In “explaining” his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, Donald Trump mentioned sovereignty several times. Indeed, along with the economy, it was the central justification for pulling out. “Our withdrawal from the agreement,” Trump said, “represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty.” And then, later in the address: “exiting the agreement protects the United States from future intrusions on the United States’ sovereignty and massive future legal liability.” As others have noted, the specter of legal liability is difficult to parse, in large part because it is nothing but spectral, never to be realized — there is no legal liability.
In his last reference to sovereignty Trump asserts: “the Paris Accord would undermine our economy, hamstring our workers, weaken our sovereignty, impose unacceptable legal risks, and put us at a permanent disadvantage to the other countries of the world.” The future tense is important here — the Paris Accord would undermine “our sovereignty” even though it has not done so yet. Like much of Trump’s rhetoric, decisive action follows from loose, often hysterical, speculation. This concern with national sovereignty should not come as a surprise to anyone — running a protectionist, isolationist campaign, his “America First” slogan was and is a gesture toward unimpeded national sovereignty. This, however, rests on a fantasy, one contained in the omnipresent phrase adorning garish red hats and Twitter hashtags: “Make America Great Again,” or #MAGA. For Trump and his foolish advisers there is always a before, a fantastical past when American sovereignty was truly absolute, unimpeded by any international considerations. The before is often, in the rhetoric of isolationist nationalists like Steve Bannon and others among the Republican establishment, figured as prior to the establishment of the United Nations. Like everything else in Trump’s world, this is a fantasy — since the “founding” the United States has been as much concerned with membership in a community of nations as it has been in strong autonomy.
Indeed, the Declaration of Independence announces such a concern. In addition to its more famous guarantee of “certain unalienable Rights” the Declaration served as an announcement of a new nation on the world stage (with the world stage here reduced to western Europe). That is, the United States, in the Declaration, announced its desire to be counted “among the powers of the earth.” This was, at the time, a rather unambiguous claim: the United States would, going forward, aim to be a part of the “community” or “family of nations.” As the historian Eliga Gould puts it, “what we sometimes forget — though people at the time knew it — is that the United States could not become the nation that Americans imagined without the consent of other nations and peoples.” This was the language of the law of nations and while it celebrated unimpeded sovereignty within nation-state borders, it also suggested that sovereignty was simultaneously tied to international recognition. This was rather pedestrian thought in 19th-century legal discourse. To take but one example, Henry Wheaton, author of the influential Elements of International Law, first published in 1836, distinguished between internal and external sovereignty. In the 1866 edition, he defines sovereignty as “the supreme power by which any State is governed.” However, it is split into internal and external sovereignty (thus undermining the idea of a supreme power). “Internal sovereignty is that which is inherent in the people of any State,” Wheaton writes, “or vested in its ruler, by its municipal constitution or fundamental laws.” This is the sovereignty Trump invokes, and why his invocations of coal miners and Pittsburgh matter so much — he rules as absolute sovereign on behalf of the people of the State, and the synecdoche “coal miner” effectively works to exclude most of the people in the United States. Whatever the force of internal sovereignty, and Wheaton grants it significant force, it exists in broad tension with external sovereignty. “External sovereignty,” Wheaton writes, “consists in the independence of one political society, in respect to all other political societies. It is by the exercise of this branch of sovereignty that the international relations of one political society are maintained, in peace and in war, with all other political societies.” This is international relations, structured and regulated by international law.
This distinction helps get at a recent Twitter-based conflict that serves as one of many sideshows to Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. In the wake of the Rose Garden political theater, Harvard historian Joyce Chaplin tweeted, “The USA, created by int’l community in Treaty of Paris in 1783, betrays int’l community by withdrawing from #parisclimateagreement today.” Somewhat surprisingly (but really, nothing is surprising anymore) Senator Ted Cruz responded to Chaplin with his own tweet: “Just sad. Tenured chair at Harvard, doesn’t seem to know how USA was created. Not a treaty. Declaration+Revolutionary War+Constitution=USA.” Wheaton would suggest that they are simply gesturing toward two branches of sovereign power, Cruz, unsurprisingly, focused on internal sovereignty, Chaplin, also unsurprisingly, focused on external sovereignty. Indeed, Wheaton used the United States as an example, asserting that its internal sovereignty was established in the Declaration and its external sovereignty in the Treaty of Paris. Like many, indeed, like the nationalists of today, Wheaton extolled the supremacy of internal sovereignty, arguing that it existed until all social and political ties inside the territorial borders, are dissolved, regardless of international recognition. And yet, sovereignty rested on both its internal and external branches. If we listen to Wheaton, it is external recognition that secures the sovereignty of the nation, a relation that requires mutual recognition (a kind of mutual recognition animating the Paris Climate Agreement):
The external sovereignty of any State…may require recognition by other States in order to render it perfect and complete. So long, indeed, as the new State confines its actions to its own citizens, and to the limits of its own territory, it may well dispense with such recognition. But if it desires to enter into that great society of nations, all the members of which recognize rights to which they are mutually entitled, and duties to which they may be called upon reciprocally to fulfill, such recognition becomes essentially necessary to the complete participation of the new State in all the advantages of this society. Every other State is at liberty to grant, or refuse, this recognition, subject to the consequences of its own conduct in this respect; and until such recognition becomes universal on the part of the other States, the new State becomes entitled to the exercise of its external sovereignty as to those State only by whom that sovereignty has been recognized.
