January 11th, 2012

Old School

 It is without reservations that I state that The Sovereignty Solution was the most important book of 2011 that most of you never read.

Anna Simons and her co-authors at the Naval Postgraduate School have crafted the national security equivalent of a religious revival. Like the Great Awakening, it contains a heavy undertone of conservatism (although thankfully no fire-and-brimstone moments akin to “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God”) but also a call for reinvention. It is both a trip back to as we once were and a journey to a place we never were—but might go.

The Sovereignty Solution begins by laying out a set of unfortunate realizations: Americans don’t like protracted wars, are easily politically divided over national security, and our enemies understand us in many ways better than we understand ourselves. To make matters worse, those enemies, through use of human shields, lawfare, and the assistance of”useful idiots” both home and abroad, force us to play by their rules and agonize over how to deal with their asymmetric tactics. Our campaigns have attempted to use state-building and democracy promotion to overcome these difficulties, but met with mixed results. So far, the book is hardly different from many post-9/11 critiques.

Where the Solution diverges is in its “back to the future” approach. Simons describe, at base, a critical problem. There are no such thing, really, as “non-state” actors—which would imply a COBRA-like group hiding out from GI JOE at a secret Antarctic base. Even if it’s a village headman or an group of powerful hackers in a larger collective, every human political community has a form of hierarchy. But the United States, through inconsistent protection of its own sovereignty, is unable to deter non-state (or, perhaps, a better term would be extra-state) actors period. Should another 9/11 attack occur, and the threat issues from a more complicated target than Afghanistan, how should the US exact retribution?

Simons and co. propose that the US create a new world order built around a simple principle: states have the right to do whatever they want within their borders. As per Mad Max 2: Beyond the Thunderdome, there is, however, one principal rule: don’t infringe my sovereignty. States that do so—via armed attacks, the illegal mistreatment of US passport holders abroad, or external effects such as refugee flows or pollution—are offered a choice of being adversaries, objects of (carefully regulated) assistance, or partners that rectify the injustice without American intervention.

There are a lot of other ideas within the book, many of which are sure to be controversial—about democracy promotion, development assistance, civic education, and a myriad of other related subjects. The core idea is the titular emphasis on sovereignty, framed not as isolationism but a way for the United States to simultaneously recognize and tolerate difference and alterity in the international system while upholding the most basic of duties—its own sovereignty. In other words, as John Quincy Adams wrote, “[America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

The book may also be the only text on national security that appeals to both the hawk and the dove in your life: Simons and her co-authors advocate punitive warfare but also an end to Congressional authorizations of military force—instead standing Declarations of War and a Standing Pre-Emption. There is a call for the end of foreign wars and occupations and a blunt call to return to 18th and 19th century standards of law, removing all doubt about the legitimacy of targeting propagandists like Anwar al-Awlaki and placing the blame for civilian casualties on those who hide among civilians rather than the Western forces doing their best to use force in a discriminate manner. In other words, a world in which a travesty such as the Goldstone Report would be laughed at rather than taken seriously.  

There’s much to love, but it is worth observing that many ideas do more than return to the pre-20th century world of American international relations. While Simons and co. makes a welcome call for Americans to separate national interest from commercial interest, the entanglement of the latter is hardly a new issue in American diplomacy. Sometimes, in the case of the Barbary Wars, enemies preying on commercial interests turned them into vital interests.

While Simons argues that sovereignty is a “either-or” issue, following Robert Jackson, states do define sovereignty in different ways. Many authoritarian states, for example,  see the activities of Western human rights groups as infringements of their sovereignty and have a hard time believing that America lets these voices operate without official sanction. Additionally, as seen in Asian land and maritime border disputes over the last few decades, just because a state declares something to be a sovereign right does not make it so.

Given the historic prevalence of covert operations and espionage in world history, I would have liked to see more attention to how a world order remade to emphasize sovereignty—but in perhaps a more formalized way than the pre-globalization era—would deal with this question. This is especially acute when thinking about cybersecurity, where most “cyber-attacks” are actually not attacks at all, but forms of industrial espionage that do not inflict permanent damage.

The Sovereignty Solution may not have all of the answers, and—like many provocative gospels—raises some difficult questions that it does not completely answer. But given  the intellectual bankruptcy of many ideas about future American grand strategy and global security, I say give me that old time religion. Pick this book up.

  1. rethinkingsecurity posted this
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A blog on states, communities, and organizations in conflict by Adam Elkus.

Portrait photo: Marshal Liu "One-Eyed Dragon" Bocheng