Three Scenes of Sovereignty and Power




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DRAFT 9/28/2010

Three Scenes of Sovereignty and Power


© Etel Solingen

University of California Irvine


Paper presented at the conference in honor of Stephen D. Krasner (Princeton, October 1-2, 2010). For inclusion in Back to Basics: Rethinking Power in the Contemporary World, edited by Martha Finnemore and Judith Goldstein


The concepts of sovereignty and power provide a leitmotif in Krasner’s contributions to international relations. The incisive and original insights of sovereignty as “organized hypocrisy” have helped illuminate important dilemmas in world politics.1 Power influences the repertoire of responses to dilemmas of sovereignty. 2 In turn, how states manage dilemmas of sovereignty also hold important implications for power. I explore the reciprocal relationship between sovereignty compromises and power by zooming in and out of three different scenes of contemporary international relations: the ascent of China as a great power, variations in regionalism, and the evolving non-proliferation regime. These three realms are particularly suitable for a volume addressing Krasner’s contributions: they offer fruitful arenas for investigating two master variables in his work; they are crucial themes in the contemporary study and praxis of international relations, in line with Krasner’s own interest in both theory and policy; and they address various levels of analysis--domestic structures, rulers, states, entire regions, and international regimes--relevant to his own contributions.3 Scene 1 focuses on a single state, China’s shifting sovereignty compromises in tandem with its ascent to power. Scene 2 turns to the regional level to illuminate divergent sovereignty compromises in the Middle East and East Asia, with attendant consequences for aggregate regional power. Scene 3 explores how both vastly compromised sovereignty and power asymmetries have influenced the evolution of the international non-proliferation regime.

Dilemmas stemming from sovereignty as an organizing principle of international relations can lead states to compromises that are sometimes inherently contradictory or hard to reconcile; in Krasner’s terms, hypocritical. Organized hypocrisy is characteristic of the international environment because of asymmetries in state power and because rulers must be responsive to domestic norms that are not always fully compatible with international ones (1999:3, 2009:211). The analytical point of departure in this chapter centers on incentives of ruling coalitions to assert or compromise different forms of sovereignty. Those incentives and corresponding compromises stem from ruling coalitions’ favored models of political survival no less than from international power considerations.4 In turn, different sovereignty compromises can enhance or diminish international power as well as the domestic power of ruling coalitions. It is not merely that different states vary in their relative power at time t, when a given hypocritical behavior might be observed (this might be labeled spatial or horizontal power differentials among states). It is also the case that states’ power can vary dramatically from t to t+1 (leading to temporal or longitudinal power differentials for the same state), influencing leaders’ incentives to alter sovereignty compromises. As the three scenes below suggest, sovereignty compromises both reflect and transform the power of leaders, states, regions, and global order. “Transform” does not imply uniform effects. The reciprocal relationship between sovereignty and power is complex.


Scene 1: The ascent of China

As with other rising hegemons, China’s ascent to power was accompanied by shifting dilemmas regarding interdependence and Westphalian/Vattelian sovereignty. Mao’s autarchic model of political survival--congruent with high Westphalian and interdependence sovereignty--condemned China to lower levels of international power at time t (1950s-1960s) than it might have otherwise accrued.5 Subsequent efforts to integrate China in the global political economy--the road to WTO membership--introduced greater strain into that coherence.6 China’s internationalizing ruling coalition--departing from Mao’s model of political survival--was now becoming bound by global rules and felt compelled to “reconceptualize” sovereignty to reconcile it with domestic expectations. “Self-reliance” and “autonomy”--Westphalian sovereignty’s core (Krasner 2009:183)--could no longer provide a coherent motto for an economy increasingly dependent on external (including Japanese) markets, capital, investment, technology, and expertise. In an effort to reconcile this dilution of sovereignty with the concept’s continued domestic appeal, Deng Xiaoping and his successors unleashed the (synergistic) dual promise of individual wealth (xianfuqilai) and national power. In Premier Wen Jiabao’s words, “development is the last word; it is not only the basis for resolving all internal problems but is also the basis for boosting our diplomatic power. The basis of competition between states lies in power” (Medeiros 2009:15).

Those compromises indeed made China more powerful at t+1 (2000s) but also increased tensions between praxis and continued rhetorical support for sovereignty norms. Without challenging their legitimacy, China’s internationalizing leaders violated those norms in a much deeper way. Yet, in terms of Krasner’s modalities of sovereignty compromises, these were concessions by invitation—conventions, contracts, international economic institutions--rather than coercion. Conveniently, compromising sovereignty to capitalist international institutions also raised the costs of future defections by domestic opponents of internationalization and private enterprise (Johnston 2008:209). Sovereignty compromises, in other words, strengthened the leadership domestically as well.

