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To be a state and economy for the 21st century

A bundle of sovereign challenges is facing Lebanon

by Thomas Schellen

There is no denying that Lebanon’s territorial sovereignty has especially in recent months been heavily violated. Not a dozen or a hundred times, mind you; it has been transgressed against to the point where numbers have become so routine as to be meaningless. Lebanese finds itself again as the playing field of international powers at the expense of its own sovereignty. 

Yet, not only have the daily violations of this country’s territory, carried out with no regard for human lives and material damages, climbed to their highest peaks in decades. In facing the transgressions against its sovereignty, Lebanon seems to be left to fend for itself, without international diplomatic or moral support of its territorial integrity while aerial attacks against the country continue being perpetrated with scandalous impunity. 

Moreover, recent threats of foreign intrusions and escalation against Lebanon went from a ground invasion to as far as burning down Beirut. The physical and mental assaults against this polity have insidiously entered a dimension of harm and disrespect that is a magnitude or two above the self-inflicted weakening of the Lebanese state that has arisen in the past four years from damages to the country’s monetary sovereignty, economic stability, and social equity. 

The outcome for Lebanon, in terms of the country’s standing vis-à-vis the community of nations and the managing partners in the global order, appears to be singular: a tortuous weakness of the Lebanese state’s supreme authority in its territory (the currently dominant definition of sovereignty) that is almost beyond repair. How can a state position itself for commanding new international respect and negotiating strong development potentials when its acute impotence of shielding its borders further exacerbates a staggering economic and social meltdown that has been causally entwined with failures in the institutional backbone of its democracy? 

However, far and above the territorial and national security challenges of Lebanon, there are serious global implications of the Palestine crisis of which the Lebanese people are but one, and not the most suffering, group of victims. Along with war crimes and genocide wherever it occurs around the world today, the blatant disregard for a country’s sovereignty as shown against Lebanon has to be counted as facet to an ongoing wider mockery of the global order. 

When judged in combination with failures revealed in information wars, meaningless elections, and hapless genocide debates in the global realpolitik of 2023/24, an event such as the disregard for a small state’s sovereignty counts toward an involuntary declaration of moral and legal bankruptcy by the system of ordered relations between states. This acute weakness of the global system is unmistakable when examined against the United Nations’ founding ideals. The system’s weakness actually appears to be on the verge of becoming critical when contextualized with the many moves that the UN and related institutions have made toward a more interventionist role in the universal enforcement of human and social rights, determination of digital sovereignty and monetary sovereignty in context of a borderless virtual world, and trans-national management of global climate, health, and environmental risks.  

From this general observation and the experience of Lebanon as a state enmeshed in the region’s most concentrated and destructive conflict in at least 50 years, three or more lines of questions arise with regard to a global system based on sovereign nations as the constituent elements. Questions such as: what is the validity of sovereignty from a conceptual perspective and historical examination? What are reasonable and rational remedies for the Lebanese weakness in sovereignty? What are the best aims for this country, other small states, and the community of nations in seeking to face the challenges that are outlined in the introductions to practically every global meeting on future policy needs? And what role can sovereignty play in producing solutions?

The origin of state and sovereignty 

The fact that the baseline of international political relations today is the sovereign state, is the fruit of the 17th century European invention of indivisible state authority. Under this paradigmatic combination of state and sovereignty, much crime and damage has been dealt to groups and individuals within states and, between states, to neighboring populations over more than four centuries. 

But the state-sovereignty combo stands also as a paradigm that from its very inception during the years of negotiating the Westphalian treaty to end the pan-European 30-year war has facilitated the ending of indiscriminate violence and in the long run contributed to outlawing what since the 20th century is known as genocide. In views held over years and years by many political theorists, the “power to command and control everything inside a physical space”, as American scholar Joan Cocks describes the supreme authority defined as sovereignty, was even a method of liberating polities from patterns of universal warfare of all against all that made their ordered existence and coexistence impossible. Sovereign states created order and shaped the world. 

