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

The Arch of Justice

The Arch of Justice

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Jr. day. He was oft quoted as saying, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I only know this because Barack Obama loved to quote it and credit King. But he credited him with uttering the aphorism. Evidently, the originator was Theodore Parker in 1848 who offered it as a brief ode to hope and a belief in ethical progress. As Obama and others have recognized, however – this became a major theme of his final presidential address to the nation – the arc only bends if the people stand up and make it swing down and touch the earth. Without that effort, justice shoots off to the heavens to become an icon of aspiration instead of a practical reality here on earth.

Given the recent American election, can people still believe this is true? Can it be true of the Middle East? Of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? And what is the nature of that justice? And justice for whom?

Parker was a Unitarian, an abolitionist and, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist. Parker, like many before and after him, was especially influenced by the new Higher Biblical Criticism as those who followed were influenced by Source Criticism. He became convinced that the tales of dreams and prophecies of the Torah and of miracles and miraculous births of the New Testament lacked any truth value. He emerged from his spiritual quest as a naturalist, convinced that the divine was an intimate part of all of nature. What remained true in Christianity was its moral essence, the ethical teachings of Jesus.

Hence, he became a modernist. Religion required obedience to a higher Being. It required constructing a dependence on God and the institutions on earth responsible for conveying that message of obedience and even conformity with its rules. Morality, as Immanuel Kant had argued, was another matter and could not be reduced to religion. For moral principles were the sine qua non of behaviour without which there could be neither good nor bad. The basic principles of morality were a priori, as fundamental to the laws of human behaviour as gravity was to the laws of nature. They were transcendental preconditions of moral behaviour altogether and could not be distilled into religious directives. Morality requires right action and obedience to the conscience of the individual. Religion required obedience to an Other – God, the Church or an Authoritarian regime in a political system built on the same principles as religion while dispensing with God.

The attraction to authoritarian rule was almost as innate as conscience, but it was a propensity, not an a priori transcendental principle. “No feeling is more deeply planted in human nature than the tendency to adore a superior being, to reverence him, to bow before him, to feel his presence, to pray to him for aid in times of need.” But it was a planted feeling, one inculcated in both slave owners and their slaves, in religious leaders as well as their followers, in politicians who sought dominion and in citizens who sought an escape from the burdens and responsibility of freedom. When the heart is full of hope, divorced from personal effort, joy fills the air and a leader may be blessed. When that hope comes crashing down to earth, rejoicing turns to despair and the followers will seek to burn their fallen leader as an effigy. However, if one accepts that the whole world is divine, if one accepts that God lives within oneself, if one accepts that it is one’s responsibility and one’s responsibility alone to create the world as a living and vibrant moral universe, if one becomes convinced that this responsibility cannot be displaced onto another, then you have the premise for being both a moral and a responsible individual, two sides of the same coin.

It would be a theology that would be the counterpoint to authoritarianism so that even a religion as communitarian as Judaism would fall under its spell as liberal Jewish theologians became enamoured with the “autonomous self” as the only alternative to the authoritarianism of politicians and rabbis alike. The conviction of Theodore Parker became so pure that it even initially pushed him outside of even the pale of the Unitarian Church for a time before that church “canonized” him. Martin Luther King Jr. never went nearly that far. He was a communitarian in his heart and soul and believed in the power of his people, as Black Americans and as Americans of any colour or ethnicity. Individual conscience was never enough. One needed the power of the people to sustain oneself in battle and to provide the foot soldiers for that battle.

The issue was whether the people were to be lead by men of conscience or by reprobates, by liars, by those who were at base misanthropes, by men (perhaps even sometimes women) of no conscience, by men who fed off but showed utter disdain for the power of the people that they exploited in the name of attacking the institutional powers in place. Secular Protestantism was susceptible to seduction by the charms of a charlatan. And there were plenty around who offered to lead the people to greatness rather than to live under a brighter light, offered “our” power rather “theirs,” offered power at all rather than movement towards self-empowerment.

If the arc of justice is to be your guide, if it requires your effort to bend that arc towards the earth for the benefit of humanity, how does that help you in dealing with major international political problems like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? It is one thing to rely upon the metaphor as a guide for domestic politics and social organizing. It is quite another to use it in service of international negotiations. But it is very far from impossible.

First, it requires each party to recognize the Other, however inferior that Other may be in the power it holds, in fact, in spite of the weak position of the Other. It requires recognizing the Other as worthy of equal respect and dignity as humans. This applies as well to the recognition required by the weak party as well. They too must see the Other, not as an overbearing demon, but as a group driven by demons of insecurity and fears. But also driven by its own dreams and aspirations. Respect of each party of the other becomes a primary condition for reconciliation and peace.

Second, it requires not relying on outsiders to bring pressure and force to bear on settling the matter. Influence, certainly. But not external authority or power. The mantra that the Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis are the only ones who can make peace must be a fundamental building block.

Third, it requires realism. If the arc of justice is to bend towards the earth, then the justice required is the justice on the ground, the justice that takes into account the needs and desires and aspirations of all of those wherever they live in the territory of the conflict. The mistake in Gaza was not the military withdrawal of the Israelis, but moral withdrawal of the Israelis, the decision to abandon not just leave Gaza and, thus, also to surrender to an evil principle of Judenrein. Because the Palestinians made a contractual deal virtually impossible and told the Israelis, in effect, to get out without any arrangements, this does not excuse the moral lapse. I myself participated in that lapse in supporting the total withdrawal. In retrospect, it was wrong to say, “To hell with you, we’re leaving.” At the same time, the political practices that are moral must be as realistic as they are idealistic. Escape from responsibility will not allow a party to achieve freedom. It is a very tough balancing act.

