Friday, August 21, 2009

Nationhood: Ties that Bind, or Free?

My opus for the latest WPJ, don't forget to check out
the nice cartoon by Nicholas Vadot at the end!
(nice, easy to read pdf at

Nationhood: Ties that Bind, or Free?
Ian Williams

In February 2009, Kosovo—the last compo-
nent of the former Yugoslavia to win inde-
pendence—celebrated its first anniversary of
freedom. Three months later, it was wel-
comed into the International Monetary
Fund, a critical step toward international
recognition of its status as a truly self-gov-
erning, self-reliant nation. But it does not
exercise effective authority in its northern
enclave and is heavily dependent on foreign
aid, North Atlantic Treaty Organization
(NATO) troops and UN resolutions. These
defining moments impel reflection on the
question of what independence, sovereignty,
and citizenship really mean in today’s glob-
alized world.
It brought me back to just how much—
and how little—has changed since the sum-
mer of 1999, just after NATO had moved in-
to the former province of Serbia, before in-
dependence or peace had become even a
possibility in this violent corner of the
world. Dumped from the Skopje bus at the
Kosovo/Macedonia border, my Kosovar col-
league and I had to drag ourselves and our
bags to the other side to get a UN shuttle
bus to Pristina. At least I was in short
sleeves. The U.S. troops in the stalled con-
voy that I trudged past wore helmets and
full body armor in 90 degree-plus heat, and
were probably beginning to understand why
the Crusader knights did not stay the course
in the medieval Middle East.
In those years, millions of families across
the Balkans had suddenly, often violently,
been forced to cope with such new realities:
that what once had been a local trip—the
equivalent of passing, say, from Brooklyn to
Queens in New York—now involved cross-
ing international frontiers. My Kosovar
companion grumbled that it was taking us
longer simply to clear the border than it
used to take him to drive the 76 miles from
Pristina to Skopje for a night out on the
town. Back then, all he needed was his dri-
ver’s license and some cash. Now he needed
to change currencies and carry a passport—
with the appropriate visa. We were crossing
an international border, as impenetrable
for many as was the Iron Curtain in the
era before glasnost. Welcome to the new
In a world where tiny, indefensible, and
drowning atolls claim a sovereignty they
could only enjoy on sufferance, where previ-
ously academic exercises in cartography sud-
denly make people aliens in their place of
birth, and where most of Western Europe is
incrementally abandoning many of the tra-
ditional prerequisites of nationhood, it bears
looking at how shaky many of our axioms
on sovereignty and nationality really are.

