In the last decades, post-sovereignism has made its way as a turning point in the anti-establishment aftermath following the proclamation of sociological theories, such as that of the so-called liquid society, hoping for the creation of a utopian “Universal Human Nation.” Is a re-edition occurring of the Nietzschean “twilight of idols,” intended as a synonym for the failure of over-institutionalization that drifts apart from direct representation?
Sovereignty is an evolving concept that has its roots in the notion of the Westphalian state, characterized by a clearly defined territory governed by a fully empowered authority. Bodin interpreted sovereignty as the absolute, perpetual, and permanent power of the sovereign; this coming from divine origins that authorizes the ruler to even break the rules of predecessors. From Rousseau onwards, however, it was intended as the expression of the will of the people that legitimizes the sovereign to exert his unlimited power on the base of a “social contract.”
Later authors, such as Grotius and De Vattel, believed that natural law is the origin of modern Europe and international law. De Vattel, in The Law of Nations declared that international law is the law of sovereignty and that a conceived international legal system is an optic of externalization of full national powers. De Vattel was inspired by the Dutch Grotius, author of De jure belli ac pacis, one the most famous theorists of the natural law doctrine that was extended to the international legal order. In a global context marked by the religious wars after the Reform, which brought into international relations all the bitterness of religious hate, and in consideration of economic factors, such as colonial expansion, trade development, and exploitation of discovered territories, Grotius founded the legitimacy of international legislation in the natural order, intending natural laws as a dictation of a just reason that would lead to the observance of international agreements by virtue of good will (pacta sunt servanda), even justifying a just war (bellum iustum) in the event that these rules were breached.
Beyond these general philosophical hints, what is happening within States today and what is intended for sovereignism, populism, or the combination of the two notions?
The sovereignism motto is “taking back control” over territory, with a flair for boundaries obsession, and in Europe it is characterized by so-called Euroscepticism, ranging from the demand for soft reforms to a hard opposition to European institutions, and emphasizing the importance of Nation-States. New sovereignists propose a redistribution of power in a populist critique of representative democracies, both politically and economically, aiming to regain full State control over ruling in order to protect people's well-being.
While new sovereignism’s main claims concern the representative system and territorial boundaries, populists are more centered on people, as “they were first” (i.e., USA, Italy), legitimizing authoritarian forms of government. Populists claim an exclusive (anti-system, anti-state, anti-intellectual, anti-party) nationalism. It is an ideology that considers society as divided into two groups: the people and the elite (“us” and “them”), and demonizes globalization for its direct threats to existential security, propending to economic protectionism, political chauvinism, and isolationism.
Bringing the two concepts together, populist sovereignism means respatializing power. This joint concept opposes the people to both elites and foreigners and is taking over current populist movements and parties, organized around sovereignist goals. Populist sovereignty supersedes the divide between right and left wings, as shown by the Five Stars Movement in Italy or Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National in France, even though some remarkable differences still remain in place. For right-wing populists (reigning for about thirty years in Switzerland and having significant experience also in the Netherlands) a re-territorialization and zero-sum perception of the sovereignty of the Nation-State is the main ideological task to a accomplish, while the left-wing supports a transnational redefinition of re-empowered demos.
Quoting Bauman, in this post-modern liquid society, a digital techno-liquid generation is looming, epitomized by the coming technocracy that seems to fill the gap between institutions and people for a more direct democracy. This concept has been conveyed also by populists and has been proposed as techno-populism, whose workhorse is a new “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” achievable by modern communication technologies. Techno-populism and technocracy have a common ground: considering technology as a framework and not as a tool.
Bauman believed that the post-modern human is a symbol of the unlimited enlargement of desire and that it doesn’t make sense anymore to talk about sovereignty in the Westphalian exception. For example, within the EU, sovereignty is taken into consideration for the implementation of the competence partition, the principle of subsidiarity, and the preemption policy. Scholars have so far developed two main principles: that of preemption and that of supremacy, which are two sides of the same coin. The first doctrine determines to what extent national law may be applied; the second one, instead, is often debated by Member States that keep on remaking the importance of national constitutional limits. These two doctrines complement each other and are vital for any of Union of States with overlapping legislative spheres.
Coming back to Bauman, all this is happening because today we live in a transnational dimension, not uniform but multiform, that could be interpreted as “an archipelago of diasporas” where, those he terms ‘hobos’, are the products and the main receivers of globalization, contested by sovereignists. Thus, in his opinion, it would be detrimental to perch on statist and isolationist positions, and it would be beneficial to reopen a dialogue and learn to coexist in an irreversibly cosmopolitan, multicultural, and multireligious society. Presiding over borders and forbidding the arrival of foreigners is impossible and counterproductive because it would limit human evolution and progress.
Now, we must point out from where we come and where we are going: are we facing, once again, a twilight of idols and a political decadence, as preconized by Nietzsche in the 19th century? Are we likewise facing a turning back of historical cycles?
