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date: 19 March 2018

Articulations of Sovereignty

Summary and Keywords

Sovereignty has been variously understood as the given principle of international relations, an institution, a social construct, a performative discourse subject to historical transformation, or a particular practice of power. The “articulations” of sovereignty refer to sovereignty as a practice that is worked on and in turn works with and against other practices. Alongside territory and supreme authority, sovereignty is characterized by the capacity to make and enforce laws. Sovereignty has also been defined in opposition to rights, as the spatiotemporal limits it instantiates are also the limits of rights. Another conceptualization of sovereignty has been revived in international relations, partly in response to the question of exclusions and limits that sovereign practices enacted. In addition, sovereignty is not inextricably tied up with the state but is articulated with heterogeneous and contradictory discourses and practices that create meaning about the international, and has consequences for the kind of community, politics, and agency that are possible. There are three effects of the logic of sovereignty in the international system: the ordering of the domestic and the international, the spatio-temporal limits to politics, and the exclusions from agency. In addition, there are three renditions of the international as a “thick” social space: those of globalization theories, of biopolitics, and of empire.

Keywords: sovereignty, cultural studies, articulations of sovereignty, sovereign practices, political power, politics, human rights, violence


Sovereignty is simultaneously one of the more revered and reviled concepts in international relations (IR). Long taken for granted as the ontological founding concept of the discipline, sovereignty has gradually become the locus of debates about the conditions of possibility for change and transformation, and the limits of politics and agency. Rather than objectively given and inseparable from the “state,” sovereignty fosters and reproduces meanings and creates the conditions of possibility for political agency. It authorizes disparate subjects as sovereign agents and it inscribes heterogeneous bodies as its margins or its outside.

“Articulations of sovereignty” considers sovereignty as a practice that is worked on and in turn works with and against other practices. Articulation is one of the main theoretical and methodological concepts in cultural studies, particularly used by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (2001) and Stuart Hall (1986). According to Laclau and Mouffe (2001:105), articulation refers to “any practice establishing a relation among elements such that their identity is modified as a result of the articulatory practice.” Articulation names the process through which unity is created out of fragmentation and identity out of difference. Analyzing articulations means unpacking the context of fragmentation, difference, and heterogeneous social forces that is tentatively rendered univocal. “Articulations of sovereignty” is about the ambiguities, antagonisms, and paradoxes making up the workings of sovereignty in international politics.

Sovereignty is not inextricably tied up with the state – even if “state sovereignty” remains a dominant reference in IR – but is articulated with heterogeneous and contradictory discourses and practices that create meaning about the international. As “a fundamental principle, a supporting structure, a base on which society rests, a fund of authority capable of endowing possibilities, accrediting action, and fixing limitations” (Ashley and Walker 1990:382), sovereignty has consequences for the kind of community, politics, and agency that are possible. How does sovereignty function in international politics, what limits, subjectivities, and dominations does it reproduce, and what “margins, silences and bottom rungs” (Enloe 1996) does it exclude from the purview of politics?

To answer this question, the essay will proceed in four stages. The first section engages with the logic of sovereignty to sketch out how it instantiates and reproduces particular ordered communities, limits, and exclusions. Distinctions between the domestic and the international, between the space and time of politics, and between sovereign and “lesser” subjects will be considered as the main elements of the logic of sovereignty. The second section moves on to consider how the logic of sovereignty can be understood when articulated with the changing power relations of what is often called “late modernity.” Narratives about the transformation of the international system carry particular renditions of the transformation of (state) sovereignty: eroded, divided, graduated, intensified, imperial, or reasserted, sovereignty has mounted renewed challenges for analysis. Some narratives see the demise of the ordering power of sovereignty, while others argue for the continuity of its limits and exclusions through articulations with neoliberal, biopolitical, and imperial forms of power. The third and fourth sections focus on two other articulations of sovereignty: rights and violence. Rights and sovereignty have often been seen as part of a field of friction created in modernity. The extension of human rights claims globally appears as a challenge for the deployment of sovereignty. The relationship with violence is equally ambiguous. Sovereignty is seen as both a limit to violence and as constituted by violence. As argued by many IR scholars, “sovereignty is performed, imagined and conjured via a founding and illegitimate violence” (Burke 2002).

The ambiguities that underpin these different articulations have led to debates about whether what is needed today is politics “beyond sovereignty” or, rather, politics reclaiming sovereignty to resist global power structures. While sovereignty can foster forms of political agency and fashion new subjects, it also restrains, marginalizes, and negates the Other, the abject who does not conform to the norms of reason, autonomy, and progress that are intrinsic to modern sovereignty. The final part tackles the ambivalence of sovereignty for political agency and assesses the arguments about the need to resist, unmake, or replace sovereignty.

The Logic of Sovereignty

Sovereignty has been variously understood as the given principle of international relations (Waltz 1979), an institution (Keohane 2002), a social construct (Wendt 1992), a performative discourse subject to historical transformation (Bartelson 1995; Weber 1995; Biersteker and Weber 1996), or a particular practice of power (Foucault 1991; Agamben 1998; Edkins et al. 2004). Sovereignty, as Walker (2004:242) has succinctly put it, is simultaneously a “principle, an institution, and a practice […] and has to be understood historically as a complex site/event in which it is quite difficult, and perhaps necessarily impossible, to distinguish with much analytical clarity between principle, institution and practice.”

Nonetheless, in IR, differences between principle, institution, and practice have important theoretical and political stakes. Theoretically, debates between (neo)realism, liberalism, and social constructivism have problematized sovereignty as either an ahistorical principle or a discursive and material practice, which was malleable and displaceable. Politically, distinctions between principle, institution, and practice made possible discussions about change and transformation in the international system. Yet, if Walker is right that separations between principle, institution, and practice are often difficult to make, what is needed is less to determine the ontological status of sovereignty, but to unpack how principle, institution, and practice are constitutive of what counts as (international) politics. Sovereignty is both historically generated and generative of particular understandings of what counts as community, authority, legitimacy, and agency. It is in this sense that one can speak of the “logic of sovereignty” as a structure of counting and discounting, of ordering and drawing limits. This section focuses on three effects of the logic of sovereignty in the international system: the ordering of the domestic and the international, the spatio-temporal limits to politics, and the exclusions from agency.

