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Sovereignty and the problem of political relativism: Why we need a world without borders
George Dvorsky   Sep 25, 2007   Sentient Developments  

Several days ago I argued that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad should have been arrested upon his entry into the United States. 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.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.



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