The relevance of sovereignty

Major essay written for POLS5120: Global Politics at the University of New South Wales, Semester 1 2014. Final mark: Distinction

The concept of sovereignty is still relevant to the discipline of International Relations. Discuss.

The concept of sovereignty is fundamental to the discipline of International Relations. It is a broad and encompassing theoretical and practical application, both historically and contemporarily, and in this present day and age it is almost impossible to discuss international relations without at least referring to sovereignty and sovereign states as a core aspect. Sovereignty is generally accepted as being the concept that allows states to assert authority within a distinct territory, as well as allowing states to assert membership in the international community (Evans & Newnham 1998:504). However, there is debate amongst some scholars regarding the future of sovereignty and whether or not it should remain relevant to the discipline. This paper explores what sovereignty is, and critically examines arguments made by scholars who suggest that sovereignty is no longer relevant. This paper investigates the role of sovereignty today from both theoretical and practical perspectives. The possible shape or form sovereignty could take in the future will also be discussed. It will ultimately be argued that even though the concept of sovereignty is flawed, it is the most effective basis for contemporary world politics and is still relevant to the International Relations.

What is sovereignty? It is important to address that the various theoretical schools in International Relations, which agree on little else, all seem to concur that sovereignty is the essential feature of the modern international system (Barkin & Cronin 1994:107). Sovereignty is one of the “foremost institutions of our world”; that is, over the last few centuries, sovereignty has become a “cornerstone” of not just international relations, but of all aspects of the modern world (Jackson 1999:431). The concept is integral to the practice of International Relations, yet there is no single definition of it. Devetak defines sovereignty as “denoting a single, supreme political decision-making authority”, and that sovereignty “claims the right or authority to decide matters of interest to the state” (Devetak 2007:499). Baylis defines it as the state being “free from any higher legal authority… the state has supreme authority domestically and independence internationally” (Baylis et al 2008:587). Both are rudimentary definitions, however they, along with other definitions, share a common theme: that the state has a right to independence and control over its own affairs. What makes a state sovereign is the legitimacy of the authority of the state, and recognition by other states as a sovereign equal. The true extent of sovereignty in in both theory and practice, and debates surrounding it, however, are far more complex.

Classical perspectives of sovereignty – embodied in realist and neo-realist writings, such as those of Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Waltz – assume that the concept is absolute (Lake 2003:305). Sovereignty was traditionally believed to have arisen from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and existed as a practical matter to denote the supreme authority of a ruler over a certain territory. Externally, this rigid view of sovereignty gives rise to the idea that each state the formal equal of all other sovereign states and there is no higher authority than the state; this also makes the existence of anarchy a fact of traditional perspectives (Lake 2003:305—306). This classical perspective is criticised by other schools, particularly constructivists, who emphasise that sovereignty is socially constructed rather than an inevitability or the quintessential facet of the international system (Lake 2003:308). Barkin and Cronin are amongst those critics. They assert the rules of sovereignty are neither fixed nor constant, but rather are subject to changing interpretations (Barkin & Cronin 1994:108), particularly when observed through a historical lens. Sovereignty in the seventeenth century was very different to how sovereignty was understood by governments and states in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and different again in contemporary world politics. Modern state sovereignty has adapted for the era, where states are built on a series of monopolies and sovereignty is held by a legitimate government or authority (rather than an absolute ruler) over a recognised territory or nation (Devetak 2007:145).

Since its widespread acceptance, the concept of sovereignty has undergone various changes throughout the centuries but it has maintained general core qualities: sovereignty denotes a state’s internal authority in regards to a particular territory or population, and external authority with regard to independence in a world with an absence of a supreme international authority. Evans and Newnham claim that the concept has been “eroded on all fronts”, particularly with the rise of human rights and humanitarian intervention (1998:505); I disagree, as the concept’s continued relevance is affirmed by the fact that at the political level, it remains the only “general acceptable and practical normative basis of world politics” (Jackson 1999:456). The concept has not been eroded; rather, it is a flexible concept and capable of adapting to the world and the discipline of International Relations as it continues to evolve (Barkin & Cronin 1994). Sovereignty is too broad and too flexible a concept to assign a single, encompassing definition, though it retains core aspects of state authority and international recognition. However, no matter what form it takes or how it changes over the years to incorporate evolving theoretical and practical norms, sovereignty remains central to the discipline of International Relations.

