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  • Cited by 6
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

6 - Banishing the Sovereign? Internal and External Sovereignty in Arendt


According to Hannah Arendt, “the great and, in the long run, perhaps the greatest American innovation in politics as such was the consistent abolition of sovereignty within the body politic of the republic, the insight that in the realm of human affairs sovereignty and tyranny are the same.” This statement can profitably be put together with Hans Kelsen's 1920 “Die Souveränitätsvorstellung freilich muss radikal verdrängt werden.” He best explained this idea twenty-five years later, when he defined (as before) sovereignty as the nonderivability of the domestic legal order from, and its supremacy over, all other sources of law, including and even in particular international law. Under a sovereignty regime, international law gains its validity only because it is so recognized by a domestic system, and the laws of other domestic systems, even more indirectly, are seen as valid only because of the requirements of international law. Sovereignty regimes are thus epistemologically solipsistic, and politically even worse, potentially. “A person whose political attitude is nationalism and imperialism will naturally be inclined to accept the hypothesis of the primacy of national law. A person whose sympathies are for internationalism and pacifism will be inclined to accept the hypothesis of the primacy of international law.” The latter will therefore seek (politically, or morally at least) to suppress sovereignty regimes.

Leaving for another occasion consideration of Kelsen's remarkable though not wholly convincing argumentation for this position, we note that the two perspectives, his and Arendt's, could be seen as entirely incompatible or as complementary. Arendt's statement is about supposed historical fact, whereas Kelsen's is about a moral-political norm rather than a legal norm. An unconvincing way of reconciling them would be to say that what is both fact and a norm in America is mere norm elsewhere, and Arendt's appeal to “the long run” seems to suggest such a relationship between a model and its desired normative influence. But it is doubtful that Kelsen would have thought that in the period of the rejection of the League of Nations or at the time of the founding of the United Nations Americans were not confronted with the same fateful choice as other states. More relevant here is that it is very clear that Arendt considers the American abolition of sovereignty to pertain to internal affairs only, first, because she explicitly says “within the body politic,” and second because she even implies (very rightly) that the point or one of the points of forming a more perfect union was to enhance external sovereignty. The task was to “reconcile the advantages of monarchy in foreign affairs with those of republicanism in domestic policy” (OR, 152). It would be absurd to call this a chance or careless remark, given that the correspondence of its thrust with the intentions of the authors of The Federalist had to be entirely clear to Arendt.

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