On the Macedonian border, which bi-
sects (regardless of local wishes) a majority
Albanian area, families found that what
had been an imaginary line on the map was
now a militarized barrier separating them
from their relatives in Macedonia. In the
north, the Serb minority who lived in
Kosovo watched truculently as the United
Nations erected boundary posts between
Kosovo and Serbia after the latter’s military
A Militarized Frontier
Modern Yugoslavia’s godfather, President
Jozep Broz Tito, had tried to square the
circle of nationalisms by keeping Kosovo as
a titular province of Serbia, but giving it
practical autonomy and an equal and inde-
pendent voice in the Yugoslav Federation. It
was a nominally successful arrangement for
40 years, but depended too much on Tito’s
personality. The Rube-Goldberg machinery
of a rotating collective presidency that he
designed to replace himself fell apart at the
first proddings of Slobodan Milosevic, who
pandered to Serb nationalism by overturn-
ing those arrangements. The Kosovars had
been uncomplaining about their previous
autonomy in the Yugoslav federation, but
their experience after Slobodan Milosevic
had instituted direct rule and ethnic Serbian
hegemony from Belgrade meant that despite
the weasely language in UN resolutions af-
ter the NATO occupation, it was clear Kosovo
would never be part of Serbia again. (In any
rational consideration, a state that tries to
deport the majority of citizens from a
“province” as Milosevic did in 1999 after
depriving them of their rights for the pre-
ceding decade has terminally severed any
claim to their loyalty.)
Even so, the Kosovars had no great am-
bitions to be part of a putative “Greater Al-
bania,” uniting Macedonian and Kosovar
Albanians with their compatriots in Tirana.
This was the bugbear of Serb nationalists,
who spoke of it as axiomatically bad even as
they assumed the self-evident merits of a
Greater Serbia. Kosovars chose independ-
ence, despite total dependence on Western
aid, NATO security, and even its adoption of
the Euro as currency—all calling into ques-
tion just how independent it can ever be.
Indeed, its “independence” is in some
ways reactive. A linguistically distinct pop-
ulation chose to sever the sovereignty that
Serbia had claimed over them. Serbia has
referred the question of Kosovan independ-
ence to the International Court of Justice,
which may return—probably years hence—
a verdict that Belgrade does not like. In-
deed, Serbia’s foreign minister has pre-emp-
tively declared that the government would
disregard any adverse judgment. In any case,
over 60 nations have recognized Kosovo.
Belgrade is no more likely to resume sover-
eignty over Kosovo than the United King-
dom is to re-annex the thirteen American
colonies or indeed than the former princi-
pality of Serbia is to resume its former sta-
tus as part of a Turkish empire in Europe.
Ironically, Albanians, Kosovars, and
Serbs—along with all their neighbors in the
Balkan cockpit of nationalities—unite in
sharing the same overriding ambition. They
all desperately want to join the European
Union, which would entail them giving up
much of the sovereignty that they have been
so zealously squabbling over. In stark con-
trast to the splintering of former Yugoslavia
and the Soviet Union, Western Europe is
becoming a new borderless nirvana. It is
possible to travel from the shores of the Arc-
tic Ocean to Spanish enclaves in North
Africa without showing a passport. Euro-
pean Union citizens can live and work any-
where they want within the EU, claim edu-
cation, healthcare, and welfare benefits—
and even vote in many elections. For all
those nations, whose working definition of
sovereignty seems to include the right, in-
deed the duty, to harass foreigners at the
borders and inside them, this is serious self-
denial in the interest of a broader human or
economic security.
