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Sovereignty vs Safety: The Core Issue Behind the Populism

Way back in the day, I mean WAY back, humans ran around by themselves, isolated as individuals. The earliest humans spent every waking moment fending off predators, hunting other animals, and foraging for food. The hardest part was always staying safe. From saber-tooth tigers or lions or dire wolves or snakes, you always had to watch for predators.

(Side note: this history is, to be fair, fake. If you believe in evolution/Evolution, humans evolved from other pack animals going back millions/billions of years. It wasn’t like we somehow “started” as individuals. But let me go with it for a moment.)

The first group was the family. A male human impregnated a female human, and they stayed together because it just made it safer. This human male was giving up quite a bit of freedom. Before they mated, he could run around doing whatever he wanted. Afterward he mated, he had to come back from hunting every day by sundown. But he also got some benefits. By having children, the family had others who could help keep watch for predators, go hunting, or forage for food. (And, yeah sex.) Of course, these younger children had to obey the rules of the parents or get kicked out of the family into the wilderness to fend for themselves.

Living as a family was better than living alone.

Eventually it made more sense for one family to join with another family living nearby. This way they could share the guard duties and pool resources for food they had scavenged. Eventually, you had to join a group of families or other groups of families could come steal your food. These groups of families became the first tribes. And the tribes set up rules that all the families had to follow. These families also gave up some freedom by joining the tribe. Say a family liked to eat shellfish, but the tribe forbid shellfish. Well, the family had to give up the freedom to enjoy shrimp and lobster to join the tribe.

Joining a tribe was better than just surviving as a family.

Of course, some tribes banded together to make clans. These clans allowed for trade and inter-marriage among the tribes. They also guarded against the bad actions of other clans who might sweep in to steal food and women and, later, land.

Clans living was better than tribe living.

You see where this is going. Clans became cities, or city-states, or states, or nations, or nation states. After the Peace of Westphalia, some of these nations created alliances and today we have international treaties. In each case, working together in larger and larger groups made life better. This is a narrative version of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent history of the world, inspired by Yuval Harari’s Sapiens:

“History is the story of how we've learned to come together in ever greater numbers from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn't on our own.”

The above history is a Hobbesian-turned-idealistic view of the world, showing humanity as truly having its origins in a state of anarchy, where life is nasty, brutish and short. But it gets better as we come together. The way I like to describe this is we have been in a perpetual trade off of sovereignty for security and prosperity.

And I want to focus on one word in that last sentence in particular: sovereignty. Because it could stop the final step.

In the deeper cuts of the conservative blogosphere, the concept of sovereignty is hot. Every few years you find a conservative railing against some treaty or UN commitment that would crush US sovereignty. And not even super conservatives, as Richard Haass most recent Foreign Affairs article was about redefining sovereignty.

The most ideal form of this thinking was the book The Sovereignty Solution. A while back one of the authors sent me a copy of the book. He loved our blog, but I had casually mentioned I wasn’t onboard with their theory yet. (It went military-blog viral, admittedly a small viral, a few years back.) So he sent me a copy to change my mind. In short, the book didn’t change my mind or convince me of their theory, but it did convince me of the appeal of their theory.

Basically, any time you join the larger group, you give up some power/freedom/sovereignty. Giving up of power (freedom/sovereignty) is scary. But it is worth it, as every example above proves.

We’ve now taken the process global. 
International treaties by definition force states to give up sovereignty for the larger benefit. A bunch of countries get together and decide to cooperate on a given issue. To do so, they usually set up an enforcement agency or body. This group than regulates the issue. Sometimes, this larger international body will trump domestic law. Even in the US. (Because of the Constitution!)

You can see the benefits for international cooperation, but see US pushback because of perceived loss of sovereignty across a wide range of issues.

- Take landmines. Or chemical weapons. They are nasty weapons and we shouldn’t have them. So certain nations got together and made a deal to stop building those weapons and agreed to fine countries who don’t stop building them. The US won’t join the landmine treaty because we like having landmines.

- Take global trade. Some conservatives hate institutions like the World Trade Organization because it can restrict the actions of certain American companies. Overall, though, it makes the global trade system profitable and benefits America far more than it hurts it. But sovereignty.

(We would bring up global warming and the Paris Accords, but we know that is a hot button issue.)

When Trump rails against global elites and China and ISIS/Muslims, he’s arguing that foreigners sap our sovereignty. Trump doesn’t believe in allies because he doesn’t believe in ever sacrificing your own freedom for the larger gain. What do Brexit-eers criticize most about the EU? Those damn bureaucrats in Brussels telling them how to regulate the internet. Oh, and those same bureaucrats telling them how to run their immigration laws. How is Putin trying to destroy NATO and the EU? By encouraging countries to take back their own power from global institutions.

That’s all code for taking back sovereignty from global institutions.

So life was getting better and better in larger groups, and now we’ve stopped it in the name of sovereignty. Even though interstate nuclear war could end life as we know it, some conservative thinkers and politicians (Trump, Putin, Bannon) want to stop global integration. For conservatives, the power of groups to make the world better magically stops at the international level. 

In the end, life will be better as a global society, not as nation states. We should remember that.