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date: 24 February 2018

Ethics and Sovereignty

Summary and Keywords

Literature concentrated on sovereignty’s location laid the groundwork for the distinctive sort of ethical detachment that has characterized sovereignty in international relations (IR). While it is customary to refer to sovereign absolutism as linking a logic of prerogative with sovereignty, mainstream IR theory has reproduced its own variation on the theme and done little until recently to decouple the two. Yet beginning in the late 1970s, the literature began to entertain the idea that interdependence and globalization impede, constrain, corrode, or diminish the core assumptions of sovereignty: the centralization of power and authority, the supremacy of the state, the state’s capabilities to achieve its objectives, and the degree of permissiveness afforded by an anarchical system. Put differently, the space within which sovereignty could operate unencumbered rapidly diminished in size and scope, and the sovereign state, by losing control over various functions, was becoming incoherent at minimum, and irrelevant at maximum. If these arguments focused on a narrow question, then a new literature emerged in the mid to late 1990s that focused on, and questioned, sovereignty as authority. Moreover, the debates about globalization underscored sovereignty’s disjunctive nature. Yet by linking it so closely with material structures and factors, the literature generally elided consideration of the constitutive effect of international norms on sovereignty and the ways the institution of sovereignty has changed over time.

Keywords: sovereignty, ethics, globalization, interdependence, state power, state authority, sovereignty as responsibility


Sovereignty divides, demarcates, signifies, insulates, imposes, and permits. Its immediate reference point is a circumscribed self: an institutionalized, supreme, public authority (Hinsley 1986:1) that rules over and within “mutually exclusive jurisdictional domains” (Ruggie 1986:143). Read internally, sovereignty is a significant statement about the centralization of authority and its insulating effects; Article 2(7) of the United Nations Charter offers the protective legal veil. Read externally, sovereignty speaks to the decentralization of authority, which Article 2(1) of the UN Charter iterates in the language of state equality. Ostensibly, these provisions make a powerful claim that sovereignty as a sacrosanct matter of principle and practice undergirds the international system, and may only be infringed on in extreme, albeit temporary, instances involving individual or collective self-defense per Article 51, or Chapter VII enforcement measures as mandated by the UN Security Council. Sovereignty’s very construct, however, encodes an antinomy that has closed off possibilities of direct ethical engagement between the self – broadly construed as all those within the sovereign state – and the other – an outside that falls beyond sovereignty’s jurisdictional purview and territorial constraints. Excesses in the guise of expulsions, exterminations, conquests, violence, and vigilantism blur the boundaries of the acceptable and unacceptable as if ethics were alien in the practice of international relations, and sovereignty were but the handmaiden of brute force.

Yet that is merely one interpretation of sovereignty’s story. As the Permanent Court of International Justice (PCIJ) famously iterated in 1923, “the question of whether a certain matter is or is not solely within the jurisdiction of a State is an essentially relative question; it depends on the development of international relations” (Tunis v. Morocco Nationality Decrees, cited in Fox 1997:114). Many provisions of the UN Charter, coupled with developments in international relations – from human rights to ecological concerns, from the proliferation of disease and information to the intensification of financial flows and economic exchange – confirm the point. Moreover, constitutionalism has over time in multiple states tamed the exercise of power and authority, thereby constraining potential excesses (see Gordon 1999), and made possible the claim that the sovereign state is “of authentic value to its population” (Wheeler and Morris 1996:151); states, after all, “can be powerful custodians of human welfare, and thus worthy of contingent loyalty” (Harbour 1999:80). Elshtain (2008) confirms both stories: medievals and those with medieval sympathies “pushed back” against modernity’s sin of decoupling authority and sovereignty from the limits imposed by caritas (love of thy neighbor), justice, and divine and natural law writ large. Sovereignty became nothing but the untrammeled self-expression of will.

