Sacred Rhetoric and the Legitimacy of Unrecognized States.

AuthorCondran, Jacob
PositionArticle 1

Sovereignty may exist in rhetoric before reality. This article examines how the first is employed on the path to the second, especially how absolutist language or sacred rhetoric is employed by unrecognized states in the pursuit of international sovereignty.

It was Mircea Eliade who wrote that human experience takes place in "a world capable of becoming sacred." (1) Here he means that all aspects of society, not just those that are religious, are capable of becoming sacred. As Marietta writes, "the sacred is not only for the pious." (2) Absolutist appeals, or sacred rhetoric, are a common feature in political systems around the world, where sacred values are espoused. In the U.S. in particular, sacred rhetoric is often employed with great success regarding a variety of topics, from the National Rifle Association's slogan "from my cold dead hands," to more recently with President Joe Biden's frequent claim during the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election that this election was "a battle for our nation's soul." (3) Sacred rhetoric supports absolute, unquestionable values (that can be religious in nature but often concern secular issues) and establishes boundaries that, if crossed, can have dire consequences.

Sacred rhetoric is prominent throughout international relations, but the majority of studies have focused on its impact in American politics. They place particular attention on understanding the reasoning of citizens in their beliefs as well as how sacred rhetoric can inspire them to become politically active. This study, however, expands the analysis of sacred rhetoric to the international system and examines how it is employed on a state level by unrecognized states in order to engage not only their citizens, but the international community from which they seek recognition. Specifically, among unrecognized states, this paper contends there are three primary topics from which sacred rhetoric is created. The first comes from the claim of sovereignty, the second comes from the creation of a national culture, and the third comes from the identification of an enemy, as all unrecognized states are born out of conflict.

These unrecognized states, found in the "shadows of the international system," lack the international recognition necessary for membership in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations (UN), denying them the benefits of recognition. (4) Numerous unrecognized states exist around the world in Africa, Asia, and Europe with varying levels of sovereignty and recognition. While on the road to statehood, unrecognized states have found themselves derailed in the state-building process while pursuing the final goal of UN membership, widespread international recognition, and therefore external sovereignty. Despite widespread misconceptions that unrecognized states are areas where rule of law in nonexistent, many unrecognized states have advanced economies, functional bureaucracies, and sometimes even democracy. (5)

This internal sovereignty, or Westphalian sovereignty, that unrecognized states have achieved, was for centuries the only important test that needed to be passed for a state to be considered sovereign within the international system. (6) Indeed, after the Treaty of Westphalia, power and sovereignty emanated from within the state. However, following World War One and the creation of the League of Nations, international recognition and membership into crucial multilateral organizations became a fundamental aspect of statehood. (7) Following the end of the Second World War and the creation of the League of Nations' successor body, the United Nations, the quest for membership and international recognition continued to be of increasing importance, especially as the major European powers began to decolonize their possessions in Africa and Asia. With the decolonization process, however, the European parent states often withdrew their claims on these emerging states, easing the pathway to UN membership.

For unrecognized states, it is the case that the parent state is unwilling to withdraw their claims on the land controlled and administered by the unrecognized state. This conflict over "who is the sovereign state?' leads to a difficult question of who deserves national self-determination, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. (8) In Cyprus, for example, the 1974 invasion of the northern half of the Mediterranean island by Turkey and the ensuing establishment of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), was argued to be a violation of the Republic of Cyprus' (ROC) sovereignty. (9) However, the difficult dilemma of Greek support for the Greek-majority ROC and Turkish support of the TRNC led to a deep conflict as both the Greeks and the Turks were members of NATO. Unable to resolve the conflict with a withdrawal of the Turkish military or a ceding of territory by the Greek Cypriots, the UN has since established a Buffer Zone, keeping the recognized state, the unrecognized state, and the capital city of Nicosia divided. (10)

During my time as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Nicosia, I was able to see firsthand the startling transition that occurs when traveling between a recognized state and an unrecognized state. As I was living a few blocks from the UN Buffer Zone that separated the ROC and the unrecognized TRNC, the sudden shift from kebab shops and the shouting of Greek store clerks in the ROC to the hookah stands and amplified calls to prayer in the TRNC was dramatic. My work at the embassy also meant that I had the opportunity to meet with "citizens" of the TRNC. Their fundamental belief that the TRNC is its own state, that the Turkish Cypriots are their own people, and that the Greek-majority ROC are keeping them left in political isolation, was resolute.

