Standing up for sovereignty.

I described the international community’s commitment to sovereignty earlier as ‘nigh-categorical’, carelessly failing to elaborate on how that is, in fact, quite a contentious claim. As Micah Zenko shows, when it comes to fighting terrorism America has not only violated the sovereignty of Afghanistan and Iraq by virtue of its ground wars. Obama’s employment of drone strikes, which began under Bush, have meant that Pakistan has watched a powerful bully-cum-ally on the other side of the world carry out air-based assassinations without even the faintest of concerns for the host-state’s consent.


The foundational treaty regulating air travel, the 1944 Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation, unequivocally states in Article I: “Every State has complete and exclusive sovereignty over the airspace above its territory.”…

Although Pakistani military leaders tolerated—albeit reluctantly—the expansion of CIA drone strikes from 2004 to 2011, resentment among Pakistani citizens festered. Ultimately, the Pakistani parliamentary committee’s “Guidelines for Revised Terms of Engagement with USA” in April 2012 demanded an “immediate cessation of drone attacks inside the territorial borders of Pakistan.”

And now this week, in what I guess can be seen as a reflection of this tension, Pakistan has convicted the doctor that helped the CIA to track down Bin Laden of treason, sentencing him to 33 years in jail. This despite the Pakistani government, at least in principle, being on board with the War on Terror.

This is, of course, an excessive retaliation and way of making a point about how the Bin Laden assassination was carried out. At no point did America trust and thus consult Pakistan about the operation:

Obama and his aides dismissed a joint raid with the Pakistanis. They simply could not trust them. U.S. officials had long suspected Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence of routinely tipping off targets of U.S. actions, including drone strikes. Obama did not believe any other nation, let alone Pakistan, could be trusted with advance information of an assault.

America’s reaction to the doctor’s punishment? A senate committee has unanimously decided to withdraw $33m in aid.

So this is an interesting one. Firstly, it was presumably communicated beforehand to Pakistan that there would be serious material repercussions if it decided to charge the doctor with treason. So it looks like Pakistan has acted against its interests for the sake of making an ideological point. It has further pissed off a state infinitely more powerful than itself, and lost money, for the sake of locking up a doctor.

And America’s reasoning seems obvious: if word gets around that it can’t protect its informants, fewer will come forward next time.

But note just how well this all fits the cynical realist picture of the world, Pakistan’s seemingly irrational decision aside: bare-knuckle tactics of financial penalties to coerce state action, America being driven by a desire for security and taking whatever means it deemed necessary towards that end, and thereby paying little regard for the principle of sovereignty enshrined in the UN Charter that it formally professes to respect, and indeed seems to respect most of the time. You can start to see why political phenomena are so tricky to impose order on and make theoretical sense of.


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