NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY AND SUPRANATIONALS
By Roland Watson
Having explored the different political systems, we can now return to the issue of nations, and consider the question of the limits of national sovereignty, and also the development of supranational institutions.
At the end of the "second millennium," there are about one hundred and ninety countries in the world, which number was enlarged by about twenty due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Among these countries there are huge differences: in area; in diversity of environments and amount of natural resources; in population, including size, distribution of ages, and cultural homogeneity; in history of internal conflicts and regional stability; and in degree of economic development. All of these factors act as constraints on, and challenges to, the governments of these nations. And, they also demonstrate that some nations have greater natural and historical advantages than others, and hence better prospects.
Also, the traditional purpose of government was in defense, or even conquest. But in terms of the future satisfaction of either, there have been a few noteworthy developments. The first is the creation of great military power by the United States which, when combined with the power of its democratic allies, or even on its own, is more than a match for any other nation. The only significant threat of a third world war, which was from the Soviet Union, has eased as the residual states thereof have relaxed their aggressive foreign posture and instead focused on pressing domestic concerns. And China, while the most populous nation, and while clearly a threat due to its ideology, is far inferior in actual military capability, and will remain so for the foreseeable future.
In addition, through participating in multinational forces such as under the auspices of NATO and the United Nations, democratic governments are beginning to demonstrate a willingness to become involved in disputes which do not directly affect their national welfare, to become involved solely on the basis of ethical considerations, i.e., to counter oppression of the weak by the strong.
This is a monumental change over past practice and, if it continues, and spreads to all regions, including Africa, China (Tibet, East Turkestan, Southern Mongolia) and Southeast Asia (for the last to places other than East Timor, particularly Burma), it will represent one of the most significant historical precedents ever established. The opportunity for any single sovereign nation to engage in conquest of its weaker neighbors, or in massive repression, even extermination, of all or part of its own population, will vanish. We are witnessing the end of an age, the age of military conquest and repression, and we are well rid of it.
This is, of course, having profound effects on government purpose. With military threats almost extinguished (other than the threats linked to terrorism), nations are turning their attention to economic competition. Governments, raised as they have been - on war - are unable to escape this form, to view other nations other than as threats. Rather than seek to cooperate and share, they are striving to confront and compete. Military domination as a goal has been supplanted by economic domination.
(This also helps explain the modern partnership between government and business. The reflexive support of the President of the United States for business reflects the belief that we have to keep fighting in the global economic arena, so we do not lose our competitive advantages.)
In addition, it is essential to recognize that nations themselves are flawed under the principle of equality. They will never be equal. Some countries will always have greater resources. Therefore, economic conquest is even more one-sided. In today's world, any nation can acquire modern weapons (even though they are now of little use), but natural advantages are not transferable. Without the option of force, as a means to achieve economic balance, even greater inequalities are likely to develop.
Nations compete far more than they cooperate. They only help one another, with the exception of the above ethical stance, when it is in their interests to do so, such as with disaster relief, which makes them look like good neighbors, and which is also a favor to be returned; or when they are forced to by other circumstances. Personal selfishness has percolated up through society and been extended to create national selfishness.
The only institutional development that is softening this trend is the formation of supranational organizations, although not all supranationals have such positive effects. Regional groupings, such as common currency areas and free-trade zones, are for the most part simply a new tactic in what is essentially an undeclared global economic war. Also, through their common policy of non-intervention in, or criticism of, the affairs of other group members, they may actually serve to perpetuate repression. (The Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, in its hands-off stance regarding Burma, is a perfect example of this.)
But other supranationals do have positive consequences, particularly through their efforts to assist weaker states:
- Supranational aid organizations, including parts of the U.N., and innumerable independent non-profits such as the International Red Cross, assist with disaster relief, environmental education and aid, poverty and famine relief, and the development of basic social infrastructure.
- The U.N. refugee office, and similar private organizations, assist persons displaced by conflict.
- The International Court, in the Hague, attempts to provide a global standard, and the means of enforcement thereof, of justice.
