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. 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

Zaum’s 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)

Zaum argues that if a state or government insists on sovereignty it might ignore international “shared norms,” which then undermines that sovereignty. International cooperation is a better strategy.

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.–if they are to matter sociologically–must be translated into meaningful communication within a social system. Norms are not ideas, but rather expectations–and expectations function socially.

Furthermore, there is no need to assume (or deny) that expectations are things that exist in the minds of people. Minds are operationally closed systems. Expectations function socially, and they can only be observed in communication. Social theory doesn’t need to speculate about what happens in the minds of people. Thus, if one claims that 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,” he is just speculating about motivation–again making guesses about what is going on in someone’s mind.

Zaum’s focus on individual actors and actions is not helpful because society does not consist of collections of individual actors (with their thoughts or beliefs); it consists of communication–and only communication. Hence, basing international relations theory on the assumption of individual actors–these actors being states or governments–is not helpful. It’s more productive to observe communication. We can look at the distinctions that guide communication, observing how these distinctions (such as developed/developing nation) evolve, etc. Sovereign/dependent is another important distinction.


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