It is worshiped like a god, and as little understood.
It is the cause of untold strife and bloodshed. Genocide is perpetrated in its sacred name.
It is at once a source of power and of power's abuse, of order and of anarchy. It can be noble and it can be shameful.
It is sovereignty.
It is sovereignty widely and unwisely thought in our time to mean only national sovereignty with every nation supposedly supreme inside its own borders and acknowledging no master outside them, restrained but not necessarily much by international laws, treaties, and codes of civilized behavior, all of which are breakable and none of which are enforceable in the reasonably reliable and just way that laws are enforced in free and orderly nations.
Issues of sovereignty are involved in one way or another in all the forty savage conflicts raging today upon this turmoil-torn planet. They lie at the root of all the wars the United States fought in the late, unlamented, blood-drenched twentieth century that now mercifully lies behind us.
World War I began when the Austro-Hungarian Empire threatened the sovereignty of Serbia. World War II began when Hitler invaded the sovereignty of one country too many-Poland-and England and France belatedly realized that their own security and sovereignty were in danger. The Korean and Vietnam wars both involved the sovereignty designs of aggressive and ideology-driven communists in the north of each country versus anti-communists in the south.
Iraq's violation of the sovereignty of Kuwait led to the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein's blocking of the UN's search for weapons of mass destruction-on grounds of his own nation's sovereignty-led to the bombing of Iraq. Conflict between Serbs and Albanians over sovereignty in Kosovo led to ethnic cleansing, mass murder, and the bombing of Yugoslavia.
Today wars waged and violence perpetrated in pursuit of both newfound and ancient claims of sovereignty appear almost everywhere in the wake of the Cold War's end and the accompanying shattering of the uneasy, quasi-order it had imposed as it neatly divided nations into three camps: communist, anti-communist, and non-aligned. The fires of passionate crusades to achieve, assert, or defend sovereignty for one purpose or another or to avenge some breach of it light up the night skies of our time like some giant uncontrolled forest fire raging all over the world.
It would be an enormous oversimplification to suggest that sovereignty was the only cause of all these past and present conflicts. In a few it was, but other causes were involved in most-ideology, faith, doctrine, race, ethnicity, justice, poverty, ambition, power, territory, greed, resources, booty. Yet in every instance an assertion of sovereignty in the service of one or another of these or some other purpose was a vital element.
Some of the secessionist struggles to achieve sovereignty have been viewed as heroic, particularly those waged by people seeking to throw off the last vestiges of colonialism. Their struggles were elevated to a matter of high principle by Woodrow Wilson, who proclaimed "self determination" as a sovereign right in the course of the failed effort to establish enduring peace after World War I.
Sometimes a struggle to seize a piece of earth is based on little more than-as Joseph Conrad put it in Heart of Darkness-"taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses." Sometimes it reflects a desire to establish a foothold on earth for oneself and one's brethren, a homeland in the sense suggested by Robert Frost: a place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Whatever the cause, assertions of sovereignty felt to have been denied by history, or another ethnic group, or a different religion, or a hegemonic power, or something else-and defiant struggles to prevent these assertions by those seeking to preserve and protect present sovereignties-now threaten to disturb the peace of everyone everywhere.
Our own American continent is not immune from conflict and controversy over sovereignty, nor is our nation. To the south in Mexico a defiant Zapatista Army of National Liberation struggling for Indian rights in impoverished Chiapas has stood off over 50,000 government troops for years, while establishing "autonomous municipalities" in "liberated villages" and proclaiming that they are sovereign and independent. Mexico's new and independent president, Vicente Fox, is making conciliatory moves, and a peaceful settlement may be in sight. To the north in Canada there is non-violent but persistent separatism in Quebec where French-speaking people seek sovereignty.
No war has touched the territory of the United States since our own Civil War, combat with native Americans, a raid by Pancho Villa across our border, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. However, hundreds of small but sinister militias and paramilitary forces have taken up arms in most of our states. They wave Nazi banners, burn crosses, commit hate crimes, and speak stridently of separatism in Idaho, Montana, and elsewhere. They engage in target practice in out-of-the-way forests and fields and threaten to turn their weapons on what they see as a remote and illegitimate US government that has stolen their sovereignty. These may be fringe groups that have failed to draw many Americans into their ranks, but we have already suffered several samples of the extreme mayhem a mere handful of violence-prone dissidents can provoke. There was the shootout with the FBI that ended in the massacre of the Branch Davidians at their compound in Texas. There was the siege and standoff between the FBI and the Freemen in Montana. There were the kidnappings and killings in the hills of Arkansas of citizens "whose names sounded Jewish" by white supremacists and separatists belonging to the Aryan People's Republic. And there was the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City that took 168 lives and injured hundreds more, perpetrated by a couple of disgruntled and disaffected Americans who view our government as an occupying foreign power. The weapons other angry Americans may wield in the future will not necessarily be limited to conventional bombs and bullets. An Ohio white supremacist, Larry Holmes, was caught trying to obtain deadly vials of plague bacteria-the infectious affliction that once wiped out half the population of Europe.