This position of political orthodoxy, however, is juxtaposed with the notion, expressed as introductory argument to numerous current treatises on the topic, that sovereignty is a “highly ambiguous and contested concept” and, as, for example, Cocks argues in a 2014 book, “has emerged in our time as a highly complex and often incongruous knot of problems.” According to her, sovereignty has engendered problems stretching from foundational violence of settlers (with the US the prime example of the phenomenon) and groups seeking to ascertain their delusional sovereign freedom at the cost of others to problems of global interconnections that have rendered sovereignty into the category of concepts in need of rethinking for the global age.

Moreover, the linkage of state and sovereignty is being tested also by a fact check of assumptions over the origin of the state and expressions of sovereignty by noted author team of anthropologist David Graeber and archaeologist David Wengrow. This particular background check spans a few millennia, long before myth had one young lady migrate on the back of a steer from Tyrian shores to become a queen on the peculiar continent named after her. 

Graeber and Wengrow’s examination of not old myths but new archaeological and anthropological evidence finds that throughout human prehistory and history the sovereign was perceived as an individual of divine ancestry who at the same time stood above the law and was law giver but whose supreme, extralegal authority was in many cases circumscribed to his personal, physical reach. Graeber and Wenggrow thus surmise that modern states are “an amalgam of elements that have come together at a certain point in human history” and that even recent arguments about the origin of the state by historians, philosophers or political scientists have been “projecting that rather unusual constellation of elements backwards”. 

In summary, contrary to long held positions of Western political and social theorists, glimpses into processes of societal organization from before the dawning of recorded history have lately suggested that there is no clear origin of the state or single type of sovereignty which would justify taking a 17th century European construct and its conceptual descendants as universal blueprint for contemporary state organization or sovereignty.     

The Lebanese and their state – lasting romance or bad crush?

As important for the redesign of normative ideas on state and sovereignty as such findings are, the sorry state of Lebanese sovereignty needs a practical solution. Assessing the case of Lebanon begs the question if the population’s sense of popular belonging has recently weakened. How has the identification of people with their country reached such a low point that the term “sovereignty” appears quite regularly in 2024 speeches of government officials and political elites but rings mostly as empty tokens of insincere political phraseology that is deployed exclusively by elites pursuing their partisan agendas?

This particular question is warranted by the observation of how sharply the polity’s immense current deficit of national self-assuredness contrasts with the groundswell of popular will that in the past 20 years expressed itself in growing demands for Lebanon’s self-determination. It is, moreover, a question that needs answering because of its implications for the sovereign of this country, the Lebanese people (preamble of the constitution: “The people are the source of authority and sovereignty”). 

The groundswell of popular will for change and national authority is not a widely discussed story in debates over methods to rescue the Lebanese economy. But it is pertinent for discussions on the economy under a needed new social contract. This rich narrative arc spans from the “liberation of the south” ending the partial Israeli occupation in May 2000 over the popular uprising against overbearing Syrian presence in 2005, but also the 2011 civil society demands linked to the Arab Spring and the “garbage protests” of 2014 and 2015, to the call “all means all” demanding fundamental systemic change in 2019. 

As a memorable highlight of this historic arc of confident popular events, the two dichotomous demonstrations that took place 19 years ago at time of this writing on March 8 and March 14, which were triggered by the nationally traumatic blow of the assassination of Rafiq Hariri but at the same time revealed the strong factional disagreements over the country’s identity and allegiances, peaked in thundering calls for freedom, sovereignty, and independence (Hurriyyeh, Siyedeh, Istiqlel). 

Equally historic as in the March 14, 2005 largest-ever demonstration on Martyrs’ Square, the same central public space in downtown Beirut was flooded in October 2019 with the expression of massive popular demand for change and removal of the political establishment (kellon ya`ani kellon). 

The civil thawra, lasting throughout the fourth quarter of 2019 and into the first months of 2020, in itself included many admirable highlights, such as the day when an online mobilization succeeded, on October 17, 2019, to have people of all ages and identities link up for a human chain stretching from north to south. Thus, in an important departure from the status quo of the preceding three post-conflict decades, the thawra was united in rejecting corruption and the political establishment. The young-at-heart demonstrators of all physical ages and backgrounds in late 2019 transcended, if only for a brief but cosmic moment, the resident population’s partisan fears and the country’s notorious divisions of allegiance to a few fiefdom lords. 

