The Return of Sovereignty

Madeleine Albright's penned a not very enlightening op-ed bemoaning the return of sovereignty and the "death of intervention" in the wake of Iraq. Near the end she says:

The global conscience is not asleep, but after the turbulence of recent years, it is profoundly confused. Some governments will oppose any exceptions to the principle of sovereignty because they fear criticism of their own policies. Others will defend the sanctity of sovereignty unless and until they again have confidence in the judgment of those proposing exceptions.

At the heart of the debate is the question of what the international system is. Is it just a collection of legal nuts and bolts cobbled together by governments to protect governments? Or is it a living framework of rules intended to make the world a more humane place?

I think that second paragraph would do well to take the previous paragraph more seriously. The issue at stake is much, much, much less a question of principle than it is a question of practice. I think it's very easy to conclude that the abstract moral logic of sovereignty-over-all is grossly wrongheaded. But the real issue of how U.S. government policy should be impacted by moral universalism is a practical problem. In the wake of Iraq, few people around the world think "America is sovereign, and also can invade other countries whenever it wants to, but other countries can't do that" is a viable governing principle for the world order. So insofar as people would like to see certain international norms enforced, actual work needs to be done to make that possible.

Meanwhile, it's always worth resisting this impulse to identify humanitarianism with the cause of invasions. Being open to immigration and imported goods helps foreigners, costs us nothing, and tends to advance the cause of peace. Preserving good relations between the great powers has major humanitarian benefits as the post-cold war decline in global conflict continues apace. Programs to hand out mosquito nets help people. It's a kind of madness to assume that military coercion is the be-all and end-all of human betterment.