TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Blair: What is Sovereignty?

Each Tuesday in the TELOSscope blog, we reach back into the archives and highlight an article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Timothy Stacey looks at Paul Gottfried’s “Enforcing ‘Human Rights’: Rejoinder to Rick Johnstone” and Alain de Benoist’s “What is Sovereignty?” both from Telos 116 (Summer 1999).

As Tony Blair remains a prime candidate for the EU presidency, despite (or, knowing Blair, in spite of) the protestations of his former adversaries at home, it is high time to pose the question of sovereignty in relation to the central enforcement of human rights. And this for four reasons: first, as Prime Minister of Britain, Blair showed little or no respect for localism, preferring the efficiency of top-down reforms from education to policing. If he cared little for provincial politics as the nation’s leader, what is to say he will care for national politics as the continent’s leader? Second, and as a means to achieving this centrism, Blair flouted parliamentary constraints on his leadership. With the EU checks on central control as lackadaisical as they have proved to be in recent years, all it requires is a maverick like Blair to go trampling through the fine red tape that protects national sovereignty. Third, Blair is an unashamed Europhile, in the past proving quite happy to give up his own nation’s sovereignty in the name of EU global clout. Fourth and finally, Blair is the champion of liberal interventionism. Whatever the discrepancy between his excuse for invading Iraq and his reason for staying it through, it is no secret that heavier on Blair’s conscious is whether Iraq was a ripe case for liberal intervention—not whether he lied to the British people. Before Blair becomes a new-age Charlemagne, it is worth assessing the case of sovereignty with respect to human rights.

In his article “Enforcing ‘Human Rights’: Rejoinder to Rick Johnstone,” Paul Gottfried offers an argument that cuts through every aspect of Blair’s naive centrism: there is no consensus on the minutiae of human rights (an argument, one ought to note, that reveals the practical implications of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, in which it is argued there is not and cannot be a calculated consensus concerning moral absolutes). So as we look toward the future of Europe, it is worth considering the possibility that we are enforcing more than the most basic human rights to the detriment of sovereignty:

Eurocrats . . . not only impose socialist welfare state policies on their constituent members, but proclaim “years of anti-racism,” together with mandating multicultural programs for once sovereign European countries. What is the cultural threshold beyond which members of the new world “liberal federalism” become subject to invasion and reconstruction? Is the failure to accept Third World immigrants, to extend universal suffrage, or to allow women into the work force sufficient grounds for offence and collective action by the new world order? Exactly what degree of imitation to his own preferred society must the rest of the world exhibit in order not to risk reprisals from those carrying nukes or enjoying military superiority? Reading Johnstone one gets the impression that Thrasymachus had a point about justice coming down to the advantage of the strong. (136)

Are human rights, even in liberal communities, becoming just that which the strong deem them to be? If so we need to reassess what it means to us as liberals to respect a nation’s sovereignty. In “What is Sovereignty?” Alain de Benoist does just this:

The democratic sphere of the people’s will can be ignored, since it contradicts the juridical and moral norms that are considered to be superior. In the field of international relations, the result was that it became impossible to recognize political equality among different national sovereignties, and to resolve international disputes collectively. This contradiction led, in turn, to the “right of intervention,” which also pretends to limit political sovereignty by a legal norm and, ultimately, by “moral” values. For example, Daniel Cohn-Ben-dit and Zaki Laïdi have declared that “ethical sovereignty is a new way to think about sovereignty,” and they have defined this new form as “the refusal to allow anyone to claim sovereignty for objectives contrary to basic freedoms and human rights.” Such a type of discourse, which is regularly used to justify “humanitarian wars,” i.e., military aggression pre-tending to be “just,” immediately poses the question of who, besides sovereign states, should concretely limit political sovereignty. By definition, only those who have the means to do so can exercise the “right of intervention.” (110)

Sovereignty itself is only granted insofar as it does not contravene human rights as defined by those with the power to intervene. Reading Gottfried’s and Benoist’s articles, one becomes painfully aware of the contradictions implicit in doctrines of liberal intervention, whether that be intervention at home or abroad. If you want a leader that will finally turn Europe into a unified entity with viable and unequivocal policies on certain issues, go for Blair. This is perhaps the best way to give Europe international clout. But if you want the EU to remain more about the peaceful coexistence of sovereign states, who nonetheless maintain their idiosyncrasies, push for someone else.

Read the full version of Paul Gottfried’s “Enforcing ‘Human Rights’: Rejoinder to Rick Johnstone” and Alain de Benoist’s “What is Sovereignty?” at the TELOS Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at the low rate of $5/article.

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