Eric Brahm

September 2004

The Concept of Sovereignty

Sovereignty is the central organizing principle of the system of states. However, it is also one of the most poorly understood concepts in international relations. This confusion emerges from at least two sources. First, as will be discussed below, sovereignty is in fact a relatively recent innovation connected to the emergence of the nation-state as the primary unit of political organization. Second, what is more, a number of contemporary issues have placed increasing limits on the exercise of sovereign authority. These two factors raise questions about the fixity of the concept of sovereignty often assumed by international relations scholars. A more sophisticated view of sovereignty now envisions states and nonstate actors as engaged in a continual process of renegotiating the nature of sovereignty.[1]

At its core, sovereignty is typically taken to mean the possession of absolute authority within a bounded territorial space. There is essentially an internal and external dimension of sovereignty. Internally, a sovereign government is a fixed authority with a settled population that possesses a monopoly on the use of force. It is the supreme authority within its territory. Externally, sovereignty is the entry ticket into the society of states. Recognition on the part of other states helps to ensure territorial integrity and is the entree into participating in diplomacy and international organizations on an equal footing with other states.

Historical Development

The international system was not always arranged in terms of sovereign states. Through the Middle Ages alternative feudal arrangements governed Europe and city-states lasted up until the modern period. The development of a system of sovereign states culminated in Europe at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. This agreement essentially allowed the ruler to determine the religion within his borders, but it also represents both the internal and external aspects of sovereignty. (Internal sovereignty means supreme authority within one's territory, while external sovereignty relates to the recognition on the part of all states that each possesses this power in equal measure.) As Europe colonized much of the rest of the world from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the state system spread around the globe. Through this time, sovereign authority was clearly not extended to non-Europeans. However, the process of drawing boundaries to clearly demarcate borders would be critical for defining sovereign states during decolonization.

The second, current, movement appears to be the gradual circumscription of the sovereign state, which began roughly after World War II and continues to the present. Much of international law, at least until WWII, was designed to reinforce sovereignty. However, driven by the horrors of the Nazi genocide and the lessons of the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, the society of states forged a series of agreements under the auspices of the United Nations that committed states to protect the human rights of their own citizens, a restriction on authority whiting the state. The post-war period also saw the growth of intergovernmental organizations to help govern interstate relations in areas ranging from trade and monetary policy to security and a host of other issue areas. At the same time, much of the non-Western world gained their independence in the decades after World War II, setting up a scenario in which many of the new states were not fully sovereign.[2] Granting former colonies independence and recognizing them as sovereign states, they joined intergovernmental organizations and were ostensibly the equals of European states. At the same time, there was a general lack of capacity to govern the state, combined with arbitrarily drawn borders, that left different groups leery at best in providing a government with supreme authority. Today, sovereignty is essentially based on borders, not any capacity on the part of governments. This was adopted because it was the only means for so many colonies to become independent quickly.[3] Now, sovereignty also entitles developing states to development assistance.

As a result, in many instances, these post-colonial states have lacked the internal dimension of sovereignty.

Contemporary Challenges

Although many see threats to state sovereignty from a wide variety of sources, many of these can be grouped in three broad areas: the rise of human rights, economic globalization, and the growth of supranational institutions, the latter being partially driven by economic integration and the cause of human rights.

The emergence of human rights as a subject of concern in international law effects sovereignty because these agreed upon principles place clear limits on the authority of governments to act within their borders. The growth of multinational corporations and the free flow of capital have placed constraints on states' ability to direct economic development and fashion social and economic policy. Finally, both to facilitate and to limit the more troubling effects of these developments, along with a range of other purposes, supranational organizations have emerged as a significant source of authority that, at least to some degree, place limits on state sovereignty. It is too early to tell for certain, but recent US action in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest that sovereignty will be further constrained in the fight against transnational terrorism.

The Protection of Human Rights

The United Nations Charter contains a contradiction that has become ever more troublesome,e particularly after the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, the Charter contains clear defense of the territorial integrity of states, a reaction to Nazi aggression during World War II. At the same time, it also contains commitments to individual human rights and the rights of groups to self-determination. Conventions on genocide, torture, and the like restricted state behavior within its own borders. Regional organizations were articulating human rights principles as well. The growth of human rights law limits sovereignty by providing individuals rights vis-B-vis the state. However, in the context of the Cold War, US-Soviet rivalry paralyzed the Security Council and it rarely acted in defense of these principles.