Self-Determination and Statehood
The origins of many of the problems we see
in the Balkans today may be traced back to
1919 and Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen
Points—or rather popular perceptions of the
Points. In fact, while encap-
sulating the concept of self-
determination, his points al-
so included a host of messy
and somewhat less princi-
pled details about their
application amid national
boundaries drawn with only a cavalier ges-
ture toward the real desires of the people
who would be forced to live within them.
Neither the League of Nations nor the
peacemakers who concluded the Treaty of
Versailles were quite as insouciant as they
have since been depicted, at least when deal-
ing with those who did not lose the war.
Still, it would be difficult to claim that
the post-Versailles world represented un-
mitigated progress or freedom. During
the twentieth century, the application of
Wilson’s Fourteen Points introduced a new
phenomenon—the stationary tourist, indi-
viduals who found themselves under the se-
quential rule of a half-dozen or more states,
simply by virtue of the land where they
lived having changed hands through wars,
revolutions, or boundary changes.
We need to remember that there has
been a major shift of sensibilities since the
international community and the League of
Nations organized and facilitated population
transfers, such as those between Greeks and
Turks over Cyprus, displacing communities
that represented three millennia of continu-
ous settlement in order to make them fit
newly constructed national or international
agreements. At the end of World War II,
the “national” claims over the human rights
of individuals had its last orgasmic consum-
mation with population transfers across Eu-
rope that moved Germans from the East,
Poles from Ukraine, and sundry others
across the continent. Within a few years, as-
sessment of this wholesale geo-ethnic engi-
neering would move from acts of ruthless
but effective statesmanship to indictable
crimes under international law. The Pro-
crustean concept of truncating or stretching
people to fit boundaries persisted through
the division of India and Pakistan, and even
today in Israel and Palestine.
Throughout this period, there have been
recurrent expressions of disquiet from hu-
manitarians at such forced movements, as
much about the savagery with which the
transfers were conducted as the principles
behind it. Some, looking at the relative
peace in Europe since the Oder-Neisse line
defined the Polish-German frontier at the
end of World War II, and the mass transfer
of populations to match the new borders,
will claim “but it worked.” And perhaps it
did for a while, until the cataclysm of the
dissolution of the Soviet Union knocked the
Balkan satellite from orbit, sending it into a
relentlessly downward spiral.
Indeed, the most violent problems
stemmed from old, and previously almost-
forgotten, “internal” boundaries, drawn up
on alleged ethnic principles, which sprang
to life with new rigidity—all the more
visible because their previous irrelevance
had left them to fossilize for decades rela-
tively unchallenged. They were old impe-
rial boundaries between Ottomans and
Hapsburgs in the Balkans, and Stalin’s dic-
tatorial whims in the case of the USSR. In
The most violent problems
stemmed from almost-forgotten
‘internal’ boundaries.
both cases, they rarely coincided with the
needs or desires of the people who lived in
these states—such as Kosovo, whose bound-
aries now include some Serbs, but exclude
some Albanians in Serbia. In Yugoslavia, the
EU’s Badinter Commission set out criteria
for recognizing the former federal republics
that included accepting their existing re-
publican boundaries. Similarly, the Soviet
republics, in general, accepted the eccentric
lines Stalin had drawn for them when it
came time to create new nations out of the
Soviet Union.