The tension between these two perspectives has largely driven sovereignty literature. If the former view reproduces a centuries-held, fixed, static conception of sovereignty “as a set of ideas that underlies international relations but is not changed along with them” (Barkin and Cronin 1994:107), then the latter admits of variation in sovereignty as a historically contingent and interpreted principle and practice. Literature concentrated on sovereignty’s location laid the groundwork for the distinctive sort of ethical detachment that has characterized sovereignty in international relations (IR). While it is customary to refer to Bodin and Hobbes’s formulations of, and apologies for, sovereign absolutism as linking a logic of prerogative with sovereignty – Elshtain (2008:25ff.) traces the equation back to Duns Scotus and William of Ockham’s nominalism, or thesis of God’s omnipotence – mainstream IR theory certainly has reproduced its own variation on the theme and done little until recently to decouple the two. Yet beginning in the late 1970s, the literature began to entertain the idea that interdependence and globalization impede, constrain, corrode, or diminish the core assumptions of sovereignty: the centralization of power and authority, the supremacy of the state, the state’s capabilities to achieve its objectives, and the degree of permissiveness afforded by an anarchical system. Put differently, the space within which sovereignty could operate unencumbered rapidly diminished in size and scope, and the sovereign state, by losing control over various functions, was becoming incoherent at minimum, and irrelevant at maximum. If these arguments focused on a narrow question, then a new literature emerged in the mid to late 1990s that focused on, and questioned, sovereignty as authority. Practical developments in IR – failures of the international community with respect to humanitarian catastrophes in Cambodia, Somalia, and Rwanda, to name a regrettable few – prompted then UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to announce, “the time of absolute sovereignty […] has passed; its theory was never matched by reality” (Boutros-Ghali 1992: para. 17). And his pronouncement engendered an articulation of sovereignty as responsibility, which revived early theoretical concerns that focused on sovereignty’s locus and the responsibilities that flow from it.

On Locating Sovereignty

IR theory has depicted sovereignty in rather stark and ethically specious ways. Sovereignty is a transcendent force poised above, and imposing on, political community below (Hinsley 1986:15); an “untidy fringe of domestic politics” that consummates “political experience and activity” (Wight 1966:21); a parergon (Bartleson 1995:51), or something subordinate to the elite discourse that constitutes it; a “paradox,” since sovereignty lies both “outside and inside the juridical order” (Agamben 1998:15); and a partition between “life inside and outside a centered political community” (Walker 1993:62). Within sovereignty’s domain, actors and political communities realize “aspirations to the good, the true and the beautiful” (Walker 1993:62); outside, ethical progress is fleeting at best, impossible at worst. Sovereignty completes the logic of political community by aligning it with raison d’état (Hinsley 1986), which may articulate and legitimize “each state’s commitment to aggrandizement,” and undercut dissent and democratic discussion in favor of an artificial or imagined unity (Poggi 1978:90; see also Spruyt 1994). Interstices between states appear as realms of repetition, plurality, discord, competition, and conflict. Any inexorable, progressive, linear continuity of time on the inside morphs on the outside into a peculiar circularity dominated by ahistorical structural laws and mechanics (Waltz 1979). The initial imperative of self-preservation gives way to an imperious (and imperial) logic of self-aggrandizement and expansion.

Given this particular framing, IR theory tends to reify sovereign autonomy by equating it with prerogative and, to a degree, maximum capabilities to advance the national interest (for expositions of this idea, see Weber 1946; Waltz 1979; Hinsley 1986; Keohane 1995; Weber 1995; Agamben 1998; Elshtain 1998; and Krasner 1999). Kenneth Waltz’s (1979:96) sovereignty is the right of a state “to decide for itself how it will cope with its internal and external problems” – a right that is unrestrained except by the state’s capabilities to effectuate its will (Waltz 1979:88) – his formulations simply restate Meyer and Jellinek’s nineteenth century theory of sovereignty qua Kompetenzkompetenz, or state competence to self-determine and self-restrict its activities (discussed in Cohen 1937). In both formulations, “authority quickly reduces to a particular expression of state capacity” (Waltz 1979:88) and sovereignty seems only a practical prerogative for materially well-endowed states. Stephen Krasner’s sovereignty reflects “not taken-for-granted practices derived from some overarching institutional structures or deeply embedded generative grammars,” but rulers’ cold calculations “of material and ideational interests” who “hope to retain power and satisfy constituents” (Krasner 1999:66). Yet satisfaction is elusive: rulers make promises that satisfy constituents, but then break them for self-referential reasons of sovereignty, security, and interest. This is sovereignty’s hypocrisy. Robert Keohane (1995:167) attempted to extricate sovereignty from “the realist trap” by defining it as “an institution – a set of persistent and connected rules prescribing behavioral roles, constraining activity, and shaping expectations.” Yet he embedded sovereignty deeper into the very realist trap he identifies by tying it to “the rational interests of elites that run powerful states.” Even in some social constructivist works, sovereignty appears as a constellation of powerful elite practices and a statement about “the social terms of individuality, not individuality per se” (Biersteker and Weber 1996:12; cf. Philpott 2001). To wit, this individuality is an individuality of states and congeries of peoples; it is an individuality that subsumes internal difference under the corporate reality of the state, a point implicitly affirmed by Anthony Clark Arend’s legal social constructivist articulation of sovereignty as the permissive condition for agency in international relations (1999:138). And akin to neorealist formulations, some postmodern theorists frame sovereignty as a double maneuver: the command backed by coercion (Weber 1995; cf. Krasner 1999).

