The disaster unfolding on America’s southern border since 2020 is both a humanitarian tragedy and a threat to our national security. Hundreds of migrants have died while trying to cross the border, and federal agents have apprehended tens of thousands of unaccompanied children. Fentanyl trafficking has skyrocketed, with agents confiscating some 11,000 pounds of the drug (each pound of which can kill over 200,000 people). More than 1.7 million migrants were detained in 2021.1 Although border agents do not release how many of those are on terrorist watch lists,2 they have noted that individuals come from more than 100 countries.3
Aside from these immediate considerations, Washington’s failure to control the country’s southern border has longer-term implications: it erodes the principle of national sovereignty. And since sovereignty is central not only to the long-term security of the United States and its allies, but also to the liberal international order, the border crisis is a serious threat to national and international security.
Since the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the nation-state—a formal political entity occupying a set territory—has been the fundamental building-block in the international system. The Westphalian system is an order in which political authority is based on territory and autonomy. Describing the Westphalian peace, Henry Kissinger observed that “each state was assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each would acknowledge the domestic structures and religious vocations of its fellow states as realities and refrain from challenging their existence.”4
Sovereign states are foundational to international order. In his classic text, The Anarchical Society, the political scientist Hedley Bull pointed out that it was sovereign states that, through their interactions and regular contacts with one another, formed the international system. The starting point for international relations, he argued, was “the existence of states or independent political communities.”5
After World War II—the most destructive war in modern history—key institutions of what would become the liberal international order acknowledged that state sovereignty was essential to the preservation of peace and the promotion of prosperity. The founding charter of the United Nations is based “on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” The Bretton Woods system (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), is comprised of individual countries, though its goal is to regulate and coordinate economic relations between states. Even the European Union was originally founded on a series of treaties between states, beginning with the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Sovereignty remains a foundational pillar of the liberal international order; it is a starting point for the institutions and agreements that formally comprise this order.
Balance of Power and Stability
Sovereignty is also fundamental to maintaining a balance of power in the international system, and thus, stability and order. Because no global sovereign exists, states compete with one another to enjoy the benefits of security, freedom, and prosperity. But if competing states are balanced against one another, competition can actually produce order and stability. As Henry Kissinger observed, a balance of power system is based on the principle “that each state, in pursuing its own selfish interests, would…contribute to the safety and progress of all the others.”6
It is noteworthy that over the past few years, the most significant stresses to the European Union have centered on the erosion of sovereignty of its member states. As one expert observed, “crises have emerged in the EU in proportion to how much it has moved away from its founding template of state sovereignty.”7 It has been the efforts to erase borders in Europe that have caused the most stress.
The migration crisis of 2015 generated instability in Europe, challenging the EU’s capacity to provide the most basic competency of a state—control of its borders. Former German Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s decision to grant asylum to over one million refugees in Europe, essentially overrode the sovereignty of all EU members physically located between Germany and the Mediterranean. Merkel’s decision reflected a failure to grasp that this huge immigration influx was a national security issue for many of Germany’s neighbors. (Ironically, migration issues are particularly susceptible to the problems associated with weakened sovereignty since it is the state that provides the first line of protection to the most vulnerable.)
The erosion of the principle of sovereignty also has negative implications for alliances. If the United States does not prioritize the security of its own borders, it will be hard to convince Americans to defend the sovereignty of other nations.
The foundational alliances that constitute key pillars of the liberal international order and contribute to American power are built explicitly and implicitly around the concept of sovereignty. It is the sovereign states of NATO that form the basis of the agreements and obligations of the treaty, and who provide the military capabilities necessary for the alliance to function. Moreover, it is threats to the “territorial integrity” of states—their borders—that would trigger a response by alliance members.
Adversaries and rivals recognize the importance of borders. That is why Russia and Belarus have weaponized migrants to undermine the European Union as well as individual states. For example, since December 2020, the Belarusian government has pressured neighboring states by pushing migrants to the borders of Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, which led those states to reinforce their borders. Former German Chancellor Merkel referred to the actions as a “hybrid attack.” Turkey too has extorted billions of dollars from the European Union with the threat of flooding Europe with migrants and refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War.
Control over borders, and the power of sovereignty that such control represents, have always served as a central element of state power. And a central element of a state’s power—as well as perceptions of its power—have always been tied to a state’s ability to control and defend its territorial integrity. America’s failure to control its southern border has direct national security implications, and not only for the U.S. homeland. It also contributes to the broader erosion of an international order built upon the principle of sovereignty. It is that principle––and Washington’s role in upholding it, in its commitments around the world––that is at risk.