Ordering Political Communities

Sovereignty has generally adopted two faces, one internal and another external, each defined by the supremacy of authority and noninterference respectively. The distinction between internal and external sovereignty upheld ideas about the domestic as the realm of law, hierarchy, and possibly justice, and the international as the realm of military and economic power. This distinction confers meaning on what a political order can be, both domestically and internationally; it produces and reproduces boundaries of political communities and international recognition. The institution of sovereignty in the Westphalian world post-1648 instantiated a particular way of being political and recast the problem of order between an “inside” and an “outside” (Walker 1993; Rengger 2000). The concept of sovereignty is thought to legitimize territorialized political communities that are spatially separated from other political communities. It defines them as presence, while the international as derivative is absence and negation (Ashley 1988; Bartelson 1995).

Internally, as Walker (1993:170) has remarked, the contradictory character of sovereignty is expressed in the tension between power and authority on the one hand and sovereign state and sovereign people on the other. Traditionally, sovereignty from inside has been understood as the source of authority. Critical of the narrative of the origins of sovereignty in the transcendence of the “state of nature,” constructivist IR scholars have proposed a relational understanding of sovereignty, dependent on recognition in the international system. In their reading, state sovereignty emerges through the interaction between states and mutual recognition of sovereignty:

The sovereign state is an ongoing accomplishment of practice, not a once-and-for-all creation of norms that somehow exist apart from practice […] [I]ndeed, once a community of mutual recognition is constituted, its members […] may have a vested interest in reproducing it.

(Wendt 1992:41)

Sovereignty from the inside implies a tension between the violence of its foundation and legitimate authority as well as that between state and people as the sovereignty bearers. For Campbell (1999:34), “the founding moment that institutes the law, a constitution or the state involves an interpretive and performative force, a coup de force.” While with contractual theorists such as Hobbes (1985) the founding of sovereignty is based on the autonomous wills of the people, such a rendering actually obscures the violence that sovereignty entails. By obscuring the violence of beginnings, sovereignty also legitimizes processes of domination within the Leviathan. Sovereignty from the outside exists in tension with the “violence of limitation” (Walker 2004:243), of drawing boundaries and separating self and other, while being necessarily entangled in the relationality between self and other. The paradox of sovereignty from outside is that between the principle of participation in interstate relations and sovereign autonomy. Yet, sovereignty also exists through the exercise of violence over bodies and populations both within and beyond their territories (Hansen and Stepputat 2005:2). Sovereignty presupposes the disciplining of subjects and the subordination of other forms of authority. Some of these subordinations and dominations are effected through spatiotemporal limitations.

Spatiotemporal Limits

The logic of sovereignty does not solely imply claims about bounded communities. Claims of sovereignty have also infused the space of the international as a differentiated network of power relations. Rather than being made up of equal sovereign states either in a “purely positional picture of society” (Waltz 1979:80) or within differentiated “cultures” of anarchy (Wendt 1999), the international is crisscrossed by more heterogeneous relations of power. The international is a “‘thick’ set of social relations, consisting of social and cultural flows as well as political-military and economic” (Barkawi and Laffey 2002:130). Yet, the invention of the international as “order among sovereign states” has often excluded from analyses the “process through which non-European states are deemed to be lacking in sovereignty and hence excluded from the family of nations and of law” (Anghie 2004:101). Colonial and imperial relations have often been excluded from the IR narrative of sovereignty and external anarchy. Nonetheless, the norms of state sovereignty developed simultaneously with the European colonial and imperial projects, rather than being a historical “progress” over an antiquated imperial order.

The obsession with failed and rogue states in international politics is indicative of an obsession with the sovereign, liberal, civilized European subject and its illiberal others. More recently, fragile states have been added to this classification to legitimate disciplinary sovereign interventions for the purposes of making some states governable and bringing them back into the society of states. As liberalism emerged in a world of European imperialism, many of the subject populations were not deemed to possess the capacities for liberal autonomy and were to be subjected to forms of sovereign and authoritarian rule (see Hindess 2001, 2005). While liberal subjects were “capable of bearing the freedoms and responsibilities of mature subjectivity” (Dean 2002:46), nonliberal subjects lacked (to different degrees) the capacities for self-government and needed to be coerced or assisted in exercising their freedom appropriately. The refusal of certain categories to “adopt or move toward liberal practices makes them constantly prey to a logic of suspicion […] to the charge that because they are not liberal they may in principle be viewed as potential threats” (Williams 2001:543, emphasis in original).

Narratives of failed, fragile, or quasi states disqualify some states from partaking in sovereign autonomy and equality. These concepts also take as their benchmark a dehistoricized concept of sovereignty rooted in European experience and practices. They rely on a distinction between positive and negative sovereignty (Jackson 1993) and between successful and failed states (Bilgin and Morton 2004). As abnormal forms of statehood, failed states only reinforce the ideal type of European statehood and entrench the ahistorical and naturalized imaginary of sovereignty as located within the state. Fragile states, on the other hand, represent the threat of “ungoverned space” (Duffield 2007a:170), a space that needs to be reconquered and integrated within the dominant paradigm of self-governing subjects. Failed and fragile states also expose the linear temporality that sovereignty secures and the forms of domination required to shepherd some onto the path of becoming sovereign.

