Sharing sovereignty and sacred ground

Who are we? How we answer this question leads to certain answers about the kinds of things that are worth fighting for; on the Thai-Cambodian border, when the answers overlap on a symbol of historical might and power, the high stakes of defining identity can turn into a violent form.

Tensions have flared up again at the Preah Vihear temple site, inscribed by UNESCO in 2008 as a World Heritage Site – and claimed by both Thailand and Cambodia. The Khmer temple complex, some 900 years old, is of significance not (just) because of its revenue-generating potential as a draw for temple-clambering tourists, but because it taps into an identity claim about the historical lineage of both Thais and Cambodians: the ‘who we are’ question.

Who our ancestors were is an important part of the answer, and ancient monuments provide contemporary reminders of this history. And of course, defending this history against claims made by others is a well-worn method of drumming up support of a nationalist type – Japanese claims, and Chinese protests, over islands in the East China Sea another recent example.

Stakes of this kind are difficult to back down from, not least because of the domestic embarassment risked. But the possible resolution of such disputes is only made more complicated by the zero-sum terms in which territorial control is viewed.

Sovereignty tends to be thought of in absolute terms, in the sense that any given slice of territory can only belong to one or another state. Conventional understandings of sovereign authority over territory treat it in exclusive terms. Much of the war-making in the last half-millennium has been related precisely to disputed territory, and that violence is a legitimate means of settling such disputes. But there doesn’t seem to me to be any reason to exclude the possibility, in principle, that sovereign authority can be shared between two or more actors.

Even if unlikely in the immediate short term, contemplating this possibility stems from the wider variations in sovereign authority that are indeed replete across world politics. The image of absolute sovereignty, where a state is in full and exclusive control over everything that goes on within its territory, is little more than an ideal, and an impossible one at that (even if it holds much political allure). Instead, authority is sometimes distributed unequally – here I take my cue from David Lake’s analysis of hierarchy, where some states possess de facto authority over other states, even if all are still equals in legal terms. The broader point is that you can disaggregate sovereign authority into specific issue areas – such as elements of economic or foreign policy – in ways where some parties are subordinate to others.

Sharing sovereign authority over territory is somewhat different from a hierarchical authority relationship, but the general idea is that sharing authority need not be grievous to the overall integrity of a country. A parallel of sorts might be how Jerusalem was originally intended to be ruled under the UN’s 1947 plan to partition Palestine, as an ‘international’ city, neither exclusively Israeli, Palestinian, or an independent state, but governed by the United Nations itself. This plan, of course, has not come to pass, but it doesn’t invalidate the possibility of nonexclusive, joint authority over a small piece of territory.

A few other posts here have pondered how new states enter and integrate into the international system, particularly about the norms that may make state fragmentation and reconstitution possible. But the creation of new entities that sit in the same class of legal equality that all other states do, is fairly orthodox compared to a more complex picture of the world where sovereign authority is unevenly distributed, divided – and possibly shared – between states.

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