Sovereignty—especially American sovereignty—stands in the way of creating a better world. Sovereignty keeps us from developing adequately the institutions we need to achieve full respect for human rights globally. In fact, ‘self-government’ is a myth, and only perpetuates the oppression of the weak and marginalized. The American obsession with America is thus a major obstacle to building a better world.
These are the conclusions implicit in the thinking of the American Left and of the majority of America’s European allies. Why is this so? What is national sovereignty, and why do so many who enjoy lives in sovereign democratic nations hold views necessarily opposed to sovereignty? The answer lies in the conflicting worldviews that underlie the idea of sovereignty—and its principal rival, the ideology of global governance.
By ‘sovereignty’, we understand national sovereignty, such as the one on which the ‘American experiment’ is based: the idea that self-government is rooted in the nation-state and, accordingly, that the Constitution, as our basic law, trumps any international law that might contravene it.
In the arena of international affairs, national sovereignty does not mean any sort of ‘splendid isolation’ or the renunciation of international cooperation. Rather, it simply means that the United States insists on its right to participate in international affairs as a sovereign nation-state. It means that the U.S. government is primarily responsible to its own citizens, and that its powers are circumscribed not by the desires of other nations but by its Constitution, which the American people accept as their basic law against which the legitimacy of all other laws, treaties, and agreements must be judged.
Here, the concept of “We the People” is key. In the U.S. system, sovereignty resides not in the government, but in the citizens, “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. The power and authority of the U.S. government are derived from the American people, and the American people alone. This is what Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte calls “Philadelphian sovereignty” or “democratic sovereignty … the sovereignty of a self-governing, free people”. Democratic sovereignty is the heart of the model of government elaborated by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.
But democratic sovereignty entails limited government—and thus limited ambitions for government. As it happens, democratic sovereignty is also rooted in a traditionalist—and essentially religious—worldview. For the most part, both the American Left and America’s European partners harbor much greater ambitions for government. And they certainly do not hold anything resembling a traditionalist worldview. In fact, most of America’s closest European allies belong to an organization whose very existence implies an eventual rejection of national sovereignty—namely, the European Union.
The European project
To be sure, with the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis, widespread terrorism—and now Brexit—the European Union is in deep trouble. Because of these crises, the European Union is on everyone’s lips. But despite all the attention it is attracting, very few people really know much about the EU. In fact, very few people have the foggiest idea what the European Union is—and understandably so. The EU is unlike any other international arrangement. Though economic integration is central to the European project, the EU is much more than a free trade area or customs union. Nor is it like other international organizations.
The Organization of American States (OAS), for example, is a regional organization like the EU and is pan-American while the EU is pan-European. But their similarities end there. With their policy coordination and common institutions in Brussels, the 28 EU member states are much more closely integrated than the member states of the OAS—or those of any other international organization.
On the other hand, the EU is nothing like a United States of Europe. Its member states continue to exist as independent nations.
When all is said and done, the EU is a supranationalist project. The countries of the EU—in the interest of realizing an unprecedented degree of peace, stability, and prosperity—have relinquished significant elements of their national sovereignty. They are ceding large aspects of their governing and law-making powers to EU institutions that function independently above the national level.
The essence of the European project is precisely this supranationalism. The process of European integration arose out of the ashes of World War II and the determination of European leaders that war should never again arise from European soil.
But the European Union is not just about Europe. The EU’s supranationalism is all about global governance—an effort to realize world peace by overcoming the inordinate sovereignty of nations, which the EU believes is a primary root of war among nations. And here the EU, with all its troubles, does have credibility. After all, it is the only actually functioning model of how such global governance might work.
So what is global governance? As John Fonte has written, global governance is the attempt to introduce a global rule of law in the interest of achieving an unprecedented degree of worldwide peace, stability, and prosperity. This is done not through a ‘one-world government’ but by the development of an ever more comprehensive network of international institutions that administer an ever greater body of international law to which nation-states are subject in both foreign policy and substantial areas of domestic policy.
