Donald Trump’s assault on the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is an assault on the national sovereignty of the United States. By bolloxing up the postal system to interfere with voting in this year’s election and a reliance on voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has done more than severely damage a critical national infrastructure. The U.S. Post Office is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution as a protected government service. The Postal System is not a business and was never meant to be one. It is a service provided by the federal government to its citizens.
America’s first Postmaster-General, Benjamin Franklin, considered the postal service to be a glue that held the thirteen American colonies of Britain together as they transitioned into the United States of America.
Trump’s aggression against the constitutionally-protected USPS is partly an attempt to move to privatization of the USPS, which is what occurred with Britain’s Royal Mail in 2013, thanks to a decision by the Conservative government. Trump’s political base includes a number of far right-wing “sovereign citizens,” who do not recognize the authority or jurisdiction of the USPS to transport mail and set postal rates, making the postal system a favorite target for the sovereign citizens movement and associated libertarians.
Even as the world relies more and more on electronic mail and digital distribution of information, nations continue to maintain their issuance of postage stamps by public, private, or hybrid postal authorities. FedEx, UPS, or DHL shipping labels do not convey a spirit of national sovereignty. Postage stamps, first-day covers, and other philatelic instruments are what help to instill pride by citizens in their nations. The European Union may have switched from national currencies to the Euro, but member states continued to maintain their separate postal systems that issued their own stamps.
Iceland stopped printing new postage stamps because digital communications reduced demand. However, Iceland, which has a rich postal history, is maintaining its current stockpile of postage stamps and not eliminating them. In 2012, when there were calls to eliminate the production of postage stamps in Israel due to the domination of digital communications, the head of the Israeli Philatelic Service said what is on the minds of every postal employee and people around the world, “A stamp has the same status as a currency bill, the flag or the national anthem. It is an indicator of national sovereignty that must be protected.” Stamps also shed light on the political and social issues of the most concern to a nation’s or territory’s government and population.
In January 1863, the requirement of the Italian postal authorities that mail originating in the independent Republic of San Marino, an enclave surrounded by Italy, have affixed on letters Italian postage stamps when sent into Italy. The first postal treaty between Italy and San Marino required San Marino mail to carry Italian stamps. However, the Sammarinese authorities date-cancelled Italian stamps with blue ink the following: “REPUBLIC OF SEAN MARINO.” Blue is the national color of San Marino. The Italian postal authorities objected to the San Marino cancellation stamp and claimed the blue ink corroded the Italian postage stamps. The bickering between San Marino and Italy resulted in a new Sammarinese-Italian treaty in 1877 that permitted San Marino to issue its own postage stamps. The separate San Marino postal service was a critical element in the republic’s de facto, as well as de jure, independence from Italy.
Far from being a pejorative, the term “postage stamp” country has been used to describe ministates like San Marino, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Vatican City, and even extraterritorial properties of the United Nations in New York and Geneva and the Sovereign Order of Malta in Rome. Yet, it is precisely because these political entities maintain their own postal systems that adds to their legitimacy as sovereignties.
The Isle of Man, Guernsey, and Jersey maintain their own postal systems as a way of declaring to the rest of the world that they are not part of the United Kingdom but self-governing crown dependencies of the British Queen.
Conversely, when a postal system is constrained or marginalized, there is a direct correlation to loss of sovereignty. The Oslo Accords afforded the Palestinian Authority the opportunity to create its own postal system. However, Israel’s constant pressure to limit Palestinian authority resulted in Palestinian postage stamps being required to include “Palestinian Council” or “Palestinian Authority” as the country description. Israel protested when the first Palestinian stamps were issued in 1994 and the Palestinians were forced to overprint their stamps with Jordanian currency values. Initially, Israel did not recognize Palestinian stamps, which were only recognized by other members of the Arab League. Israeli and American pressure on the Universal Postal Union (UPU), which did not admit Palestine as a member state, also hindered the effectiveness of the Palestinian postal authority. In 2009, when administration of Palestine was split between the West Bank and Gaza, both entities began issuing their own stamps, with only those authorized by the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah being recognized internationally. The two separate postal authorities diminished Palestine’s de jure and de facto sovereignty as stipulated by the Oslo Accords.
One of the reasons why the United States government prevents various tribal nations, with which the U.S. signed international treaties, from establishing separate postal authorities is that such a move would help convey actual sovereignty to these alleged “sovereign” nations. The United States continues to restrain the independence of three former U.S. Trust Territories in the Pacific – the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau – by maintaining de facto control over their postal systems.
Postal authority and the issue of sovereignty have served to inflame tensions between China and Vietnam over the ownership of the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. In 2016, Vietnam protested China issuing stamps commemorating the “70th anniversary of the recovery” of the Spratly and Paracel Islands. The Chinese stamps depicted five lighthouses constructed by China on five Spratly Island reefs, which Vietnam claim as Truong Sa. One of the first acts after the United States withdrew from the Vietnam conflict was China occupying the Paracel Islands. Vietnam believes that postal authority is synonymous with sovereignty. In 2014, Vietnam opened up two post offices on Sin h Ton Island and Truong Sa Island in the Spratly archipelago. China established a post office on Woody Island in the Paracel archipelago to reinforce its claim to the island.
In 1982, when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands, a British territory, one of the first acts of the Argentine government was to secure the post office in Port Stanley, the Falklands capital. The Argentine postal personnel began cancelling Falklands mail with “Republica Argentina.” However, the UPU does not recognize foreign cachet cancellations on stamps and such mail sent from the Falklands was rejected and returned by the postal authorities of other countries. Thereafter, Argentine postal authorities on the Falklands began using their own stamps until British forces re-captured the islands. After the Argentine occupation of the Falklands, letters or packages sent to the “Falkland Islands” via Buenos Aires were returned by Argentine postal authorities with the following cachet: “Return to sender. Postal services to the Falkland Islands/ Islas Malvinas, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands have been interrupted due to the illegitimate occupation of these islands by Great Britain. These islands form part of the territory of the Republic of Argentina and are subject to her sovereignty.” Even in wartime postal authority over territory holds both a strategic and tactical advantage.
The attack on the U.S. Postal Service by the Trump administration is, in effect, a peacetime attack on the national sovereignty of the United States.