Additional factors of note in the 2000s and 2010s, factors that earned Lebanon a few international accolades, were the Lebanese economic and financial system’s resilience to the Great Recession of 2007 – 2009 and many citizens’ exemplary readiness for dealing open-mindedly with a deluge of social emergencies and refugee inflows when a neighboring country was thrown into systemic convulsions in 2011 – 12.   

A devastating local devaluation of sovereignty? 

So why, against all these signs of positive change in the 2000s and 2010s, did the centennial of the Lebanese state’s creation in 2020 not carry over into a continued increase in the achievement of civil rights and civic duties, or even spark, after the fashion of demagoguery seen elsewhere in those years, a rousing nationalist narrative of pretend greatness – a “Lebanon First” populist tale? 

Looking beyond the obvious factors – immense distrust in state institutions, explosive loss of trust in the banks, the Covid 19 pandemic, and the collapse of the economy in 2020 – there are powerful hidden drivers of this sovereign devaluation in the national narrative. 

It has to be considered as one such factor how the polity has over the past 30 years been deluded into fake assumptions about key attributes to its own sovereign existence – meaning assumptions that territorial, monetary and popular sovereignty were cherished and upheld by the state and ruling secto-political elites. 

Moreover, as the past four years have proven, the country was living too long under assumptions of stability in the real and services economy and deceiving itself with success stories in important but narrow economic sectors such as real estate, finance, entrepreneurship and ICT. 

In hindsight reflection from today’s perspective, the calls for sovereignty – or self-determination in an alternative reading of the Arabic term – that were so forceful in 2005, serve mainly to highlight that even the best slogans are hollow when used as a mass rallying call without having the strength of an idea that appears as self-evident to a qualified majority (or very determined minority with overwhelming popular appeal). 

This insight rings even truer when political slogans originate from old concepts whose power is fading. According to the above cited scholarly discourses and a growing number of policy makers around the world, even popular sovereignty falls far short from being a gold standard in political relations and the validity of any particular slogan of sovereignty or demand for sovereign freedom needs to be carefully assessed today as the underlying political concept has to be rewritten for the global age. 

The pertinence or impertinence of a political theorem  

In the Lebanese specificity, the validity of the term sovereignty can be questioned from several angles, one being that the realization of a sovereign state has over centuries not been pursued as the kind of desperate – and violent – search for territorial and ethnic boundaries that marked – and marred – the history of other modern states. 

Obsessing over delineation of “natural borders” against their neighbors in form of mountain ranges, rivers, oceans, etcetera, was a hallmark of European history in the formative epoch of modern nation states. In the following centuries of the worldwide nation state narrative, nationalist movements and ideological fighters answered with great amounts of violence to colonizing European powers who had been imposing sovereignties within state borders drawn up by them throughout the “New World” of the Americas, and also throughout Africa and Asia. 

In the Middle East, the arbitrary drawing of borders with rulers at a (by colonial timescales late point and waning moment in the history of European imperialism) was no less of an act of foreign interference and void of a moral justification than in other parts of the world. However, at least in the case of Lebanon, the intrusive act of sovereign delineation after the erasure of the Ottoman empire provoked less of a bloody response in the short term even as this state construct for the following 100 years had limited normative power as far as creating a sense of national belonging. 

Defining a state in terms of ethnicity, dominant language, uniform culture, or religious belonging, another fateful Enlightenment era predilection of Western civilization that persisted deep into the 20th century, was in the genesis of the Lebanese state replaced with the idea of a polity of minorities. This perhaps more sensible but certainly more ambiguous foundation of constitutional existence was promulgated in the debates and struggles over this state’s formation and independence in the early 20th century. It was followed by submersion into the global confrontation of East and West.

In what posed another, supremely powerful practical barrier to ascertaining its own sovereign state, Lebanon was during the middle years of the 20th century confronted by the emergence of an ethno-national state as its direct neighbor. In scholarly analysis, the formation of settler states on a quest for their sovereign freedom is today often viewed as a process that is inescapably tied with the occurrence of “foundational violence”: sovereign states dispel a double dose of this violence as they firstly form through erasure of old authority systems that existed in the same physical space they have claimed (American indigenous nations in the case of the US), and secondly assert themselves by searching domination and win-lose competition against, not win-win coexistence with, other states. 