The spatial delimitation of colonial spaces versus the spaces of sovereign equality presupposes differentiated temporalities. Sovereignty is not only boundary making, delimiting the inside as the space of politics from the outside of nonpolitics, citizens from aliens, civilization from barbarism, but also inserts particular temporalities into these different spaces and subjectivities. The teleological history of the state is contrasted with the uncivilized temporality of that which lies “outside.” Sovereignty does not only emerge out of the historical “state of nature,” but is also imagined within a narrative of linear history and progress. The progress of sovereignty is inscribed on the developmental potential of life outside, which needs to be ordered and disciplined and recuperated within the linear temporality of progress.


Exclusions are implicated in the ordering that sovereignty performs and the limits it instantiates. Sovereignty presupposes a sovereign subject, endowed with autonomy, rationality, and certitude. As Edkins and Pin-Fat (1999:2) have argued, the “inscription of particular forms of subjectivity produces and legitimizes the political arrangement of sovereignty.” Sovereignty does not only organize the space of inside and outside, but creates the very possibility of a political subject, while discounting other subjects as nonpolitical. Sovereign state and sovereign subject have been inextricable since the origins of modernity when they were constituted simultaneously as the One, the certain and autonomous self, capable of agency and intentional will. Sovereignty represents the “transcendental condition of possibility of the modern state as subject” (Bartelson 1995:189). The sovereign subject is the Cartesian, reasoning subject in charge of itself, which is also constituted through the negation of the Other.

However, the sovereign subject that appears as rational, boundary making, and reason giving is at the same time the disciplined and subjugated subject. As Hobbes's (1985) theory of the Leviathan has made clear, the functioning of sovereignty requires the formation and reproduction of a particular subject. Sovereignty presupposes on the one hand a subject endowed with ontological and epistemological certitude, a subject who ends the epistemic indeterminacies of the state of nature (Williams 1996). On the other hand, the reproduction and persistence of sovereignty depend on the constitution of subordinated subjects who are unlikely to unravel the state of civil peace and the legitimacy of rule. In other words, sovereignty depends on the production of politics as subjection (Edkins and Pin-Fat 1999:7).

While creating the free, autonomous subject as a dominated, disciplined subject, sovereignty also enacts a separation between subjects and nonsubjects or not-yet-subjects through the constitutive negation of the Other (Edkins and Pin-Fat 1999; Prokhovnik 2007). The disciplined subject is dependent on the simultaneous making of the abject, the excluded, the Other. Sovereignty legitimizes a particular account of subjectivity while simultaneously negating dissenting accounts of subjects who are different. Functioning as a “dividing practice” (Dillon 2004:56), sovereignty distinguishes between us and them, inside and outside, civilization and barbarism. These distinctions are traversed by race (Manning 2004), class (Ong 2000), and gender (Peterson 1992; Brown 2001; Steans 2006).

While racialized distinctions are made possible by spatiotemporal projections of an “outside” and class-based delimitations are intrinsic to the process of capitalist expansion, gendered exclusions are constituted through the internal separation of the private and the public. Jean Bethke Elshtain (1991:1371) has encapsulated the feminist discontent with the classical notion of sovereignty by starting from the use of the “domestic” in opposition to the supra-domestic or the international: “the domestication of the household is a central, if untheorized and submerged, feature of the discourse of sovereignty.” Sovereignty excludes the household from the sphere of politics as it obliterates it as a space within the opposition internal/international. The household is normalized as the space of nonpolitics. The constitution of sovereignty out of the “state of nature” is based on the fiction of man acquiring rights in society and not establishing a state to empower individuals in the domestic sphere (Brown 1995:182). Thus, for feminism, sovereignty legitimates domination and patriarchy, as it is most often tied to the state and the idea of “unified Will.” Anne Tickner (1992) has argued that the attributes associated with the state resemble the characteristics of the sovereign man. In conjunction with the state, sovereignty reifies the characteristics of men to the exclusion of women.

Order, spatiotemporal limits, and exclusions have been identified in IR as the main effects of the logic of sovereignty. The following three sections explore how these effects have been challenged or entrenched through particular articulations: with power, rights, and violence.

Sovereignty and Power

The limits that sovereignty produces and reproduces are likely to shift, be contested, and potentially become transformed through articulation with other forms of power. Articulation, as Laclau and Mouffe have noted, serves both to fix and to modify identity and meaning. Many of the debates around the articulations of sovereignty have questioned whether the order it constitutes has been transformed under the conditions of what has been variously named “late modernity,” globalization, neoliberalism, biopolitics, or empire.

In an increasingly globalized world, sovereignty appears fragmented and dispersed. While 9/11 and the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have appeared to resuscitate the role of sovereignty, IR scholars have studied the modifications of sovereignty and the transformed conditions under which the ordering function of sovereignty can still function today. (Global) governance, global civil society, nonstate actors, humanitarian interventions, capital flows, and global markets are only some of the renditions of the global context that have, in different ways, explicitly or implicitly engaged with the transformation of sovereignty. In this section, three renditions of the international as a “thick” social space are considered: those of globalization theories, of biopolitics, and of empire.


Studies of globalization have questioned the possibility of a postsovereign world and have offered detailed analyses of the erosion and fragmentation of state sovereignty. New transnational actors vying for power with the sovereign state appeared to indicate that sovereignty might be “lifted” to international institutions and other supra- or infra-statal bodies. Similarly, critical political economy approaches to neoliberalism, particularly Marxism, have considered the ways in which capital flows have been able to evade national jurisdiction. The emergence of global problems such as climate change or pandemics has surpassed the capacity of any one state to tackle them effectively. According to John Agnew (2005:439), we have witnessed an “expansion of sources of authority beyond states and the attenuation of territoriality as sovereignty's primary mode of geographical organization.” The nature of sovereignty has been transformed under conditions of globalization and economic neoliberalism. Nonetheless, this does not mean that sovereignty enters a zero-sum articulation with globalization or economic liberalism: more globalization, stronger neoliberal policies, less sovereignty. Rather than the traditional form of sovereignty reified by much political analysis, Agnew (2005) has argued that in the current context we can speak of different sovereignty regimes: classic, globalist, integrative, and imperialist. The classic sovereignty regime refers to the traditional understanding of sovereignty. The imperialist regime emphasizes hierarchy and combines networks with territorialized control. The integrative sovereignty regime is represented by the case of the European Union. The globalist sovereignty regime can be exemplified through the case of the US and the ways in which it exercises sovereign power outside the boundaries of the state and through the intermediary of international institutions (Agnew 2005:445).