While some countries are born into in-
dependence and others seize it, most of the
former Soviet republics had it thrust upon
them. The result was millions of people who
found themselves faced with the choice of
hightailing it back to Russian or other post-
Soviet motherlands, or being stranded as
minorities in far away places with newly
assertive natives.
Under the old USSR, Khrushchev’s
reallocation of Crimea to Ukraine went
relatively un-noticed by its citizens. Few
of them would have cared that Ukraine,
along with Byelorussia, had a UN seat or
indeed, that while the majority of the cur-
rent Crimean population was Russian, the
deported Crimean Tartars thought they
had a prior lien on the property. But with
the dissolution of the Soviet Union, anom-
alies such as Crimea and the Nagorno-
Karabakh, let alone Chechnya, were time-
bombs waiting to explode. In Georgia,
the Abkhaz and Ossetians reacted to a viru-
lent Georgian nationalism which denied
them their linguistic and cultural rights.
They thus expelled Georgians, who in the
case of Abkhazia, reputedly outnumbered
the Abkhaz.
In each case, a fictional template of a
sovereign nation-state was being applied in
circumstances for which it was rarely, if ever
relevant—and more disastrously revived in
circumstances in which it was disastrous.
Wail Freedonia
In the West, we now look down indulgently
on the Marx Brothers’ Freedonian excesses as
the foibles of nations imagining themselves
into being. But that is how all of our na-
tions were birthed.
For centuries, indeed millennia, Greeks,
Arabs, Serbs, Bulgarians, Kurds, Turks,
Jews, Albanians, and others lived side by
side in cities which held mixed communi-
ties. A century ago, there were ancient
colonies of Greeks surviving around the
Mediterranean and Black Sea. Now the
Greeks of southern Italy, Alexandria, Anato-
lia, the Pontus, and Caucasus are an often
suppressed memory, while the Phanariots of
Istanbul, who had been the majority even in
the Sultan’s capital, are a faint shadow of
their former Byzantine glory. They were vic-
tims of that romantic nationalism whose ul-
timate manifestation is one people, one
state—and, all too often, one cynical but
charismatic leader.
In the twenty-first century, the nation
state is not what it was, and indeed proba-
bly never has been: that is, the metaphysical
ideal of a nation—a contiguous territory oc-
cupied by people with a shared identity
united in a sovereign entity, huddling to-
gether for security under a single govern-
ment. While this reappraisal of the nation-
state in some measure appears to be an inno-
vation, it actually hearkens back to an older
era, which in retrospect looks increasingly
attractive. The Ottomans in Istanbul, and
the Hapsburgs in Vienna, with varying de-
grees of tolerance and efficiency, ruled over
multi-ethnic states that allowed a large de-
gree of cultural autonomy. Few nations have
their own exclusive, native languages, with
roots going back over a millennium. Para-
doxically, peoples like the Basques or the
Welsh—with claims to relative cultural,
linguistic, and genetic continuity—rarely
have their own nation-states. Adding to the
irony is that so much of the savagery sur-
rounding the creation or implementation of
nation-states is an emulation of that first-
born creation of the Enlightenment—post-
revolutionary France—which tied together
the feudal idea of territory with the innova-
tive concept of the “people.”
When the French Revolution and Bona-
partist reforms swept aside the old feudal
boundaries, perhaps as few as a quarter of
the citizens of France actually spoke French.
They spoke Basque, Alsatian German, Bre-
ton, Corsican, Languedoc, and countless
mutually unintelligible dialects. Their laws,
customs, weights, and measures varied from
county to county and town to town. Indeed,
even this year, the United Nations Educa-
