulated by John Godfrey at the roundtable, the romantic version of sovereignty stresses detailed contextual accounts of lives actually lived. In this view, politics and public morality have to begin with the concerns of peoples, and, primarily, peoples suffering, for, at root, sovereignty is about an ability to govern oneself, to determine one’s own destiny and, in this case, to do so collectively on behalf of suffering nations in the north.

In addition to the universalist and idealist approach of R2P that has been most relevant to the climate change debate, and the populist romantic view of sovereignty as the duty of a state to take care of its most vulnerable populations, both opposed to Riddell-Dixon, there is another realist portrait of sovereignty that was introduce in the morning by Tom Axworthy, ironically the brother of Lloyd Axworthy, so instrumental in forging the doctrine of R2P applied to international affairs.

In that realist view, sovereignty is the supreme power of a state to determine its own destiny. Its key ingredients are control over a defined territorial expanse and the monopoly of coercive force to achieve that goal.  The key elements are a defined physical territory, coercive power, the formal legal authority to determine the laws of a country and the mode of defending its interests.

With the help of Alex Zisman