When Lebanon emerged from its period of being a battlefield of competing superpower interests in the 1990s, it came back onto a global stage of sovereign nation states in widely varying alignment with or contradictions to the Westphalian system’s concept of sovereignty. The international system was since the end of the Cold War undergoing geopolitical shifts where ardent debates over sovereignty were raging and circumscription of state sovereignty were enacted through widening of rights and dignity-based compacts and obligations. All the while Lebanon vainly tried to emulate popular sovereignty with mostly illusory notions of supreme and indivisible authority over its own affairs. 

A real Lebanese solution versus a new ivory tower myth

Political theory debates in ivory towers happen in great academic distance from popular will and collective emotions of the groups – the states and the immense groups of political stakeholders – that are being talked about. The debate on the concepts of state and sovereignty is such a debate with little immediate impact on practical statecraft and political behaviors. However, instead of merely affirming the nuisance value of intellectuals, long-term normative effects of the ongoing sovereignty debates are already taking shape in international governance institutions. This implies on one hand that sovereignty debates are effective shakers of old certainties yet on the other hand that supreme scrutiny of the shift in sovereignty paradigms is in order. 

Signs of this shift’s potential for controversy can be found in intellectual push backs and also in form of assurances that are not actually self-evident. In a virtual demonstration of the latter, the UN Office for Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect claims on its website very counter-intuitively that the implementation of supra-national Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle – which dictates to states what they must do – is “ultimately” reinforcing “sovereignty by helping states to meet their existing responsibilities.” 

Before having been adopted by the UN in 2005 and dressed up as fashionable abbreviation, the R2P principle, known since antiquity as jus gentium, was in 16th century Iberian scholastics and by 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes assumed to be reason and justification for the formation of the state. In modern UN phrasing, R2P actually won praises early on by leaders such as Pope Benedikt for its ambition of requiring all international leaders to act jointly in “questions of security, development goals, reduction of local and global inequalities, protection of the environment, of resources and of the climate”. 

Yet today, given that both the first and second paragraphs in the nearly 20 years old R2P declaration explicitly demand for states and the international community “to protect populations from genocide”, it seems harder than ever to have much enthusiasm over a moral and political imperative such as R2P. 

From the opposite angle of pushback against circumscription of national prerogatives in yet another multilateral UN declaration, the influential Heritage Foundation in the United States warned already last year against pillage of the country’s sovereignty if UN plans for a Pact for the Future are adopted at its Summit for the Future that is scheduled for September of 2024. 

The zero draft of this pact, which has been released in February, advocates in lofty phrases for “meaningful changes to global governance to address new and emerging challenges” and for a “new beginning in international cooperation with a new approach” by developing “a multilateral system that is fit for the future, ready to address the political, economic, environmental and technological changes in the world, and with the agility to adapt to an uncertain future”. 

An innocent sounding proposal elaborated on near the end of the draft suggests for “the Secretary-General to develop a set of protocols and convene and operationalize an Emergency Platform” to deal with shocks impacting multiple regions of the world and requiring “a coherent, coordinated and multidimensional response.” The Heritage Foundation took umbrage with the idea that such an Emergency Platform operation could be decided upon without prior consent in order to bypass eventual reluctance of governments “to heed the dictates of the UN”.

Analyzed together, the exuberant language advocating for the Pact for the Future – which in its content by UN admission can be found in declarations issued between 1948 and 2015 – as well as the pushback against it validates the proverbial insight that massive risks and unintended outcomes more often than not loom behind the best-laid human plans. Concretely, there is no denying the immense discrepancy between the realpolitik that ruled the global system from day one of the Palestine crisis and the precepts and promises of UN declarations on principles such the responsibility to protect. When reviewing those principles or the first official drafts for the Pact for the Future people, peoples, and nation states may have to consider this contradiction of institutional word and deed to still be a gigantic warning beacon also in the 2020s: a reminder to reread Huxley’s dystopian narrative of a brave new world where happiness is the supreme good administered (with the massive help of biological and chemical manipulations) by World Controller Mustapha Mond. 

