Sovereignty…According to George W. Bush

For those of you who don’t know, my dissertation in Ethnic Studies dealt with sovereignty, most specifically Guam’s role in producing America’s sovereignty, or what role its invisibility or nothingness plays in producing America as sovereign. This may sound confusing, but what makes it difficult for most to wrap their heads around, is the simple fact of saying that something which has been for hundreds of years produced discursively as being “small” or “faraway” or “faint” or “owned by the US” as somehow creating something as great and grand and mighty as the United States of America.

One frustrating aspect of writing my dissertation was the preparing of a literature review, which is a sometimes helpful, sometimes useless review of what others have written about your topic of choice and how you will either use and build on them or defy them. If you are familiar with the bulk of work on sovereignty it all basically says the same thing nowadays, drawing mildly different conclusions around assertions that no one can really contest. In historical terms, meaning the development of sovereignty over the past 500 years for example, the ideas of the late US Senator Alan Cranston are not so different then the conceptions of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt. (they draw the same basic genealogy and end up in the present day with a similar crisis, but naturally use different languages (can you imagine Alan Cranston talking about transcendence vs. immanence?) and promote different political projects for those today seeking to reconcile the shifts taking place today). There are some Native scholars who have more interesting versions or definitions of sovereignty, but these are not the conceptions which underpin Guam’s colonization and so I did not address them as much in my dissertation.

For those unfamiliar with sovereignty, I’ll provide a short history. Sovereignty begins largely in religious terms with political effects. It is a theory of rights and relations between those who govern and those who are governed. The explanation for the right to rule, the existence of a sovereign power who was considered to be unchallengeable within their domain, derived from a divine source. The source of sovereignty, is therefore outside of the earthly world, and whatever political or physical body that sovereign power is collected in within this world is not to be constrained by any limits other than what is defined from the source of said sovereignty.

Given this framework, power is theoretically absolute and the sovereign is not accountable to those who he governs, but rather the source of his sovereignty, namely God. On earth this transmission of sovereignty and power rarely runs so smoothly. In the Middle Ages for example, the powers of both the Church and the King were articulated to share the same source, yet each had different functions and intentions in the world around them.

We find an important shift in the source of sovereignty in the 17th and 18th century with the work of philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Jacques Jean Rosseau who attribute in different ways to an earthly source, namely the people of a nation or a society. This shift takes place and is codified for a number of different reasons, such as development of different technologies which allowed people across great distances to nonetheless imagine themselves as being the same, the shift from the way populaces are governed and power is located (art of government to governmentality), and also the work by men such as the Brothers Grimm who would assist in the “invention” of peoples and traditions through the collection of “folk” tales which would become the “history” of nations.

What follows though the above mentioned diffusion of power in society is also the diffusion of sovereignty. One could almost say that it disappears from the equation, just as the brutal violence of the sovereign’s law becomes displaced by the banal control of norms.

The issue in all of these articulations is where the source of sovereignty lies, in the divine? The social? In Reason? But what happens with the rise and formalization of European nations, starting with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia and later the clear rise of modern nations and articulations of modern international law in the 19th century, is the shifting of discussions of sovereignty to a formal level whereby external recognition becomes a defining characteristic. The source of sovereignty in most texts becomes externalized within the family of nations, meaning the sovereignty of a nation is dependent upon its matching particular requirements “nations” collectively share and also the recognition of sanctity the borders that said nation claims.

Before continuing, it is important to note that although the way a thing called “sovereignty” is formalized and accepted and becomes part of a general framework which is supposed to govern the conduct between nations. Texts which deal with sovereignty do not necessarily address the production of a nation’s sovereignty, or what networks of power, meaning, force and material accumulation have to go into authorizing the right or naturalness/acceptability of a particular political act, program or relationship. (So to connect this to my project, how is it that the United States, besides a simple citation of treaties, appears to hold a natural, expected right to Guam, which lies beyond any simple questioning or problemtization?)

Instead most texts deal with a basic thing called sovereignty, which is never produced, but merely changes over time, and is today in crisis by extranational organizations, Imperial ambitions of First World Nations and Rhizomic terrorist cells.