Importantly, by virtue of sovereignty’s location in the chief institutions of states and the elites that operate them, people tend to disappear; or, if they appear at all, they appear subjugated. Sovereignty divides domestic, presumably ordered, territorially based hierarchies of power and authority from international anarchy, defined as that condition lacking a superincumbent authority to mediate disputes, moderate conflict, mitigate the effects of competing interests, or encourage and direct cooperative ventures between sovereigns (see Walker 1993). In Realist and Marxist views, the resulting self-help system encourages states to stigmatize and make enemies of each other (see Falk 1999 and Gilbert 1999), which alienates people from public policy decision making by concentrating authority in government (sovereign) agents. In the end, IR reiterates an Austinian theme: law is the command of the sovereign backed by force (see also Weber 1946).

The view has a distinctive theoretical pedigree that IR theory generally traces back to Bodin and Hobbes. While each wrote against the backdrop of vicious civil wars, which might explain their penchant for centralizing power and prerogative, their accounts are rooted in what Ernst Kantorowicz (1957) called medieval political theology and must also be understood in that intellectual context. (Note that sovereignty’s first assignation came in the form of papal recognition of the French king’s sovereignty in 1202, thus signifying both a location – sovereignty resides at the apex of political community – and an orientation if not a purpose – exclusive rule over and within a territory; see Cheyette 1970:44 and Wight 1977:27.) Like Bodin, Kantorowicz was intrigued by political authority’s distinctive duality and perpetuality. On the one hand, in the late medieval and early modern periods, political authority was attached to the body of the monarch; on the other, political authority endured the monarch’s death and therefore could be said to inhere in the body politic. How could this curious duality and transference of authority be explained?

Kantorwicz argued that, analogous to Christ’s authority, sovereignty inhered in the monarch’s literal, physical body. Authority and power must, in that regard, be wielded in the service of a physical self. But given the fact of mortality, the monarch, like Christ, must also exercise authority and power in the service of others; in the case of the monarch, power and authority must be exercised in the service of the state’s preservation and enhancement precisely because the polity embodies the values, ideas, and principles of its creators.

The most significant feature of the personified collectives and corporate bodies [therefore] was that they projected into past and future, that they preserved their identity despite changes […] The detachment [of the collective] from its individual components resulted in the relative insignificance of these mortal components who at any given moment constituted the collective; they were unimportant as compared to the immortal body politic itself which survived its constituents, and could survive even its own physical destruction.

(Kantorowicz 1957:311f)

Put bluntly, though individuals die, the corporate fictions they create remain. The state, therefore, came to signify the very perpetuity of sovereignty as original power: for the state is the unity of a territorially bound people, which communicates and defends an aggregate, collective interest that controls and mediates between the multiplicity of particular, self-referential interests of subjects. It is, moreover, informed by a quasi-Hegelian conception of a higher idea that finds its practical voice in the dictates of an authority that is supreme precisely because it symbolizes, so long as it lives, the polity itself.