tional, Scientific and Cultural Organization
(UNESCO) identified no less than 26 threat-
ened languages in France. While initially
attachment to the tricolor was enough qual-
ification for citizenship, speaking French has
become increasingly important.
The French example provided the impe-
tus to convert Germany from a linguistic
and geographical definition. Bismarck’s
Germany, even before the Nazis, expressed
a nationalist drive to create lebensraum, or
“living space,” in the East, with attempts
to assimilate or move out Czechs, Poles,
and other Slavic minorities such as the Old
Prussians, Sorbs, and Wends, as well as to
annex any nearby German-speaking areas.
This produced the ultimate nightmare: na-
tionalism, national self-determination, and
sovereignty insouciant to the opinions of
other peoples. The Nazis came to power
by demanding that Germans, too, had the
same right to self-determination that Wil-
son had offered their neighbors. But self-
determination for one does not mean self-
determination for all—and the Nazis were
not shy about denying “minority” commu-
nities their right in the sun.
After the Allied victory in 1945, the
peacemakers truncated Germany to fit their
new design. Indeed, 1945 saw some of the
most brutal and wholesale ethnic cleansing
of the century, as millions of ethnic Ger-
mans were bayoneted out of their ancestral
homes to the east and south into the cur-
tailed frontiers of what is now the modern,
homogeneous Federal Republic. From East
Prussia, Silesia, and the Sudetenland to
Transylvania and Vojvodina, German popu-
lations that dated back to medieval times
were ethnically cleansed, forcibly and bru-
tally deported—to a state of which they had
never been a part and whose origins in the
nineteenth century came half a millennium
or more after their settlements. In a brutal
application of vae victis, the episode is never
really overtly justified—it is simply ignored
by all but the victims.
Bring Back the Hapsburgs
Despite the exception of Germany, the
process of national homogenization in West-
ern Europe is far from complete. Indeed it
has been slowed, even halted, by modern
sensibilities and the European Union. The
new continental unity is not based on a
forced homogeneity; rather, the core of the
European Union endows national groups—
Basques, Catalans, Bretons, and others—
with new linguistic and cultural rights. The
union has bestowed upon these marginalized
peoples a renewed sense of identity, since
the shared benefits of European citizenship
do not depend on swearing allegiance to a
majority language or the culture of a single
nation. For countries with populations in a
position to benefit from EU minority rights
policies that are a condition of membership,
joining the European Union involves
foreswearing majoritarian monoculture. Yet
the feverish reaction to a Kurdish MP using
his own language in the Turkish parliament
show that the EU’s efforts to bolster minor-
ity rights is still a work in progress.
Still, there remains hope for progress.
Indeed, even in places like Britain, the right
of individual appeal to the European Court
of Human Rights in Strasbourg has im-
proved human rights and human security, as
well as the sovereignty of the individual—
though at the expense of the sovereignty
of one of the oldest continuously existing
states in the world. After numerous success-
ful appeals against its government, Britain
has now incorporated the European conven-
tions on human rights into its domestic
The European model certainly does not
have the seductions or passionate attach-
ment of the nation state. Its attractions are
much more muted. Across Spain, for exam-
ple, local authorities will fly the European flag
along with the Catalan, Andalusian, or Basque
flag, as if to counterbalance the Spanish national
flag. The Welsh or Scottish flags fly proudly
alongside the Union Jack in the United Kingdom.