While Agnew's taxonomy allows for the persistence of the classical notion of sovereignty, others see a more radical reconfiguration of sovereignty under the impact of neoliberalism. Sovereignty appears therefore as a more fluid and contested concept than is traditionally considered in IR. With neoliberalism, sovereignty is relocated and reconfigured in different sites that no longer map onto the system of states. As flows of money, capital, and information alter the international system and redistribute forms of power, sovereignty is transformed and relocated with other actors and institutions (Arrighi 1999). Moreover, economic globalization has led to the creation of new legal regimes such as international commercial arbitration, which have relocated authority with private institutions (Sassen 1998). Some speak of the rise of new forms of supra-national constitutionalism in relation to economic practices, economic constitutionalism (Gill 1998; Jayasuriya 2001).

Whether it is the sovereignty of the IMF, of capital, or of new economic institutions that is at stake, transformations in the international system challenge the wedding of sovereignty to the state. Others have argued, however, that state sovereignty maintains its relevance as there is no authority or agency to “govern” sovereign states (Jackson 2007b:149), and that states actually allow transnational actors to exert power in world politics.


A different rendition of the problematic of the transformation of sovereign power has been offered through the lens of biopolitics. Biopolitics was defined by French philosopher Michel Foucault as technologies developed starting from the eighteenth century that took the life of populations as the referent object of governance. Biopolitics reflected a shift from sovereignty, understood as technologies focused on the protection of a territory, to the governance of populations, their mobility and life processes (Foucault 2007). Foucault's analytics of power has led to complex questionings of the role of sovereignty both beyond and within the state – the functioning of power, the apparatuses of security, surveillance, humanitarian intervention, development, and capitalism have been carefully unpacked to consider the transformation of taken-for-granted understandings of sovereignty and of the international. Thus, the authority with which more and more nonstate and supra-state actors are endowed does not necessarily entail the disappearance of sovereignty and the dissolution of its ordering function. Rather than sovereignty simply shifting up from state to international institutions and actors, sovereignty needs to be uncoupled from its traditional referent, the state. As “chronoeconomic processes exist in tension with geopolitical formations,” sovereignty has been disentangled from the discursive dominance of the state as an “exhaustive site of control” (Campbell 1993:84, emphasis in the original). The multiplicity of power relations and their deployment in particular locations and on specific categories of subjects cannot be subsumed under the classical concept of sovereignty. Foucault's analyses of governmentality and biopolitics offer a rich understanding of how different regimes of power function in heterogeneous ways that go beyond the question of territoriality and that of centralized legitimate authority (Foucault 1991).

Following Foucault's injunction to “cut off the King's head in political theory,” an increasing number of authors have focused on analyzing the heterogeneous forms of power deployed in the processes of governance. The practices of policing the international, of risk management, of biopolitical governance, the exclusion of aliens, and the role of law reconfigure the ordering function of sovereignty in the post–9/11 world (Amoore and de Goede 2005; Salter and Zureik 2005; Bigo 2006). Particularly when biological life enters the political arena and becomes a privileged object of governance (Agamben 1998; Rose 2001; Dillon 2004; Foucault 2007), sovereignty is no longer confined to legitimate rule and ultimate authority, but becomes imbricated in a whole array of practices of governing and policing subjects.

Sovereign practices are found either to differ from the biopolitical deployment of power or to be entwined with biopolitical practices in ways that complexify and disturb its unchallenged “right to kill” and the legitimacy of rule. Rather than functioning through juridical prohibition and drawing boundaries of life and death, power is deployed in much more insidious ways by disciplining subjects and governing the life of populations. Biopolitics is opposed both to the model of sovereignty and that of the family. It takes as its subject neither the people (both subjected and the agent of popular sovereignty) nor the extended family, but the life of populations. These biopolitical regimes reconfigure sovereignty as they take hold of the life of the species and attempt its betterment.

As governing the life of populations requires different technologies and actors that are at a distance from the state, what needs to be investigated are the routines, the technologies, the professionals of (in)security and of politics in conflict with legal rules and the judiciary (Bigo 2005). The politics of sovereignty is not about political authority and decision, but about the technologies mobilized to govern populations. At the border, the site par excellence of sovereignty, one needs to focus on the technologies of profiling, filtering, sorting, and excluding. Here, sovereignty is deployed differently, by “creating, classifying, and policing specific kinds of international bodies, and the way in which political technologies of individuals such as passports, visas, and frontier control educate mobile subjectivities in kinds of obedience and auto-confession” (Salter 2006:184). The juridical categories of guilty and innocent that were instrumental for the functioning of sovereign power are replaced by the governmental binaries of productive/destructive bodies (Epstein 2007).

In this approach, neoliberalism is understood as a rationality of government that entails “various deployments of the notion of entrepreneurship” (Rose 1999:27), which weds market rationality with technologies of performance, individual agency, and profit. Rather than being opposed to state sovereignty, the focus on neoliberalism shows that the state governs “at a distance,” through the mediation of other institutions. These analyses arrive at similar conclusions to the critical political economy approaches. After all, biopolitics and capitalism were themselves closely imbricated:

Society's control over individuals was accomplished not only through consciousness or ideology but also in the body and with the body. For capitalist society, it was biopolitics, the biological, the corporal, that mattered more than anything else.

