Notes on The Sovereignty Paradox

In The Sovereignty Paradox Dominik Zaum (2007) discusses, inter alia, how to determine the impact of norms in international relations. This book

addresses the question of the impact of norms on policymaking,
in particular the norms associated with sovereignty. The discussion of sovereignty is part of a larger debate in International Relations theory about the importance of the international normative context for the behaviour of actors.

Zaum, D. (2007). The Sovereignty Paradox: The norms and politics of international statebuilding. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press., p. 2.

Zaum argues that shared norms do matter in international relations.

The claim that norms matter for the behaviour of international actors has been at the heart of theories of international law, international society, and the ‘constructivist’ project, and the need for empirical evidence to support these theoretical enterprises has been singled out by parties on all sides of various academic debates, especially regarding constructivist theories. . . . (p 2)

Norms are social facts, and this makes them different from physical facts on several accounts. First, the existence of social facts depends on beliefs being held intersubjectively by actors. However, as norms are shared ideas, they are independent of the discourse and practices of individual actors, and can be an objective reality and constraint for individual actors. Thus, an actor might consider torture to be an acceptable practice, but is constrained in his actions by the fact that such a belief is not intersubjectively shared. Second, social facts are not eternal truths, but are shaped and changed by human practice. (p. 6)

My response: Following the Law of Parsimony, or Occam’s Razor, we can do without the intersubjectivity concept. This has to do with the social dimension of meaning–the awareness that others see the world differently, or rather construct a different world. One person can never know what someone else (alter) is thinking due to operational closure of psychic systems. Psychic operational closure means we cannot share thoughts; we can only “share” language. Ideas cannot be shared. Thoughts, ideas, feelings, etc., must be translated into meaningful communication within a social system. Norms are not ideas, but rather expectations.

Secondly, rather than arguing that an actor who wants to engage in torture is “constrained in his actions by the fact that such a belief is not intersubjectively shared,” we can say that the would-be torturer has an expectation of legal sanctions. The actor expects that he would be punished.

Moreover, one can have an expectation without engaging in any thought or reflection at all; it’s not a cognitive process. Thoughts and beliefs actually come to the surface when an expectation is violated. For example, I expect (and trust) drivers to stop at red lights but I start thinking this about only when I see someone run a red light. I also expect other drivers to expect me to stop at red lights. This is double contingency: We all expect others to stop at red lights, even though drivers are quite capable of running red lights. Furthermore, no value consensus is necessary. A driver does not have to believe that stopping at red lights is the right to do. All that’s needed is for the driver to expect others to stop and to expect others to expect him to stop. This is what we mean by social order.

What is the Sovereignty Paradox?

[The] ‘paradox of sovereignty’ is indicative of a deeper tension inherent in liberal internationalism: that communities can be ‘forced’ to be sovereign, analogous to Rousseau’s notion of ‘forcing man to be free’. This tension was identified by John Stuart Mill over a century ago in his writings on intervention, and has found a modern expression in today’s practices of international administration and statebuilding.

Zaum, p. 5


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