There are tensions, but overall, people can maintain multiple,
parallel identities if they are not forced to
choose between one and the other.

Indeed, the EU’s starry circle on blue is
not a flag to move people into paroxysms of
patriotism. Its main attraction is that what
it stands for reduces the likelihood of such
jingoistic spasms. It is not that everyone
suddenly loves one another, but that ten-
sions and prejudices become manageably do-
mestic when disentangled from lines on the
map and demands of exclusive loyalty. Peo-
ple from Liverpool and Manchester, Naples
and Milan may hold jaundiced views about
each other, but these days, neighbors are un-
likely to go to war (beyond the occasional
soccer match, of course). In a sense, the
European Union makes all Europeans neigh-
bors, successfully reviving the long-discard-
ed model of the multi-ethnic Ottoman and
Hapsburg empires—that is, a separation of
ethnic identity from political sovereignty
and territoriality. The revival may be partly
in reaction to how the principles of Wilson-
ian self-determination and Westphalian sov-
ereignty have been pushed beyond absurdity
to tragedy so often in the last century’s na-
tionalist-inspired wars.

The Erosion of Sovereignty

While at first glance, the European drive to
integration would seem a natural extension
of the UN Charter, it is in fact almost a
negation—but only superficially. The UN
insistence on the legal fiction of absolute
equality and sovereignty of its member
states was, in a sense, a step backward in or-
der to take two, or more, steps forward.
The United Nations’ more absolute con-
cept of the sovereign equality of all states,
effectively vetoed older and more complexly
graduated concepts of nationhood that
ranged from suzerainty to protectorates. On-
ly sovereign states were to be admitted. Yet,
there were anomalies to begin with. India,
even before its official independence, along
with Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and
South Africa, were in the United Nations
although all were technically part of the
British Empire, with the British King (ef-
fectively Emperor) George VI as their head
of state. In fact, the British “dominions,” al-
though considered automatically bound by
the British declaration of war in 1914, were
still represented separately at Versailles, part
of a grand, if questionable, compromise.
Three decades later, membership in the
United Nations in 1945 confirmed that in-
dependence. On the other hand, Ukraine
The European model does not
have the seductions or passions
of the nation-state; its attractions
are much more muted.
and Byelorussia were also founding mem-
bers of the United Nations, though these
“nations” certainly had substantially less
autonomy than most American states.
Nevertheless, the founding UN princi-
ple of sovereign equality has generally been
enhanced over the years, not least when
Ukraine and Belarus translated fiction into
fact after the dissolution of the Soviet
Union. Nauru, an 8 square mile, mined-out
guano islet, and China, a global behemoth,
are equal sovereign nations. Only in the rar-
ified chambers of the Security Council do
the permanent members evoke the Orwell-
ian state of the real world, where some na-
tions are definitely more equal than others.
While the UN Charter emphasized the
sovereignty of its member states, its signa-
tories, at least in theory, surrendered their
most basic sovereign right—waging war.
The charter submits acts of self-defense to
ratification by the Security Council once the
immediate emergency has passed. Of course,
there have been all too many wars since the
founding of this international body, but it
is significant that, de jure, the international
community has not recognized any acquisi-
tion of territory by war—not East Timor,
Western Sahara, or the Occupied Territories.
Indeed, if Saddam Hussein had left intact
the government he briefly installed in
Kuwait and withdrawn, Washington would
likely not have been able to assemble the
international coalition to remove Iraq from
its neighbor. Rather, Saddam’s foolhardy
annexation provided the legal excuse for
UN sanctions and political support for the
ensuing Operation Desert Storm.
And so, in the wake of the first Iraq
War, “microstates” rushed to take out what
amounted to anti-annexation insurance by
joining the United Nations. Previously, the
United States had demurred at accepting
the sovereignty (and thus, membership) of
microstates, but as history would have it,
the Prince of Liechtenstein happened to be
a friend of President George H. W. Bush.
And thus a single snowflake became a
squall: San Marino, Andorra, and Monaco
were followed by a flurry of atolls and islets,
many of which, such as Nauru, had fewer
citizens than the United Nations had staff.
Each is now a sovereign nation in the view
of the world body, and maintains its right to
cast a vote equal to China’s or India’s.
In the case of the former U.S. Strategic
Trust territories in the Pacific, the defini-
tion of sovereignty became stretched even
further. In 1990, when the UN Trusteeship
Council considered the status of Palau, the
last trusteeship and mandate left over from
the First World War, the Soviet emissary
was indignant when I suggested that this
tiny state would want to join the United
Nations. “But their compact of association
with the United States—they will not be
independent,” the Soviet official protested.
I could not resist recalling for him the ex-
ample of Byelorussia and Ukraine. “But
they were frontline states against the
Nazis,” he shot back. When I suggested
that these islands were in the frontline
against Japanese militarism in the Pacific he
became strangely silent, and later the Russ-
ian delegation raised no objections when
they joined.
Indeed, when Palau, Micronesia, and the
Marshall Islands (the other “compact” states)
finally became members in 1994, the USSR
was no longer what it had been. Russia had,
almost surreptitiously, inherited the Soviet
seat—sovereignty and all—without any
formal declaration or resolution, while the
former Soviet republics of Byelorussia and
Ukraine had morphed their courtesy mem-
berships into real UN memberships, fol-
lowed soon thereafter by other former Soviet
and Yugoslav republics. In the end, it was
left to a British diplomat to raise, more
in the nature of a footnote, the issue of
whether Palau—with its defense and finance
in the hands of the United States, and its
treaty obligation to consult with Washing-
ton on foreign policy—was really a sover-
eign state in the traditional sense.

