Responding to sovereign failure

Note: An unfinished article I wrote in response to Michael Ignatieff’s “9/11 and the age of sovereign failure“. After some consideration, I decided not to submit it because no one takes Mr. Ignatieff seriously anymore anyway. Enjoy!


When I scanned the website of The Globe and Mail early in September, I was surprised to find that the humbled ex-opposition leader Michael Ignatieff had put on his scribe’s hat and decided to pen a piece entitled “9/11 and the age of sovereign failure”. As likewise an amateur in international relations, I was surprised to find serious flaws in his framing of the issue on the tenth anniversary of these attacks.

Ignatieff failed to define what sovereign failure is and, as far as international relations theory is concerned, the term does not exist. We can only assume that by sovereign failure, Ignatieff is actually referring to state failure or sovereign default. To be clear about the latter definitions, state failure is when a state is weakened to the point where social and political structures have collapsed to the point where the central government has little or no control. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, two conditions come into conflict here: a state’s duty to guarantee basic human rights and the right to self-determination. As nationalist struggles for power (often including pre-existing divisions between ethnic groups) create more political instability, the state is no longer able to protect basic human rights, which is its primary mandate in the social contract between the sovereign and the subject. Sovereign default is failure by the government of a sovereign state to pay back its debt in full. Going forward with these definitions, we can critically look at the proofs that Professor Ignatieff uses to support his theory of “sovereign failure” in the United States.

Ignatieff both asserts that the United States is a case of sovereign failure in terms of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and came within view of sovereign failure in terms of the release of American debt figures to the tune of $14 trillion dollars. In my humble opinion, state failure is never “half-done”, but always complete collapse. Last time I checked, the American Congress, House of Representatives, President, and other democratic institutions and offices that constitute the American government were fully functional and funded by taxpayers.  9/11, the global financial crisis, American debt, and responses to natural disasters were not instances of state failure because the American state has not collapsed.

Firstly, 9/11 was not an instance of sovereign failure. It was an act of war. It was not a case of the American government failing to protect its citizens on its own soil, but being the victim of a terrorist attack. The social contract between citizens and the American government was suspended at no point during the attacks, such that the American military and local governments were deployed to save civilian lives. Previous terrorist attacks on American soil did not pose enough of a credible threat to a significant portion of the American population for the United States to change its customs security at airports and at borders. Therefore, the 9/11 attacks were unanticipated and sudden and the response of the American governments at all levels was immediate and networked.

Only a few years ago, Ignatieff was a fiery advocate of right to self determination (often violent) of other developing nations and military intervention in countries that were ruthlessly violating the human rights of their civilians in his book Blood and Belonging and The Lesser Evil. He believed that developed countries had a moral obligation to ensure democratic freedoms in other countries that did not adhere to such norms, by whatever means necessary. Yet in the article, he criticizes the Canadian mission in Afghanistan and nation-building initiatives there, as well as the decision of the Bush administration to go to war in Iraq as indications of state weakness. The decision of the United States to go to war was not an indication of state collapse, but American strength and hegemony as the world’s policeman. A failure to observe the just war theory criterion is not an indication of state failure, but failure to comply with moral imperatives commonly held by the international community.

More importantly, he blames government institutions themselves for these failures rather than the individuals that make up such entities. In democracies where the people are sovereign, the state fails us only when we fail the state. American citizens have failed to elect a government in the past few years that would rein in spending and tackle the growing deficit in an effort towards greater fiscal responsibility. Americans have failed to elect a government that will not bailout unsuccessful companies in its stimulus package, but rather reward corporations that generate jobs organically in hard times. Americans have failed to contest security measures like wire-tapping and biometrical scanning that infringe on their own negative liberties.  American citizens have failed to engage in democratic processes that seek to check and balance the powers of the American state, rather than perpetuate an invasive nanny state with programs like Obamacare or ACORN and increased economic regulation like the Community Investment Act.

Instead of focusing so heavily on the faults and failings of strong democratic and developed states, Ignatieff would be better employed returning to his missionary liberalism and looking at rogue states that actually fail to provide basic security to their citizens in the rest of the world. In any case, such theoretical inconsistency is perhaps to be expected from a man with similar identity inconsistencies.

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