The relevance of sovereignty is in contest by several prominent scholars in the discipline, particularly Andreas Osiander and Peter M. R. Stirk. Although it is widely accepted that sovereignty was born from the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, giving rise to the Westphalian model of international relations in play today, scholars such as Stirk and Osiander have argued that the Peace of Westphalia is a “myth”, and sovereignty had little, if nothing, to do with the Peace (Osiander 2001). Osiander adequately demonstrates that sovereignty did not originate from the Peace of Westphalia of 1648 in his detailed historical recount of the events of the seventeenth century and the Thirty Years’ War (Osiander 2001). Stirk, on the other hand, looks at the evolution of sovereignty post-Westphalia and observes how and why the linkage occurred over the following centuries. Both scholars encourage accurate and revisionist history to be acknowledged in the place of the commonly accepted story. However both also assert that the emphasis of sovereignty and the Peace of Westphalia is an impediment to contemporary International Relations (Stirk 2012). Notably, they do not offer an alternative to sovereignty as David Lake (2003) does. Osiander is too determined to dismiss the Westphalian model and sovereignty just because Westphalia is a “myth”; he does not consider that regardless of its origins sovereignty has become vital to International Relations all the same. Stirk claims the linkage is a detriment but does not elaborate how or why. Sasson Sofer is a critic of Osiander in particular, who asserts that insistence of a post-Westphalian model is “premature” (Sofer 2009:1). Although Sofer does not discuss sovereignty directly, he instead provides an argument in favour of the continued usage of the Westphalian model in effect today. Robert Jackson, like Sofer, accepts the Peace of Westphalia as the “best historical reference point for symbolizing that fundamental turn in European political life” (Jackson 1999:439) while also acknowledging that Westphalia was not a literal moment of political transformation. Sovereignty and its centrality to International Relations and world politics developed regardless of its precise point of origin. A possible solution to Osiander’s and Stirk’s concerns with the doctrine’s dedication to the story of Westphalia, and therefore the dedication to an apparent static concept, is to revise the Westphalian story and instead focus on the developments of sovereignty over time and history, taking into account the influence of Westphalian attribution. This would demonstrate that sovereignty is a flexible concept and encourage various schools of thought – realists, liberals, and structuralists alike – to view sovereignty as a basic unit of International Relations that changes over time (Barkin & Cronin 1994:130). Whilst sovereignty is a flawed social construct developed from misattributed origins, the “myth” of Westphalia does not affect the concept’s integral position in the discipline, nor does it affect its contemporary relevance.

It has been discussed that sovereignty is a flexible concept capable of adaption over time, and its contested origins and designation as a vital centrepiece to the discipline do not necessitate its irrelevance. Nor is sovereignty a hindrance to contemporary world politics. Now the theoretical and practical role of sovereignty in modern International Relations will be explored. Theoretically, sovereignty – in its modern incarnation – is what enables the states of the modern political world to interact on a relative equal basis. The Charter of the United Nations (1945) is one such example of this theory. Chapter 1, Article 2(1) states, “the Organization is based on the principle of sovereign equality of all its Members.” (UN Charter 1945). Of the 196 countries in the world, 193 are member states in the United Nations, and on a theoretical basis they are sovereign equals to each other. Sovereignty from a purely and theoretical view, then, is a social construct vital to how states function alongside each other and interact in the modern world. On an official level it can be seen to do the same, as exemplified in the UN Charter, however rarely are theoretical declarations translated into practice so tidily. Sovereignty, for example, is often at conflict with transnational and global issues, humanitarian intervention being one of them. Humanitarian intervention, which is the coercive interference in a sovereign state to prevent or end massive human rights violations (Devetak 2007:493), is permitted in theory and was greeted with “positive” reactions upon its introduction to the UN, but its practical application in the past has usually been heavily contested and controversial (Weiss 2012:137—138). The UN Charter itself finds it difficult to declare a firm ruling on state sovereignty and when humanitarian intervention is required. Robertson states that the “Westphalian doctrine of state sovereignty remains embodied in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, which prohibits intervention in matters ‘essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state’.” (Robertson 2008:615). One of Stirk’s concerns with the dedication the discipline has to sovereignty is that “the standard account of sovereign equality and Westphalia sets up a norm that fails to account for the behaviour of states and often for the justification of the behaviour” (Stirk 2012:659—660). This is a legitimate issue with the accepted concept of sovereignty in contemporary world politics, as sovereignty is often at conflict with human rights; for example, when states abuse their sovereignty and their citizens’ human rights, the possibility of humanitarian intervention and Responsibility To Protect (R2P) is often hindered by a state’s control over its own affairs. The international failure at Rwanda 1994 is a prime example.

