Technology and Sovereignty

Wriston, Walter B.




The information revolution is changing our global economy, transforming national political and business institutions and altering national foreign policy objectives and the methods of achieving them.

Changes of this magnitude are profoundly disturbing to the power structure, and with good reason. The mismatch between the fruits of new technology and the operation of the political process, whether in government, business or the family, has often produced unrest, changing value systems and sometimes, indeed, revolution. Just as the spread of rudimentary medical knowledge took away the power of the tribal witch doctor, the spread of information about alternate life-styles in other countries threatens the validity of some official doctrines and thus some governments' power bases.

Knowledge has always conferred power on those who have it and know how to use it, and the proliferation and dissemination of information to huge numbers of people can be, and more often than not is, a precursor to a shift in the power structure. But the effects of the information revolution go even deeper: the very nature and definition of national sovereignty is being altered.

The currently accepted tenets of national sovereignty, like most man-made concepts, did not emerge full-blown upon a waiting world, but evolved over time. Those with a vested interest in any given definition want to sustain their own power, and naturally resist any change which might undermine their authority.

Perhaps one of the first organized presentations of a concept of sovereignty appeared toward the end of the sixteenth century from the French scholar, Jean Bodin. He argued for the unlimited and autocratic power of the state unrestrained by law. This idea was embraced by kings but challenged by others, including Johannes Althusius, who argued that the state's power was limited by the laws of God and nature and by the social contract between the state and the governed.

It was left to the great Dutch jurist, Hugo Grotius, to give us the definition of sovereignty that exists more or less intact to this day. Grotius defined sovereignty in broad terms as "that power whose acts are not subject to the control of another, so that they may be made void by the act of any other human will." This definition obviously covers many different facets of the exercise of power.

One of the fundamental prerogatives assumed by all sovereign governments has been to pursue their national interest by waging war. This has been true since ancient times, but today it is an aspect of sovereignty that is being severely circumscribed by the effects of information technology. No one who lived through the Vietnam War can fail to understand the enormous impact that television had in frustrating the American government's objective in Southeast Asia. A general recognition that war produces violent death is one thing, but witnessing the carnage of a battle or the body bags being unloaded at Dover Air Force Base on the television set is quite another. While debate will rage for years about whether Vietnam was lost on the battlefield or on the home front, few observers would fail to give at least some significant weight to television's impact on the citizens at home.

When the British engaged in war over the Falkland Islands, they severely limited the press and television coverage of the hostilities. Whether that military operation could have been successfully conducted under the glare of full television coverage is an open question; in any case, British rules on press coverage differ from those in America. In the United States, we have seen the names of American agents overseas published and have read accounts in national newspapers detailing American naval and troop movements at a time of national emergency.

Such episodes puzzle both domestic and foreign observers. Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his address at Harvard in 1978 put it this way: "We may see terrorists heroized, or secret matters, pertaining to one's national defense, publicly revealed, or we may witness shameless intrusion on the privacy of well-known people."

This process has repercussions on the effectiveness of leadership. We are all familiar with the old saying that no man is a hero to his valet, and it can be argued that television has become the valet of today's world leaders.

In the absence of a major threat to the integrity of one's own borders or to the independence of the nation, one can at least question whether a democratic government operating in the full glare of television cameras could, in fact, conduct any sustained military operation that produces heavy casualties. If the answer is no, one important aspect of national sovereignty has been substantially altered.

  • This document was created from the article, "Technology and Sovereignty" by Walter B. Wriston for the Winter 1988/1989 edition of "Foreign Affairs." The original article is located in MS134.003.027.00008.
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