It is easy to wonder if a small country with weak sovereignty needs to bother itself with defining its own view on a contentious global issue which the strongest political wales, bulls, tigers, or perhaps Velociraptors must be expected to seek domination of. In the context of being a sovereign state and member of the extant global order that governs international relations and which changing will take an indeterminate amount of time, it is nonetheless important for Lebanon to discover if sovereignty of the state is a future-proof political theorem in answering the fundamental human want for security and responsibility or if the better answer might be sovereignty that is not tied to the idea of the state. 

Under the second perspective, it seems reasonable that sovereignty without a state, that is to say supreme but decentralized normative authority that is not entrusted to a single, elected or appointed, supranational organization that faces constant temptation of turning into a Hobbesian Leviathan of a quasi-world government, can best, meaning with more convincing equity than in the recent past, be advanced by small states’ determined assumption of the universal responsibility to protect natural rights, including human rights, in a global framework defined by not independence but circumscribed interdependence. 

Even without such far-reaching aspiration, however, it stands to reason that Lebanon will want to carve out its proprietary mental sphere of sovereignty in a realm of international relations where the maneuvering space of national interests is likely to be increasingly circumscribed. In anticipating such scenarios it could be opportune to prepare national positions in fields such as food and energy security under a concept of interdependent sovereignty that have good prospects to become categorical under imperatives of individual sustenance, group sustainability, and planetary stewardship, all indicating countries’ need for networked assumption of responsibility for the living space that the human species is privileged to call home together with all other fauna and flora and non-animated, natural treasures. 

In connection with developing networked and interdependent sovereignty, it even might work to the advantage of Lebanon that sovereignty in this country has never been fully realized under the concept of an indivisible state with clear and inviolable borders. And on a side note, neither could any state, friend or adversary, present any evidence that Lebanon is in actual command of a highly developed apparatus of bureaucracy and administration, which is commonly seen as a precondition of states in search of domination over other states. 

Thus, without displaying these two historical hallmarks of aggressive states, a new path to networked, non-threatening sovereignty could be paved by adopting a bottom-up approach for development of priorities such as food security and energy security. That Lebanon’s private sector and civil society stakeholders would be posed to champion the implementation of such a path is documented in the economic roadmap for the salvation of Lebanon (link to RM 7) and its new digital edition (link to ERMI) which private and civil stakeholders have developed under Executive Magazine’s consultative methodology. 

Building a networked and interdependent sovereignty under utilization of the Executive Economic Roadmap will require popular will and governmental determination in the selection and implementation of measures and policy priorities. Achieving this, for which reforming the public sector and institutions has to be the starting point, will make Lebanon positively stand out. It will shine twice as bright against the backdrop of its past fake state, through achieving financial and social security by activation of its fiscal and investment capacities, contributing more than its minimum share to climate and environmental security, and ascertaining its genuine national security and cybersecurity interests. These social and economic building blocks of security that no member state in the community of nations could reasonably perceive as threats or attempts of domination over them can in turn become aspects of sovereignty that are not vying to overpower sovereign rights of any other polity but rather to facilitate more effective coexistence.

Seen through this lens, implementing the sovereignty, or self-determination, of the Lebanese polity and state is not something that should be waited with. Actually, if she does not want to risk vanishing as a sovereign state or becoming a mere vassal entity of foreign interests that is a state in name only but instead wants to command the dignity and international respect due a sovereign state under any definition, Lebanon has no choice but to implement, out of its own societal strength and determined private and public sector efforts, the economic and social and national security aspects of a sovereignty that transcends historical barriers of state interests. 

Additionally, presuming boldly that the UN will one day transform away from the path of a quasi-state being dominated by a small bureaucratic elite with pretenses of inclusiveness to become an organization genuinely representative of prevalent interests and identities in the world community according to their actual numbers,  Lebanon’s bottom-up achievements of societal security and networked and interdependent sovereignty could serve the world community as example of a transcendent sovereignty with a state as not the owner but the competent agent of circumscribed supreme authority.    

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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