For me, the assumption of a concrete and formal form of sovereignty is useless for thinking about Guam and its position today. Why? Because if we assume that sovereignty is a zero-sum equation (you have it or you don’t have it) or at its most extreme, force/pressure against a legal right (neocolonial influence), then the issue is merely to include Guam within the current global framework for nation-state belonging. Or in other words, get sovereignty for Guam.

In some ways, this is precisely what I along with a small but significant number of people on Guam want: political independence for Guam, and the opportunity to join the rest of the world as some sort of equal partner. But does the receiving of sovereignty in this formal way really mean receiving either of these things? If we look at the nations that have decolonized over the past 50 years, they are hardly equal with their former colonizers, since the world that awaited their freshly forged national souls and cultures, was one defined by itchy and greedy neo-colonial figures, trapping them in the same structurally inequitable relationship, although now with less odor from colonialism. For more evidence of the meaningless of formal sovereignty for small, developing and newly decolonized nations, we need only look at the islands in the Micronesia that surround Guam.

Islands such as Palau have formal sovereignty, but if we look closely at the history of their negotiations with the United States and even the way their government and economy is situated today, the political existence of Palau demands that we redefine sovereignty so that it can mean something, since if the formal sovereignty that Palau has is supposed to be sovereignty, then sovereignty means nothing.

Only the worse American apologist would argue that Guam has sovereignty right now. And only a foolish and idealistic person would argue that Guam is currently on some natural and self-correcting road to getting meaningful sovereignty. The history of sovereignty’s changes and development, instead of reconciling the colonial relationships that places such as Guam, Okinawa, Puerto Rico, Hawai’i and indigenous peoples represent, instead develop quaint footnotes or states of exception where these places reside politically. Nowadays, these states of exception are not insane, chaotic places, but ones which take on very formal appearances. They can be invoked, they can be detailed, they can be studied and visited, without those making these gestures of study or reference seeing the need for any sort of resolution of the conflict, the contradiction, the hypocrisy that those states of exception represent.

Take for instance an October 29, 1971 Pacific Daily News editorial titled “U.S. Colonialism.” In it the editor discusses and marginally decries US colonialism in the Micronesia region, without making any reference to the US colonialism going on in Guam! Guam is invoked in the editorial, but only in order to provide reference for the approximate size of British colonies in the Pacific, not because of the need to discuss American colonial sins or guilt there. For this editor, the ambiguous political existence was not sufficient enough or tangible enough to support even the mere mention of Guam as a US colony, instead it simply faded into the background and become the natural ground beneath his articulation.

In the world today, colonialism is not supposed to exist, or is supposed to be eradicated by the year 2020. (The UN is now in its Third Decade of attempting to eradicate colonialism from the world. It recognizes 17 remaining colonies (including Guam) in need of decolonization). Therefore, the way to analyze and view Guam and its relationship to the United States and the rest of the world is not through the formal rules of governance, but through the informal, obscene world of political meanings.

We can find this point in a hilariously depressing way in the following clip, which is a statement by President George W. Bush, during the 2004 campaign, on tribal sovereignty.

Question: What do you think tribal sovereignty means in the 21st century, and how do we resolve conflicts between tribes and the federal and the state governments?
President Bush: Tribal sovereignty means that; it’s sovereign. You’re a — you’ve been given sovereignty, and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity. And, therefore, the relationship between the federal government and tribes is one between sovereign entities.

A number of things achieve an almost banal and confusing clarity in the stumbling of Bush. First, Bush makes the mistake of breaking from sickly common sense by stating that sovereignty is “given,” a point which is completely true (for every nation state, sovereignty is dependent upon it being given in the sense that it is not questioned, critiqued or worked actively to be undermined), but reveals the clear condescending gaze of the US against Native Americans. Second, in his constant reiteration of “sovereignty meaning sovereign” we get past the chauvinistic tautology of “my decision is my decision,” and get into the meaningless repetition as the cover for an obscene meaning which cannot be adequately covered over by any formal terms.