As unrecognized states lack the ability to express themselves politically throughout the international system with the methods that are available to UN member-states, their expressions of political persuasion are crucial and often follow an absolutist reasoning as their position within the international system is an insecure one. Through sacred rhetoric, one can understand the absolute values espoused by unrecognized states because of their very limited ability to engage in international discourse. Caspersen nevertheless asserts that their different, and clearly disadvantaged form of statehood--lack of recognition (or lack of external sovereignty)--does not exclude unrecognized states from being considered "states." This perspective--that unrecognized states exercise a different form of statehood--is crucial in examining the three major sources of sacred rhetoric being produced by these "states," as they all speak to key features that they seek in order to obtain a normal form of statehood: sovereignty, nation-building, and the maligning of those that deny them the former.

By examining this rhetoric, there can be a more nuanced understanding of sovereignty, nation-building, and further develop our comprehension of the nature of the conflicts in which unrecognized states find themselves engaged. For example, as the Eastern Mediterranean grows increasingly tense over fuel deposits off the coast of Cyprus, Nagorno-Karabakh reels from a bloody conflict against its parent state (Azerbaijan), and U.S. President Joe Biden seems prepared to continue arm sales to Taiwan to the immense anger of the People's Republic of China, the study of the absolutist reasoning dictated through sacred rhetoric from within unrecognized states is of crucial importance to understanding the current conditions of the international system. (11)

Sacred Rhetoric: What It Is and What It Is Not

For sacred rhetoric, this paper uses the definition established by Marietta in his work, The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric. (12) Sacred rhetoric or absolutist reasoning can be associated with one or more of the following elements:

  1. Protected status: placing a value beyond question or set apart from trade-offs with other values.

  2. Nonconsequentialism: privileging values over costs or consequences.

  3. Noninstrumentalism: rejecting calculated self-interest.

  4. Nonnegotiability: denying the legitimacy of a compromise.

  5. Citation of boundaries: invoking a boundary of what is acceptable or tolerable.

  6. Citation of authority: invoking an authority for the value or boundary.

  7. Moral outrage: expressing anger at the violation of a value or boundary. (13)

    On the opposite end of the spectrum from absolutism is consequentialism. Non-sacred rhetoric can be associated with one or more of the following qualities:

  8. Relativism: implying value trade-offs or comparability with other competing values.

  9. Consequentialism: invoking costs or consequences.

  10. Instrumentalism: referencing calculated self-interest.

  11. Negotiability: invoking compromise.

  12. Denial of boundaries: denying the validity of a known authority for a boundary.

  13. Denial of authority: denying the validity of a known authority for the boundary.

  14. Denial of moral outrage: denying the validity of moral anger. (14)

    Marietta argues "when a belief is unquestionable and its holder unconflicted, it enters the range of a sacred value." (15) When a value becomes sacred, the holder of this value may go to great lengths to protect that value, spend massive amounts of money in support of the value, and sometimes even die for that value. The belief or support for this value is absolute. When this happens, a value is given protected status. In the United States, one can identify politicians from both sides of the aisle espousing their obligation to defend the U.S. Constitution, giving this document and its contents a protected status. Looking at the unrecognized states that are the focus of the study, Taiwan is a strong example. The Taiwanese, keen to keep their democratic values intact, refuse to reunite with China, where their democracy would be essentially erased or at the very least, radically altered, frequently cite the Three...

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