Making the World Safe for Sovereignty

In April of 2016, United States’ President Barack Obama visited the United Kingdom. His purpose, at least partially, was to make plain the U.S. position on the proposed exit of Britain from the European Union — the so called “Brexit.” Appearing alongside British Prime Minister David Cameron, a staunch opponent of Brexit, President Obama urged Britain to remain in the EU, to continue playing an EU leadership role. In the days leading up to Cameron and Obama’s stage show, former London mayor and prime ministerial aspirant Boris Johnson came out swinging. Describing Mr. Obama’s opposition to Brexit as a bizarre lecture, Mr. Johnson pointedly described the U.S. position as “nakedly hypocritical.”1 His argument was that for the U.S. to suggest that Great Britain continue to partially abdicate its national sovereignty via its membership in the EU while the U.S. gallivants around the globe firmly opposed to any such cession of sovereignty, or any cession of sovereignty for that matter, was a combination of disingenuity and arrogance.

Regardless of the merits of Brexit, Mr. Johnson’s argument cannot be easily dismissed. He noted that the U.S. refuses to sign onto major global compacts like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the International Criminal Court. He is correct, but he does not tell the whole story. The U.S. has also not ratified the Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, nor the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. There are others, and there are likewise many legal and technical reasons for why more treaties are not ratified.2 At the end of the day though, the reason the U.S. does not cleave to more international conventions and norms is resoundingly political. A nationalist politics grounded in American exceptionalism, and in, as Mr. Johnson suggests, a stubborn unwillingness to bargain away even a smidgen of America’s sovereignty. Hypocrisy indeed.

But the more worrisome aspect is not that the U.S. cannot or will not participate in many international treaties aimed at addressing global problems, but rather this reluctance is a symptom of the larger problem compounding the environmental challenges of the Anthropocene (e.g. climate change and biodiversity loss). There are three considerations. First, this class of problems demands international cooperation, and cooperating for solutions will demand some cession of national sovereignty. Second, nation-states are hyper-reluctant to forgo sovereignty. The U.S. is the poster child, but it is not an easy sell anywhere. Lastly, the only modern polities to whom this sort of sovereignty fetish is not a persistent issue are global cities. Cities are inherently post-sovereign and post-Westphalian. They anchor national economies the world over, but are interconnected in ways that commonly disregard those same national boundaries. Seven hundred years ago, sovereign states begin eclipsing city-states and city-leagues as the dominant governance institution. But times have changed, and today the shoe is on the other foot — in no small part due to an unhealthy penchant for national sovereignty. Environmental solution seekers should begin shifting their gazes from 20th century notions of nations as the foundations of international relations toward embracing cities as the actors with the most to offer for the future.

1 Kuenssberg, L. BBC News, April 16, 2016.
2 Bradley, C.A. 2007. Unratified Treaties, Domestic Politics, and the U.S. Constitution. Harvard Int. L. J. 48(2):307-336.