Sovereignty: God, State, Self

by Jean BethkeˆElshtain

Basic, 480 pages, $35

Jean Bethke Elshtain certainly succeeds in rescuing her subject from the academic specialists in international relations. She offers a wide-ranging, rapid-paced survey of the great books of the West as they bear on the imposing but still somewhat elusive term sovereignty . Rather than provide close readings of specific texts, Elshtain offers impressionistic summaries in broad strokes, but, even as she moves from medieval theology to early-modern statecraft to the psychic turmoil of the modern individual, she keeps the thread of a story with a moral. In the course of Western thought, as Elshtain sees it, “the logic of sovereignty,” instead of being associated with “the fullness of reason and truth” as it was for most medieval thinkers, “came unbound and migrated, becoming attached more and more to notions of the self.”

Elshtain’s Sovereignty opens with three chapters that trace medieval debates about the right understanding of divine power and whether reason was a necessary part of God’s creation. The final three chapters deal with trends in modern thought, and her account culminates with contemporary visions of genetic manipulation and the assertion of rights to clone perfect offspring and abort the imperfect. Such visions, Elshstain insists, should make us rethink our trajectory, right back to its premises in medieval debates about the right understanding of God’s power and creation.

Readers will readily appreciate the force of her warnings against conceits such as the “sovereign self,” cut off from any sense of obligation to family, community, or human limits. But it seems to me that Elshstain’s metaphysical preoccupations slight the claims of political sovereignty. And I think it is worth rescuing these claims, since (as Elshtain acknowledges) they figure prominently in the thinking of the American founders and they are (though Elshtain does not acknowledge it) relevant to some of the most intense conflicts in today’s world.

To start with, Elshstain’s account rather loads the dice. When she discusses, say, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who gets repeated attention in this book), she needs only to mention the Nazis to alert readers to the political stakes. But when she discusses, say, the antipapal arguments of Marsilius of Padua, she does not describe the sordid corruption of the Avignon popes, which inspired the anticlerical animus of Marsilius’ abstract arguments.

Similarly, she talks about Shakespeare’s history plays but does not talk about the Hundred Years War”battles that, as Shakespeare’s Henry V obliquely acknowledges, even the participants did not imagine to be about anything more than the personal inheritance claims of particular feudal overlords. Elshstain dedicates this book to a teacher who “taught me to love the Middle Ages,” but she does not reckon with how much that was extremely unlovely about medieval Europe stemmed from the absence of sovereignty.

In Elshtain’s account, the great issue is whether law”or governing authority more generally”is rooted in reason and justice or merely in power and obedience. So she sets up a contrast between the exclusive power claims of modern territorial states and the “older notion of the unity of a Christian society, glued together by shared belief and culture and presided over universally by the papacy and a Holy Roman Emperor, as well as governed locally by . . . the various partial “sovereignties’ of medieval Europe.”

It is not likely that the most philosophic minds of medieval Europe saw the alternatives this way. Thomas Aquinas, for notable example, follows Aristotle in talking about the fundamental political unit as the city. Thomas rarely talks about the empire or the emperor of his day”a silence that is hard to read as an endorsement for this characteristic medieval effort to promote “shared belief and culture” into political authority.

The Holy Roman Empire retained ill-defined claims over all the West until the Reformation. During the Middle Ages, not only popes and churchmen but also kings and barons clung to the idea that Western Christendom ought to have some political form corresponding to its religious identity. But emperors, who lacked taxing power and standing armies, did not have a reliable capacity either to protect or to punish, so they depended on the sanction of the papacy even as they tried to constrain or resist it. Sovereignty was, in the first place, a claim of independence from the empire, asserting the political primacy of the sort of controlling force that the empire had never really had.

To characterize this claim, early-modern writers derived from a French legal term the new term sovereignty ”as opposed to the Latin terms used by medieval writers, which indicated high power more generally. The new emphasis allowed writers to talk about the claims of government”and eventually of the state , another new term, to designate the bearer of sovereignty”in a way that implied a sharp distinction from the people or society.

Elshtain emphasizes the preoccupation of early-modern writers with power, but she does not give enough attention to the implicit limits in the new understanding of political power. For example, she offers a brief discussion of Jean Bodin, the sixteenth-century French jurist who was the first to make sovereignty the central theme of analysis. She mentions that Bodin was admired by advocates of royal absolutism in the court of England’s James I. She does not notice that Bodin was also admired and quoted by opponents of absolutism in England and elsewhere, since Bodin also advocated religious toleration and insisted that kings could not raise taxes without the consent of an elected parliament. Even more misleadingly, Elshtain omits mention of Bodin’s emphasis on the sovereign’s obligation to the law of nature and the law of God (or, as he says in a phrase that inspired Jefferson, to the precepts of “nature’s God”).