(Foucault 2000:137)

Analyses of biopolitical technologies in the “war on terror” have also shown sovereignty to be more consonant than dissonant with these new practices. Drawing on Foucault's insight that “race” inserts the “right to kill” into the biopolitical continuum of “making live,” Dauphinée and Masters (2007:xiii) contend that biopolitics “hides its death-producing activities under the rhetoric of making live.” Sovereign and biopolitical power can be deployed in synergy rather than tension as the population is fragmented into differentiated subjectivities, some that are to be detained or eliminated and some that are to be fostered and cultivated. Doty (2007a), for example, has noted that a governmental approach that focuses on technologies of surveillance and policing is unable fully to capture the ways in which sovereign power is manifest at the border. Illegal migrants are still governed by sovereign power, which can push them at border crossings into areas with harsh environmental conditions, thereby reducing their chances of survival with impunity (Doty 2007a). Biometric borders, while deploying governmental technologies in the managing of identities, are also seen to reinforce the sovereign distinction between citizens and aliens and intensify the restrictions and practices of boundary making (Muller 2004; Wilson and Weber 2008).


Another argument about the manifestation of sovereignty beyond territoriality and spatial boundary making has been made by Hardt and Negri (2000). This new form of sovereignty, which they associate with the advent of empire, undermines the existing hierarchies of margin and periphery, inside and outside. Traditional sovereignty, tied to the territorial authority of the nation state and understood as undivided legitimate authority, is in decline, and a new form of sovereignty, imperial sovereignty, is emerging (Hardt and Negri 2000). The empire now “before our very eyes” is a new form of power, decentered and deterritorialized. Imperial sovereignty or empire is a manifest break from the traditional sovereignty of states as well as from nineteenth century forms of imperialism. At the same time, in Hardt and Negri's (2000:188) view, the new form of sovereignty intersects with biopolitical deployments of power, as it has primarily been made possible by the globalization of the “smooth space” of the market. Imperial sovereignty no longer functions within the dualisms of modern sovereignty, and the dialectic of inside/outside has been displaced by “a play of degrees and intensities, of hybridity and artificiality.” In empire, the center and the margin are interchangeable, continually shifting.

As the market has expanded to encompass the whole world, it has also effaced frontiers and borders. For Hardt and Negri, in the conditions of global capitalism, sovereignty migrates to international institutions beyond the state. Imperial sovereignty is a “complex assemblage with multiple sites, not concentrated in the single will of a people, a king, or a dictator” (Connolly 2004:35). Although more fluid and deterritorialized, imperial sovereignty does not do away with all boundaries: there are racial boundaries, although according to Hardt and Negri (2000:194), difference is no longer pushed to the extreme as with colonial racism; empire “poses racial differences never as a difference of nature but always as a difference of degree, never as necessary but always as accidental.”

However, these forms of boundary drawing can be no less nefarious. For example, the arbitrary sorting and classification of passengers at airports or the accidental checks on the streets of Europe that filter citizens from irregulars partake of this accidental racism, which appears more flexible in its functioning, but have racialized political effects (Lyon 2002). Moreover, in the interaction with global capital, the multiple “gradations of sovereignty” and the differential treatment of populations entailed by the demands of global capital can fall on already preformed race, gender, and class categories (Ong 2000).

There is, however, a problem that is present in all these analyses of the articulation of sovereignty with new forms of power manifest under the conditions of “late modernity,” namely that of periodization. Periodization has been the privileged strategy in IR for understanding the transformation of sovereignty and its articulation with different social forces: pre- or post-Westphalian periodizations have been challenged by Marxist scholars, who argued for the relevance of precapitalist and capitalist relations of production for the makeup of sovereignty (Teschke 2002). Similar problems underpin the analyses of articulations of sovereignty under conditions of globalization, biopolitics, or empire. When do globalization, biopolitics, and empire start? The answers are far from clear in all these literatures. The world might have been more globalized in the nineteenth century, biopolitics is an eighteenth century development, and empire appears to be a post–World War II development. Some of the criticisms formulated against these periodizations have upheld continuity against discontinuity and vice versa. For example, Giorgio Agamben (1998) has argued for the continuity of biopolitics since Roman law. Barkawi and Laffey (2002) have been critical of Hardt and Negri's Empire for positing a break between the modern and the postmodern. Some of these debates about what constitutes change in the international, particularly the transformation of sovereignty, have also defined another important articulation of sovereignty with human rights.

Sovereignty and Human Rights

Sovereignty has often been defined in opposition to rights, as the spatiotemporal limits it instantiates are also the limits of rights. Alongside territory and supreme authority, sovereignty is characterized by the capacity to make and enforce laws. For both Bodin and Hobbes, who provided the first systematic modern theories of sovereignty, this was the main characteristic of sovereignty. Internally, sovereignty appears wedded to law, while externally, it stands for the limits of law. Although the Westphalian regime of sovereignty was generally fraught with problems, so much so that Krasner (1999) could name it “organized hypocrisy,” it is important to acknowledge the effects that the articulation of sovereignty and law has had on international politics. Rights bearing subjects are to be restricted to the included inside, while others are simply subjects of security, the dangerous and the threatening in relation to which sovereignty exercises its military and political might. This tension in the distribution of rights was less problematic for realist and liberal approaches than the understanding of rights as “limitations on the scope of authority which a state can exercise over individuals” (Krasner 1995:140).

More problematic, however, were the democratization of states and the emergence of a regime of human rights, which embedded states in overlapping supra-national legal regimes and institutions. On the basis of this embeddedness, a new cosmopolitan sovereignty could emerge, in which legal regimes would “set down standards or boundaries which no agent, whether a representative of a government, state or civil association, should be able to cross” (Held 2002:23). However, rather than the emergence of a new form of more progressive and cosmopolitan sovereignty, others have argued that in the twentieth century, sovereignty has also been increasingly legitimated as the protection of rights and freedom (Reus-Smit 2001). Some of its more recent expressions have been “human security” and the “responsibility to protect,” concepts that buttress the sovereignty of the state. Sovereignty is therefore paradoxically both implicated in denials of rights, while sustained and reinvented through human rights claims. It appears to be limited through new legal regimes, while reinventing itself on the basis of these legal regimes.