Jean Bethke Elshtain (2008) was particularly intrigued by the supremacy aspect of sovereignty, and her Gifford lectures explored the reconfiguration of sovereignty away from God and contingency, away from boundedness and justice, and toward a solipsistic, absolutist understanding of sovereignty as untethered prerogative and the expression of untrammeled will. Early, “medieval” accounts of authority (of God, of the pope, even of secular rulers) were wed to a theological “great chain of being” (Lovejoy 1976) and thus bound by the natural and divine law. On the medieval view, “the basis for all forms of authority is justice […] that unjust authority is an oxymoron; if unjust, it is illegitimate and not authority at all – not authorized – but tyranny, illegitimate power” (Elshtain 2008:68). Yet the rise of multiple kingdoms and principalities in Europe – in other words, for Elshtain, modernity itself, and the resulting plurality of law, institutions, and overlapping jurisdictions (Elshtain 2008:20) – gave rise to contradictions between them. To reassert some form of intellectual order on the emerging patchwork, the pope “insisted that [he] enjoys a plenitude of power unavailable to, or unattainable by, any other power or authority in Christendom” (Elshtain 2008:23), which (perhaps inadvertently) engendered resistance to papal monism. Finding support in both Roman property law, which held that “ownership must be singular and indivisible” (Elshtain 2008:24; see also Ruggie 1986), and in the concept of the populus Romanus, which authorizes political rule, legal theorists buttressed the claims of secular power and helped turned sovereignty inward as an expression of self-supremacy.

Early modern theories of sovereignty attempted to balance the medieval imperative of binding sovereignty with the modern yearning to disentangle it, and it is to this idea that Weinert’s work (2007a) on the conceptualizations of sovereignty offered by Bodin, Althusius, Hobbes, and Hegel speaks. Each theorist tied sovereignty to discrete governmental structures. Despite variations, however, Weinert maintains that each ultimately, though in varying degrees, disassociated sovereignty from its chief agents and aligned it to its objective: the good of citizens.

Bodin, for instance, articulated this good in rather conspicuous, if generally disregarded, ways (on nonabsolutist readings of Bodin and Hobbes, see King 1974). While Bodin’s sovereign resides at the apex of political community and thus could make law for all, the principle of subsidiarity on which Bodin constructs his polity limits this nomethetic power. For in his scheme, each subassociation retained the authority to make law within its spheres of competence and jurisdiction. Further, Bodin maintained that no sovereign stands above the law (Bodin 1955:28), since the sovereign is constrained by natural and divine law, equity, previous contracts and agreements, custom (Bodin 1955:35), and the interests of subjects (Bodin 1955:30). Felicitously, sovereigns who unjustly oppress their subjects, or who exhaust the finances of the treasury and “ground the faces of the poor […] to serve the benefit of the rich,” forfeit their right to nonintervention (Bodin:64, 66).

Just as the French and English civil wars informed Bodin and Hobbes’ articulations of sovereignty, Althusius found a practical analog to his theory in the revolt of the United Provinces of the Netherlands against Spanish absolutism. Yet instead of acutely concentrating sovereignty in order to control and perhaps even prevent excessive fractiousness, Althusius found in the revolt a model of cooperation and confederation. Sovereignty, he maintained, remained in the community; practically speaking, the confederation, being too large for direct administration, required “administration [by] ministers and rectors” elected by the people (Althusius 1964:88) who were then bound to protect and advance the sovereign good of the people, by which Althusius meant “the utility and necessity of human social life” and “regard and care for the genuine utility and advantage of subjects” (Althusius 1964: 66).

Of the four theorists, Weinert maintains that the case to be made for Hobbes is most difficult, for his theory of the good is arguably thin. However, a few key points deserve to be highlighted. Hobbes commands the singular will of Leviathan “to direct [the] actions [of all] to the common benefit” (Hobbes 1994:109), which is founded on the principle that “the preservation of life is a general public good that cannot be reversed by the Leviathan’s proclamations” (Weinert 2007a:20), or, as Hobbes maintains (1994:191), “covenants not to defend a man’s own body are void.” Moreover, the sovereign is bound “to secure” subjects and the conditions that enable them to “nourish themselves and live contentedly” (Hobbes 1994:109), for “no king can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure, whose subjects are either poor, or contemptible, or too weak” (Hobbes 1994:120). And when sovereigns renege on their obligations, subjects may flee.

“From a progressive point of view, that of world history as the unfolding of freedom, Hegel is in many ways the greatest theorist of sovereignty” (Weinert 2007a:22). While a bold statement to be sure, this reflects Hegel’s situation of sovereignty in “legal, constitutional government,” which he charges with the task of defending and advancing the liberty of citizens (Hegel 1952:180). The state is “the actuality of concrete freedom,” and thus the ultimate expression of the parentalization of sovereignty: for the state cultivates individuality and gently nudges citizens toward recognition that “individuals […] do not live as private persons for their own ends alone, but in the very act of willing these [private ends]” affirm identification with the state as protector of freedom and individuality (Hegel 1952:160f.), within which self-aware and other-regarding individuality could develop.