How does one retain responsibility while surrendering authority to the Other and granting the Other the right to empower itself? That is the task, not a premise. That is the goal of a peace agreement, not the foundation for one. How does one create and continue to engage in a positive sum game wherein there is both true mutual recognition and where the power of the Other is allowed to grow as a release and expression of the energy of a people while ensuring that this energy is not a threat but a partner, a complement rather than an antagonist. Much easier said that done. That is why the task of peace is so difficult. But it will never be made easier with the intervention of external superegos which remove the ethical and political responsibilities from the parties themselves to forge a peace. And each party must recognize its own shortcomings in such a quest.

That is what is fundamentally wrong with Resolution 2334. It attempts to pre-empt that discussion. It raises the status of the Palestinians quite justly, but only by demonizing and derogating Jewish Israelis and their position. Not only are realities ignored, not only are established principles torturously arrived at set aside, but the supporters of the Resolution – quite aside from the myriad of deficiencies – have surrendered to the belief that external parties must not only be helpful to the parties, but weigh in on the debate so that in terms of power, the weight clearly still remains with the Jewish Israelis that cannot be offset by all the abstract moral weight and economic clout put on the other side of the scale.

When that is done in bad faith, when that is done without loving-kindness, when that is done in the name of helping the so-called underdog, it is done without respect of the power and recognition the Palestinians truly deserve as a self-governing people responsible for who they are and what they want to become. It is done by ignoring the authoritarian institutions and corruption which impede their self-development. It is done by ignoring the long strides Palestinians have made in managing their own security. And it is certainly done by ignoring the realities of Jewish Israel and denigrating its motives and its position.

Given these parameters, it is why the conclusions of the Paris Peace Conference are so superior to those of Resolution 2334. All states, including that of Israel, should recognize Palestine as an aspiring state. That is what Palestinians want. That is what they should have. That is what only a minority of Jewish Israelis let alone a minority of all Israelis want to prevent. The majority of Jewish Israelis accept the goal of creating a Palestinian state side-by-side Israel.

Let me offer a concrete example. If an outsider determines in advance that Jerusalem is Palestinian territory, a determination that was never previously made in either an agreement between the parties or even by an authoritative international body, that is an illegitimate move. If a country wishes to do so in recognition of realities that do not pre-empt the discussion – such a moving an embassy to West Jerusalem – that may be an imprudent act given the timing, but it is not an undercutting action. One can even argue such an act is needed to make a statement about reality.

That is why the Paris Peace Conference was far superior to the UNSC Resolution 2334 even as it endorsed that Resolution, but did so in a way that offered some re-balancing. It was an influence conference, not a peace conference. Neither of the disputants were represented or there. The participants reaffirmed their support “for a just, lasting and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” The conference endorsed negotiations between the parties as “the only way” to achieve enduring peace while recognizing that current trends (on both sides) on the ground, not only the expansion of settlements but “continued acts of violence,” impede progress towards peace. The conference endorsed “meaningful, direct negotiations.”

Resolution 242 was not superseded by another UN resolution, though all UN resolutions were acknowledged. Instead, the conference endorsed a negotiated two-State solution that would meet the legitimate aspirations of both parties for both sovereignty and security “and resolve all permanent status issues on the basis of UNSC Res. 242 and 338.” If a framework was helpful in such negotiations, the Conference tipped its hat to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. Palestinians as well as Israelis were urged to be governed by international humanitarian and human rights law. Instead of using international humanitarian law as a club, let alone the threat of economic coercion, the participants expressed a readiness to offer its support where needed, including economic aid and economic incentives as positive inducements.

One item emphasized was an offer to facilitate civil society dialogue between the two parties in contention. The focus was not on external pressures, but on strengthening civil society and direct dialogue between and among citizens from both sides. The conference was clear in its strictures against steps that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations on final status issues – borders, security, Jerusalem, refugees. Though Netanyahu could wave away the results of the Paris Peace Conference as irrelevant and futile, and the Palestinians could welcome the conclusion by ignoring the strictures against their own positions and practices, reassurance came for me from a surprising quarter. Though he did not express any regret for not vetoing Res. 2334, John Kerry reassured Netanyahu that there would be no further UN Resolutions before Trump took over and no international action following from the Peace Conference. The timing of the conference and the results seem more intended to send a message to Donald Trump rather than to either Abbas or Netanyahu.

As I interpreted the Peace Conference, it went some way to offset the destructive elements of UNSC 2334, but the concluding statement lacked the legal authority of the UN. There were also other efforts on the ground that proved to be more promising and could serve as a precedent for partial deals rather than a comprehensive one. After six years of negotiations, a concrete deal was made on sharing water resources between Israel and the West Bank, including of a Joint Water Committee to work out the details of implementation.

However, on the international stage, the fallout from Resolution 2334 inviting unilateral actions on the international stage can be very destructive of efforts to implement a peace deal. I will deal with those consequences in my next blog.