Commentary Magazine


Honorary Sovereignty and International De-recognition

In his recent piece in the New York Times, “To Save Africa, Reject Its Nations,” Pierre Englebert, professor of African politics at Pomona College, advances an important — fundamental, even — idea: i.e., that sovereignty, understood as a privilege accorded to a state by virtue of international recognition, is based on the satisfactory performance by that state of certain basic duties.

First among those duties is respecting and reflecting the will of the governed.  Thus, precisely because sovereignty belongs ultimately to the people, it cannot be separated from the sovereignty that pertains to the state in the international system.  If the first is not respected, the second should not exist.

Prof. Engelbert believes this is a “radical” idea, though he means that in an approving sense. But it is not radical at all. It is an old-fashioned idea, and I mean that in an approving sense. The classical literature on sovereignty teems with requirements that an entity must fulfill if it is to be described as a state and therefore accorded the privilege of sovereignty. It must control its territory. Its armed forces must obey the laws of war and be under a recognized chain of command. It must not allow its subjects to engage in freelance violence against other states. It must have a regular system of justice. By the late 19th century, it could not practice slavery. And, by the 20th century, it had to allow its citizens — the shift from ‘subject’ to ‘citizen’ is vital — some voice in shaping their own government.

If there is anything radical in Prof. Engelbert’s thought, it is that we should seek again to apply these classical standards in a world that, for most of the past hundred years, has paid them progressively little mind. The descent has been slow but steady — first, the admission of the USSR into the ranks of the recognized states, then the reluctance to kick Imperial Japan, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany out of those ranks, and then, finally, the step that most worries Prof. Engelbert: the fact that during decolonization, the “gift of sovereignty was granted from outside rather than earned from within.” I describe this as ‘honorary sovereignty’: sovereignty that is given but is not merited.

What really pleases me is that Prof. Engelbert goes on to draw the logical conclusion from this concept: the advance of honorary sovereignty has been bad for the peoples of the world (especially those who are victimized by the resulting mis-governance), and that one remedy is “international de-recognition” of abusive states. I would add something that Prof. Engelbert does not: since today’s international institutions are premised on the idea of universal membership (a premise entirely contradicted by their claim that they stand for certain non-negotiable freedoms), a world of de-recognition must also be a world with new international institutions, ones that have distinct standards for membership. But Prof. Engelbert is right to begin mapping out, even in the context of the existing institutions, what de-recognition might mean. The logic is simple: If sovereignty gives privileges to a state, then the failure to live up to the requirements of sovereignty means that those privileges should disappear.

For my part — and I believe for Prof. Engelbert — those requirements are relatively limited. Setting the bar too high would delegitimize virtually every existing state, which would be nonsensical. As Prof. Engelbert puts it, the standard is “a minimum of safety and basic rights.” In other words, a return to the traditional requirements of sovereignty, supplemented by the most vital modern addition: the voice of the people must be heard and respected. Of course, while the existence of honorary sovereignty is most glaringly obvious in Africa, it is not limited to that continent. And as Prof. Engelbert’s example of Taiwan suggests, we need to concern ourselves not just with kicking the non-sovereign states out: we also need to let the genuinely sovereign states in.

At bottom, what Prof. Engelbert rejects is the belief that a legitimate state can exist apart from its people. That confusion is illustrated by the headline writer for the Times, who – predictably — got it just about exactly wrong. We do not need to reject the nations of Africa (or others that fail to live up to those basic standards): we need to reject their states. Bravo to Prof. Engelbert for making the case.