Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Leading Afghani Figure Describes Path to Modern Sovereignty

May 11, 2011

The key to modern sovereignty is the rule of law – not the use of force, according to Ashraf Ghani, a leading figure in Afghani national affairs. Introduced by President Ruth Simmons for the keynote speech of last week’s “Engaging Afghanistan” conference at Brown, Ghani laid out steps his country must take in determining its future – and emphasized the engagement of its citizens in defining that future.

Currently serving as chairman of the Institute for State Effectiveness, Ghani has held several senior positions at the World Bank and acted as special advisor to the United Nations, chancellor of Kabul University, chief advisor to President Karzai, and finance minister of Afghanistan. He was a contender in the 2009 Afghani presidential elections.

“An essential characteristic of sovereignty is that it is bound by rules. Power unbounded is power that is corrupt and is unaccountable,” Ghani said in his speech, one of the ongoing Peter Green Lectures on the Modern Middle East.

In the 21st century, sovereignty should be viewed as a claim, not a structural reality, according to Ghani. “Domestically, [sovereignty] is a claim to legitimacy by a government from the citizens; internationally, it is a claim to voice and representation in an interdependent world,” Ghani said.

Legitimacy is a constant symbolic “process of give and take between the citizens and the government,” Ghani said, similar to a stock and flow model. “The stock diminishes or increases, but the flow is constant… if [they] do not connect, it is a disruption,” Ghani said. Until now, a state-centered view of politics has dominated the political arena; “we need to shift focus to… a citizen-centered view of the state,” Ghani said.

Ghani stressed the importance of maintaining a synchronized view of the functions of a state, by measuring citizens’ expectations and their satisfaction with the given reality. “A state is what the people want it to be,” Ghani said, as “legitimacy is judged by those whose lives are impacted by the exercise of power.” The public, therefore, must be involved in planning for the future of a state.

Describing that public, Ghani pointed out that Afghanistan’s “global image and local experience are in conflict.” The images of the region that dominate modern media are those of the 1980s and 1990s, according to Ghani. Contrary to popular media portrayal in the West, “over 50 percent of Afghans are under 22… [and] at least 30 per cent of the population is now living in cities,” he said. The demographic makeup of the Afghan society has radically changed in recent years.

A multifunctional view of the state is key to modern politics, he added. Unlike in the 18th and 19th centuries, modern sovereignty requires more than the “claim to the legitimate monopoly of force,” Ghani said. The other realms of sovereignty to which states can lay claim include the interdependent nature of voice and representation, the space of flows, and resources.

Internationally, it is “the power of cooperation in rulemaking,” Ghani said, that makes flows of travel and trade possible. While sovereignty involves some inherent rights, it is “equally a regime of obligations,” according to Ghani. An imbalance between these rights and obligations puts the world at risk of an international crisis.

To that end, Afghanistan is an “illustration of the hijacking of sovereignty, by Al Qaeda,” Ghani said. “It was in the failure of fulfilling the obligations of sovereignty that the international use of force was justified in 2001,” Ghani said.

For Afghanistan to match his expanded view of sovereignty, its government must manage partnerships of security, development, trade and investment, and regional development and security, according to Ghani. 

He put forth a multifaceted view of statecraft: as design, leadership and management, accountability, and vocation. “If we harness moral imagination to design and to leadership and management, and hold ourselves accountable,” Ghani concluded, “we’ll be able not only to get Afghanistan right, but the whole world right. “

The "Engaging Afghanistan" conference, film screening, and art exhibition was co-organized by Shiva Balaghi and Michael Kennedy and was supported by the Social Science Research Council and Peter Green Lectures.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Anna Andreeva ’12