Particularly in relation to refugees and migrants, sovereignty has been defined as the “right to exclude” (Gelber and McDonald 2006). While Gelber and McDonald argue that such a representation and interpretation of sovereignty by the Australian government is inconsistent with the international regime of human rights to which Australia has committed, the distinction between sovereignty and human rights is often shown to be less stable than indicated here. Human rights can legitimate both biopolitical and sovereign practices. From the reinvented “responsibility to protect,” which has Hobbesian echoes, to the interpretation of rights as belonging to the “naked human,” sovereignty is not separated from but intimately connected with rights. As Mark Duffield (2007b:230) has pertinently remarked, “liberalism's distinctive biopolitics is framed through its speaking on behalf of people and their rights, freedoms, and well-being.” For Wendy Brown (2004) too, rights can be the “tactics and vehicles of governance and domination” rather than a challenge to reified power relations. Feminist writers have also shown how human rights reproduce the figure of the sovereign man and reify the public sphere as the space of politics. They also reinforce the liberal conception of an abstract individual whose intersubjective relations are mediated through rights rather than other principles (Sylvester 1994). Moreover, rights can render invisible socioeconomic structures of domination. Not only have rights served to justify wars and interventions, they can also be vehicles for economic and corporate power in the age of globalization. Free speech, for example, can be such a tactic of corporate power in a world of information flows and media spectacles. Interventions demanded by human rights abuses “create the normative and discursive conditions for the reassertion of sovereign power that we have witnessed in the cases of the US-led wars against Afghanistan and Iraq” (Reid 2005:247).

Sovereign power also becomes entwined with the biopolitics of fostering better forms of life and directing the future through the humanitarian emergency. The humanitarian emergency is the form of emergence of subjects and practices of sovereignty (Nyers 2006a). Rather than being antagonistic to sovereign practices, humanitarian interventions in emergency situations and claims to human rights can buttress similar practices of violence and war. Framing the situation of refugees as “humanitarian emergency” only reinforces the sway of sovereign power over the refugee body as a depoliticized and abject body. By representing the refugee as silent or silenced, as a victim and a suffering body, humanitarian emergencies reproduce sovereign power and allow for the deployment of sovereign power in the postcolonial world through the mediation of humanitarian actors. Moreover, these emergency practices have been taken up by postcolonial states themselves, which have inherited the exceptions of the biopolitical development project and reiterate them routinely. Christine Sylvester (2006:70) has shown how postcolonial elites “armed with biopolitical tools” re-enact sovereign exceptions “as a matter of anticolonial revenge and response to real and manufactured postcolonial development crises.”

The relationship between rights and sovereignty is therefore a highly ambiguous one. For social constructivists, rights have been indicative of the transformation of sovereignty under the impact of an oppositional emerging regime. For many poststructuralist writers, rights and sovereignty are congruous, mutually reinforcing forms of domination. The shift in the international system toward the discursive hegemony of the human is found to transpose sovereignty toward a constellation of international institutions and states, acting either directly or through the intermediary of NGOs (Jabri 2007:119). Human rights violations can entail sovereign interventions and the creation of emergency situations. Yet, human rights can also be the rights of the “part of no part” (Rancière 1999), they can be mobilized and claimed against abjection and exclusion. How to make sense of all these tensions and ambiguities? Nicolas Guilhot has interestingly suggested an interpretation of rights that sheds light on the conditions of possibility of these very different approaches. Human rights discourses are themselves the terrain of struggles between actors who try to establish a dominant discourse. According to Guilhot (2008:503), two antagonistic projects have been formulated under the mantle of human rights: the first one turned to law and rights to limit sovereignty; the second equated human rights with the production of democratic governance. While the former can constrain the logic of sovereignty, the latter functions in conjunction with sovereignty, reinforcing its spatiotemporal limits.

Sovereignty, Violence, Exception

Another conceptualization of sovereignty has been revived in international relations, partly in response to the question of exclusions and limits that sovereign practices enacted. Formulated by Carl Schmitt in the 1930s, this conceptualization of sovereignty has been more recently reconsidered in the work of several philosophers who have inspired IR scholars: Giorgio Agamben (1998, 2005), Jacques Derrida (1990, 2005), and Jean-Luc Nancy (2000). Schmitt's (1996) definition of sovereignty – “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception” – throws sharp light on the ambiguities and tensions of sovereignty. Practices beyond the law are the “truth” of sovereignty. For Schmitt, the essence of sovereignty resides in the capacity to decide and declare exceptions to the norm. In this sense, the definition of sovereignty is ahistorical, “the contract contracted with a history that retracts in the instantaneous event of the deciding exception, an event that is without any temporal or historical thickness” (Derrida 2005:101). However, as we shll see later, this essence can also be subject to historical modifications in the context of post–World War II and 9/11.

The sovereign is simultaneously placed inside and outside the law, simultaneously founding and transcending law and order. The decision on the exception suspends the legal order and creates a space of indistinction between norm and exception, which for Agamben is paradigmatically expressed in the “camp.” The exception appears as a limbo state between law and nonlaw, the realm where law is suspended. By determining and acting upon emergency, the sovereign performs a double function: it subsumes the diversity of the civil society under the unity of the state and ensures the plurality of states globally. Sovereignty is therefore about the necessity of creating order (the necessity of origins), while being in the impossibility of firmly rooting it (the contingency of limits). It is intimately connected with contingency, exception, and conflict; sovereign power institutes emergency as the ordering principle of power (Dillon 2004:56). Agamben's paradigmatic example is the Nazi regime, which governed through the exception and came to power by suspending the existing constitution. More recently, both Agamben and IR scholars have argued that from the temporal limitation of the exception and its effacement by the fictions of sovereignty, the exception has increasingly become a “normal” mode of governmentality (van Munster 2004; Agamben 2005; Salter 2008). Increasingly, boundaries no longer coincide with external borders, but are a complex and dispersed array of practices that infuse the social space so that it has become possible to speak of “generalized biopolitical borders” (Vaughan-Williams 2009).

