This article was last modified on September 26, 2006.

Sovereignty and Nonintervention

America has long been a country that sees itself as a “world police” regardless of whether the reasons behind this are altruistic or egoistic. Sometimes the line is blurred and a seemingly altruistic act has very profitable by-products. Many authors have explored America’s obsession with interventions, most notably Noam Chomsky and William Blum.

I wish to take a cue from Jack Donnelly, who has written two very excellent texts on human rights: “Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice” and “International Human Rights”. His primary subject, human rights, is merely my backdrop though. Throughout Donnelly’s works is a plea against intervention and a call to uphold sovereignty whenever possible. I wish to address issues raised by Donnelly and wander out into wider issues he does not cover.

What Being Sovereign Means

To understand intervention, we must first consider what it means to be sovereign. A nation or state is considered sovereign when it does not answer to the authority of a higher or foreign power. America prior to 1776 was not sovereign, as the colonies were required to follow the laws laid down by Great Britain. Wisconsin, for example, is not sovereign either, as it must follow the laws handed down by the federal government.

America today is a sovereign and independent nation. While we may have to abide by treaties and rulings given by the United Nations, there is no leader the President must answer to before making his decisions. Furthermore, if he broke treaties or rulings from the United Nations, he would not lose his seat as President (although other reprimands may occur).

The Role of Nonintervention

One of the conditions and duties of sovereignty is the concept of nonintervention, the idea that foreign powers are not allowed to enter the boundaries of the nation without permission (under the belief that the potentially invading country would not wish to have their own country invaded). Canada, for example, could not build an embassy or military base in Minneapolis without first seeking permission from the United States government. This is much the same idea as of being a homeowner: owning the home means no one may enter your home, while you may also not enter theirs.

Nonintervention also has to do with jurisdiction. A political matter that is in one nation cannot be controlled from outside. A foreign leader cannot tell our leaders what to say or how to vote (although friendly discussions certainly would not violate this policy). When issues about extradition come up, nonintervention and sovereignty can be evoked. If a man commits crimes in another country and lives in America, America is not obligated to hand over the man responsible (although from common courtesy they probably should).

Intervention in America

America has had a long history of successfully avoiding intervention into the national boundaries. At no point in time to my knowledge has a foreign power ever had control over the policies of our leaders on either the state or national level. There has been no sinister force leaning over a politician’s shoulder into his ear.

As far as military presence in America, this has also been very limited. No foreign power currently has a military base on American soil. And only twice has a foreign power ever invaded our country: the British in the War of 1812 (we successfully defeated them) and the Japanese at Pearl Harbor in World War II (which was American property and not a state, and we successfully fended off the Japanese).

Defining the attacks on September 11, 2001 as an intervention is very questionable. While the men involved were from a foreign country and one of the targets (the Pentagon) can be construed as a military target, they were not supported by any state. The actions could more properly be classified as criminal rather than military and would therefore likely not be called an intervention (because no foreign power tried to go against American wishes). If the situation were reversed (with a handful of Americans crashing jets into European cities, for example) the government would not be held responsible and would not be seen as America intervening.

American Intervention Abroad

Interestingly, while America is very adamant about not accepting foreign bases on American soil, the government sees no conflict in placing bases in most other nations around the world (including countries we consider enemies, like Cuba). Likewise, while America is quick to defend attacks in a very strong way (the nuclear response to Japan in World War II was much greater than the initial attack) they do not seem to be particularly opposed to their own intervention in countless foreign nations.

Since 1945, America has tried to overthrow at least 52 foreign governments through election rigging and assassination. Such actions occurred before 1945, but the instances sped up greatly after World War II when “communism” could be used as a pretext for invasion, even when a leader was elected democratically. For a variety of discussions on these coups, I strongly urge you to pick up the books of William Blum, Ziauddin Sardar and Stephen Kinzer.

Two cases that John Donnelly focuses on, and that I will use as examples, are Chile and Guatemala. Donnelly sums up the Guatemalan scenario well when he says that, “in 1954 the United States overthrew the freely elected government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, in part because of its redistributive policies that aimed to better implement economic and social rights. This ushered in thirty years of military rule that culminated in the systematic massacre of tens of thousands of Guatemalans by the armed forces and by semiofficial death squads in the early 1980s.” [Donnelly, 1993: 8] This is from a textbook and is well documented. American intervention is no conspiracy theory.