The bombing of the World Trade Center in New York was a direct and ominous import into our country of the terrorism creating so much havoc elsewhere, carried out by militant and fanatic Islamic radicals in retaliation for various perceived grievances including our intervention in the sovereignty struggles of the Middle East. Its toll was six dead, 1,000 injured. There are dark warnings of worse to come as terrorists proclaim they will wage a holy war against the United States and its citizens wherever they may be as long as we keep our "infidel" forces in Islamic lands in what they view as irreverent violation of their sacrosanct sovereignty by the "Great Satan."
Today more international terrorists lurk within the US and next door across the easy and open Canadian border than anywhere else in the world. The most infamous of terrorists, the wealthy Osama Bin Laden, who is estimated to have a personal fortune of at least $300 million to draw upon, has developed a worldwide infrastructure with cells in more than fifty countries, and is in a state of open warfare with the US. He is suspected of masterminding several attacks on American embassies and military targets abroad that have killed hundreds of people and wounded thousands. There is some evidence that his network was involved in the disastrous attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. Sponsored and protected by rogues who have connived and powered their way to the leadership of states, terrorists have vast resources beyond those of Bin Laden behind them. And they seek weapons of mass destruction. So does Iraq, probably Iran, perhaps Afghanistan, Libya, and North Korea, and possibly other nations eager to acquire sophisticated weapons to offset the prowess and power of the weapons the US displayed in Kosovo and yearning to attain membership in the nuclear club recently joined by India and Pakistan.
The creation of nuclear weapons and their proliferation into many hands is the most ominous fact that emerged from the unflowered carnage and unforgotten sorrow entombed with the remains of the twentieth century. It separates today and all the tomorrows from all the yesterdays. Wars once had their limits. Despite whatever horrors humans experienced through the centuries, they have always been able to say, "Life goes on." That may no longer be an accurate assessment of the human condition.
Shortly after Hiroshima, I came to know Albert Einstein. He warned me as he warned others that if the power of these weapons was increased significantly and if they were ever used all out, life on earth could be totally exterminated. The significant increase Einstein feared has occurred. There are now roughly 32,000 nuclear weapons in the world with a combined power equal to 416,000 of the now primitive bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A single twenty-megaton hydrogen bomb developed by the Soviet Union could now unleash more explosive power than all that has been released by all weapons fired in all wars in all history. A man who knows these weapons as do few others, General Lee Butler, who served as Commander-in-Chief of the US Strategic Air Command during the end game of the Cold War, observes, "We have invoked death on a scale rivaling the power of the Creator."
Most people may tend to think that with the Cold War over and the Soviet Union gone, the danger that these weapons will ever be used has receded. Unfortunately, that is not the case. The sad fact is that it is more likely now that nuclear weapons will be used than it was during the perilous but more stable era of the US-Soviet arms race. An accidental or unauthorized nuclear exchange between Russia and the United States-a distinct threat throughout the Cold War-constitutes an even graver danger today, given the chaos in Russia, the declining command and control her civilian and military leaders have over her weapons, and the bristling nuclear arsenals still kept on a state of hair-trigger alert by both countries and subject to instant launching in accordance with two dicey Cold War nuclear doctrines-Launch on Warning and Mutual Assured Destruction (otherwise known as MAD)-upon which both nations still inexplicably rely.
The pleasant assurances vouchsafed by President Clinton and President Yeltsin that the United States and Russia no longer target each other are symbolically nice but substantively insignificant. The US and the USSR both deliberately singled out targets in the heart of each other's principal cities during the Cold War starting with the Kremlin and the White House-insuring the deaths of millions of civilians living and working nearby if the weapons were ever fired. These original targets still reside in the memory banks of the missiles of both countries. It would take only a few seconds and a few swift strokes on a computer to zero back in on the Cold War targets. Worse, expert testimony heard by Congress indicates that if the missiles are ever fired accidentally, Russia's would automatically retarget while in flight, and would still destroy American cities.
