Obsession With Sovereignty

The more we Pakistanis talk about sovereignty, the more they see it violated. Sovereignty, the essential and the exclusive attribute of the state, is the supreme power in a political society free from all internal and external control. It means the complete freedom to make any laws, adopt any political or economic system, pursue any policy, and establish or break off relations with any other state.
Thus a state is entitled to be a republic or a monarchy, have a democratic or despotic form of government, establish a capitalist or socialist economy, adopt an isolationist or interventionist foreign policy, conclude or repudiate treaties, join or quit an international organisation, and declare war or peace. In a word, sovereignty means that a state is completely free to conduct its internal and external affairs and no other state can interfere with that right.
The concept of state sovereignty gives rise to certain questions. The foremost is the relationship between sovereignty and international law. Whether municipal or international, law is essentially normative; it prescribes how the citizen must act. In international context, law stipulates how a state must-and must not-act in relation to other states, international organisations and alien citizens and legal persons (transnational corporations). This means that the very notion of an international legal order is a negation of that of state sovereignty and thus incompatible with it.
Paradoxically, sovereignty presupposes an international legal order. For without such an order, which defines the rights and obligations of states, no nation will respect the sovereignty of others. Just as the rights of an individual can exist only when they are recognised and enforced by the domestic legal system, those of a state can exist when they are enforced by an international legal order.
The principle of sovereignty notwithstanding, states, actuated by the desire to protect their perceived national interests, do interfere in the domestic affairs of one another. This interference may consist of mere expression of concern on certain developments in a state, such as treatment of minorities, advice on how a state should conduct its internal or external affairs, actual influence on its economic or political policies, sanctions to coerce a state into abandoning its “wrong” policies, or the threat or use of force against a “rogue” state. States do differ in their capacity and predilection for foreign interference but all states are involved in this practice despite their commitment to respect the sovereignty of others.
States also differ in their susceptibility to external interference. Some states pursue fairly independent policies. By contrast, there are states whose domestic and foreign policies are completely in the control of another state. In theory, they are independent but in practice they are no more than satellite states.
From the foregoing, one may infer that there is a wide gulf between the theory and practice of sovereignty. In theory, all states are sovereign; in practice, the exercise of sovereign power is subject to various internal and external factors, including the state of the economy, the military power, the character of the population, the credibility of the leadership, international power relations, the global economic order, international treaties, etc.
In theory, all states are equal (sovereign equality of states); in practice, there are strong and weak states. Generally, the more powerful a state, the more sovereign it is. Hence, in practice, state sovereignty is manifested in national power taking all its elements into account. This practical aspect of sovereignty also helps resolve the paradox of its relationship with international law. Since sovereignty is not absolute, it is not incompatible with restrictions imposed by the international legal order in the form of treaties or customs.
Coming back to Pakistan, in popular opinion the most serious threat to its sovereignty stems from the USA. While that may or may not be the case, it can’t be denied that the US has been encroaching upon our territorial integrity with impunity. A case in point is the drone strikes. With or without consent from Islamabad, the strikes are deemed necessary by Washington to break the network of terrorists operating in the region bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Even if such a link exists, the raids cannot be justified because they violate Pakistan’s sovereignty. However, the fact that they violate Pakistan’s sovereignty hasn’t deterred the US from repeating such actions. It is true that international legal order is necessary to enforce respect for state sovereignty. But the international legal order is not sufficient to prevent violation of sovereignty. A state must also be capable of defending its sovereignty.
Is Pakistan capable of such deterrence? Our nuclear power status, coupled with a massive military might have constituted a strong deterrence against US raids in our territory. But the fact that it has not means that we need to look at other elements of national power in which we are deficient. Undoubtedly, the economy is the Achilles’ heel. Decelerating economic growth, growing fiscal and current account deficits, falling levels of investment and savings, fast depleting foreign exchange reserves, and a rapidly depreciating rupee mean that the economy is in a dismal situation and in dire need of foreign capital. The economy is an element of national power, but only when it is strong. An economy too weak to walk without the crutches of foreign assistance is a drag on national power and hence sovereignty.
There is no dearth of political leaders who aver that Pakistan should break the begging bowl and take bold decisions, notwithstanding the state of the economy. Some even maintain that Pakistan should go to war against the US. Every nation, no doubt, has to take some bold decisions. But such decisions require a credible leadership-another element of national power. Do we have such leadership? Do we have leaders who can stand by the people in their hour of trial, who can share their enormous wealth with the masses, and are ready to part with their privileged position in society?
It is a nice political slogan that the nation should prefer eating grass to begging for foreign assistance. But who will eat grass? The leaders who say this have a most luxurious lifestyle, which will make even the richest in the developed world envious of them, live in palatial houses, drive in imported bullet-proof cars, and have scores of gun-totting body guards. Such leaders can hardly be expected to share the price of safeguarding sovereignty with the people. Hence, it will be the ordinary people, already squeezed by the galloping inflation in an increasingly laissez faire economy, who will have to pay all the price of sovereignty. It is hard to take bold decisions when such leaders are around.
Morally and legally, US raids on Pakistan are without any justification. But international politics is essentially power politics and a nation has to be strong enough to safeguard its sovereignty. Shorn of that strength, a nation can only register its protest with, put diplomatic pressure on, and try and convince the belligerent nation that the intervention is proving counter-productive. This is what Pakistan is doing with the US and this is what it can do in the circumstances. Sovereignty in its absolute, a prior meaning, is no more than a myth.