What is true of Bodin is true of all the important theorists of sovereignty down to the mid-eighteenth century: They emphasized not only the rights of the sovereign but also a system of natural law in which the rights of sovereigns”and the original rights of individuals”were thought to be grounded. It makes little sense, after all, to claim the rights of sovereignty if these rights are not recognized by others, starting with other sovereigns who might otherwise challenge or resist them.

The medieval understanding of natural law, inspired by Aristotle and Cicero, emphasized the moral claims of political community and the common good of the community. The early-modern version of natural law emphasized natural rights outside or beyond a particular community. Indeed, the seventeenth-century Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius is credited with systematizing not only the modern notion of a general “law of nations” but also the modern notion of rights”of what I have a right to do or to hold, as opposed to what is right, simply.

The modern view is, by design, less demanding. One can say it is less social, less communal, more self-regarding. But it sought to indicate a path toward living in peace or at least containing conflicts within reasonable limits: Respect our rights, and we can respect yours. It was meant to teach the need for consenting to a protective political sovereign by emphasizing the precariousness of private claims in a merely natural state.

It did not deny that it was natural to seek the freedom to live and hold property and follow one’s own understanding of religious obligations. Elshtain seems to think domestic constitutional controls need to be reinforced or supplemented by international controls: “Horrors committed in the name of sovereignty are well known.”

But the worst horrors of the last century were committed by regimes that disdained even the rhetoric of sovereignty, regimes that not only treated the sovereignty of neighboring states with contempt but made a point of disparaging the dignity of their own state structures. So, for example, their rulers were known by titles disconnected from actual government office: the fuhrer in Germany, the Communist Party general secretary in Russia. They wanted to be seen, not so much as wielding authority in specific states, as leading movements that transcended state limits and national boundaries in the name of higher commitments and final conflicts.

Elshtain expresses sympathy for “the post“World War II blossoming of the notion of universal human rights” as “binding international norms . . . to bring limits to the activity of sovereign states.” She does not, however, follow up this suggestion with any discussion of the United Nations or the European Union. She certainly does not hold them out as examples of practical institutions that can “bring limits to the activity of sovereign states” in relation to their treatment of their own citizens in their own territories

Elshtain proceeds instead to the assertion that “systematic, continuing, and egregious violations of the most fundamental of all rights”the right to life itself”demand concerted action in the form of interdiction and punishment.” She does not elaborate on whether the vague term interdiction would justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003 or the bombing of Belgrade in 1999, nor does she explain whether less forceful measures can restrain the murderous regimes in North Korea, Burma, Sudan, or Zimbabwe. Again, her reticence seems to imply doubts about an official, formally established, and legally recognized alternative to sovereignty.

What she does say is that the “most likely agents” for “concerted action” against the worst states would come from other states that are “constituted in and around a “binding’ sovereignty, including the articulation and enforcement of fundamental human rights.” What is it, exactly, that allows us to recognize these states, the better states, the likely partners in resisting the worst abuses elsewhere? She seems to have in mind those nations with shared belief and culture when it comes to human rights, but she is vague about the precise content of the relevant beliefs and culture.

Elshtain never discusses Muslim doctrines, but she notes, in passing, that both Rousseau and Nietzsche offered respectful words about the conquering prophet of Islam. It is not surprising that the two most notable champions of antiliberal thought looked to non-Christian models. Christianity began as a minority faith rather than a conquering creed. At the outset, the Christians preached accommodation to the rightful governing claims of the pagan empire in which they lived. After the collapse of Rome and the failure of medieval efforts to restore the empire, a variety of Christian thinkers could find their way to acknowledging the claims of sovereign states.

In some ways, Christian thinkers have always insisted on the separateness of governing authority from the spiritual authority of the Church, even if medieval understandings of the separation differed from the modern. However things turn out in Iraq”or in Egypt or Pakistan or other great and troubled states of the Muslim world”it is hard to imagine a hopeful future that does not include some recognition of the difference between the government of a distinct people in a distinct territory and the global, spiritual claims of Islam as such. It is hard to imagine a peaceful future between Israel and its neighbors if Palestinians do not embrace a state of their own rather than an existential struggle against an alien presence in Muslim lands.

The West cannot simply impose a new culture in Muslim countries. But it can hold out the prospect of peaceful interaction with nations of the Middle East organized as sovereign states. Particular states and particular peoples that learn to embrace this accommodation will already be far different from the aroused host of religious warriors envisioned by the jihadists. The abstractness of sovereignty may prove a helpful way of talking about things that are otherwise hard for us to agree on.

Jean Bethke Elshtain’s book is a reminder that there is something lost when community is reduced to the presiding power of a sovereign state. But sovereignty may offer more than she acknowledges in a world where we still face so many of the challenges of centuries past”above all, the challenge of keeping peace without losing our souls to the peacekeepers.

Jeremy Rabkin is professor at George Mason University School of Law.