The exception sets out the political paradox of modern liberal political communities that define themselves as governed by the rule of law: the law needs a “founding crime,” a moment of violence – the exception – in order to function (Burke 2002; Derrida 2005). The “war on terror” has given renewed relevance to Schmitt's and Agamben's definitions of sovereignty, as Guantánamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, extraordinary rendition, detention camps, or surveillance practices were all increasingly defined as exceptional. Sites of exception and arbitrary decisionism, these heterogeneous topoi have been analyzed as the underside of the modern state, the violent condition for the existence of sovereignty, even in the context of liberal democratic regimes (for example Diken and Bagge Laustsen 2005; Bigo and Tsoukala 2006; Nyers 2006a). The resurgence of exceptional practices constitutive of sovereignty became an important explanatory tool of practices in the international arena that went beyond the “war on terror” to expose exceptions in much of international politics. From NGOs to sovereign states, from bandits to the military, and from civil to global wars, the sites of exceptionalism are as multiple as they are heterogeneous.

This articulation of sovereignty and law through the exceptional decision has, however, been challenged from two perspectives. The first rejects the contradiction between a realm of law and a realm of sovereign indistinction and exceptionalism. Rather, exceptionalism can be seen as part of the transformation of law under the development of capitalism (Aradau 2007) or as essentially a form of domination in capitalism in which emergency has always been the norm (Neocleous 2006). The second perspective challenges this articulation by arguing that power functions in more heterogeneous ways and that exceptional moments cannot be reduced to the nomos of the camp. Even the use of arbitrary violence needs to be differentiated depending on the locus and context of power (Butler 2004). Guantánamo Bay, the example par excellence of sovereign exceptionalism, has been represented in dehistoricized, moral terms such as “anomaly” and “legal black hole,” which effaced the colonial and geographical constitution of the space of Guantánamo (Gregory 2006; Reid-Henry 2007).

Analysis of sovereignty in practice has revealed the multiple and differential ways in which groups and networks partake of sovereign moments. While wedded to the historical form of the state, sovereignty is a “tentative and unstable project whose efficacy and legitimacy depend on repeated performances of violence and a ‘will to rule’” (Hansen and Stepputat 2005:3). Illegal and informal practices that challenge state sovereignty – from thieves and social bandits to different forms of organization of crime – also function as sovereign practices. Roxanne Lynne Doty (2007b) has brought up the question of vigilantism at the US–Mexico border and sovereign decisions that are not restricted to the state, but can be enacted by seemingly insignificant agents. Duffield (2007a, 2007b) has argued that NGOs that intervene in the postcolonial world through development projects act like “petty sovereigns” who make decisions on life and death as a matter of administrative routine. Sanctuaries are other sites that reveal practices of pastoral power to be enmeshed with the sovereignty of the church and the power to make exceptions as far as deportation is concerned (Lippert 2004). Ultimately, the authority to decide the exception could be diffused to the point that it is in the hands of all citizens (Amoore 2006). Not only is the authority to make decisions at the border lying with data and risk management companies, but vigilant citizens are increasingly drawn into these practices of decision making.

Sovereign actors and sovereign practices appear to have infused more and more areas of domestic and international politics. Yet, can these new articulations be transformed? The next section looks at how the relationship between sovereignty and politics has been rendered in IR.

Politics With(out) Sovereignty

In cultural studies, articulation implies both a work of political integration and the possibility of contestation of any form of integration that remains incomplete and contingent. Thus, analyzing articulations does not mean only understanding the play of social forces and forms of power constitutive of the effects of sovereignty, but also exploring the possibilities to change the concrete context in which sovereignty functions and to create new articulations.

Sovereignty raises the great unsolved question of modernity, namely how to reconcile individual freedom (or the sovereign subject) with the authority of the sovereign and the reality of domination. The extension and normalization of exceptional practices in the political realm have brought new urgency to the question of the relationship between sovereignty and politics. Among claims about transformation, reconfiguration, redeployment, or relinquishment, the persistent recurrence of sovereignty through exceptional practices has led to a growing literature on alternative politics not centered on the exception, sovereignty, and violence. This critical engagement with sovereignty has taken two main forms: on the one hand, a retrieval of the alternative representations and neglected discourses that sovereignty excluded; and, on the other, a critical engagement with the exception as the signifier of sovereignty.

Sovereignty could be challenged by recapturing its forgotten histories and neglected instantiations (Biersteker and Weber 1996). It could also be undermined by exposing its political effects, the work of exclusion, essentialization, and reification that it does at the expense of diversity, plurality, and dissonant Others. Constantinou (2004) has shown in the case of the Himalayas how sovereignty reified the region as a space of contesting state sovereignty and argued for the need to expose the rhetorical constitution of sovereignty and its power implications. Neal (2006) has embraced a similar position in the critique of illiberal policies and practices undertaken by the sovereign. Instead of focusing on the sovereign decision relating to the exception, critical attention is needed to the historical and discursive conditions of possibility for naming the exception. In a nutshell, the effects of sovereignty can be challenged by recapturing heterogeneity and plurality; as sovereignty attempts to classify and order political reality, critical work focuses on recapturing the disorder and plurivocality of discourses.

