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National Sovereignty

Years ago, I wrote an essay arguing against nation-states as a form of organization. Admittedly not the most immediately practical program or campaign, it was an attempt to grapple with the various problems that nationalism and states based on nationalism have caused in the world. Among these problems: the genocidal campaigns national states and settler states waged (and continue to wage) against indigenous peoples, of the suppression of the aspirations of ethnic or religious minorities that is almost always implied in national states based on a particular identity being adopted as that of the nation; of the difficult and often brutal conditions lived by millions of migrant workers who are stuck without rights or protections because they lack precious papers, citizenship rights – they don’t belong to the nation they’re in. That previous essay argued for citizenship based on democratic principles, resource rights based on principles of justice and equality, and resolution of conflicts by inter-state consensus (1).

In a recent debate on Israel/Palestine, Chomsky raised an idea of something similar, what he calls a: “no-state settlement, generalizing multinationalism (in the broad sense indicated) beyond the borders of a state. That approach would be based on the recognition that the nation-state system has been one of the must brutal and destructive creations of Europe and its offshoots, imposed by force on much of the rest of the world, with horrendous consequences for centuries in Europe, and elsewhere until the present. For the region, it would mean reinstating some of the more sensible elements of the Ottoman system (though, obviously, without its intolerable features), including local and regional autonomy, elimination of borders and free transit, sharply diminishing or eliminating military forces, etc. Applied elsewhere, say to North America, it would entail, to mention just one example, reversing Clinton’s post-NAFTA militarization of the (previously quite porous) Mexico-US border, with a severe human cost, and dealing in some humane way with the fact that the US is sitting on half of Mexico, acquired by brutal conquest. Similar issues arise throughout the world.”

Looking back, I ought to have read the writing on the wall a little more carefully. That essay was published well after 9/11, after the invasion of Afghanistan by the US, and after the coup attempt against Venezuela. In other words, there was ample evidence that the really existing alternative to a world of sovereign nation-states is a world of naked imperial aggression. A global “no-state settlement” along the lines Chomsky described recently or that I tried to present those years ago would still be nice. But it seems to me that in the world today – and I came to this opinion reluctantly -- national sovereignty is a progressive force.

Had the anti-war movement and anti-imperialist opposition in the United States and elsewhere in the first world been stronger, things might be different. But our inability to channel the energy and anger that the whole world expressed on February 15, 2003, into a force capable of stopping the invasion and devastation of Iraq, the indifference of so much of the same anti-imperialist movement to the coup and ongoing slaughter in Haiti, the repeated capitulation of the best endowed parts of our movement to ineffective actions or collaboration with imperialism, suggests a need for sober reflection and re-assessment – of strategy, tactics, and goals.

The United States had plans to replace Chavez in Venezuela with pliant elites. It had plans to use occupied Iraq as a jumping off point to invasions of Syria, Iran, and beyond. I don’t want to devalue the role of anti-imperial sentiment and opposition, or act as if it makes no difference. It does make a difference. But if the US agenda was stopped or slowed in Venezuela or Iraq, it was not because of internationalists. It is because of nationalists, who fought and continue to fight for their national sovereignty. In Iraq, parts of this nationalist resistance has ugly tactics and an ugly program. But it is fighting something even uglier, and if we don’t like it, it is up to us, who are supposed to be in a better position to do so, to come up with a better way to stop the empire.

In Venezuela to date, the defense of sovereignty has not only been effective, but it has not been ugly at all. Instead, it has been inclusive, humane, and genuinely democratic – certainly more so than the United States or most other countries. The open, democratic character of the Venezuelan process might render it vulnerable, but it is also its strength. The Venezuelan experience suggests that there doesn’t have to be a conflict between national sovereignty and democracy. If that’s the case, perhaps the struggle for the moment isn’t an aggressive attempt to push towards a “no-state settlement”, but a defensive one, against imperialism and for the kind of world proclaimed in the United Nations Charter: a world of sovereign nation-states, self-determination within those states, and co-operation between them. After March 2003, even getting to that world seems a long struggle.

Even if you accept the defense of national sovereignty against imperialist depredation for third world countries, is the same true for the first world? Wouldn’t everyone be better off if US citizens loved their country a little less and loved the rest of the world a little more? Probably. But perhaps there is no contradiction here either. The Michael Moore phenomenon, for example, is powerful because he seems to start from a sincere love of the US and goes from there (sometimes not far enough from there) to a concern for the many victims of the US. The idea that a country like the US or Canada ought to concentrate on solving its own political, social, and cultural problems and developing its own people with its own resources (as opposed to resources plundered from all over the world) would not only resonate with many North Americans, it would also imply a radical change in world affairs (military bases closing down, assets and infrastructure being returned to the nations that they belong to, etc.). And as wonderful as globalism and internationalism is, it is hard to think that such a development would be anything but positive. Indeed, it would be the basis for internationalism that isn’t based on exploitation and inequality. Perhaps it is even the necessary first step towards a global “no-state settlement” for a better future.

Justin Podur is a writer and activist. Feedback on this essay is particularly welcome: write to


1) “Instead of Nation States”

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