Printed in islam21, No. 28, April 2001. Pp 12-3.




Emperor’s New Clothes



Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. By Stephen D. Krasner. Princeton University Press, 1999. Pp. 264. ISBN 0-691-00711-X.


Modernity is nothing if not the biography of the sovereign state. It is a tale that recounts how the moderns succeeded in emancipating politics from theology and thus laid the foundation of an autonomous science of statecraft. However, the theory of the sovereignty of the state, which supplanted the doctrine of the divine rights of kings, is an elusive myth. It is, according to the author of this provocative but highly informative work, quite ‘recalcitrant to systematic and persuasive analysis.’ Indeed, he insists that the defining characteristic of ‘sovereignty’, as found in the theory and practice of modern statecraft, is best captured by the concept ‘organized hypocrisy’ – hence, the taunting title of the book.


Needless to say, the roots of the modern idea of sovereignty are routinely traced back to the Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648, in which major European powers – with the notable exception of England – agreed to abide by the principle of territorial integrity. However, the norms of nonintervention in internal affairs, according to Krasner, had almost nothing to do with this Peace, as these were not explicitly articulated before the last half of the eighteenth century. Be that as it may, the term ‘sovereignty’ has been in force since then and is now used in four different ways: international legal sovereignty, Westphalian sovereignty, domestic sovereignty and interdependence sovereignty. International sovereignty refers to the practices associated with mutual recognition, usually between territorial entities that have formal juridical independence. Westphalian sovereignty is based on two principles: territoriality and the exclusion of external actors from domestic authority structures. Domestic sovereignty relates to the organization of public authority within a state and to the level of effective control exercised by those holding authority; and, finally, interdependence sovereignty is about the ability of public authorities to regulate the flow of information, ideas, goods, people, pollutants, or capital across the borders of their state.


Embedded in these four different usages of the term, in Krasner’s view, is the fundamental distinction between authority and control, though even he has to admit that, ‘in practice, the boundary between them can be quite hazy.’ Thus, while international legal sovereignty and Westphalian sovereignty involve issues of authority and legitimacy but not of control, domestic sovereignty involves both legitimacy and control, both the specification of legitimate authority within a polity and the extent to which that authority can be effectively exercised. In contrast, interdependence sovereignty is exclusively concerned with control and not authority, with the capacity of the state to regulate movement across its borders. In short, the modern concept of sovereignty too bestrides the ancient polarities of political theory, such as authority and power, norm and force, persuasion and coercion, and does not overcome these antinomies.


Obviously, not every state possesses all these attributes of sovereignty, nor are they all mutually compatible. The exercise of international legal sovereignty, for instance, can undermine Westphalian sovereignty, if the rulers of a state enter into an agreement that recognizes external authority structures. European Union, and to a very limited extent even the United Nations, illustrate some recent compromises of the Westphalian sovereignty. Conversely, a state like Taiwan can have Westphalian sovereignty, but not international legal sovereignty. However, for the majority of the new states, it would hold true that while they have international legal sovereignty, i.e. they are recognized by other states, their exercise of domestic sovereignty, either in the sense of an established structure of authority or the ability of their leaders to exercise control over their territories, is severely limited. Not to mention the fact that contemporary forces have globalization have rendered the concept of domestic sovereignty – the ability of a state to regulate the flow of ideas, goods, capital – highly problematic, if not totally redundant.


The focus of Krasner’s study is primarily on Westphalian sovereignty – the theory and practice of nonintervention – even if it has a fair deal of reflection and comment on the subject of international sovereignty as well. Nevertheless, Krasner does not seek to explain either the evolution of the modern world-system, or the displacement of other international forms, such as the Holy Roman Empire, the Chinese tributary system, or the Hanseatic League by the present order whose fundamental unit is the territorial state. Rather, his study underlines the consequences of this transformation and attempts to understand what sovereign statehood has meant in actual practice with regard to international legal and Westphalian sovereignty. It is a very competent survey of the academic debate, though it also incarnates a serious critique of the academic vision which aspires to transform the unruly world of Realpolitik into a tame theory of international relations.


Krasner has a very realistic view of politics. The ‘ontological givens’ of his study are rulers, specific policy makers who are not always identical with the executive heads of states. Hence, he annunciates without any reticence, ‘Rulers, not states – and not the international system – make choices about politics, rules, and institutions. Whether international legal sovereignty and Westphalian sovereignty are honoured depends on the decisions of rulers.’ Little wonder, his reading of the political history of modern times, after the annunciation of the doctrine of sovereignty, is a story of exceptions rather than the norm. It reveals a world where the universal rule of international legal sovereignty, that mutual recognition be extended among formally independent territorial entities, has never been universally honoured. Krasner also discovers a world where, despite all lip service to the canon of nonintervention, the privileges of Westphalian sovereignty have been granted only to a handful of powerful states. Hence, his candid portrait of sovereignty discloses some pretty unflattering features:

‘Outcomes in international system are demanded by rulers whose violation of, or adherence to, international principles or rules is based on calculations of material and ideational interests, not taken-for-granted practices derived from some overarching institutional structures or deeply embedded generative grammars. Organized hypocrisy is the normal state of affairs.’


Not surprisingly, none of the moral strictures against the absolutist doctrine of sovereignty that have been cogently articulated by some religious thinkers in the West have found any place in this survey. Instead, recent developments that have rendered this concept problematic have been accorded due recognition. Thus, the two clusters of values that are at play in the contemporary political environment, namely state autonomy and human rights, admits Krasner, may be in conflict. Nevertheless, he is insistent that ‘none of the United Nations human rights accords violate the international legal concept of sovereignty’. However, a far more serious challenge to the world-system of sovereign states comes from the practice of ‘sovereign lending.’ That rulers, whether of medieval monarchies or modern democracies, have often been unable to fund state expenditure from taxes and domestic borrowing, that they have always relied on foreign lenders including other states (or the modern international institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund), constitutes a real problem for the maintenance of the myth of sovereignty. In other words, most of the world’s states today are ‘penetrated’ states: their sovereignty is in the hands of moneylenders.


Summing up, one may laud Krasner’s study on account of its insights into the make-up of the modern world, revealed not through any sacred rite of its political mythology but through a genuine encounter with its Realpolitik. His robust realism, his insistence that rulers rather than states are the real actors at the stage of politics, also coheres well with the Islamic tradition which construes political organization in terms of the regime rather than that of the state. The state, at an existential and mundane level, is nothing but the regime of those in power. However, the antinomy of state and regime points to a more fundamental problem of political theory. What Krasner regards as ‘organized hypocrisy’ may also be perceived, at least with some compassion for our human infirmities, as the inherent, perforce ineluctable, contradictions of political existence. Hence, stretching this claim to its ultimate limits, it would follow that in the world of history and politics, the human actor, with all his/her constraints and contingencies, has precedence over institutions and structures, that personal decisions override international norms. For the politics of meaning, even for the modern man, lies beyond the politics of state-sovereignty.


Ends --