What is Sovereignty?

By: Šárka Humlová

Sovereignty is one of the major concepts that underpin the theory of IR. The analysis of the international system is still dominated by the traditional view of sovereignty, which defines sovereignty as the supreme authority within a defined territorial jurisdiction (Philpott 2016: 1) and in which states are considered to be the core units of the international society (Visoka 2018).

Since sovereignty is seen as a fundamental characteristic of statehood, it is central to the way that states “are approached by both scholars and international actors” (Bouris and Kyris 2017: 758).

The origins of this classical view can be traced back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, more specifically to the writings of philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin, which were influenced by the political and religious conflicts of that time (Jackson 2007).

The traditional view of sovereignty forms one of the basic analytical assumptions of some of the dominant IR theories, such as neorealism or neoliberal institutionalism (Krasner 2001a).

Sovereignty is seen as absolute, since it is portrayed as the “exclusive and ultimate source of authority on its territory” (Caspersen 2012: 13).

This political authority is based not only on the coercive power of the entity but also its legitimacy, which is derived from some sort of a consensus-based source such as divine right, international law, or a constitution (Philpott 2016: 3).

In the contemporary international system, a body of law is the most common source of sovereignty providing the rights to command and be obeyed (ibid).

Another important aspect of traditional sovereignty is its territoriality; this allows for the state, as the holder of sovereignty, to employ its political authority over the population that resides within its borders (idem: 4).

Essentially there are two aspects of sovereignty - its internal and external dimension, which Philpott (2016: 6) argues to be “coexistent and omnipresent”. While internal sovereignty refers to the supreme authority over a territory, external sovereignty is related to the state not being legally subject to any external authority.

In the international system, external sovereignty can be observed through the acceptance (even if not always observance) of the norm of non- intervention with regards to the governance of sovereign states, which is enshrined in several articles of the UN Charter.

Still, part of state’s external sovereignty has been curtailed since 1945 due to the establishment of the international convention on human rights as well as the commitment to the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ together with other international norms.

The internal and external aspects of sovereignty are traditionally seen as indivisible, hence an entity that lacks external sovereignty could not be considered to be sovereign. Following this line of argumentation, any political entity must always be recognised as sovereign by other states in order to be considered a state (Agnew 2005: 439).

Moreover, sovereignty is also traditionally seen in binary terms, in which states are either sovereign or not sovereign but it does not allow for different degrees of sovereignty (Caspersen 2012).

This conceptualization of state sovereignty increases the chances of encountering unrecognized countries, since it prevents these entities “from attaining juridical recognition of [their] empirical success[es]” (Pegg 1998: 126).

More recently, this traditional view of sovereignty has been criticised from both within the field of IR as well as from other disciplines such as political geography (Agnew 2005).

This critique challenges, among others, some of the main assumptions - its unlimited and ahistorical nature, the presumed equality among sovereign states and the territoriality of the concept.

According to this critique sovereignty is multifaceted with a range of different forms and both article 2(4) and article 2(7) refer to aspects of external sovereignty and the norm of non- intervention in general meanings that allow for it to be seen as a matter of degree (Lake 2003).

While in the traditional sense, sovereignty is treated as ‘given’ and ‘ahistorical’ due to the assumption that it is acquired exogenously (Agnew 2005: 440), scholars from the constructivist have challenged this assumption.

Although constructivists agree that territory, authority, population and international recognition are the main components of state sovereignty, they contend that all of these aspects are socially constructed (Biersteker and Weber 1996: 3).

This essentially means that state sovereignty is a product of the practices and interactions among diplomats, states-people and intellectuals, who try to “paper over persistent anomalies to make them appear to be consistent with the [...] pristine Westphalian ideal” (ibid). For constructivists, sovereignty is therefore endogenous to the international system and so it “is neither fixed nor constant” (Visoka 2018: 26).

These scholars also acknowledge the role of specific linguistic and performative practices in the construction of sovereignty (ibid). Finally, this construction of sovereignty through practices inevitably means that sovereignty changes over time rather than being ahistorical as is assumed by the classical view.

