Sovereign Aspirations: National Security and Police Power in a Global Era
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Sovereign Aspirations:
National Security and Police Power in a Global Era

A commentary on “Sovereignty” by Michael Hardt, Theory & Event, Vol. 5, No. 4 (2001)


In his essay “Sovereignty” for Theory & Event, Michael Hardt argues that the world order did not change on September 11, 2001.1 Rather, the date signified a longstanding politico-historical shift: the decline in nation-state sovereignty as a viable organizing norm and practice of international politics. Increasing transnational flows of capital, weapons, peoples, and information, as well as proliferating international institutions for governing economic and social relations, had decreased states’ power over their territorial spaces. Political problems were becoming more global in scope, including mass migrations, climate change, and the neoliberal privatization of common life across continents, and they revealed the inadequacy of nation-states for solving them. The thinning veneer of state sovereignty was particularly exposed on 9/11, as non-state agents beholden to no clearly identifiable Westphalian power stripped the illusion of state territorial supremacy. Cells of loosely affiliated individuals enacted a spectacle of mass violence of which only national governments were presumed capable. They eluded institutions of state security, and weaponized the same civilian machinery—passenger airplanes—that accelerated the human mobilities contributing to state permeability. More than a singularly horrific assault, the attacks were one dramatic moment in an ongoing erosion of state sovereignty.

Hardt was not claiming that sovereignty, as supreme control and final authority over a defined space, was eroding as a possible form of power, however. He provocatively argued that sovereignty was relocating from the domain of nation-states to what he called a “new global sovereignty.” State powers, for Hardt, now “exist within and are functional to a larger form of sovereignty. That functionality to the new global sovereignty is the determining factor.” State authority is [End Page 3] increasingly deployed to buttress global powers such as empire and transnational capital, even as it cannot hold on to the monopoly of violence within its own territory. The blurring jurisdictions of the two main instruments of state violence—police inside nations and military directed externally—indicated this shift. Militaries now enforce social order within their own nations, as defensible borders were fragmenting from well-defined contours to the mobile boundaries of nonstate actors, like transnational terrorists, refugees, smugglers, and migrants. In addition, police powers had become increasingly militarized, such that local, civilian forces perceive “enemy combatants” among their own communities.2 The inside-outside conflation of the state institutions of violence revealed to Hardt how the coercive instruments of state action have detached from national borders. Sovereignty has gone the way of neoliberal economics, popular culture, and politics: it globalized.

Hardt’s perceptive argument identifies key aspects of state sovereignty’s decline. He joins other seminal scholars of sovereignty, including Giorgio Agamben and Wendy Brown, to argue that sovereignty has detached from state power to expand across the globe, whether through Empire (Hardt and Negri), worldwide productions of bare life (Agamben), or neoliberal capital as the new sovereign (Brown).3 “Sovereignty” presciently predicts how the events will shape a particular telling of international relations in a global era.

However, in contrast to a unidirectional narrative of global sovereignty, the intervening years have also seen intensified recurrences of nation-state sovereignty. Some states have gained coercive power over citizens and bored more deeply into the lives of the populace, especially as they aim to securitize territory, regulate social order, and manage individuals within the nation. Widely distributed strategies of national security buttress state power against the preferences of global sovereign forces. State sovereignty has, in many instances, re-oriented the monopoly of violence back inside territorial boundaries, targeting individuated threats, communities, and bodies that are presumed to threaten from within. As the world since 9/11 appears increasingly chaotic, with rising global inequality, nonstate violence, and climate change disasters that uproot entire populations and put groups at war for scarce resources, one common response by national governments is a re-commitment to bolstering state sovereignty by securing borders, combined with internal state repression of unruly, hungry, and desperate populations housed within the nation-state. In various places...