At the same time, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) emerged in the 1960s-70s fighting for the cause of human rights. Groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch serve as watchdogs to publicize the human rights record of governments limiting state action in some ways.[4] The publicity is sometimes enough to alter state behavior. At other times, the information serves to prompt other states to apply diplomatic pressure, economic sanctions, and increasingly common to contemplate humanitarian intervention.

In the 1990s, the Security Council began to reinterpret the Charter to more frequently favor human rights over the protection of state sovereignty. Through a series of resolutions, the United Nations has justified intervention in the internal affairs of states without their acquiescence.[5] In cases such as Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the Security Council has gradually expanded the definition of international threats to peace and security to justify intervention in circumstances that would have been inconceivable in the past. At the same time, as these cases and Rwanda show, states are often only willing to risk their troops when there is some national interest at stake. There is also great reluctance to interpret any of these instances as precedent-setting as states fear they may be the target of intervention in the future.

Economic Globalization

For many, economic globalization places significant limits on the behavior of nation-states at present. For those who see the retreat of the nation-state, the growing power of unaccountable market forces and international organizations provokes calls for change.[6] As will be further elaborated below, the growth of multilateral institutions to manage the global economy constrains state action.[7] The increasing mobility of capital has led states to pursue increasingly similar policies along the neo-liberal model.[8] Given the intensification of global competition, government spending and revenue-generation are increasingly constrained.[9] While some do not go so far as to declare the end of the welfare state, many see a worldwide convergence toward a more limited welfare state.[10] Others find that, while the tasks of the state may be changing, the state very much remains the key driver of globalization processes.[11] That is not to say that all states have equal influence in the process. Nor can the outcomes be reduced to strictly positive or negative because the multitude of processes involved impact different states in different ways.[12]

Supranational Organizations

Given the emergence of a whole range of transborder issues from economic globalization to the environment to terrorism, one of the key discussions surrounds whether the nation-state is obsolete as the best form of political organization to deal with these problems. Economic and social processes increasingly fail to conform to nation-state borders, making it increasingly difficult for states to control their territory, a central component of sovereignty. This raises important questions about the proper site of political authority. As governance structures are established at the global level to deal with the growing number of global problems, debate has ensued as to how to make these arrangements accountable and democratic.

Many organizations are state-based, such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, or the European Union. Therefore, in principle, states are firmly in control and any ceding of sovereign authority is in their interest to do so. However, bureaucracies, once established, often seek to carve out additional authority for themselves. States also may find functional benefit in ceding authority to supranational organizations.[13]

What is more, a whole range of private organizations have emerged to infringe on sovereign authority as well. In addition to human rights NGOs discussed above, global civil society organizations have emerged around numerous issues. Civil society groups have had a growing, yet uneven, effect on nation-states and international organizations.[14] In addition, as economic interdependence grows, private governance arrangements, such as the Bank for International Settlements, are also becoming more prevalent.[15] Private security organizations even conduct war on behalf of states, whether as mercenaries in western African civil wars or as contractors to the US military around the world.[16]

Together all of this suggests that the concept of sovereignty is under considerable pressure. Some aspects of sovereignty still exist and are honored in most circumstances, but many inroads are being made into state authority by many actors in many different circumstances. Where this will lead has yet to be determined.

[1] Biersteker, T. J. and C. Weber, Eds. (1996). State Sovereignty as Social Construct. New York: Cambridge University Press. <>.

[2] Krasner, S. (1996). Compromising Westphalia. International Security. 20(3): 472-96. <>.

[3] Jackson, R. H. (1993). Quasi-States: Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Third World. New York: Cambridge University Press. <>.

[4] Sikkink, K. (1993). "Human-Rights, Principled Issue-Networks, and Sovereignty in Latin-America." International Organization 47(3): 411-441. <>.

[5] Nicholas J. Wheeler. (2000). Saving Strangers. New York: Oxford University Press. <>.