The last class of supranationals, though, the economic supranationals, including the IMF, World Bank, regional development banks, and the WTO, have had mixed effects. Excluding the last, their mission is to provide assistance and funding for infrastructure and commercial development, and also relief programs for financial crises. In both of these cases, though, they have frequently had a negative impact. For the first, the supranationals concentrate on large-scale projects. They fund such things as roads, power plants, electrical grids, pipelines and dams, often causing terrible social and environmental damage. For example, World Bank funding of cattle ranches in Central America, to provide hamburgers for the U.S. market, led to massive deforestation. Also, they never learn from their mistakes. The World Bank is now funding a pipeline between Chad and Cameroon, even though its construction will destroy indigenous cultures and pristine rainforests along the pipeline route.
The problem is, the institutions seem able to think only of large, top-down projects. This satisfies the interests of their executives and lending officers, who are an elite in the financial world, and who have no interest in deals that do not have a lot of "0s." These supranationals never support smaller, bottom-up approaches, such as the establishment of "micro-finance" networks. Such networks, which have been set up with NGO support in a few countries, such as Bangladesh, provide small loans - perhaps only a few hundred dollars - to local villagers, often women, for local development, including both social and commercial. This development is far more supportive of such a society's real needs, and the funding is also much less likely to be stolen by corrupt elites.
Regarding national financial crises, IMF Structural Adjustment Programs, which are implemented to help alleviate such crises, are always designed to assist - to bail out - local banks and corporations, and their owners; not to provide assistance, including structural assistance, to the poor, who suffer the most from the crises. The funds are used to prop up currencies which failed due to government corruption, and to pay off the elite's debt, which they themselves refuse to pay. The money is not used to help the lower classes: for agricultural assistance, schools, medical clinics, and environmental protection.
Such institutions have a structural bias. (This extends to the United Nations as well.) They are controlled by the most powerful nations in the world, and also by corporate interests. They, the financial elite, cater to the needs of the governmental and corporate elites, and this enables them to dictate to everyone else, including the smaller nations of the world and the general public.
The WTO as an economic supranational is a special case, in part because it pits corporations against governments. It actually grants corporations senior or superior sovereignty to that of nations. The WTO was formed as the successor to GATT, or the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. But where GATT suggested policy, the WTO sets enforceable standards: it functions as a commercial court. Corporations can sue nations in the WTO over any local laws, regulations and practices that they consider to be barriers to trade. They are able to force nations to reverse such laws, or to pay them a large settlement.
The reason they can do this is that the WTO is controlled by corporate interests. It is comprised of industry panels, staffed with company representatives and also government officials. But the latter are from their nations' trade and commerce departments, and they will get lucrative positions in industry when they leave their posts. Hence, they too have a systemic bias to support the corporate agenda, to pursue profit without regard to social and environmental consequences. Further, WTO deliberations are conducted in secret, and its rulings cannot be appealed.
"In 100 cases over the first four years at the WTO, all decisions by these panels favored corporations."
- The World Trade Organization: Pirating the Planet, Dandy Lion, Earth First! Journal, November-December 1999, page 22
The WTO enables corporations to overturn as barriers to trade local laws and regulations on:
- Public health
- Labor standards
- Agricultural subsidies
- Environmental protection
- Ethical purchasing and investment
In effect, the WTO resets, or over time it will reset, such standards to those existing (or lacking) in the most unethical nations of the world. Rather than raise the standards to the highest levels that exist, and then seek to push them even higher, the WTO will systematically erode the social and environmental gains that we have been able to achieve so far.
Further, it supports the patenting of life, genetically-modified life, and also the non-modified genes of private individuals, as company property; and it makes no allowance for the precautionary principle, that we should consider the consequences before we act, that we should look before we leap. Instead, such common sense caution is viewed as a trade barrier as well.
Fortunately, the new round of global trade negotiations, which was to have been initiated at Seattle, the WTO's Third Ministerial, was postponed. Popular resistance was organized, the above - and other - concerns were heard, and as a result the ability of the organization to engage in institutional dictatorship was greatly circumscribed. Its actions from now on will be subjected to the closest scrutiny, and opposition.