Those compromises were not circumscribed to the economic arena. China’s aversion to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as hypocritical, unfair, and discriminatory (Gill 2010:5) was congruent with Mao’s energetic defense of self-reliance and autonomy. Preventing other states from following China’s own development of nuclear weapons would have entailed extreme hypocrisy for a regime self-identified with disenfranchised developing states seeking to redress discriminatory practices. Thus, Mao’s China recognized the sovereign right of states to acquire nuclear weapons and its own right to share nuclear technology even with potential proliferators. The road to WTO membership, however, subordinated sovereignty claims to international expectations of behavior compatible with an internationalizing model. Whereas Mao’s model considered the Biological Weapons Convention “a fraud of sham disarmament” in the early 1970s, China acceded to this convention by 1984 (Kent 2007). In 1985 it unilaterally accepted IAEA safeguards on part of its civilian nuclear program and conditioned its nuclear exports on recipients’ acceptance of IAEA safeguards. By the early 1990s it began complying with obligations to report nuclear exports to the IAEA and accepting CWC and IAEA verification, including on-site inspections. Progressive compliance was not linear. Yet securing economic aid from Japan, restoring international legitimacy after Tiananmen Square, demands from the scientific community, among others, led China to sign the NPT in 1992. While China had once shared sensitive nuclear technology with Pakistan, in 1998 it joined other UNSC permanent members in condemning Pakistan’s (and India’s) nuclear tests.7 In 2004 China joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group--which some developing countries consider an international cartel--and supported UNSC Resolution 1540 strengthening domestic export controls.

China’s ascent to power, steered by its leaders’ internationalizing model, imposed new responsibilities and compromises but did not require sacrificing sovereignty all around. Indeed China’s assertion of sovereignty over its own nuclear arsenal arguably grew stronger as it rose in power. Testing nuclear weapons at t (1964) was congruent with Mao’s strong assertions of sovereignty; and “minimal deterrence”--forged under the economic hardships of autarchy--did the job. At t+1, however, far greater material resources (power as attribute?) led China to uphold its sovereign right to upgrade nuclear capabilities and deflect demands for transparency in nuclear and conventional modernization, arguing that weaker powers must keep stronger powers guessing (Gill 2010). Nuclear Zero proposals could limit nuclear sovereignty and raise the political costs of modernizing nuclear arsenals, particularly for a global power asserting its “peaceful rise.”

China thus became more deeply implicated in differential adherence to sovereignty principles across issue-areas. The sovereign right to nuclear weapons (self-defense) and the sovereign right to economic self-reliance were more in synch at t, under Mao. The sovereign right to upgrade nuclear arsenals at t+1 appears less compatible with charm offensives within and beyond the region, and with budding leadership positions in regional and international forums, from the G-20 to the BRICs. Nor do sovereignty compromises vis-à-vis international economic institutions carry over to those advancing democracy and human rights. Tensions in sovereignty compromises are evident across and within issue-areas. The sovereign right of others to develop nuclear weapons was endorsed at t but disparaged at t+1.

Even the means to dampen horizontal proliferation evolved in tandem with China’s ascent to power. While continuing to extol sovereignty rhetorically, China’s policies regarding sanctions on proliferating states reveal mounting fissures. Sanctions were once deemed serious violations of non-interference under Mao’s “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” reacting to “hegemonistic” Soviet and Western dictates to China (ICG 2009:13). Yet China began endorsing UNSC resolutions sanctioning North Korea and Iran since 2006, not once but seven times. Even if they were less biting than others might have preferred, they nonetheless signaled relaxation of sovereignty norms. Growing tension between rhetoric and action emanate, here as well, from dilemmas internationalizing leaders face from within and without. Oil and natural resources are crucial to breakneck economic growth and, hence, to Chinese leaders’ own political survival. Upholding Iran’s sovereignty over the full nuclear fuel cycle--including enrichment--helps trade and investment in Iran’s oil and gas but also creates tensions with Saudi Arabia, China’s top oil supplier, Arab Gulf partners, the US and Europe. Nor can China benefit from Iran’s threatened destabilization of strategic maritime lanes that provide it with crucial inputs for continued growth.8