[6] Khor, M. (2001). Rethinking Globalization: Critical Issues and Policy Choices. New York: Zed Books. <> ; Korten, D. (2001). When Corporations Rule the World. Bloomfield CT: Kumarian Press. <>.

[7] Ohmae, K. (2005). The Next Global Stage: Challenges and Opportunities in Our Borderless World. Wharton School Publishing. <>; Reich, R. (2010). The Work of Nations. New York: Random House Digital, Inc.; Rosenau, J.N. (1997). Along the Domestic-Foreign Frontier. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. <>; Sassen, S. (1996). Losing Control? Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization. New York: Columbia University Press.

[8] Amin, S. (1997). Capitalism in the Age of Globalization. London: Zed Press.; Gill, S. (1995); Globalization, Market Civilization and Disciplinary Neoliberalism. Millennium. 24(3); Greider, W. (1997). One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism. New York: Simon and Schuster; Hoogvelt, A. (2001). Globalization and the Postcolonial World: The New Political Economy of Development. London: Macmillan; Luttwak, E. (2000). Turbo-Capitalism. New York: Basic Books. <>; Scholte, J.A. (1997). Global Capitalism and the State. International Affairs. 73(3): 427-452; Strange, S. (1996). The Retreat of the State. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Yergin, D.A. and Stanislaw, J. (2002). The Commanding Heights. New York: Simon and Schuster. <>.

[9] Cox, R. (1997). Economic Globalization and the Limits to Liberal Democracy. In A. McGrew. ed. The Transformation of Democracy? Globalization and Territorial Democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press. <>.; Frieden, J. (1991). Invested Interests: The Politics of National Economic Policies in a World of Global Finance. International Organization. 45(4).; Garrett, G. and Lange, P. (1991). Political Responses to Interdependence: What's "Left" for the Left? International Organization. 45(4).; Gourevitch, P. (1986). Politics in Hard Times. New York: Cornell University Press.; Gray, J. (1998). False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism. New York: The New Press. Updated edition (2010) available here.; Greider (1997); Reich (1991); Scholte (1997).

[10] Gourevitch (1986); Gray (1998); Pieper, U. and Taylor, L. (1998). The Revival of the Liberal Creed: The IMF, the World Bank and Inequality in a Globalized Economy. In D. Baker, G. Epstein and R. Podin. eds. Globalization and Progressive Economic Policy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. <>; Rodrik, D. (1997). Sense and Nonsense in the Globalization Debate. Foreign Policy. (Summer).

[11] Evans, P. (1997). The Eclipse of the State. World Politics 50: 62-87.; Garrett, G. (1998). Global Markets and National Politics: Collision Course or Virtuous Circle' International Organization. 52(4): 787-824.

[12] Mann, M. (1997). Has Globalization Ended the Rise of the Nation-State?" Review of International Political Economy. 4(3): 472-96.

[13] Haas, E. B. (1961). "International Integration: The European and the Universal Process." International Organization 15(3): 366-392.; Mitrany, D. (1943). A Working Peace System: An Argument for the Functional Development of International Organization. London, The Royal Institute of International Affairs. <>.

[14] Meyer, J.W., Boli, J., Thomas, G.M., and Ramirez, F.O. (1997). World Society and the Nation-State. American Journal of Sociology. 103(1): 144-81.; O'Brien, R., Goetz, A.M., Scholte, J.A., and Williams, M. (2000). Contesting Global Governance: Multilateral Institutions and Global Social Movements. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. <>.

[15] Picciotto, S. (1997). The Regulatory Criss-Cross: Interaction Between Jurisdictions and the Construction of Global Regulatory Networks. In W. Bratton et al. eds. International Regulatory Competition and Coordination. Oxford: Clarendon. pp. 89-123. <>; Reinicke, W.H. (1998). Global Public Policy: Governing Without Government. Washington, D.C.: Bookings.

[16] P.W. Singer. (2001/02). Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry and Its Ramifications for International Security. International Security. 26(3): 186-220.

Use the following to cite this article:
Brahm, Eric. "Sovereignty." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: September 2004 <>.

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