It is, in 2017, impossible to imagine a nation that can “confine its actions to its own citizens, and to the limits of its own territory.” Indeed, global climate change is the key instance of this impossibility, nowhere more so than in the United States, still the world’s greatest contributor to global warming. (To be clear, Chaplin surely understands this, as surely as Cruz does not.)
Of course, we should not be seduced entirely by the “family of nations” language. The family of nations was, simply put, a civilizational discourse that justified colonialism outside that exclusive family. As the legal scholar Anthony Anghie puts it, “colonialism was central to the constitution of international law in that many of the basic doctrines of international law — including, most importantly, sovereignty doctrine — were forged out of the attempt to create a legal system that could account for the relations between European and non-European worlds in the colonial confrontation…furthermore…these origins create a set of structures that continually repeat themselves at various stages in the history of international law.” This should be apparent to anyone (even though it never seems to be), especially in light of the recent Reconciliation Week in Australia and ongoing fights against pipelines by water protectors across the United States that signify the insistent force of indigenous sovereignty even as it was delegitimized by the language of international law. So we should not mistake the international community for some legal panacea. But the language of international law, of internal and external sovereignty, of communities and families of nations, belies the fantastical past on which contemporary nationalists ground their claims.
Beyond a general idea of national sovereignty, what, specifically, might this have to do with the Paris Climate Agreement? Here we might turn to another, related, formulation of sovereignty, that offered by Michel Foucault. In the first volume of History of Sexuality, Foucault famously wrote that sovereignty, “the right which was formulated as the ‘power over life and death’ was in reality the right to take life or let live.” While Foucault was certainly correct that this form of sovereignty gave way to what he called biopolitics and discipline — “a power bent on generating forces, making them grow, and ordering them, rather than one dedicated to impeding them, making them submit, or destroying them…This death that was based on the right of the sovereign is now manifested as simply the reverse of the right of the social body to ensure, maintain, or develop its life” — there remain traces of the former sovereignty, and it is this that informs the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. The historian of medieval Europe Kathleen Biddick, in a recent book, has tweaked Foucault’s formulation to “Make and Let Die” (which is also the title of the book). Here we might think specifically of the global figure of humanity attached to the Paris Accords and the specific, particularly small figure, of the coal miner. Here we might think of the coal miner as a figure Trump is willing to “make live.” Remember, as he said in his statement the other day, “I happen to love coal miners.” In a slightly less direct but nonetheless similarly affective connection to the Rust Belt world he associates with coal mining, Trump also claimed he was “elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” While Pittsburgh stood as an urban synecdoche for a Republican fantasy of the working class, the response of the mayor of the city was telling — a commitment to the Paris Accords and a recognition that Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly for Clinton in the presidential election. Those figures that Trump vowed to make live were inventions — a Pittsburgh devoted to their sovereign leader and a regenerated coal mining industry. Pittsburgh, a city revitalizing in part through its move away from steel and other older industries, does not seem to want or need Trump’s patronage. And the coal miner, no matter the capaciousness of Trump’s love, is a representative of a dissipating industry being left behind in the face of new energy sources. Indeed, insofar as the life of the coal miner is one intimately tied to the ravages of mining and coal consumption, it is a life built on individual and global disease and death, a life in death to which Trump has committed himself and his administration.
While making fantastical coal miners and Pittsburghs live, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement is a sovereign act of letting global humanity die. This is not to mistake the force or long term vision of the Accords — like all acts of international cooperation, it falls far short of doing what is necessary, it repeats the colonial logic of international law, and it is, more than anything, a product of the short-sighted, self-serving vision of the United States. But it is to identify the significance of the act — in order to make his imaginary adherents live, he will let humanity die. The true sovereign act. The New York Daily News captured this well in its typically sensational front page the day following Trump’s announcement. Superimposed over Trump’s demonic face, in extraordinarily large type, was “TRUMP TO WORLD: DROP DEAD.”
In this turn to far right, dictatorial rule, signified most forcefully by Trump’s opinionated, destructive bluster — a turn, not an invention, or even re-invention — we should begin to reckon with the persistent desire of sovereign power — others must and will die for sovereign power to be secured. Trump’s action is simply the latest, and one of the grandest, acts in this long drama.