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Projecting power to the world: President Trump would deny any notion of shared sovereignty (©MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)


The origins of the political theory that underpins national sovereignty lie, of course, in Europe: more specifically, among the lawyers and academics of the middle ages, such as Marsiglio of Padua, whose Defender of the Peace argued for the separation of church and state, claiming that sovereignty lay neither with pope nor emperor, but with the people. Larry Siedentop has located the origins of liberalism among the medieval canon lawyers. Likewise, the universalism of the Enlightenment has its origins in the early Renaissance humanists. At the court of Henry VIII, there was Thomas More, whose Utopia represents an ideal state in which humanity no longer fears war or has any use for sovereignty. But there was also Thomas Starkey, whose Dialogue between Reginald Pole and Thomas Lupset of 1530 limits the sovereign powers of the monarch by a council of nobles, judges and bishops who must be consulted in between parliaments — an early form of cabinet government. A few decades later the concept of sovereignty was elaborated by Jean Bodin, but it was in the works of Thomas Hobbes around the middle of the 17th century that the theory of sovereignty was stated in its sharpest form. In his Leviathan, he set out in unprecedented detail the rights of the sovereign power in his Commonwealth. Because the people authorise the sovereign to act on their behalf, he can do them no wrong. For the same reason sovereignty is indivisible and inalienable. It is the central idea that animates Hobbesian political philosophy: “For by Art is created that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth, or state (in latin civitas) which is but an Artificial Man . . . in which the Sovereignty is an Artificial Soul, as giving life and motion to the whole body . . .”

The Trump doctrine is pure Hobbes. The President follows the philosopher in insisting that his own exercise of sovereignty, at home and abroad, is identical with that of the people: “I was elected, not to take power, but to give power to the American people, where it belongs.” By projecting power in the world, he is carrying out his sovereign duty to the American people. To delegate any of that power, for example to international institutions, would be a dereliction of duty. America under Trump will defend the West, but will do so on its own terms, subject to no constraints other than self-imposed ones. President Trump sees his own election as a sacred covenant, not between himself and the electorate, but between all Americans, to authorise him and his actions for his term of office. Hobbes would have approved: “This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather (to speak more reverently) that Mortal God, to which we owe under the Immortal God, our peace and defence.”

How alien to European ears all this sounds! In unconscious imitation of the defunct mysteries of the Holy Roman Empire, the EU institutions have not so much divided as diffused sovereignty among their councils and commissions, courts and parliament, their presidents and high representatives, with their laws so numerous that leaving the Union is testing the ingenuity and patience of the oldest legislature in the world, the British Parliament. Where sovereignty lies, on which side of the dividing line in Europe between national and supranational, where indeed that line is to be drawn, depends on whom you ask, but the guiding principle is clear enough: sovereignty is located as far as possible from the democratic will of the people. Hence the shock of being confronted with undivided sovereignty, all too palpably personified in Donald Trump. He might as well be a Leviathan, a monster from the deep. For the nation state in its purest form, that he represents, is the antithesis of the “shared sovereignty” of the European Union. Indeed, Mr Trump (following Hobbes) would deny the very possibility of shared sovereignty; to him the concept is simply incoherent. Without sovereignty, many Americans would agree, “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

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