In a more sociological vein, Huysmans (2008:166) has argued that exceptionalist politics neutralize the societal as a “realm of multi-faceted, historically structured political mediations and mobilizations.” The fear of the enemy that defines the sovereign exception institutes a concept of the political that, according to Huysmans, relinquishes the political agency of the people to political leadership. Schmitt solves the contradictions of state and popular sovereignty by subsuming the latter under the former. Questions of national security partake of such a sovereign move that subsumes politics under fear and political agency under leadership. With Agamben, the displacement of the societal and the neutralization of social struggles are achieved through the introduction of life as the main referent of sovereign practices. Contra the depoliticization and dehistoricization of the social, Huysmans adopts a Foucauldian line of unpacking the social as a relational category of expert discourses, knowledges, and institutional practices. In a sense, both the social constructivist retrieval of discursive exclusion and the recapturing of social struggles can be seen as democratic endeavors of inscribing plurality against the one of sovereignty.

Nonetheless, the democratic challenge to sovereignty does not consider the transformative and political potential of sovereign claims themselves. Agamben has also been inspired by Walter Benjamin's (1992) Marxist understanding of the exception: “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule.” Sovereignty as the founding moment of law and the state can also be the moment of its unmaking. After all, for Agamben, sovereignty underpins all modern politics; the exception is not only characteristic of liberal states, but equally of revolutionary politics. Revolutions suspend juridical orders and Agamben (2005:10) has pointed out that even the citizens’ “right of resistance” operates within the framework of the state of exception. In Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundations of Authority,” Derrida (1990:941, 943 emphasis in original) also notes that the founding of law consists in a “coup de force, of a performative and therefore interpretive violence that in itself is neither just nor unjust and that no justice and no previous law with its founding anterior moment could guarantee or contradict or invalidate.” IR scholars have explicitly connected sovereign claims with the potential for progress and even revolutionary change. Nonetheless, they are also acutely aware that the liberation brought about by sovereignty is paradoxical. As Daniel Philpott (2001:10) has put it: “If the sovereign state provides a people with some sort of liberty, it also provides a carapace under which regimes may, and have, suppressed liberal and democratic rights, other forms of liberty.” The reasons for theoretically reclaiming the relevance and political importance of sovereignty in IR are multiple and profoundly different: from the more empirically formulated contention that state sovereignty is the best of all evils (e.g. Bickerton et al. 2007), through arguments about other forms of sovereignty (Elshtain 1991; Connolly 2004, 2005; Prokhovnik 2007) to a wholesale theoretical reclaiming of sovereignty as the foundational transgression of any positive form of order (Prozorov 2007).

The first argument is indicative of nostalgia for the pastoral role of the state and a concept of sovereignty defined by its capacity to protect, through a mixture of national and social security. As the state has historically proven to be the only subject capable of offering (even limited) degrees of protection, the temptation of state sovereignty still holds. “For all its historical imperfections, and however attenuated it may be today,” argue the editors of Politics without Sovereignty, “the framework of the sovereign state remains the best means of organizing and sustaining the process of politics, in opposition to all that is offered in its place” (Bickerton et al. 2007:14). Although possibly challenged by nonstate actors, the role of the sovereign state is still seen as paramount, as otherwise, “Where will they [non-state actors] turn for security and accountability in such matters, if they cannot perform those fundamental services themselves and assuming that some people or groups will still pose a threat to others – as seems entirely likely?” (Jackson 2007a:315). Particularly when challenged by neoliberalism, reclaiming the state and its sovereign role has appeared as a tempting political move.

While these approaches collapse sovereignty back onto the state, the second line of argumentation follows a more historical and pluralist approach to sovereignty to offer different understandings of what sovereignty can mean. Connolly (2005), for example, criticizes Agamben for proposing one model of sovereignty understood through exception and “bare life” that leads to a historical impasse where no resistance is possible. He argues that sovereignty is not found in one site, but is composed of a “plurality of forces circulating through and under the positional sovereignty of the official arbitrating body” (Connolly 2005:145). Similar assumptions inform analyses of exceptional space in Agamben's terms as sites of resistance and mobilization (Mezzadra 2006; Nyers 2006b; Puggioni 2006). In a more discursive vein, Raia Prokhovnik (2007:161) has argued that “[t]he idea of sovereignty as a claim spells out the political nature of sovereignty, the way a claim is tentative, can be made against the grain of the dominant order, a point of contestation, a demand to be heard, or an assertion of inclusion.”

The third position suggests that there is something inherently political in the concept of sovereignty that is not captured in the possibilities of its negotiation and reinterpretation. Sovereignty can also be the moment of rupture, of disruption as the exception, which is not only the “constitution” of order through the positing of authority but also the disruption of order through revolutionary resistance. Sergei Prozorov (2007:143) proposes a strategy of resistance through “sovereignty without biopolitics”: by ceasing to be mere living material for biopolitical investment, the sovereign power of bare life leaves governmental power with nothing more than negativity on its side and thereby “empties it out.” Sovereignty, rather than biopolitics, offers a critical potential. By questioning the arbitrary sovereign decision, it is possible to question the drawing of the line. Thus, sovereignty leads to the creation of a political space that goes beyond facile inside/outside demarcations by questioning the positing of limits and the drawing of borders. Prozorov reverses Connolly's argument, which privileges the complexity of biocultural and biopolitical techniques. For Prozorov, sovereignty's power of negation is depoliticized when it is sutured to governmentality/biopolitics that has political economy as rationality.

The historicity and malleability of sovereignty, its opening to pluralism, negotiation, and social struggle, and its persistence in the state of exception as both constitutive and transgressive are ultimately indicative of two different theories of the political: the political as relations of struggle on the one hand and, on the other, the political as constituted by lack, excess, surplus, or negation. In the former approach, immanent or existing social relations harbor a moment of transcendence or resistance as that which is silenced or excluded. The latter approach is concerned with disruptions, breaks, and ruptures rather than simply distortions – sovereignty is the constitutive/transcendent moment that can also be a rupture of the “normal.” As long as the two understandings of the political remain irreconcilable, analyses of the articulations of sovereignty will also remain antagonistic.


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I wish to express my gratitude to the two anonymous reviewers and to Alex Macleod for detailed and incisive comments and helpful advice. All errors and omissions remain my own.