Thursday, Mar 4, 2004, 10:30 AM

Jean Elshtain

Sovereignty, Human Rights, and the Responsibility of the Powerful

How does one best promote and protect human rights in a world that continues to be defined, and divided, by state sovereignty? Some argue that universal commitments can and should override particular state sovereignties in case of conflict; others, that sovereignty is an overriding political good and should not, as a general rule, be violated. The more complex route, Elshtain argues, is to sort out how best to balance the competing goods of sovereignty and universal human rights. Does the most powerful state – the United States – have a particular role to play in this regard? Elshtain’s answer is “yes.” Promoting and protecting human rights becomes a viable possibility only after terrorist groups and states are subdued or chastened. Because the United States has a unique ability to project its power at this point in human history, and because the United States is a polity defined by certain universal commitments to political freedom and equal rights, Elshtain sees its role as undeniably important.