Half a Sovereign = Lienty

Coincidentally, the British Foreign Office
has just abandoned a concept that could
have been usefully applied to this and other
cases. In 2009, to the pleasure of the Chi-
nese and the disgust of the Tibetans, Britain
dropped its previous stand—inherited from
the days of the Raj and the Younghusband ex-
pedition to Lhasa—that China had “suzerainty”
over Tibet.
Instead, London quietly accepted Beijing’s “sover-
eignty” over Tibet, since in the modern post
UN Charter world, sovereignty is a binary
concept—countries either have it or they
Suzerainty is an old imperial concept
implying allegiance without much in the
way of authority. The Ottomans specialized
in this nebulous concept, and indeed
claimed suzerainty over Serbia for much
of the nineteenth century. When the
grandfather of former UN Secretary-General
Boutros Boutros Ghali became prime minis-
ter of Egypt in 1908, he needed a firman, or
decree, from the sultan in Istanbul who had
suzerainty over Egypt, to confirm his ap-
pointment, even though it was some cen-
turies since Egypt had actually been under
any effective form of Ottoman control. In
fact, for some four decades, it had been un-
der British occupation.
The British were also adept at exploit-
ing the degrees of lack of sovereignty im-
plied by suzerainty. Much of British India
was not directly ruled by the British but by
local rulers, who, nonetheless, acknowledged
British suzerainty in much the same feudal
way they had previously deferred to the
Moghul Emperor in Delhi. On a wider
scale, the various stages of autonomy from
outright colony to self-government to full
independence have been traversed by the
Commonwealth countries and Ireland as
they drifted away from the motherland. In
1914, when the King’s government in Lon-
don declared war on Germany, this declara-
tion also applied automatically to the self-
governing dominions. But, nearly a century
later, the nations of the former British Com-
monwealth have evolved to the point where
despite close historical ties, the presence of
kith and kin, and even the occasional shar-
ing of a monarch, they hold no hint of
suzerainty or surrender of sovereignty in the
modern age.
The very terms “sovereignty” and
“suzerainty” are Norman French, and carry
with them feudal, hierarchical connotations.
So perhaps it is time for us to coin some
modern Norman French (might I propose
“lienty”?) to describe countries which ac-
knowledge a tie, a lien, without any hint of
hierarchy. Serbia and Kosovo, China and
Taiwan, India and Kashmir, Morocco and
Western Sahara, are just some examples of
countries afflicted with large, clingy neigh-
bors that could benefit from a lateral rather
than vertical relationship.
If sovereignty is treated with flexibility,
on a scale from suzerainty down to lienty,
then there are possible solutions that con-
sider individual rights as opposed to state
rights and group rights. The European
Union perhaps can provide some insight.
Who knows? Canadian universal health care
“In the wake of the first Iraq War,
‘microstates’ rushed to take out
what amounted to anti-annexation
insurance by joining the UN”. “

for Americans, American minimum wages
for Mexicans, and the North American Free
Trade Agreement (NAFTA) may all begin to
look attractive.
Indeed, each member of the United
Nations has subscribed to lienty, or non-
hierarchical suzerainty, under the UN Char-
ter. Each has forsworn the right to wage
war, and instead of sovereign states existing
in a state of nature, red in tooth and claw,
each has, nominally at least, accepted a rule
of global law to regulate relations between
Perhaps the ultimate abdication, albeit
in its very early stages, is the abandonment
of the Westphalian principle that what a
government does to its own people is no
other state’s business. At the UN Millenni-
um Summit in 2000, member nations
adopted the “responsibility to protect,”
which declares that the organization’s au-
thority under its governing charter grants it
the right to preserve peace and security be-
tween nations, which extends to internal ap-
plication in the case of breaches of humani-
tarian law. Indeed, this chipping away at
sovereignty gave member nations more than
the ability and authority to involve them-
selves in the internal doings of other states
—it granted them a moral responsibility.
Admittedly, the application of the
responsibility-to-protect doctrine will take
considerable time. At this stage, however,
the principle is more important than the ap-
plication. Still, the hitherto unprecedented
International Criminal Court indictment of
Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir is a his-
torical step in eroding the concept of ab-
solute sovereignty.