Similar to Bauman’s belief that the postmodern human is a symbol of a disproportionate enlargement of desire, going beyond eroded nationalism and sovereignism and leading to an utopian and humanist one-world society, Nietzsche demonized reason’s trends to systematize and formulate notions that are quixotic because they detach us from our senses. Facing the alternative between dismantling or re-proportioning current institutional assets, starting from both Nietzsche’s and Bauman’s condemnation of over-structures, distant from the real needs of the individual, this common feeling of dissatisfaction has been taken by new sovereignists as a reaction against the pivotal globalist trend, stigmatized as the main source of present inequalities and injustices. Stemming from individualism, it would be preferable to find a sense of commonality to deal with this new reality. In fact, toppling current institutions is unlikely and would cause an implosion of unimaginable scale, and thinking about an anarchist solution would be highly absent-minded. Instead, re-proportioning and reformulating this status quo would help to overcome the lack of adherence between people’s will and their representatives. Thus, revamping current national and international institutions in hope of significant reforms, without losing sight of what is perceived as the closest feeling of self-identity and basic common ground, would avoid further misrepresentation in the crumbling international order and is what is mostly backed up at the moment.
Nowadays, in fact, we are going through a new critical epoch characterized by the reshuffling of sovereignist opinions, putting at stake and reframing current institutional frameworks. For instance, China-US tensions and the lack of a tangible reaction by the EU or the UN system are paving the way for a second Cold War.
As a result of the flourishing of new sovereignism, we are seeing the gradual withdrawal of the US from international organizations, such as WTO and WHO, and the escalation of its geopolitical, economic, military, and technological rivalry with China, which started to join the main international organizations about forty years ago. China is a dominant actor in the international geopolitical scenery, proclaiming the safeguarding of its sovereignty and the right to self-determination and homeland domestic jurisdiction, even to justify violations such as political meddling into its neighboring states, especially Taiwan and Hong Kong, in order not to be expelled by these international organizations or avoid further sanctions. Chinese ambition to overstretch its power by its interventions in the East China Sea has been, in fact, internationally declared as “completely unlawful” and represents a formal premise of a new Cold War.
In the US, neither Democrats nor Republicans look kindly to Beijing, and the Washington choice of political ambiguity is focused on deterring China from its never hidden ambition of reunification with its neighbors and to avoid the situation spiraling out of control, both aware that a new war would be detrimental. In a battle of tit-for-tat countermeasures, such as restrictions on Chinese access to the US market through the implementation of sanctions in an outright tariffs war and bans (i.e., Tik Tok), followed by the closure of consulates and soaring technological competitiveness, these countries are increasingly distrustful of each other in a reciprocal decoupling, although they are still economically interdependent.
In a comprehensive global view, we can’t forget that the EU largely depends on exports, and is thus more likely to undertake negotiations with China than follow the US. In addition, the international community keeps denouncing persistent and systematic infringements on human rights and fundamental freedoms in China (i.e., abuses against Uyghur minorities in Tibet and the fierce repression of democratic demonstrations in Hong Kong against Chinese national security laws) and is stressing the difficulty of turning officially proclaimed liberal and democratic declaration of principles into practice.
In the succession of these events, what’s the role of the UN? Is the UN Charter and its regulations just an ambiguous enlisting of principles not implemented in an orthodox way and not felt as binding by the people? States operating under the rule of law are caught internationally in a web of obligations they cannot disregard, but to what extent are they bound anymore? In order to make the UN fit-for-purpose for the challenges presented by the 2030 Agenda, and in the pursuit of its main functions including the maintenance of international peace and security, many institutional reforms have been discussed, first and foremost being the Security Council. On this subject, it has claimed a more effective inclusiveness of developing countries, such as African States that are facing key issues like water management, poverty eradication, and women empowerment and are currently sidelined from decision-making tables, and the creation of a more flexible membership in order to reform the veto-system, avoiding in such a way a council block of activities. Furthermore, since his election in 2017, Guterres has proposed a UN 2020 reform agenda focused on a leading role of the Secretary-General, including a revision of Secretariat architecture, prioritizing the prevention of conflicts, a more coordinated delivery of UN services at the country level by UN agencies and programs, forging a people-centered system, and guaranteeing proper inclusion of women, minorities, and indigenous groups.
Under these assumptions, it’s clear that the UN has often failed to prevent war and fulfill its peacekeeping and peacebuilding especially in the last decades and that an overhaul and shake-up of its system seems to be urgent and irrenounceable. A shifting balance of power and rapid globalization of threats—from the economic downturn caused by COVID-19 restrictions and the increase in public debt in the least developed countries, to the traffic of drugs and arms sponsored by terrorist groups and the environmental crisis—challenge the UN to update its anachronistic mindsets. As a result of these sociological observations and political countermeasures to contain widespread dissatisfaction and dissent, we could talk today about a post-sovereignty era, referring to a revitalization of a sovereignty-based paradigm of international public law that can push equal sovereign States to be bound by authorized international institutions, effectively mirroring the will of the people in what has been defined as the “eternal return” of Sovereignty. In this perspective, significant revisions are ongoing in order to give a consistent answer to ordinary people that find themselves more and more cut off from the control rooms of democratic decisions.
Paola Canale is a write/journalist covering International Relations and Human Rights.