Constructivist perspective addresses the presumed ahistorical nature by exposing the role of social construction with regards to this concept; however, it does not address the other assumptions of the traditional conceptualisation of sovereignty.

One of which is the belief that “absolute sovereignty is exercised equally by all states” (Agnew 2005: 441).

This presumed equality is not only challenged by the “obvious reality of hierarchy in power between actors in world politics” (idem: 440) but also by the disparities in political authority between the regions, which has to some extent been caused by the imperial past.

This leaves some regions with ‘unrealized’ sovereignty as they cannot overcome some of the restrictions placed on them by the more powerful states (as well as other actors) (Inayatullah and Blaney 1995) .

This disparity in ‘power’ is also closely linked to the assumption of ‘absolute sovereignty’, since there are numerous instances that challenge this.

In the recent years the challenge to absolute sovereignty has mainly been discussed with regards to globalisation (Krasner 2001b); however there are also other examples such as the ‘shared sovereignty’ arrangements in Hong Kong and membership of some international organizations (especially the EU); which together with contested states as well as other anomalous situations (e.g. government in Bosnia and Herzegovina or Irish and British collaboration in Northern Ireland) show just how.

Although this argument faces the danger of assuming that sovereignty has only been realized in the ‘West’ and is absent elsewhere (Agnew 2005: 440).

widespread the exceptions to the widely-presumed assumption of absolute sovereignty are (Agnew 2005: 441).

This is further built upon by Krasner (2001a: 231-233), which defines four different elements of sovereignty that allow for the analysis of the concept in a matter of different degrees. He defines these elements as follows:

1) International legal sovereignty, which represents mutual recognition.

2) Westphalian sovereignty defined as the exclusion of external sources of authority both de jure and de facto.

3) Domestic Sovereignty refers to the authority structures and their ability to regulate behaviour; and last but not least.

4) Interdependence sovereignty meaning the ability of states to control movement across their borders (ibid).

While the first two elements are concerned with the aspect of external sovereignty, the remaining two are a focus of internal (also sometimes termed de facto or empirical) sovereignty.

The possibility of using this conceptualisation for determining different degrees of sovereignty has been identified by numerous scholars, and it is enhanced further by Krasner’s argument that it is possible for a political entity to have one type of sovereignty but not the others (Caspersen 2012: 15).

This in turn supports the argument that unrecognized countries exhibit some degree of sovereignty, as it is neither absolute nor indivisible (ibid). In her research Caspersen (2012: 121) shows that unrecognized countries do in fact exhibit internal sovereignty, although it takes ‘a specific form’ as it differs in some respects from the sovereignty exhibited by recognized states.

In recent literature contested states, especially Kosovo, has been associated with the principle of ‘earned sovereignty’, according to which external sovereignty can be (in part) obtained through the observance of some key liberal norms including democratic rights and values together with human and minority rights (Berg and Mölder 2012: 528).

This principle implies that the unrecognized countries’ internal sovereignty and capabilities should influence the prospects for their international recognition.

However, while a bad human rights record may prevent international engagement with the entity, a good human rights record is not in itself a guarantee of an eventual recognition of the entity (Toomla 2014: 173).

Thus, contested states’ sovereignty in general and international recognition in particular remain highly political issues that do not conform to the traditional views.

The final challenge to the traditional view of sovereignty comes mainly from the field of political geography and it addresses the assumption of territoriality.

Agnew (2005: 441) argues that due to the socially constructed nature of sovereignty as a political authority, it can be “exercised non-territorially or in scattered pockets” and it is therefore not defined by fixed territorial boundaries.

This is also related to the political authority not being restricted to states, as there are and always have been competing sources of authority.

These competing sources of authority can range from religious institutions, non-governmental organizations, businesses, social movements to international organizations (idem: 442), which are often not confined to a territorially defined state.

Considering the significant amount of criticism that is associated with the classical view of sovereignty as absolute and territorially delineated, it should be clear that this definition is “at best an approximation” (Caspersen 2012: 6).

For this reason, the more nuanced

understanding of the concept that has been advocated for by the critics of the traditional conceptualisation, which claims that sovereignty is versatile, socially constructed, not territorially confined to a state, and can be portrayed as a matter of degree.


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