However, each theorist attributes to state elites (sovereignty’s agents) the authority and ability to determine how this good was to be effectuated. From theoretical and practical standpoints these four theories are deficient, precisely because they rather weakly (if at all) accounted for potential remedies in the instance of sovereign default on its obligations. But the point was that once sovereignty was necessarily decoupled from the body, it made possible the theoretical view that sovereignty could inhere in multiple forms of governance, and that ultimately all forms spoke to a responsibility for political community and hence to a conception of legitimacy and conditional rule. Late eighteenth to mid nineteenth century migrations of sovereignty from state elites to the people – so-called popular sovereignty (which, incidentally, Hegel rejected precisely for some of the reasons articulated below; Hegel 1952:182f) – furthered both this logic of responsibility and legitimacy and the untenable nature of unilateral (elite) articulations of that logic. Popular sovereignty did not and could not remedy the parentalization of sovereignty; indeed, it made it worse.

First, by wedding supreme authority to the nation, popular sovereignty imposes a homogenized thing – the unitary nation – on the diversity of human experience and identity in ways that silence minority “nations” within the state (e.g., Jews and other ethnic minorities in interwar Europe, indigenous peoples, Basques, Chechens, Palestinians, Scots, Ossetians, and many unnamed others). As Hardt and Negri (2000) maintain, homogenization may undermine democratic and human rights; popular will may easily be manipulated by political elites, a fact common to both democracies and totalitarian regimes (Krasner 1999; Jackson 2007:82). Second, and related, popular sovereignty potentially undermines individual rights and liberties by tying public policy to majority decision. In this regard, Jean Bethke Elshtain (1998:15) ascertains that “during the French Revolution, popular sovereignty constituted internal enemies on par with external foes” such that “the rule of force ordinarily reserved to foreigners now pertains among citizens.” Third, popular sovereignty nevertheless requires an agent, and agency is often attributed to government elites. As Jackson (2007:82) muses, “how are political elites kept in harness as servants of the people if the latter [having divested themselves of the practical employment of authority] cannot act on their own, and if opinions can be put in their mouth by those same elites?” Fourth, binding sovereignty territorially and nationally divides peoples and their transnational concerns, thereby closing off possibilities for sustained ethical and political engagement between agents across state borders. In the end, sovereignty consummates “political experience and activity” (Wight 1966:21). Projected inward, it is a shelter, “a protective shell” (Onuf 1991:199); projected outward, sovereignty morphs into the sword.

International relations theory came to appropriate this latter logic (to the neglect of a logic of responsibility and legitimacy) and focused almost inordinately on sovereignty’s external manifestations and effects: its costs, relations, encounters, and consequences with other such entities. Only a shell remained, and sovereignty, in the guise of protecting and advancing the national interest, became a caricature of absolutism and predation. R.B.J. Walker (1993:165), for instance, summarized Bodinian sovereignty as “power over citizens and subjects, unrestrained by law.” Christian Reus-Smit (1999:96) concurs: “monarchical authority is […] unconditional, it is ‘absolute and perpetual.’” Sovereignty donned the image of an omnicompetent, unaccountable, imposing mortal God who subjugates difference and rights for ostensibly arbitrary reasons. While technically correct – each lifted verbiage from Bodin’s Republique (1955) – Walker and Reus-Smit reformulate Bodin in the Austinian language of legal positivism and the Weberian/neorealist language of unrestrained, permissive, rugged individualism.