There is also the question of whether states are all truly sovereign and autonomous in reality. Jackson brings up the issue of how economics and sovereignty are related; that is, in this present era of globalisation and transnationalism, even independent states may have very little economic autonomy (1999:423). Jackson discusses Canada to demonstrate his point: like all independent sovereign states, Canada has the authority to manage its own affairs and issue its own currency – the USA does not have authority to do that in Canada (Jackson 1999:423). However, economic interdependence for Canada and other countries in similar circumstances is a “hollow” right, because while “monetary policy is set in Canada, the value of the Canadian dollar is heavily dependent on American monetary policy and on international currency markets” (Jackson 1999:423). Canada and other similar sovereign states have the right to their own currency, but have limited power to determine the value of that currency in this age of globalisation. In this era there are many issues, including but not limited to economic dependency, climate change, and human rights, that are transnational and blur the lines of traditional sovereignty.

Non-Western states are at a disadvantage in the Westphalian model (Pourmokhtari 2013). The discipline of International Relations is dominated by western intellectual tradition that privileges the concept of sovereignty (Pourmokhtari 2013:1771). Pourmokhtari shows particular attention to how sovereignty is primarily a European and Western construct, and that in theory and in practice sovereignty favours Western countries and especially liberal democracies (2013). Pourmokhtari discusses Doyle’s democratic peace theory, which claims that liberal democracies will never go to war with each other and almost never experience civil war or internal conflicts (2013:1771). The dominance of sovereignty in International Relations is a clear prejudice towards Western ideology; Pourmokhtari argues that it forcibly targets “non-democratic others” and Western liberal democratic actors “retain the right to impose their values and goals on the non-West… in the name of equipping them to take on the role of the sovereign state, even though historically their efforts in this regard have had mixed or controversial results” (2013:1786). Sovereignty requires sovereignty, though it has not always been naturally occurring. The Westphalian model has often been intolerant of cultures and tribes that do not fit the mould. Sovereignty in contemporary world politics has had, and continues to have, a strong Western influence. It is a social construct, but nonetheless it is here now. Over the past twenty or so years, sovereignty has been adapting to and facing realities unforseen or ignored by Realists, such as transnational and global issues. Despite its major flaws, such as Western prejudice and slow change in response to transnational concerns, “at present there is no other world-wide political institution that can perform [a practical normative basis of world politics] for humankind” (Jackson 1999:456).