Ties that Bind, Ties that Free

The complexities of the modern world chal-
lenge the basic Hobbesian social contract
that a state’s citizens have exclusive loyalty
and duty to it in return for protection. Take
the European Union, for example, which of-
fers portable passport privileges for the citi-
zens of its member states; or consider the
growing acceptance of dual, or even multi-
ple nationality. Both fly in the face of this
presumed concept of exclusivity. The social
contract has been extended so that the na-
tion-state has more tenuous claims to the
loyalty and debt owed its citizens, and cer-
tainly fewer ethnically based claims. In the
United States, the nativism that mirrored
European state-building, while still present,
is undercut and eroded by huge blocs of
hyphenated Americans, those whose loyal-
ties are shared between the United States
and Ireland, Mexico, India, Israel, Poland,
or Russia, among many others.
Just as governments no longer have ex-
clusive claims on their citizens, people no
longer have exclusive duties to their govern-
ments. If the country whose passport you
hold is breaching international law, where
does your duty lie? Citizens owe differing
degrees of duty, loyalty, and attachment to
their district, their people and places of
origin, their place of residence, and to the
country or countries whose passports they
hold—not to mention to institutions like
the European Union, or even the United
Nations, to which their nation-states have
In particular, and striking at the heart
of the old concepts of sovereignty, military
personnel can plead refusal to abide by or-
ders that international agreements consider
illegal. From the Nuremburg trials to the
International Tribunals for the Balkans and
Rwanda, it is clear that obeying orders
handed down by the state is not an accept-
able excuse for committing crimes that hu-
manity, as a whole, considers abhorrent—
just as the indictments of Milosevic and
al-Bashir demonstrate that ordering others
to commit crime makes each culpable for
the deed committed.
Yet none of this means that the nation-
state will soon fade away. Indeed it is
surprising how quickly people transfer
loyalty—and their expectations of personal
security, even human security—to their
newly created or adopted nations. However,
modern Europe and an increasingly global-
ized world are eroding the concept of exclu-
sive and unqualified loyalty to one state,
and it is happening without the construc-
tion of a “super-state” that competes for
patriotic sentiments. There’s a very Haps-
burgian feel to it. (The Austro-Hungarian
Empire was a convenience more than a cause
to die for, as became quite clear when it
finally collapsed like a house of cards at the
end of World War I.)
Europe misses the dynastic glue of
the Royal and Imperial Hapsburgs and
Ottomans, but their absence is mostly a
positive. It was the dynastic war-standards
which were the focus of their empires’ mili-
tarism. Modern Europe’s laid-back sense of
multiple identities is a big improvement.
As the “scourge of war” invoked in the UN
Charter was so much a European phenome-
non, it is fitting that Europe should have
been so successful in mitigating it.
The Balkan tragedy with its resurgence
of history and atavistic nationalism, actu-
ally highlights the EU’s successes. Indeed,
Brussels’ arms are open to the new Balkan
states—as soon as their nascent economies
are in a position to assume the responsibili-
ties and rights of membership in a united
Europe, which include agreements on fron-
tiers and minority rights.
The European Union’s triumph in
reconciling pride in national and local iden-
tities with a cessation of military rivalry
between each member state is all the more
striking because governments and bureau-
cracies have been driving it, rather than
mass popular movements. These govern-
ments are, of course, democratic and respon-
sive to their respective citizens, but they are
also tied laterally: within the European
Union, within the United Nations, within
the Organization for Economic Cooperation
and Development, and other conventions
and organizations. And governments take
these multinational responsibilities equally
seriously, paralleling the same multiple loy-
alties and duties that modern individuals
It was the Enlightenment in Europe
whose ideas gave birth to the United States
and the French Revolution. Today, without
its nationalist baggage, the Enlightenment
has returned and holds court in Brussels,
not as a threatening super-state but as a
convenient and useful set of ideas around
which Europe has built a pragmatic federa-
tion of proud nations whose citizens gener-
ally accept that its benefits outweigh its ir-
ritations and threats.
Of course it is not that easily replicable.
The success of the European Union is built
on democracy and a common belief in eco-
nomic security and human rights across the
continent. Even so, it did entail prosperous
nations making sacrifices to raise those com-
mon standards, and it perhaps helped that
the nations involved were generally self-con-
fident in their post-war status, even if it
took decades for Britain to reconcile itself to
the loss of empire. However, the determina-
tion to make borders simply lines on maps
rather than scars on the land, to spread and
exchange the benefits of citizenship without
hegemonic relations, certainly provide a
worthwhile example for others, ranging
from the Commonwealth of Independent
States to NAFTA, or from the Association of
South East Asian Nations to the Arab
League to the Gulf Cooperation Council.
In an improving world, the nations that
preach old-style sovereignty will sound as
atavistic as if they were talking of the divine
right of kings. Sovereignty will never be the
same again. But then, it never was what it
claimed to be.

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