Yet the portrait need and should not be so utterly stark. IR has something to learn from internally oriented, contingent considerations of sovereignty. Robert Jackson eloquently summarizes:

if historical experience is anything to go by, it suggests that the idea of sovereignty and the institutions associated with it will continue to evolve in ways that are not predictable. Teleological conceptions that postulate an end or terminus of that evolution warrant our skepticism. In sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe the terminus was the godly Christian state, either protestant or Catholic, under a divinely appointed king. In eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Britain the terminus was representative, sovereign Parliament. In eighteenth-century America and France the terminus was the sovereign Republic and its people. In nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe the terminus was the sovereign nation-state defined as a good fit between a language foot and a territorial shoe. In nineteenth- and twentieth-century America the terminus was the assimilation or at least integration of a racially and ethnically diverse population into one democratic nation or people. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the terminus was national states in the Western world and Western imperialism in the rest of the world. In twentieth-century Asia and Africa the terminus was the territorially sovereign, excolonial state. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries in some Western countries the terminus is starting to look like a democratic multicultural society.

(Jackson 2007:112)

Thus there is nothing to suggest that the reified conceptions of sovereignty in IR theory are timelessly valid. The terminus, the principle, and the practice, it seems, are but historical contingencies. Importantly, one perceives that throughout these transformations the sense of the other expands (see Onuf 1998:137–138). Logics once appropriate to care of a circumscribed self radiate outward; others gradually receive our sympathy and concern, and then our care and our aid – even at the theoretical (and practical) expense of subverting democratic will. Eighteenth century French and American inalienable rights were rearticulated as twentieth century human rights; imperialism was discredited and logics of democracy and freedom gradually unfolded. Yet freedom from the other – that is, independence – did not guarantee freedom of the self; dictatorial and “soft authoritarian” regimes constrained rights of peoples, and embedded ideological antagonisms deep into the framework of interstate relations. All the while sovereignty remained concentrated, its shell seemingly impenetrable, until it cracked under the pressure of integrating, globalizing processes that revealed the incapacities of states, both large and small.

Sovereignty and Globalization

Sovereignty has generally been treated as a significant statement about authority. But stories of sovereignty are also intimately bound up with a story of control and capability. It was with regard to control that the interdependence literature of the 1970s and 1980s began to challenge the state-centric paradigm of international relations (see Keohane and Nye 1972, 1977; Rosecrance 1986) and its assumption that sovereignty granted states seemingly magical powers of complete, unfettered control and the capacities to effectuate such control. The interdependence literature averred that as technology, economic integration, and democratic politics and principles permeated borders, and as nonstate actors increasingly played salient roles in international relations, the state itself lost control. Global integration and the end of the Cold War invariably fueled the argument, and sovereignty studies enjoyed a renaissance during the 1990s as a result. Chiefly, literature during the period focused on whether the dispersion of functional responsibilities to nonstate actors and certain material and ideational migrations – of capital, disease, finances, ideas, information, people, pollution, and technology – challenged the ontological certitude of sovereignty (see for example Onuf 1991, 1998; Lapidoth 1992; Strange 1994; Bartelson 1995; Elkins 1995; Fowler and Bunck 1995; Guehenno 1995; Hainsworth 1995; Biersteker and Weber 1996; Rosenau 1997). Given conditions of globalization, some assumed sovereignty away (Cronin 1999:4 and Reus-Smit 1999:159), or thought it transcended, overthrown, or disposable (on variations of these themes, see Elshtain 1991; Camilleri and Falk 1992; Lipschutz 1992, 1996; Nordenstreng and Schiller 1992; Heiberg 1994; Kuehls 1996; Martin 1996). Others believed sovereignty moved “upwards” to supranational political institutions, “downwards” to private, subnational agents, evaporated in the global marketplace (Anderson 2002:9; see also Strange 1994), or lost conceptual coherence (Onuf 1998:134). Overall, such readings generated the unfortunate conclusion that because we witness significant shifts in the functional capacity of states, especially in ways that impinge on the state’s ability to care for itself and its citizens, sovereignty must be eroding.

However compelling in the globalizing, rapidly changing post–Cold War, new world order, that view proved historically myopic. Thomson and Krasner (1989) reiterated a point that was made in different language and through different metrics, but needed repeating: that “ratios of transborder to within-border flows of people, information, and capital [were] not dramatically different from those of the late nineteenth-century” (Thomson 1995:215; see also Krasner 1993, 1995/96, 1999; Thomson 1994). Others, including Cheyette (1970), Wight (1977), Kriegel (1995), and deMartino (1999), likewise illustrated that sovereign functions have changed, sometimes quite significantly, over time; the intimation being that loss of control over financial flows or any other presumed functional attribute of sovereignty was not equatable with sovereignty’s erosion or imminent death. Indeed, if the critique held, it would decry sovereignty’s denotation of constitutional independence and juridical equality (James 1986) – especially in light of what Jackson (1990:21) calls the “quasi-states” of Africa and Asia, or those states with “limited empirical statehood.” Populations in quasi-states

do not enjoy many of the advantages traditionally associated with independent statehood […] [Their] governments […] [are] deficient in political will, institutional authority, and organized power to protect human rights or provide socioeconomic welfare […] These states are primarily juridical.

