When the Declaration of Independence was written, America became the first modern state to be governed by representatives of the people without any sovereign king above us. All other countries then had kings or emperors or military leaders. We were the only kingless republic, and most states thought we would collapse without a king.
After we won our war of independence we were totally cut off from George III. We had to pay bribes to the pirates on North Africa who attacked our ships in the Mediterranean which were no longer protected by the king’s navy.
We spent 10 years under a weak Articles of Confederation because the central government lacked enforcement power over the 13 states, former colonies each of which claimed sovereign powers within its own territory.
Thus when the Articles were replaced by the U.S. Constitution, the states had to surrender their sovereign power to the federal authority, because the Constitution, and laws made by Congress, and all treaties made under Constitution shall be the "supreme law of the land." (Article VI.2).
I think some of the problems faced today by President Barack Obama center on countries who claim they are sovereign inside their own territory and nobody outside can force a sovereign state to respond to a request to do or to stop from doing some specific activity.
Iran is a good example of this principle. Iran claims that it has no obligation to stop any nuclear programs that may or may not have military value for its nuclear program. Iran sees any effort by the United Nations, or any single member state like the United States, to modify its nuclear program, as a dictation that strikes directly at national sovereign pride.
After all both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons. Why should they be permitted nuclear programs and Iran refused? Only if a country has signed an international agreement would it be required to follow the limits of that treaty, they argue.
The Copenhagen meeting on global warming also foundered on the same rock of state sovereignty. They refused to draft any treaty that would force states to take actions to eliminate global warming gasses. All that was produced was a weak list of targets which should be sought, but no enforcement was provided because no legal obligation was written into treaty form at that conference.
When the League of Nations Covenant was drafted at the end of World War I, each state was given veto power. All actions had to be taken by unanimous consent. As a result, the League did not prevent Italian aggression in Ethiopia, Russia’s invasion of Finland or Japanese aggression in Manchuria. Many actions the League did take were done by silent consent without a vote, because each member had a veto, and each protected its own sovereignty.
When the U.N. Charter was drafted in San Francisco at the end of World War II, the General Assembly was given no authority to take forcible actions. All the General Assembly can do is to make recommendations which can be enforced only by general public opinion. This is simply a wet noodle type of nonenforcement.
Only the Security Council has the power to made decisions that are binding on all members. However, at the insistence of the United States, the big five powers — United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and the U.S. — have the veto power over all decisions that might be made, or recommendations, or even any attempt to amend the Charter. All of these actions of the U.N. are subject to our veto, which we insisted on to preserve our own sovereignty.
The U.N. can never take a decision that we don’t like, because we will (and did in the past) veto that decision if we think it is against our national interest.
Instead the U.N. Charter calls for states to set aside earmarked troops to be called up as needed to enforce peace. These U.N.-earmarked troops have never been established.
In some situations the U.N. has requested volunteers (by states, not individuals) and some have become peacekeepers. Peacekeeping may involve patrolling a disputed border. Peace making would involve joining one side in military conflict. In the Korean War, U.N. volunteers were peace makers.
So the world is in a situation today not much different from the U.S. in our first 10 years under the weak Articles of Confederation. Then the former colonies exercised their own power and often refused to obey the central government which lacked true enforcement capabilities.
A wheel without a hub cannot function as anything but a hoop.
Tom Nichols is a retired college professor who lives in Gainesville. His column appears regularly on Mondays and on gainesvilletimes.com.