Through all of this, it is evident that supranational institutions are confronting, and forcing a redefinition of, national sovereignty. And, particularly in the nations that they assist, this is leading to a reduction of government power. Governments are no longer as free as they traditionally have been to create internal social discord, or environmental destruction, particularly if they have effects on neighboring nations. Also, when governments engage in business and financial practices that bring their own countries to their knees, they are having to submit to the prescriptions of outsiders.
All such yieldings of power are perceived by the governments in question, and presented to their populations, as bitter pills to swallow. However, it is actually difficult to see, other than the effects on nationalist pride, and on the desires of dictators and environmental criminals, what they have to complain about. They are receiving outside assistance, often including great amounts of financial assistance, free. They should be thankful.
One wonders if there is any reasonable foundation for "national interest," or sovereignty. It appears its only residual function is to perpetuate the ability to conduct aggression, by repression and conquest, and by other, newer means.
All nations are also being affected by globalization. (The WTO is playing a central role in this process.) Countries have lost economic autonomy, and must respond to the demands of global markets for funding, and for goods and services.
The other challenge to sovereignty is, of course, from separatist movements. In a democratic society, if a large group, in a distinct region, seeks independence, what basis is there to stop them? Such a group is expressing a desire of the people, and under democracy such wishes should be met. It would appear that the only real balance to separatist movements is economic necessity, including on both sides.
There will always be conflicts, and separatist desires, around such distinctions as tribe versus tribe, rural versus urban, and mountain versus valley. Whether or not these conflicts lead to the formation of new nations, unless this is prohibited by the government, will be based on the perception of their economic viability: if they are self-sufficient in their various needs, or have access to international cargo routes.
(This point assumes that such a country has been able to eliminate discrimination against the group desiring its own state. If such discrimination does exist, it is likely that it will be the rallying point for separatism, and this will probably outweigh any economic concerns.)
Such reorganizations of the world's political map should be expected as inevitable, and are not to be feared. Indeed, all of this begs the question, what form of global social organization do we want, meaning what is most suitable for - increases the probability of - achieving world peace, and common equality and prosperity? Do we want one hundred nations, or one thousand, or one global nation, with the U.N. as its government, or no nations at all?
It should be obvious by now that I prefer the last. There should be a reversion of identity from its national link to one of culture, and further, this should center on a culture's beliefs, traditions and aspirations only insofar as they do not encourage conflict with other groups.
Regarding the idea of one government, the U.N., the world is far too diverse and complex for that to work. Global consensus, on any issue, would be impossible to achieve. The government would have an impossible job: someone or some region would always be upset about its decisions, and this would create new divisionary influences. Besides, such a world government would have to be representative, which would expose it to all of the earlier mentioned flaws. (While the possibility of a global participative vote, billions of people voting almost simultaneously on an issue of planetary importance, does have tremendous aesthetic appeal, one also has to recognize its impracticalities.)
So, for the time being we are stuck with nations, with the U.S. in a position of some dominance. And this of course is also objectionable: no country or countries should dominate but, at least militarily, we will need U.S. power for the foreseeable future, until the next military age, the age following the disarmament of all nuclear weapons, arrives.
We are a very long way from our ultimate goal, which is a world with no nations, only cultures; a world where home voting has been implemented, bringing power to the people and shrinking centralized bureaucracy to its smallest possible form; a world where a common and high level of prosperity has been achieved; and a world where people are free to travel anywhere, for any purpose and any duration, as they so desire.
In any case, it would appear that we are moving in the right direction. Nations, like organized religions, are in a state of decline. They are losing power to supranationals, and also transnationals: to multinational corporations that effectively exist outside of borders. Indeed, government collusion with corporations reflects their desire not to lose power to them, but such a strategy is doomed to failure. In the current environment, corporations are better adapted to survive. They are being selected, "naturally," and they, in their negative manifestations and aspects, are our newest and greatest threat. This is because corporations have their own motivations, and insofar as these diverge from our social goals, they will make such goals much more difficult to achieve.
© Roland Watson 2016