Yet quasi-states – say, Somalia, Haiti, and the Congo – retain sovereign status and UN membership; they remain recognized as political communities despite actual or presumed failings in functional capacity (or control); and they are expected by the international community to conform to their treaty obligations as well as adhere to international standards of conduct.

Thus while there may not be any indication that “micro processes driven by changes in individual competencies” undermine “the macro structure of the international system” (Thomson and Krasner 1989:197; cf. Murphy 1996), the question of whether significant quantitative changes in functional scope can produce a qualitative change in both sovereignty and the structure of the system is one worth asking. And it seems that the answers would be found by examining if and how global structures, institutions, and agents act to care or become responsible for other bounded sovereign entities or peoples within those sovereign entities. In this regard, Krasner (1999:228–37) implicitly suggests – perhaps not his intention – that some nonstate agents, by bundling together various “types” or principles of sovereignty, may actually come to procure sovereignty. He includes among these principles 1) territory or “Westphalian sovereignty,” meaning “the exclusion of external actors from domestic authority configurations”; 2) recognition or “international legal sovereignty,” meaning “the mutual recognition of states or other entities”; 3) autonomy or “domestic sovereignty,” meaning “the organization of public authority within a state and to the level of effective control exercised by those holding authority”; and 4) control or “interdependence sovereignty,” meaning “the ability of public authorities to control transborder movements” (Krasner 1999: 9). The British Commonwealth, for instance, includes “territory, extraterritorial authority, control, and international recognition,” while the European Union includes “territory, recognition […] supranational authority, and a mixture of territorial and extraterritorial control” (Krasner 1999:228). If these organizations, moreover, begin to adopt functions analogous to conventionally understood sovereigns in ways that care for multiple selves (and others), then we may begin to see fundamental shifts in the structure of international relations as loyalties migrate, states disappear, and new forms of political organization (and sovereignty) emerge (see for instance Rosenberg 1994; Shaw 2000).

Krasner’s quadripartite division shares with Gong’s earlier formulation of a standard of civilization (Gong 1984) the character of a regulative benchmark against which others may be judged or evaluated (usually by more powerful polities); they are or have been negotiated, renegotiated, and applied by sovereign agents as they see fit. The standard of civilization provided the justificatory grounds by which imperial European powers denied recognition to polities possessing clearly articulated frameworks of authority if they lacked what the Europeans deemed “civilized” structures and procedures. Early in its incarnation, the standard “demanded that foreigners receive treatment consistent ‘with the rule of law as understood in Western countries’” (Gong 1984:14; the standard mimics Kant’s (1991) third definitive article for perpetual peace). Gradually, it evolved to include the guarantee of basic rights; clearly defined and articulated constitutional structures; respect for the rule of law domestically and internationally; and the “subjective requirement” that non-Western states conform “to the accepted norms and practices of the ‘civilized’ international society,” for example the eradication of such “uncivilized” practices as suttee, polygamy, and slavery (Gong 1984:14f.). As Gong notes, European powers inconsistently applied the standard, which substantiates Krasner’s claim:

the characteristics that are associated with sovereignty – territoriality, autonomy, recognition, and control – do not provide an accurate description of the actual practices that have characterized many entities that have been conventionally viewed as sovereign states […] There has never been some ideal time during which all, or even most, political entities conformed with all of the characteristics.

(Krasner 1999:237f.)

