On Westphalian sovereignty and national projects

Guest Contributor: Kathryn Hochstetler, Balsillie School of International Affairs and University of Waterloo

The two morning keynotes, by Roberto Mangabeira Unger and Paul Martin, presented an interesting pair of arguments for thinking about the intersection of national and international initiatives for resolving the financial crisis.  Their differences are even more interesting because I think they generally would share the same overarching aims, as articulated by Mangabeira Unger:  to achieve socially inclusive growth and also collective originality or creativity.  Both of these depend in turn on enhancing the capabilities of ordinary women and men, who cannot meet these needs individually or collectively in the current world structure.

Where the two apparently differ is on the scope and desirability of national sovereignty/autonomy within that.  Martin came down hard on the Westphalian conception of sovereignty as a source of the recent crisis.  Both public and private actors relied too much on the rights sovereignty affords to make decisions in their own self-interests.  This critique sits uneasily with Mangabeira Unger’s insistence that only strong national projects, probably distinct from each other and certainly not dictated from outside, will allow countries to achieve the aims he puts forward.  (The contrast with his countryman, Marcel Fortuna Biato, was striking – Biato stressed the ways other countries can copy Brazil’s institutional and policy successes.)

With Canada and Brazil to be two important actors within the G-20, can these two visions be reconciled?  Martin’s vision of the G-20 is clearly that it is to be a place where members learn their joint responsibilities as much as (or more than) asserting their self-interests.  Does that leave room for Mangabeira Unger’s strong national projects?  I think so, and the reconciliation may be in Martin’s closing reference to Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dictum, “My right to extend my hand stops at the other man’s nose.” In fact, Mangabeira Unger’s (and Brazil’s and many other countries’) insistence on the right to national projects comes from a history of the G-8 extending its hand right into the nose of the rest of the world for too long.  The G-20 is a first step toward changing that history.

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