The Chile situation is even more well known. In 1970 Salvador Allende was a democratically elected leader. He pushed some major economic reforms, nationalizing several banks and industries including the copper mines. Allende expanded the available social services. Because of his left-leaning or Marxist views was overthrown and murdered in a military coup (sponsored by the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency) on September 11, 1973. For more than fifteen years (until 1990), Chile was left under “repressive military rule” and the people lived through a “brutal reign of terror” (if they lived) [quotes from Donnelly].

The new leader was named Augusto Pinochet, a man now famous for his cruelty and iron fist. Not only were many people “disappeared” during his regime, but even the Catholic Church was a target. Many priests were expelled from Chile or kidnapped and murdered. Churches and rectories were also bombed. Donnelly writes of Chilean youths who were set on fire by the police, killing or maiming them.

Presumably, one of the key reasons the United States supported Pinochet and had Allende killed was for financial gain. The United States has long profited from the poor economies of South America. But regardless of whether or not the United States profited, the people of Chile certainly did not. In the 1980s, the gross national product was declining. In 1983, as much as one third of the country was unemployed. Between 1981 and 1985 the minimum wage lost up to half of its value. Bankruptcies became more common and almost half the children of Chile were malnourished, in a country that had once been prosperous. [Donnelly, 1993: 50]

Interventionalist Exceptionalism

Donnelly says America has a policy that can be labeled as “interventionalist exceptionalism”, which steps around the duty of nonintervention we discussed above. He sums this up as “an active American mission to spread its values through direct foreign policy action, even military force.” American intervention is often under the pretense of spreading “democracy” or “human rights” (although the historical record will show America has favored dictators over democracies and brutal regimes over free societies on countless occasions). [Donnelly, 1993: 101]

Donnelly sums up what he calls the foreign policy “logic” like this: “Communism is (inherently) opposed to human rights. The United States is (almost by definition) in favor of human rights. Therefore, U.S. action against international communism is equivalent to action on behalf of human rights.” [Donnelly, 1993: 101] What was written in 1993 was no less true in the 1970s or in the year 2006. We may have to replace “communism” with “terrorism” or “Islamic extremism” to fit the situation, but our actions and motives haven’t changed at all.

During the George W. Bush administration, we have had two major interventions [1].


The invasion of Afghanistan gave the American people comfort and relief, knowing that the government was providing a swift response to the tragedy on September 11, 2001. But the invasion was flawed in a multitude of ways. Disregarding the obvious abuse of Afghanistan’s sovereignty by invading, President Bush chose to see the 9/11 attacks as a military matter rather than a criminal one. Yet, the Afghanistan government was not involved. The Taliban was attacked and removed from Afghanistan, despite being one of the first groups to speak out against Osama bin Laden. And most Americans still accept this as legitimate, as the Taliban were known rights abusers.

Five years later, the Taliban is still fighting American soldiers. Opium crops are more plentiful than ever (which ironically means our war on terror not only creates more terrorists, but also erodes our war on drugs). And, of course, Osama bin Laden remains free in whereabouts unknown (though not likely in Afghanistan).


The invasion of Iraq has increasingly been criticized, so much so that I will not go into the lead up to the war as this information can be found many other places. What I do find interesting is that the President’s own father, the first President Bush, did not pursue Iraqi liberation in the Gulf War and wrote about the reasons in his 1998 book, “A World Transformed”:

“Trying to eliminate Saddam, extending the ground war into an occupation of Iraq, would have violated our guideline about not changing objectives in midstream, engaging in “mission creep,” and would have incurred incalculable human and political costs. Apprehending him was probably impossible. We had been unable to find Noriega in Panama, which we knew intimately. We would have been forced to occupy Baghdad and, in effect, rule Iraq. The coalition would instantly have collapsed, the Arabs deserting it in anger and other allies pulling out as well. Under the circumstances, there was no viable “exit strategy” we could see, violating another of our principles. Furthermore, we had been self-consciously trying to set a pattern for handling aggression in the post-Cold War world. Going in and occupying Iraq, thus unilaterally exceeding the United Nations’ mandate, would have destroyed the precedent of international response to aggression that we hoped to establish. Had we gone the invasion route, the United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land. It would have been a dramatically different — and perhaps barren — outcome.” [Bush: 464]