The key to global governance is the development of a global rule of law. However, no one quite knows exactly what this global rule of law will look like in the end. Whatever that end-state might be, there is a fundamental clash of visions between the EU’s notion of the world organized by global governance structures and the American idea of democratic sovereignty—that is, self-government based in the nation-state.
Even though Western and Central European countries remain among our closest allies, this clash of visions puts the EU and the U.S. on a collision course. As the world’s most powerful nation-state—one that jealously guards its national sovereignty—the United States stands in the way of the EU vision.
Fundamental religious differences
There are many factors that have led to this difference between the U.S. and the EU. A central factor is rooted in a religious difference. The U.S. system is based on a very sober, Judaeo-Christian view of human nature—and thus of government. This is the whole reason for the separation of powers and the checks and balances foreseen in the U.S. Constitution. The EU, by contrast, is largely secular.
It is striking to note how deeply indebted the Federalist Papers, for example, is to Christianity (regardless of whether the authors were themselves believing Christians or not). Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay accepted that human beings, while capable of great good, were also flawed (‘sinful’, as Christians would put it). Therefore, the powers of government had to be limited and divided into multiple branches so that the flawed human beings who hold government power would not be able to become tyrannical.
The EU’s supranationalism, on the other hand, flows out of a basically secular, social-democratic view of human nature. It stems from the idea that social justice can and must be achieved through government action and central planning. For most people in post-Christian Europe—and certainly for its governing elites—this world is all there is. Thus, justice must be determined by human beings, and pursued via politics and government.
Of course, the situation is rather fluid. The clash of visions between the U.S. and the EU today might be moving toward resolution—but not in favor of democratic sovereignty. Although global governance may appear to be on the wane, given the crises buffeting the EU, its animating worldview is not. In fact, the EU’s worldview is gaining ground in the United States as well—and may be close to winning the day throughout the West.
Additionally, the specter of an inchoate, trickle-down form of postmodernism is haunting the West. A dictionary definition says it well: postmodernism is “characterized by broad skepticism, subjectivism, or relativism; a general suspicion of reason; and an acute sensitivity to the role of ideology in asserting and maintaining political and economic power”. And it has become for many of us the implicit basis upon which we think.
This type of subjective relativism—this suspicion that truth is not really truth but simply the tool of the politically and economically powerful—has seeped into virtually all areas of life. This inchoate postmodernism rejects the idea that there is any truth claim that can command greater allegiance than the feelings or opinions of any individual or group, especially those that are deemed to be oppressed or disadvantaged. Therefore, reality itself is nothing more than what each individual or group feels it to be. Individual choice and group identity reign, and reality can and must be reshaped in the service of individual choice and group identity. Ultimately, the only thing that is objectively true is each person’s subjective assessment of what is true for himself.
In the sphere of international politics, the spirit of postmodernism has seized the opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War for new ways of thinking about world order. In the last 30 years political postmodernism has shunned the old certainties of modernism—such as the belief in reason and in the ability to know truth, for example—in order to create space for a new view of politics. It has brought about, in Nietzschean terms, a “transvaluation” of all political values—a deconstruction and redefinition of political categories associated with modernity. This includes, for example, the nation-state, national sovereignty, international law, and human rights. Instead, it has sought to assert a new, post-national view of governance and a new kind of human rights (based on a denial of truth) and a commitment to the absolute autonomy of the individual (and the absolute priority of free choice).
No longer does ‘human rights’ mean the right to live, speak and act in accordance with the unchanging truth about human nature. Rather, ‘human rights’ now stands for the right of the atomized individual to transform himself in whatever way he chooses and to be liberated from the constraints imposed by the truth claims of others.
Global governance and the new human rights serve as the twin pillars of this post-Cold War political postmodernism. They are interdependent. Without global governance, there can be no global realization of the new human rights; without the new human rights, global governance loses much of its purpose.
