It has become fashionable to denigrate national sovereignty. The arguments are well versed: sovereignty is no absolute; it should not be used to excuse the abuse of human rights; the needs of justice should override the principle of sovereignty. It is suggested that this represents some profound shift in thinking, a reversal of centuries of history. This would be true if we were talking about the charmed circle of the developed world, Britain, France, the US and the rest. But of course we are not.
The sovereignty at issue is that of countries in the developing world which, until the second half of the 20th century, for the most part did not enjoy national sovereignty anyway. For them, the taste of self-rule, the possibility of not being governed by a race and culture from far away, is, historically speaking, an extremely recent experience. And now it is again under serious assault.
Many things came to an end in 1989, even though it was not until after Sept. 11 that we could begin to understand what many of them were.
1989 was about the defeat of communism. With Sept. 11 we saw the emergence of a unipolar world. The invasion of Iraq began to define the nature of American interest and the parameters of that unipolar world, as well as bringing into question many post-1945 arrangements, norms and institutions. It is now clear that the latter included one profound change that has been barely commented upon. American hyper-power marks the end of the post-colonial era, little more than 50 years after it started.
It takes the loss of one era and the emergence of a new one to properly understand the dynamics and merits of the former. British Prime Minister Tony Blair may fear that we are re-entering a bipolar world -- in reality there is no possibility of this for at least two decades, probably longer, and the only candidate on the horizon is China -- but in truth bipolarity offered possibilities that unipolarity denies.
Competition between the two superpowers served to constrain their respective behavior, especially beyond their agreed spheres of influence. It may not be "politically correct" to speak of the merits of a bipolar world, but it gave space and opportunity to people in the former colonies where now, in a world where there is just one master, there is much less. The anti-colonial moment was shaped, and in part enabled, by the emergence of the bipolar world after World War II.
The undermining of the sanctity of sovereignty has taken little more than a decade. It should be remembered that at the time of the first Gulf war, "regime change" was an entirely unacceptable proposition, breaching as it did the accepted conventions concerning sovereignty: the first Bush administration recognized this by not taking Baghdad. There followed a slow erosion, with the Western intervention in Kosovo -- the benefits of which remain dubious -- proving to be the most important violation of the principle before the invasion of Iraq.
This is not to suggest that the world was not replete with breaches of sovereignty during the cold war: the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia and the successive attempts by the Americans to unseat Cuba's Fidel Castro, for example. But until now, since the era of decolonization was ushered in, there has been no serious attempt to challenge sovereignty as a sacrosanct principle of state relations.