Book Review: The Sovereignty Wars by Stewart Patrick


May 17, 2018

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Photo by honglouwawa/Getty Images

This commentary originally appeared on Strategy Bridge on April 30, 2018.

In his September 19, 2017 address before the United Nations General Assembly, Donald Trump stated that in the United States, “the people govern, the people rule, and the people are sovereign.” “In foreign affairs,” he continued, “we are renewing this founding principle of sovereignty.” He declared that “millions of jobs [had] vanished and thousands of factories [had] disappeared” because Americans had been victimized by “mammoth, multinational trade deals, unaccountable international tribunals, and powerful global bureaucracies.” Only “strong, sovereign, and independent nations” could serve as a bulwark against globalist designs.

While many observers noted his emphasis on sovereignty—President Trump used that word and the word sovereign a combined twenty-one times—few of them, understandably, expended much effort on defining it. Given how often policymakers and analysts use it, after all, one could be forgiven for presuming its meaning to be self-evident. As Stewart Patrick demonstrates in his new book The Sovereignty Wars, however, it is a complicated, multifaceted construct; he notes, in fact, that “when Americans invoke the term, they often imply very different things—and thus talk past one another.”[1]

Terms that endure tend to grow more capacious over time; if they do not adapt to evolving political realities, social norms, and technological forces, after all, they risk fading into obsolescence. To the extent that they become part of a widely shared vocabulary, they can facilitate communication. Unfortunately, though, they can also become victims of their own success: a term can become sufficiently elastic that its usage comes to obscure more than clarify; worse, it can be consciously misappropriated.

Such has been the case with sovereignty, which Patrick, director of the Council on Foreign Relations International Institutions and Global Governance Program, calls “among the most frequently invoked, polemical, and vexing concepts in politics.”[2] The Sovereignty Wars is a timely and meticulous effort to clarify that concept, whose usage is a matter of both analytical interest and policymaking import. It is in keeping with his scholarship of recent years, which has skillfully illuminated the complexities of high-level abstractions—global governance and state failure, for example—while rendering them accessible.

Patrick's new book offers less of a definition of sovereignty than a deconstruction, arguing that most discussions of the concept involve—and too often conflate—three dimensions: authority, autonomy, and influence. “American sovereignty,” he explains, “means that the United States possesses inherent rights that should not be surrendered, autonomy that should not be infringed upon, and a fate that it should be able to influence.[3]” While those preferences do create a sovereignty trilemma, it is not overly exacting: “Once we recognize that sovereignty can be disaggregated, we see that it is possible—even desirable—to voluntarily trade off one aspect of sovereignty for another.”[4]

That seemingly innocuous conclusion has yet to gain widespread acceptance in the United States, where, Patrick observes, sovereignty, is a sacred touchstone. (One cannot resist noting, though, the paradox that a construct deemed to be sacrosanct in conception has proven to be quite pliable in practice, having been invoked with equal force to justify retrenchment and over extension, especially in the postwar era.)[5] The United States is far from alone in exhibiting a strong rhetorical and prescriptive commitment to sovereignty; Patrick notes that “among contemporary big powers, Russia, China, and India are especially insistent on defending their sovereignty prerogatives…What is distinctive and curious about America…is how Janus-faced it has been on the issue. Since 1945 the United States has been simultaneously the main driving force behind international cooperation and among those nations most defensive of its sovereignty.”[6] It is difficult to reconcile those postures, in no small part because the very bodies of whose surreptitious intrusions sovereignty's most vocal proponents warn—especially the United Nations—are, for the most part, U.S. creations. How can one concurrently be the unwitting victim of a conspiracy and its principal architect? While the postwar order the United States established and embedded itself within indeed “narrowed its range of action and imposed certain external obligations,” it also played a decisive role in facilitating the country's rise to preeminence.[7]

It is not surprising a concern with sovereignty would infuse the consciousness of a people who had long chafed under, and improbably wrested themselves from, the dominion of another. In the American case, moreover, that concern took an unprecedented form. Patrick notes the American revolution “was the first revolution to place sovereignty in the hands of the people, as opposed to the person of the king—or even a sitting parliament. Throughout history, the people had been the object of government. They would now be its motive force, who by their consent and will brought it into being.”[8] Nor is it surprising a fledgling republic, riven by internal divisions, would be wary of external predation.