As we now know, Bush the First’s predictions were strikingly accurate. Those even more critical, such as William Blum in his June 2006 “Anti-Empire Report”, will point out even greater (but lesser known) problems: the destruction of most of Iraq’s universities, a crippled health care system, thousands of civilians with amputated limbs (not to mention the thousands and thousands of dead), loss of women’s rights, loss of Christian rights, and much more. Most Americans are unaware of Saddam’s regime being a champion of women’s and non-Muslim rights, now a thing of the past.

Many books have been filled with Iraq War criticism, so I will leave you to look there if you wish to examine this issue further.

Conclusion: Towards Isolationism

Of great concern to those interested in international law are the issues of sovereignty and nonintervention. I have outlined the legal reasons for avoiding interventions and have shown that interventions tend to have very negative outcomes rather than positive ones (with the possible exception of those with short and clear goals like the Persian Gulf War). But if these reasons do not convince you, there is always one more: the price tag.

Whether someone supports war or not, there is no denying the large sum of money leaving America every day that will never return. Billions upon billions of dollars being used on military rations, bullets, tanks and rebuilding efforts (where billions disappear through corruption). This money is not being used on domestic investments (such as education or health care) that would strengthen our country in the long term.

Many Americans today consider China to be a growing threat, if not militarily then definitely economically. What many of these people who fear China do not realize is that by fighting a fruitless war in the Middle East we are also guaranteeing a loss economically to China down the road. The seemingly unconnected issues of military intervention and unemployment are in actuality very intricately intertwined.

Sadly, the only people who seem concerned about the loss of this phenomenal amount of money are marginal forces, such as punk rock band Anti-Flag. Anti-Flag’s song “1 Trillion Dollars$” sadly and sarcastically speaks of the greatness of wasting trillions on guns and death. This little ditty speaks of a much larger truth [2].

With the legal, moral and financial aspects taken into account, the only responsible and positive option is to avoid intervention altogether and strive for a foreign policy embracing isolationism. Through isolationism, we will not incite the fury of third world countries and will build our economy to new heights.

We must embrace the values of the world around us. No other nation sees itself as the moral authority of the world or as the police of the world, so we much also adopt this policy if we are to successfully mesh into a peaceful world environment. While times exist when intervention may be necessary (countries seeking assistance ought not to be automatically ignored), the existence of intervention as a primary feature of foreign policy should be a thing of the past.


[1] Lest the reader get the impression I am a supporter of the Democratic party and am bashing Bush or the Republicans, allow me to make it known I find both parties guilty of improper military actions over the past century. I could criticize Bill Clinton for Somalia or Bosnia, or John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson for Vietnam. My goal is simply to keep the issues current.

[2] While it might seem unusual or unprofessional to cite such things as “punk rock bands”, in these times that is where we must look to find a voice of reason through the cacophony of government and media noise machines. But for what it’s worth, I am not alone in my appreciation of Anti-Flag. No less than Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) has honored them on the Congressional floor for their work to stop the use of depleted uranium.


Anti-Flag. “1 Trillion Dollar$”, For Blood And Empire. 2006.

Blum, William. Anti-Empire Report, June 21, 2006. (available online at

Blum, William. Freeing the World to Death: Essays on the American Empire. Common Courage Press, 2005.

Bush, George and Brent Scowcroft. A World Transformed. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.

Donnelly, Jack. International Human Rights. Westview Press, 1993.

Donnelly, Jack. Universal Human Rights in Theory and Practice. Cornell University Press, 1989.

Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow.

Sardar, Ziauddin and Merryl Wyn Davies. Why Do People Hate America? The Disinformation Company, 2002.

Also try another article under Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

2 Responses to “Sovereignty and Nonintervention”

  1. shane Says:

    Just curious to know how America compares to other nations in terms of building military bases in other nations, and if these nations also have a similiar policy about not allowing bases being built in their own nation?

  2. gavin Says:

    A good question, Shane. I will look into this.

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