China’s support for limited sanctions on North Korea following its 2006 first nuclear test also depart from previous practice even if compliance has been selective, reluctant, and intermittent, reflecting another multifaceted challenge. A destabilizing (sovereign) nuclear North Korea is not China’s preferred outcome, but neither is it the least preferred. North Korea’s collapse; an assertive unified and sovereign Korean peninsula; or an even more intrusive US presence in Northeast Asia are all worse than the status-quo.9 Thus, policies vis-à-vis North Korea--a crucial test of China’s adherence to sovereignty--reveal inconsistencies. In 2003 officials described China’s positions as consistently opposing sanctions and coercion.10 However, following North Korea’s first nuclear test, China approved UNSC resolution 1718 invoking Chapter VII (though barring the use of force under Article 41), while opposing cargo inspections. After North Korea’s 2009 second nuclear test, China endorsed UNSC resolution 1874 calling to “inspect and destroy all banned cargo,” financial sanctions, asset freezes, targeted travel bans (a rare concession), and blocking trade in nuclear and missile components. China’s representative called this a “balanced reaction of the Security Council” while urging respect for North Korea’s “sovereignty, territorial integrity and legitimate security concerns.” Only after it returned to the NPT, Chinese officials now argued, would North Korea enjoy the right to peaceful use of nuclear energy. Meanwhile China would “implement the resolution earnestly.”11 Increased instability in North Korea related to Kim dynastic succession led China to water down UN sanctions following the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonang.

These linguistic and behavioral contortions reveal new compromises aimed at aligning rhetoric of sovereignty with endorsement of sanctions, at least de jure. China’s leaders viewed this shift as reflecting responsibilities of an emerging global power (ICG 2009:13). Furthermore, while opposing forceful “regime change,” they sought to persuade Kim Jong-Il to transform North Korea’s authority structures and basis of legitimacy through China-style reforms and international economic openness. This was by any other name another departure from Westphalian sovereignty, one that might conveniently redress reputational losses incurred by China’s leaders every time North Korea reneges on promises to denuclearize through China-sponsored Six-Party Talks. Reputational costs--international and domestic--led an influential group of Chinese experts to strongly endorse sanctions, countering constituencies adamantly guarding North Korea’s “sovereign” right to nuclear weapons (ICG 2009:5). These competing demands explain China’s tortuous efforts to square the sovereignty circle; its tentative application--and lax implementation--of sanctions; its stated agreement with the Proliferation Security Initiative’s mission, even as it refuses to join it; and its contested interpretation of UNSC resolutions as compatible with enhanced trade, investments and aid to North Korea and Iran (Shen 2009).

In Krasner’s (2009:211) familiar formulation, the logic of consequences--maximizing leaders’ political survival--has thus far gained ground over the logic of appropriateness (non-intervention) in both the Iranian and North Korean theaters. Even mild interventionist steps reveal that political expediency trumps normative consistency as China urges Iran to provide unimpeded access to IAEA inspectors, ratify the Additional Protocol, and suspend enrichment, reprocessing and heavy water-related activities; and urges North Korea to reform its economy and abandon nuclear weapons while publicly acknowledging that “the dual track [carrot-and-stick] strategy is the right one.”12 On sanctions, as with sovereignty norms more generally, China’s rise has compelled compromises intended to signal its new reputation as a “responsible major power” (fuzeren de daguo).13 Reputational considerations may derive from norms, instrumentalities or both, and as Keohane (2009:10) argues, it can be difficult to identify which is endogenous to the other (“observational equivalence).” Leaders may be paying lip service to norms they don’t necessarily believe in, using them as rationalization for ulterior preferences, but they may also be acting in response to role expectations--at home and abroad--of an emerging superpower.

In sum, China’s ascent to power provides a window into evolving shifts in magnitude and forms of compromised Westphalian sovereignty. It illuminates evolving “solutions” to tensions induced by sovereignty norms across the domestic-international divide, across issue-areas, across different norms in the same issue-area, within the same norm over time, across successive ruling coalitions, and across domestic constituencies. Sovereignty norms conflicted with other norms and interests contemporaneously (spatially) and over time (longitudinally), as the power transition from t to t+1 confronted Chinese leaders with new norms, expectations, and interests. These continue to exert pressures for new sovereignty compromises. While navigating through dilemmas of a fledging superpower, rhetorical allegiance to sovereignty remains deeply engrained among some domestic constituencies. As Krasner (2009:213) argued, leaders may heed to constituents’ normative concerns for the (consequential) purpose of staying in power. This explains Chinese leaders’ uncompromising response to Japan over the maritime incident in September 2010 and their line-in-the sand when it comes to protecting every bit of domestic sovereignty from centrifugal tendencies (Taiwan, Tibet , Xinjiang) and external intrusion into fundamental domestic authority structures (democracy and human rights).14 Of all dilemmas of sovereignty posed by China’s rise, perceived threats to domestic sovereignty are second to none in the leadership’s struggle for political survival.
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