6. Musical Sovereignty: A Political Analogy

Musical Sovereignty: A Political Analogy

The United Nations organization gathers together diplomats from all its member countries in order to prevent wars and solve global problems like climate change, world hunger and malnutrition, poverty, slavery, human trafficking, etc. But the UN does not have sovereignty. It is organized confederally, with a weak central government that has only the power granted to it by its constituent members, who are themselves sovereign. Likewise, starting the American Civil War, the states that tried to secede from the Union organized as the Confederate States of America. From the founding of the United States of America, the leaders and residents of these southern states believed and intended the Union’s states to be sovereign, not the national government. After the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling on the Dred Scott case—that slaves were property and therefore permitted in all states and territories—the southern states argued attempts by the Union’s national congress to legislate on the issue of slavery exceeded its jurisdiction and violated the sovereignty of the individual states.

In the United States Congress, senators and representatives have the right and the duty to vote against bills that run contrary to the interests of their respective states. But in contrast to the UN, should such a down-voting senator or representative be in the minority, he or she would still have to observe and respect the laws passed by the majority. After all, the United States government is organized federally, with a strong, sovereign central government and comparatively weaker constituent states that are not sovereign. In the UN, if a member country feels a certain resolution does not align with its interests, it may vote against it in the resolution’s preliminary stages. And if the resolution passes anyway with an appropriate majority, those countries who disagree with it have no legal obligation to comply with the resolution. This principle was demonstrated in 2003 when President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq against the will of the United Nations.

Given the inherently benevolent mission of the UN, most of the resolutions proposed would be in the best interests of everyone in the world. After all, who doesn’t want to reduce environmental pollutants? With respect to the narrative of the human race, in which all humans are the protagonists, it would seem rather antagonistic for a UN member country to reject, for example, a resolution that provided means to reduce human trafficking. So why do countries sometimes exercise their sovereignty by spurning UN decisions?

President Bush based his justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in spite of the UN’s disapproval, upon his confidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that posed a legitimate threat to American security. Controversy surrounded his decision. Hussein had denied the existence of WMDs in his country, and by the end of the war, the United States had not found any. Did we have bad intelligence? Did the Bush Administration have other reasons for wanting to invade Iraq? Further, citing a potential but yet-unrealized threat as grounds for invasion constitutes the paradoxical ‘offensive defense.’ In the abstract sense, are there instances in which it is diplomatically justifiable to attack another country in self defense? Concretely speaking, were we justified in invading Iraq in 2003?

Answering these actual-sovereignty-related questions is outside the scope of this book. But let’s digress for a moment and conduct a thought experiment. Imagine a parallel universe in which everything is the same as in this one, except the following conditions are true (remember, this is our thought experiment, so the conditions are true because we say they are, not because they do or do not resemble in any way events that actually took place):

  1. It is 2003.
  2. There are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
  3. Saddam Hussein intends to use the weapons against Americans.
  4. American intelligence agents have verified absolutely that Hussein possesses such weapons and intends to use them against Americans.
  5. For some reason, though the reason is irrelevant here, the United States cannot share this intelligence with the United Nations. Perhaps it is because the information was obtained illegally, and to divulge the source would reflect poorly on American diplomacy in the international community. Another reason could be that revealing the specific source would undermine ongoing clandestine operations in the Middle East. Again, though, the specific reason does not matter. What matters is that we know but cannot tell.
  6. Though the United States cannot give proof of the threat without diplomatic consequences, it will not hurt the position of the United States to tell the United Nations of a suspected threat.
  7. The US tells the UN its suspicion, and asks for permission to use its military to “investigate.”
  8. After voting, the UN General Assembly/Security Council denies this request.

Taken together, these conditions exemplify circumstances in which a UN member country would be well justified in operating against the will of the other members. The UN decided based on incomplete information, and if Hussein’s target was specifically the United States, the stakes would be higher for Americans than for the residents of other countries. Who are they to tell us we can’t defend ourselves?

These conditions, again, are the products of our little thought experiment, whose purpose was to create a situation in which national sovereignty would be legitimately used to subvert the United Nations. It is not ideal that the interests of the UN conflict with the those of the US or any other country, but our thought experiment proves the legitimacy of such a conflict to be possible.

The relationship between the US and the UN is analogous to the relationship between the definition of music and the people who listen to it. The analogy, in which the UN represents the will of all the world’s people, is constructed below:

A sovereign nation : The United Nations :: The definition of music : The will of the people

To compare music to a sovereign nation-state does not mean music is best when it conflicts with the will of the people, just as it is not ideal when the interests of sovereign nations conflict with the will of the UN. Nor does the comparison mean a confederal system of international relations, in which nations can exercise their sovereignty against the the will of the UN, is best.3 The comparison is only that—a comparison—to help us better understand the relationship between music and its listeners.

To fully appreciate music, then, what we need is an objective definition of music that is irresponsive to what people want, just as a sovereign government, acting in its own interests, is irresponsive to what the UN wants. That is not to say the definition of music would not reflect what people want, that the interests of a sovereign government would never align with the interests of the UN. We would expect to see alignment in most cases for both music and international relations. And we should expect to create the highest quality music when it aligns with what people like to hear, just as we should expect to solve the greatest number of the world’s problems when the interests of individual sovereign nations align with the interests of the UN. With respect to international relations, this alignment must occur via international cooperation. With respect to music, the alignment must occur from the coincidence of what the people want and the natural and physical properties of music, not because the people said so. We will explore these natural and physical properties of music in the Chapter 1 as we construct our definition of music.


3The Rourke text presents a compelling case for the necessity of moving toward a model of international relations in which some national sovereignty is yielded to a central international government.

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