Understanding American Sovereignty with Stewart Patrick

In his recent book The Sovereignty Wars, Stewart Patrick, James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues that advancing American interests in a global age can be reconciled with protecting U.S. sovereignty. Patrick joined the World Affairs Council on January 25, 2018 at Dorsey & Whitney LLP to clarify how maintaining a leadership role in the international community doesn’t necessarily threaten our ability to govern.

The Sovereignty Wars was released in October 2017, just one month after President Donald Trump mentioned “sovereignty” 21 times in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017. This speech echoed the rhetoric of his approach to foreign policy: promotion and defense of American sovereignty. Patrick, who groups sovereignty together with motherhood and apple pie in terms of American ideals, suggests that engaging in global negotiations is not an abdication of sovereignty. On the contrary, the decision of the United States to sign international agreements is evidence of sovereignty.

Patrick emphasized the importance of understanding what constitutional sovereignty really means. The United States has fared extremely well in the protection of constitutional sovereignty. Exercising the constitutional right to ratify treaties is in itself an act of self-governance. However, the misconstruing of “sovereignty” that President Trump has rallied his base around has an ethnic component. President Trump, according to Patrick, is talking about the same themes of before the United States became a global leader, not true constitutional sovereignty.

While in his book as well as during the discussion Patrick maintained that actively embracing our role as a global leader by participating in international treaties, he does admit that sometimes the United States may be required to forgo freedom of action. However, positive cooperation between countries, which is necessary to address growing transnational challenges, is an impetus to do so. In The Sovereignty Wars, Patrick says that “advancing U.S. interests in a complex world sometimes requires difficult trade-offs among defending the U.S. Constitution, protecting U.S. freedom of action, and maximizing U.S. control over outcomes.”

In an effort to manage globalization, Patrick argues that the United States not only should, but needs to engage in multilateral efforts. According to Patrick, “It is not about steering clear of international attachments, but about steering global forces and events in a positive direction.” The first simple step, though, may just be addressing the frequently misunderstood concept of American sovereignty.