Of course Bush doesn’t believe it, probably doesn’t even understand what he’s talking about or what is happening. But above board, meaning formally, he is right, right? There has been an elaborate legal maze that has been developed around this issue whereby the formal alludes to a civilized, legal, adult, productive relationship between the US and tribes, where there is no colonization, but only mutually recognized sovereignty entities.

Within the world of the obscene however, which sadly more closely resembles the world around us, colonialism is not just alive and well, but necessary and accompanied with all manner of infantilized, racialized, primitivized mythology to back it up. The formal only goes so far and once its cover of you ends, you tend to wallow in unintelligibility along its margins, since there is not supposed to be any calculus to measure the breadth of the obscene.

To continue with Micronesian examples, let’s start with The Solomon Report. For those of you who don’t know what this is, it was a report commissioned in the early 1960’s by President Kennedy, which is basically an outline for ensuring a dependent and intimate relationship between the United States and what was at that time the Trust Territory and is now, the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands, The Federated States of Micronesia, Republic of the Marshall Islands and Palau. Here is a line from the report which stresses the importance of these islands, “Micronesia is said to be essential to the U.S. for security reasons. We cannot give the area up…”

Formally what took place during the 1960’s – 1990’s in the rest of the islands in Micronesia (fuera di Guahan) were processes of decolonization, which by virtue of even this limp facade attested to the strategic value of these islands. In The Solomon Report, because of its clandestine character, the need of the United States is expressed and laid bare. In order to create a buffer in the Pacific, and to effectively control a huge portion of the entire globe, we must have these islands. But naturally, this cannot be spoken of, cannot be laid on the table, it cannot truly enter into the formal world of negotiations which created all these new exciting island governments and states. Instead this need stays obscene, beneath the proceedings, drawing from racist and infantilized notions to reverse and make invisible the needs of the United States, by fabricating from notions of islands being backwards, economically unsustainable, culturally lazy and so on, that it is truly these islands that need the United States. But this isn’t some isolated instance of dependent reversal. This is a gesture which produces sovereignty, it projects the needs of the subject of sovereignty to the object of sovereignty, thereby creating the subject as one distinguished by a lack of such mediated concerns.

In Hobbes for example, those governed, beneath the watchful eye and hovering boot of sovereign power are mediated by appetites and aversions, that constantly infiltrate them and turn them into petty, pitiful creatures of limited vision. Their appetites constantly push them into more and more precarious positions of risk, danger and near death, but because aversion and fear governs them as well, they constantly pull back in loyalty to the ultimate human moment of fearful oblivion, the aversion to death. Therefore, in an articulation of sovereignty surprisingly close to Bataille’s, the realm of the sovereign is not just to decide the conditions of life and death, but that it is also to be beyond such concerns.

Thus formally, this dependent relationship is codified, but this formal surface tells us nothing about the obscene web of meaning which both forced these neocolonial relationships and structured the state of exception that these islands exist in.

Throughout my dissertation I made my commitment to exploring the “obscene” dimensions of sovereignty, using evidence, such as the George W. Bush quote that some might find ridiculous in terms of articulating a sound theoretical foundation. As Guam is a colony, the formal rules exist to pin it down, to neutralize it, to take away its claims to existence. This is why exploring the realms of the banal and the obscene was necessary. As Slavoj Zizek writes in Welcome to the Desert of the Real, If you cannot change the explicit, formal rules, then you must work to change the underlying, unwritten obscene rules.

The history of sovereignty means little for explaining Guam’s current geo-political existence, meaning its banal and exceptional status. Such histories persistently focus on the way sovereignty as a concept has changed over time, the unifying notion of a historical continuity or development leading them to put aside the fact that sovereignty is something which must be produced and reproduced at every moment, and what means and methods must always be deployed in order to maintain a regime beyond mere material/violent assertions of authority.

Sovereignty as it is dominantly understood relies upon a communal recognition, that sovereignty is not so much produced as brought into existence by a recognition of a nation’s right. This means nothing for Guam, as sovereignty the way I understand the relationship between the US and Guam relies on clear misrecognition. Whereas the traditional notion of sovereignty requires a shared understanding, a conscious clarity, to understand the relationship between Guam and the US, we must interrogate clear ambiguity, invisibility, banality.


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