What is striking, though, is how little America's extraordinary accretion of power over the past 150 years or so has done to assuage such concerns. It possessed the world's largest economy by the late 19th century, emerged as a superpower in the aftermath of the Second World War, and, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union less than a half-century later, further consolidated its preeminence. It presently has the world's largest, most innovative economy, an unrivaled network of alliances, and a regenerative capacity that has enabled it to defy decade after decade of declinist prognostications. With its singular ability to project force across the world, moreover, the United States is presently conducting drone strikes in seven countries—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen—and, perhaps more remarkably, standing up special operations forces operating in roughly three-quarters of the world's countries (149, as of last year).

There is little evidence, then, to support the image of a powerful Gulliver encumbered by legion Lilliputians of multi-lateralism. If the United States is intent on taking a certain action, no country or coalition of actors can prevent it from doing so. As recent history demonstrates, though, it is important not to conflate the exercise of power with the demonstration of influence. The United States quickly ousted the Taliban in 2001, yet it remains in Afghanistan over sixteen years later, having spent over $1 trillion and harboring little hope of doing more than sustaining a stalemate there. It swiftly overthrew the Ba'athist regime in Iraq in 2003, yet in so doing sowed a fertile breeding ground for the Islamic State, which continues to wreak havoc in and beyond the Middle East. It facilitated the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, yet Libya remains mired in chaos and remains one of the centers of the region's refugee crisis.

Turning to the present, the United States could launch strikes against North Korea, but only at the risk of provoking a nuclear confrontation, jeopardizing millions of lives in Northeast Asia, and setting in motion a global recession far more severe than that of 2008-09. It could launch strikes against Iran, but only at the risk of igniting a region-wide conflagration in an already volatile Middle East and injecting chaos into global energy markets. It could initiate a trade war with China, but even if, as most observers believe, the asymmetry in their economic ties would ensure its ultimate victory, the triumph would likely be a Pyrrhic one.

In brief, the United States often stands to lose influence by acting alone. It is important, as such, not to exaggerate the loss of sovereignty it would incur by acceding to a given international agreement. Patrick concludes, “Too great a defensiveness against any perceived loss of…U.S. sovereignty-as-authority can be counterproductive if it deprives the United States of the opportunity…to shape its destiny in a global era.[9]” The Trans-Pacific Partnership is an instructive example. CATO Institute trade policy analyst Simon Lester observes that “[b]y agreeing to lower tariffs, of course, a country abdicates some small part of its sovereignty in exchange for large economic gains.” He notes, however, that the Trans-Pacific Partnership's labor and environmental provisions “were largely pushed by the United States, and U.S. law is already consistent with their terms. As a result, they would have had no practical impact on U.S. policy.”

By withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, then, the United States preserved considerably less of its sovereignty than its detractors would have had one believe. It did, however, undermine its national interests significantly. Beyond giving China more room to shape the Asia-Pacific's economic evolution, it has signaled to China's neighbors it is unable to offer a credible multilateral economic agenda to the region. The North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement offers another useful illustration. The dean of the Tuck School of Business noted recently that pulling out “could cost the [U.S.] automobile industry more than 20,000 jobs—plus nearly 50,000 auto-parts jobs—while adding $330 to $440 to the cost of every new vehicle sold in America.” A study prepared (PDF) for the Business Roundtable, meanwhile, estimates that “1.8 million workers would immediately lose their jobs in the first year with full termination and the return of [most-favored-nation] tariffs,” and projected that “U.S. GDP would remain depressed by over 0.2 percent, permanently.” The United States would stoke tensions with two of its most important trade partners, Canada and Mexico, who would likely respond by looking eastward and otherwise taking measures to reduce their economic dependence on Uncle Sam. Like all other multilateral trade agreements, Trans-Pacific Partnership and North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement are flawed. Rejecting them altogether, however, could ultimately prove far costlier to the U.S. economy. The “route to greater social welfare gains,” Patrick explains, “lies not in launching tit-for-tat protectionism or throwing up walls, but in working with multiple partners to recast the international trade regime to create greater opportunities for domestic interventions and adjustments.”[10]