The new global ethic
The Belgian-American social critic Marguerite Peeters has characterized this intertwining of global governance and the new human rights as the “new global ethic”. This global ethic, like the EU and the global governance movement, is a child of post-modernity, whose basic tenet is “that every reality is a social construct, that truth and reality have no stable and objective content—that in fact they do not exist”.
As Peeters puts it, human rights (as understood in the global ethic) promotes “the ‘liberation’ of man and woman from the conditions of existence in which God has placed them”. Personal autonomy trumps all outside constraints and truth claims, since “the individual, in order to exercise his right to choose, must be able to free himself from all normative frameworks”. In fact, “the right to choose”, Peeters observes, “has become the fundamental norm governing the interpretation of all human rights”.
It is certainly true that human rights correctly understood are inherent and inalienable. But what one believes about human rights depends on what one believes about human beings—and here we’ve seen that the abandonment of our Judaeo-Christian roots and the embrace of a culture of relativism, novelty, and choice has profoundly affected the idea of human rights. The new human rights—based on the notion of the absolute autonomy of the individual—are transformative and emancipatory, like the postmodern view of politics and the accompanying global governance ideology.
This ongoing redefinition of human rights is a global phenomenon, with Europe and North America together leading the way. Unsurprisingly, it centers on exactly those human rights that Western secularists seem to care most about: women’s rights, children’s rights, and LGBT rights.
Transformation and liberation
The ideas of transformation and emancipation are central here. Just as the global governance ideology seeks to transform the world, liberating peoples from their traditional allegiances to local communities and nation-states, the postmodern view of human rights promotes a redefinition of people as autonomous individuals who can choose to transform their very nature—and in so doing liberate themselves from all traditional political, social, and sexual constraints.
In the case of women and children, liberation from the constraints of the family is a core concern. In the case of LGBT rights, the transformative aspect is central. The concept of a fluid, self-defined gender identity thus overrides the fundamental biological reality that every human being is either a man or a woman.
Ironically, such radical transformation and liberation cannot be brought about without the significant exercise of government power in suppressing truth. All human beings share inherent and inalienable human rights. In that sense, human rights are universal. But the notion of the “universality of human rights” serves a fascinating—and proto-totalitarian—function in promoting unlimited freedom of choice as the cornerstone of human rights.
A 2013 statement by EU foreign ministers entitled, “Guidelines to Promote and Protect the Enjoyment of all Human Rights by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) Persons”, affirms: “The EU is committed to the principle of the universality of human rights and reaffirms that cultural, traditional or religious values cannot be invoked to justify any form of discrimination, including discrimination against LGBTI persons.” Approved by all of the EU foreign ministers, this sweeping statement declared LGBTI rights to be absolute and valid in all contexts, while relativizing cultural, traditional, and religious values.
It is especially ironic how religion—which in the West is the primary source of the idea of objective truth—is declared to be of only relative, subjective validity, while LGBT rights are given the status of objective, universal truth by proponents of a worldview that denies objective, universal truth.
Clearly, the new human rights are a non-negotiable priority for the global governance ideologues. But this has also generated great uncertainty because the new human rights are based implicitly on a rejection of anything that has traditionally claimed the mantle of truth in the West. Therefore, everything is now up for grabs, including the question of what human rights are.
The question of human rights
This uncertainty—this question of what human rights are—demands resolution. Thus, it becomes inevitable that human rights themselves will be re-determined—not by the individuals who are seeking transformation and liberation but by those who hold political power. After all, in a world without the authority of objective truth, only those who hold political power have authority that can be enforced. No relativist is ever very far from Mao Zedong’s famous dictum: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”
Thus, the individual’s so-called unlimited right to choose becomes the government’s unlimited right to decide what may or may not be chosen. And as the government as guarantor of “universal human rights” expands, it increasingly becomes government as master. Furthermore, with the global reach of communications, travel, commerce, and ideas, government as master is also expanding geographically. And just as the power of government to determine what human rights are becomes unlimited, so too does it become impossible to limit the power of government to a certain region, area, or people.
