The idea of treating sovereignty as a thing that can be bought and sold is a troubling one for many, yet as history shows it has long been the case in international affairs. Steven Press, in a piece originally published at Aeon, explores this question which remains pertinent in today’s world, especially with regrad to the upcoming Brexit negotiations.
Though it is not often thought of as a commodity, sovereignty resembles one in that it can be bought and sold. Indeed, the purchase of sovereignty was a primary vehicle of American expansion. In a series of treaties that helped create the United States of today, governments operated just like a business, buying and selling their jurisdiction through mergers and acquisitions that would make even today’s tycoons envious. The Louisiana purchase from France in 1803 and the Alaska purchase from Russia in 1867 are the most famous sales of sovereignty, but there are many other deals. In 1819, Spain sold sovereignty over Florida for $3 million; in 1845, $7.5 million of debt relief bought Texas; in 1848, $15 million to Mexico transferred titles to rule California, New Mexico and Utah; in 1854, Arizona came into the US fold for $10 million. The United States purchased jurisdiction over the majority of its land.
If one is to examine more recent history, the list of precedents could easily expand to include Spanish sales of the Philippines and Puerto Rico in 1898, as well as the Danish sale of the US Virgin Islands in 1917. More recently, such a list could also include an infamous portion of Cuba, where, according to the State Department, the US leases jurisdiction and control over the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station from Cuba. Such transactions induced the US Special Operations Command to write in a 2008 memo that sovereignty ‘is a commodity driven by market-like forces’.
This is not just a US phenomenon either. Within the last century, Mexico, Japan, Mauritius, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Oman, Djibouti, Ethiopia, the Seychelles, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Chile and Peru have taken or given money in exchange for the transfer of jurisdiction over certain inhabitants in a given territory. Often these territories are overseas bases, but they need not be. In 2011, China agreed to increased investment in Tajikistan in exchange for sovereignty over 1,000 square km of territory in the Pamir Mountains, including some 5,000 inhabitants.
Europe and its former imperial possessions have seen some of the most creative deals in this vein, and not just outright sales. Germany leased sovereignty over Qingdao from China starting in 1898, while Britain, Russia and France did the same with various other Chinese territories. Leopold II sold Belgium and France ‘options’ to buy portions of the Congo Free State. And France made its recognition of Haitian independence dependent on debt payment over the course of the 19th century.
Today, there is one place where this idea could have unexpected application: California. It’s not as ridiculous as it might sound. The state is the richest and most populous in the union. If California were a country, its economy would be the sixth largest in the world – bigger than France’s. And as the US grows apart, Californians believe that they have less and less in common with their red-state compatriots. The possibility of secession should be taken seriously.
Whenever they appear, secession movements seem to pose insurmountable obstacles. In the case of California, these obstacles are significant. Secession would require amending Article 3 of the state’s constitution – no easy feat. It would require the approval of many of the Union’s 50 states – more than is feasible. And, not least, it would run up against the powerful Supreme Court precedent of Texas v White (1869) that proclaimed America to be ‘an indestructible union’. But there is another path forward and it lies in the force that undergirds much of the US’ claims to sovereignty over the American West: money.
None of this is to say that California would be better off as its own country. Far from it. The problem is that the idea of buying and selling sovereignty has plenty of precedent on its side. It is a loaded weapon for those who would wish to pick it up. No doubt, to say that there is a price for political control offends modern sensibilities. It doesn’t seem democratic. Yet the idea of selling sovereignty has been deemed legitimate by many governments across the world: not just Russia, Spain, Denmark and France (the counterparties to the famous US deals), but a spate of far smaller states as well. The US Congress and other world institutions have ratified all of the treaties concerning sovereign rights as commodities. Finally, even if there are many legal obstacles worldwide that prohibit secession, there are none that prohibit the marketplace in sovereignty – a once-vibrant marketplace full of sales, leases and options – from reactivating.
The idea of treating sovereignty as a commodity is a troubling one, and many world leaders embrace it when it serves them. Unless the United States and other great powers start putting clear limits to the practice – and resolve to break from history in this regard – the purchase of jurisdiction will remain an option for secessionists. California may provide a test case in the near future. The window is open.
Steven Press is an assistant professor in history at Stanford University. His first book is Rogue Empires: Conmen and Contracts in Europe’s Scramble for Africa (forthcoming from Harvard University Press, 2017). Image credit: en:User:HenryLi (CC BY-SA 2.5)
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons, it gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics.
This concept, that sovereignty can be bought and sold, is convenient for use by interests which seek to make people believe that sovereignty is tradable, to make people in Europe, for instance, familiar with the idea that sovereignty may easily be transferred from a national seat of power to a federal seat of power.This kind of reasoning by itself is one of a kind, becoming increasingly familiar to everyone switched on politically and philosophically.It is a war of conquest by means of ideas.However, it is true that sovereignty can be bought with a lot of blood, sweat and effort, from a democratic perspective.It can also be lost, by means of traitors posing as representatives, for instance.
Before democracy was won in the West, sovereignty was often bought with service and rituals, backed by a story to support the interests vested with the sovereignty in question.Sovereignty would be vested in the sovereign.The sovereignty related to a people, a nation, or peoples/nations, almost always, in recent times, in Europe, it covered a specific geographical area.
In Europe, since democracy was acquired through long and persistent effort, not every sovereign nation has had a King or Queen as sovereign.Control over a certain geographical area, as suggested by the trading of control over it, such as Alaska or Louisiana, concerns a trade between sovereign entities.If a nation, nation-state, a People, are being bought and sold like a commodity, obviously there no sovereignty on the part of that entity being traded.The sovereignty is with the parties doing the trading.As with so many stories and interpretations of events, situations, dilemmas, etc., being on offer in these, for western democracy at least, unstable times, either the concept was brought to the attention of people with the hope they would believe it, with the intention that sometime or other they could be politically bamboozled, or else that possibility is there to be taken advantage of by political spin meisters.But yes, if people allow themselves to be bought and sold, they have no sovereignty in the first place.So, the article is wrong on that score, I’m afraid.
(1) I would have thought that (a) the American Civil War – fought to establish the principle that states may not secede from the Union (though prettied up in memorialisation to emphasise the anti-slavery rationale) – and (b) the military/ geographic imperative to control the entire land mass sea to sea to be bigger obstacles to California’s secession
(2) I am not clear from the list of previous transactions that there is a precedent for a part of a country paying to secede from the whole.
And yes, there does seem to me to be a fundamental difference between buying/ selling sovereignty over particular land between sovereigns and secession. To make secession a matter of money seems unfair (what next? voting? jury service? court decisions?). Rather it should be seen as a human right to have secession at least discussed and resolved through some sort of democratic process.