In some cases, as with the Paris climate accord, the United States would not compromise its sovereignty by joining an international agreement. President Trump cast his decision to withdraw as “a reassertion of America's sovereignty,” but Patrick reminds readers that the December 2015 pact is “a purely voluntary arrangement among its 195 state parties.”[11] While many U.S. states and cities have declared their intention to abide by its terms, the absence of national-level support undermines America's standing in world affairs.

Finally, and counterintuitively, there are instances in which the United States can increase the jurisdiction of its sovereignty by acceding to an international agreement. Perhaps the most compelling case is the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Condoleezza Rice, James Baker, and Colin Powell noted in May 2012 that accession would grant the United States an exclusive economic zone “larger than that of any country in the world—covering an area greater than the landmass of the lower 48 states.” It would also give it “input into international deliberations over rights to the Arctic” and enable it to take “full advantage of resources that could be under U.S. jurisdiction.”

The continuation of relative U.S. decline, the proliferation of regional trade and investment agreements, and the emergence of new categories of global challenges all reduce America's ability to advance its national interests unilaterally. Accordingly, while the ostensible purpose of a hyper-sovereigntist policy may be to strengthen America's role in world affairs, it would ultimately have the opposite effect. Patrick explains:

…transnational threats…seldom lend themselves to purely unilateral solutions. Self-reliance…is often futile, posing an unenviable choice of doing everything oneself, at exorbitant cost and with uncertain results, or doing nothing at all. The image of Uncle Sam as Lone Ranger also ignores just how much the United States already relies on others to promote its own security.[12]

He predicts that two phenomena will render the United States further dependent on others to assure its own security. First, “rapid technological change is leaving national governments and international organizations scrambling to regulate innovations with profound implications for global security, in areas from cyberspace to drones, robotics, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology.” Second, “contemporary global threats are distributed, emerging not just from the world's 200-odd sovereign states but increasingly from legions of non-state actors able to acquire and exploit disruptive and potentially lethal technologies with or without the knowledge of government authorities.”[13]

The Sovereignty Wars is a compelling rejoinder to those who contend that a preoccupation with sovereignty will bolster America's perch. It is also a sobering warning to those who believe that policymakers simply need to wait for the populist storm to pass. Stewart observes, the “crisis of globalization has become a crisis of Western democracy inasmuch as many citizens no longer believe their political system is capable of or even interested in responding to their complaints and desires.”[14]

The good news is that Americans remain more outwardly oriented than is commonly believed. In that regard, President Trump's foreign policy may yet prove to be an aberration, not a harbinger. Drawing on recent polling data, Patrick observes:

After years of war overseas, Americans are understandably tired of being the world's policeman, and they have little appetite for invading and trying to rebuild other nations. But they remain committed to internationalism and multilateral cooperation, provided that other countries are prepared to share the burden of global leadership in a more balanced fashion.[15]

A survey conducted in mid-2017 by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 63 percent support an active U.S. role in world affairs, 69 percent believe NATO remains essential to U.S. security, and 64 percent assess globalization to be “mostly good” for the U.S. economy.

The bad news is extant economic trends have laid the foundation for an America First constituency of enduring influence. Patrick observes Trump's skepticism of his predecessors' commitment to continued trade liberalization “resonated with the public mood—namely, deepening anxiety about globalization. Many Americans, regardless of party affiliation, had come to believe that global economic integration was a sucker's game.”[16]

The Conference Board reports that U.S. productivity has increased at a mere 0.6 percent per year over the past seven years; one would have to go back to the 1880s to see as low a growth rate.