The modern world is constantly changing and evolving: nothing, including the concept of sovereignty, is static. The impact of globalisation on international relations has affected not only the traditional definition of sovereignty, but allowed for critics to challenge sovereignty’s relevance. In theory and in practice, sovereignty is an imperfect social construct, but at present it is the primary organising principle of world politics (Evans & Newnham 1998:505). But what is sovereignty’s future? The concept is still relevant in contemporary international relations, for all its flaws and restrictions, but will it continue to be viable? Hyperglobalists such as Kenichi Ohmae see globalisation as one day “hollowing out” the state and depriving it of power over its monopolies (Devetak 2007:145). This is perhaps an over-exaggeration of the future; sovereignty is adapting to the rise of non-government actors and transnational/global issues. Other scholars, such as David Lake, suggest alternatives to the contemporary incarnation of sovereignty. One such alternative Lake wishes to consider is to incorporate hierarchy into our understanding of sovereignty, as hierarchy has “always been an important part of international relations” (2003:319). Lake writes that “uncovering hierarchy in international politics is a double-edge sword” due to its imperialistic past, but its incorporation may allow for the “closer scrutiny” of sovereign states who use their sovereignty to “hide abhorrent behaviour” from the international community (Lake 2003:320). Rolf Weber suggests a concept of “shared responsibility” in the face of global governance changes (2010:12). Weber suggests that the emergence of a participatory process and a concept of cooperative sovereignty is “vital”, as it may open the gateway for fundamental rights protection, not only at the national level but also at the international level (2010:19). However, he also acknowledges that sovereignty is “deeply interwoven into the fabric of international law, and to abandon wholesale the concept of sovereignty requires very serious thoughts about the substitute that could efficiently fill the gaps left by its absence” (Weber 2010:12). This world is constantly evolving. Sovereignty will need to adapt: its traditional version will not be sustainable as the world continues to develop. Fortunately sovereignty is a flexible concept and has already been shown to be capable of changing with the global system. Whether the incorporation of hierarchy or shared state sovereignty in the future is practical, or whether sovereignty continues to exist in its contemporary incarnation, it cannot be denied that sovereignty is and will remain relevant to International Relations.

Sovereignty does not mean the same thing it did a hundred, or even fifty, years ago. The traditional meaning of sovereignty as something absolute has adapted to the modern world. The concept of sovereignty has not been “eroded”; it is a flexible concept, capable of change. Nor are arguments that sovereignty is irrelevant due to the doctrine’s misplaced emphasis on Westphalia and dedication to the Westphalian model substantial. Although sovereignty in its current form is still very flawed and restricted on both a theoretical and practical basis, it is capable of future change as world politics and international relations develop. Sovereignty is still, and will continue to be, relevant to international relations.



Barkin, S. J. and Cronin, B. 1994, ‘The state and the nation: changing norms and the rules of sovereignty in international relations’, International Organization, vol. 48(01), pp. 107—130.

Baylis, J., Smith, S., and Owens, P. (eds) 2008, The Globalization of World Politics, 4th Edition, Oxford University Press, New York.

Devetak, R., Burke, A., and George, J. (eds) 2007, An Introduction to International Relations, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Evans, G. & Newnham, J. 1998, Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin Books, London.

Jackson, R. 1999, ‘Sovereignty in World Politics: A Glance at the Conceptual and Historical Landscape’, Political Studies, vol. 47(3), pp. 431—456.

Lake, D. 2003, ‘The New Sovereignty in International Relations’, International Studies Review, vol. 5(3), pp. 303—324.

Osiander, A. 2001, ‘Sovereignty, International Relations and the Westphalian Myth’, International Organization, vol. 55(2), pp. 251—288.

Pourmokhtari, N. 2013, ‘A Postcolonial Critique of State Sovereignty in IR: the contradictory legacy of a ‘West-centric’ discipline’, Third World Quarterly, vol. 34(10), pp. 1767—1793.

Robertson, G. 2008, Crimes Against Humanity, Penguin Books, London.

Sofer, S. 2009, ‘The Prominence of Historical Demarcations: Westphalia and the New World Order’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol. 20(1), pp. 1—19.

Stirk, P. M. R. 2012, ‘The Westphalian model and sovereign equality’, Review of International Studies, vol. 38(3), pp. 641—660.

United Nations 1945, Charter of the United Nations,

Weber, R. H. 2010, ‘New sovereignty concepts in the age of the Internet?’, Journal of Internet Law, vol. 14(2), pp. 12—20.

Weiss, T. G. 2012, What’s Wrong with the United Nations and How to Fix It, 2nd Edition, Polity Press, United Kingdom.






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