A deliberate terrorist attack is a more likely eventuality. Former US Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a Republican, warned in 2000 that a terrorist attack somewhere on American soil with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons is "probable" within the next ten years. His Democratic predecessor, William Perry, says of the use of weapons of mass destruction, "It's not a question of whether but when and where." General Charles Horner, who commanded Allied Air Forces in the Gulf War, and former US Ambassador Robert Gallucci, who engaged in nuclear weapon negotiations with both Iraq and North Korea, both expect an American city to be subjected to a nuclear attack sometime in the next ten years. Gallucci describes how it could happen:
One of these days one of these [rogue] governments fabricates a couple of nuclear weapons, and gives them to a terrorist group. The group brings one of these bombs into Baltimore by boat, and drives another one up to Pittsburgh. And then the message comes in to the White House. "Adjust your policy in the Middle East, or on Tuesday you lose Baltimore, and on Wednesday you lose Pittsburgh." Tuesday comes, and we lose Baltimore. What does the US do?
What does any nation do?
The tragic consequences of any such deed, wherever it might occur, will not necessarily be any more confined by national boundaries than is the global flow today of information, money, and drugs. After these ghastly weapons have destroyed their targets and snuffed out the lives of nearby men, women, and children, fatal radioactive fallout can seep across the borders of nations with invisible and silent stealth, like a gas stove giving off its lethal hissing as we sleep, its deadly destination determined more by the whims of the winds than by malevolent human intention.
No one is immune. Nowhere on earth is there a safe haven.
Although the magnitude of the risks now facing everyone are unprecedented in all the long history of humanity, this is not the first time that humankind has experienced such periods of achingly hollow chaos and seemingly all-encompassing political, economic, military, social, and spiritual upheaval amidst revolutionary eruptions of discontents. Some two thousand years ago, Tacitus described a terrible time in Roman history as "rent with sedition, gloomy with war, and savage in its very hours of peace." In the more recent years that witnessed the slaughter of World War I and the butchery of the Irish rebellion against England, the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats penned these lines:
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Today unrestrained passions and impulsive quests for new identities, powers, and independence explode in country after country and on continent after continent, driving the shattering and splintering of the world like a historical force of nature impossible to tame. Potential clashes and conflicts loom on a scale surpassing those that are already causing so much havoc and so many deaths of innocents.
A mere glance at the world around us reveals with shocking swiftness the ominous nature of the gathering forces of fragmentation and the chilling extent of the rising perils they pose at the dawn of the new millennium. Starting in Europe at the dividing line of the old Iron Curtain and moving eastward, the scorched earth already left by violent and momentous change is first encountered where it has devoured the lives, property, boundaries, and fate of the former Yugoslavia, now the site of several new and struggling states including war-ravaged Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia, where UN forces now stand wary guard amidst smoldering ethnic, cultural, religious, and sovereignty hatreds and aspirations.
The worldwide uproar provoked by the atrocities perpetrated in Kosovo, the consequent bombings launched by the US and the other NATO nations, and the storm and stress this created in relations between China, Russia, the US, and other major powers are warning enough of the vulnerability of all humanity to the costly contagion that can spread so far so fast from a single struggle over sovereignty.
The Former Soviet Union
To the east in the vast space once ruled by the Soviet Union, fifteen new and independent sovereign republics have been born, not without heavy cost in lives, blood, tears, and pulsating heartache in those where civil wars and general strife exploded in the aftermath of the Soviet breakup. Georgia, led by the respected but beleaguered former Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze, has had to contend with the armed sovereignty-seeking struggles of two ethnic enclaves, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and with threats from a Russia deeply resentful of Georgia's independence and still maintaining military bases on Georgian soil. Soon after the republic of Moldova achieved independence it was torn by a conflict pitting its minority of ethnic Russians against its majority of ethnic Romanians. Muslim Azerbaijan and Christian Armenia have been in a steady and savage struggle over conflicting claims to the mountain territory of Nagorno-Karabakh ever since the restraining hand of the USSR vanished. And in Tajikistan combat between fundamentalist Muslims and other forces has been muted to some extent only by the anti-Islamic and despotic iron rule of its former communist leaders who still hold sway and by 11,000 Russian troops stationed there. There is sporadic strife between Islamic guerrillas and government forces of two nearby republics they seek to destabilize, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
Excerpted from The Sovereignty Revolutionby Alan Cranston Copyright © 2004 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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