Global governance becomes the only rational option, and national sovereignty becomes—in principle—an impermissible limit on the power of political elites to decide what is true and just. And the postmodern political project thus unmasks itself not as a benign desire to improve humanity’s lot but instead as an unlimited power grab to re-define truth and justice under the banner of ‘universal human rights’.
A perfect illustration of the intrusiveness and overwhelming scale of the postmodern political project of global governance can be seen in EU statements about the post-2015 development agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), probably the UN’s most highly touted global governance project. The EU Council of Ministers states:
“The post-2015 agenda should … integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development in a balanced way across the agenda; ensure coherence and synergies; and address inter-linkages throughout the goals and targets. It is also crucial to ensure that the agenda … encompass[es] all human rights and that it respects, supports, and builds on existing multilateral agreements, conventions, commitments, and processes …. The agenda should leave no one behind. … We should ensure that no person—wherever they live and regardless of ethnicity, gender, age, disability, religion or belief, race, or other status is denied universal human rights.”
This statement reveals how the EU aims to achieve a utopian level of human rights via ill-defined yet all-encompassing structures of global governance. Its approach to politics—0r ‘governance’—is universal, global, comprehensive. There are no constraints and no limits to what it seeks. There are no checks or balances to stand in the way of outcomes to be accomplished. The language is almost messianic, ascribing a quasi-salvific power to politics and ‘governance’. It sets aside the West’s traditionally Judaeo-Christian recognition of human fallibility for the notion that, via activist global governance, the world can be transformed—and human beings can be liberated from the constraints of tradition, culture, and religion.
The erosion of the American system
The U.S. is far from immune from this. In fact, the American system of self-government has been eroding on two ends. On one end, freedom internally is being undermined by the crippling ideology of ‘political correctness’, which is, at its core, postmodernism as manifested in identity politics. In defining their identity, the elites of each group become the arbiters of that group’s own version of the truth. For each group, there is no objective truth distinct from that group’s identity. And each group demands that society at large not only recognize but also support—in language, thought, and legislation—that group’s self-definition. We see this now especially in the gender identity and LGBT rights movements, and in the resulting challenges to the religious liberty of traditional Christians.
On the other end, our national sovereignty is under assault by a fashionable globalism—a particularly American version of the global governance ideology. Supreme Court justices cite foreign court rulings as support for their judgments on American constitutional questions. Left-wing NGOs push unofficial, tendentious interpretations of UN human rights conventions and international law to assert rights heretofore non-existent in U.S. law and jurisprudence—and implicitly deny Americans’ constitutional rights if they conflict with the new human rights.
Whether we like it or not, we are engaged in a battle that goes much deeper than mere political differences. In our domestic politics and in our relations with our European allies, we can no longer rely on a basic, Western worldview consensus. We can no longer safely appeal to objective truth or to normative claims about human nature.
The Judaeo-Christian view of an unchanging human nature embedded in tradition, religion, community, and family no longer commands the general allegiance of Western societies. The partisans of the postmodern political project of global governance and the new human rights are instead committed to a radical, secularist vision based on the virtually unlimited malleability of human nature, independent of traditional institutions and social relations. There are thus no limits—“no borders”, in the rhetoric of political postmodernism; nor are there limits to the powers that governments should wield in the pursuit of universal human rights.
This is a contest between democratic sovereignty and global governance. It is, as John Fonte has written, a zero-sum game. The two are implacably opposed. And democratic sovereignty—anchored in a humble respect for truth and recognition of the limits of politics—remains the only basis for realizing self-government in justice and freedom.
This battle between worldviews is one we cannot avoid. It is a struggle for self-evident truths—for objective truth and reason as the basis for tolerance and communication. It is a struggle in defense of the idea that government derives its powers only from the consent of the governed. Let us engage in this battle and do so in a way that seeks the good—not only for us but also for our opponents.