Noting that productivity growth “since 1970 has been barely one-third of the rate achieved from 1920 to 1970,” economist Robert Gordon predicts “disposable median income per person” will grow at “just 0.3 percent per year” over the coming quarter-century, “less than one-fifth of that achieved from 1920 to 2014.” Consequently, he concludes, “this generation of American youth will be the first that fails to double the standard of living of its parents.”

This secular stagnation is not the only challenge at hand. There is also the progression of automation, which, a recent analysis speculates, “could provide decades' worth of fuel to the revolt against the global elites and their notions of market democracy.” A recent Bain and Company study finds its benefits “will likely flow to about 20 percent of workers—primarily highly compensated, highly skilled workers—as well as to the owners of capital. The growing scarcity of highly skilled workers may push their incomes even higher relative to lesser-skilled workers.” Much attention has been paid to individuals in the manufacturing sector whose jobs have been automated. A recent study warns, however, that “the places that are going to be hardest-hit by automation in the coming decades are in fact outside of the Rust Belt”—namely, those “with high concentrations of jobs in food preparation, office or administrative support, and/or sales.” Citing the aggregate gains that globalization has accrued to the U.S. economy is likely to be cold comfort to Americans who feel, at best, disconnected from that phenomenon—and, quite often, victimized by it. Patrick discusses “the economic insecurity and inequality that permeates contemporary American society,” blaming “the repeated failures of U.S. elected officials of both parties to make effective use of the sovereign powers and policy options at their disposal…to make American workers, as well as firms, more competitive.”[17]

Those failures are especially apparent when one considers the rapidly burgeoning demographic of Americans who are above retirement age. Nineteen percent were working in 2016, a jump of eight percent from 1986. Data from 2014 show that among Social Security recipients 65 and over, a third of them depend on those benefits for at least 90 percent of their income. Making matters worse, those benefits have lost roughly a third of their purchasing power since the start of the century. And what of those individuals of retirement age who, expecting to live in reasonable health for another 15 to 20 years, seek work but do not have the skills required to be competitive? They will punish lawmakers who appear willing to sacrifice them on the altar of globalization. Political economist Suzanne Berger argues policymakers will have to do more than provision “individual compensation and retraining to those who have lost their livelihoods because of imports and offshoring,” proposals that, however meritorious, are unlikely to “assuage the deep anxieties of the electorate about the impact of leaving the borders open to more or less unrestricted flows of people, money, and goods and services.” Drawing on the lessons of the first wave of globalization from 1870 to 1914, Berger instead recommends “building political coalitions that [offer] protectionist concessions as well as broad fiscal and social reforms.”

But will U.S. policymakers heed such admonitions? Patrick laments, “Since the 1970s, two generations of U.S. policymakers have failed to take the policy steps needed to adjust to global economic integration, including by helping losers adapt to foreign competition.”[18] It is not surprising, then, that “a collision between the logic of globalization and American domestic politics” would eventually occur.[19] The outcome of that confrontation remains uncertain. It would be neither prudent nor ethical, however, to formulate a foreign policy on the assumption, or hope political vicissitudes will eventually marginalize the views and erode the purchase of those who wish to push pause on globalization.


  • [1] Patrick, Stewart. The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2018): p. 11
  • [2] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 8
  • [3] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 12
  • [4] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 11
  • [5] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 253
  • [6] The Sovereignty Wars: pp. 40-41
  • [7] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 254
  • [8] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 45
  • [9] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 13
  • [10] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 185
  • [11] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 253
  • [12] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 146
  • [13] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 166
  • [14] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 184
  • [15] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 255
  • [16] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 176
  • [17] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 178
  • [18] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 184
  • [19] The Sovereignty Wars: p. 95

Ali Wyne is a policy analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.