In Krasner’s sometimes apt, but not universally applicable, idiom, sovereignty is “organized hypocrisy,” meaning that states “never fully conform with the logics of appropriateness associated with their specific roles […] [but that] they […] engage in purely instrumental behavior generated by a logic of expected consequences” (Krasner 1999:5). “Logics of appropriateness understand political action as a product of rules, roles, and identities that stipulate appropriate behavior in given situations.” Alternatively, “logics of consequences see political action and outcomes, including institutions, as the product of rational calculating behavior designed to maximize a given set of unexplained preferences.” In other words, sovereignty is the province of elite preferences, not standardized, intersubjective norms. Yet Krasner seems to demonstrate that sovereignty is in the end tied to intersubjective norms; at least those created and shared by some elites who may effectively exert power and authority in the international system. While this author does not think that reducing sovereignty to instrumentality is always or particularly helpful given the myriad of constraints to which sovereignty practices have been subjected over time, Krasner and Gong reveal sovereignty to be a historically disjunctive, yet persistent, concept. It is disjunctive owing to metamorphosing content; it is persistent owing to a general – that is, formal – set of principles comprising sovereignty over the long run.

Thus conflating functional capacity with ontological essence is particularly weak (Jackson 2007:14). Considering the historically high degree of variability of sovereignty functions (not to mention changes in the location of sovereignty itself), what Fowler and Bunck call the basket or functional approach to sovereignty – that is, determination of sovereignty on the basis of the collection of “attributes and corresponding rights and duties […] exercised by a state” (Fowler and Bunck 1995:70f.) – fails to illuminate. Indeed, this line of criticism echoes a debate that began in the late nineteenth century and has periodically resurfaced given changing global realities (see Maine 1915; Garner 1925; Loewenstein 1954; Schmidt 1998). Dialectically, the basket or functional approach implies the very thing it critiques: sovereignty is an irreducible, indivisible, essentialized chunk (Fowler and Bunck 1995; see also James 1999:462–4). Sovereignty either appears, in Hinsley’s terms (1986:1), as “supreme authority in political community,” or it is parceled out, dispersed, or curtailed by exogenous agents or forces and therefore is compromised and something less than sovereignty (see also James 1999 for a similar argument).

Reconfiguring an Old Idea: Sovereignty as Responsibility

The globalization debate underscored sovereignty’s disjunctive nature. Yet by linking it so closely with material structures and factors, the literature generally elided consideration of the constitutive effect of international norms on sovereignty and the ways the institution of sovereignty has changed over time. Instead of focusing on state control (or functional capacity), Janice Thomson (1995) maintained that scholars ought to focus attention on state authority (for a similar starting point, see Philpott 2001), and in particular on rule making and enforcement authority. If Thomson suggested a more conventional, inward-directed gaze, then R.B.J. Walker (2002) enlarged that view by encouraging a boundaryless, other-regarding orientation. His point was that impatience with sovereignty and arguments for its erosion perhaps reflected a desire to imagine alternative, nonsovereign futures fed by logics of globalization, cosmopolitanism, humanity, human security, and the like (Walker 2002:8). Yet normative aspirations, he suggests, must be measured against the fact that sovereignty remains a fairly attractive destination and achievement for many peoples (Walker 2002:10).

Thomson and Walker, like many before them, essentially stress sovereignty’s complexity. At its core, sovereignty’s continuity derives from its status as the constitutive principle of modern international relations (Caporaso 2000:3), for it represents the institutionalization of authority within mutually exclusive jurisdictional domains. Yet how it is interpreted, employed, and deployed are contingent matters constrained very much by endogenous and exogenous forces. Elite articulations of sovereignty must necessarily speak to those over whom authority and power are wielded. This was Foucault’s point (2003) and Gramsci’s before him: that power and authority, to win adherents, must be deployed to benefit not just the self narrowly construed, but those in whose service the sovereign self rules and governs. And this brings us back to early sovereignty literature, which inscribed on the very sovereign body a doctrine of responsibility and hence legitimacy.

The globalization debate, then, must be understood as an important transitional moment – a back to the future phenomenon – in sovereignty theory: that is, as a necessary fixation on temporal processes in ways that revealed the salience of change in sovereignty theory and practice. If it was not apparent previously, then globalization rendered sovereignty historically contingent. One could no longer speak about omnicompetence and omnipresence, about absolutism and negation of the other, as if sovereignty were an ahistorical, unchanging feature of international political life. Further, one could no longer construe sovereignty in ethically void terms. Care of populations matters, as do relations with other sovereign entities. The globalization-inspired sovereignty literature drew attention to these themes, as it did to historical sensitivity. If some thought sovereignty began to morph rather dramatically in the 1990s, then others began to question whether sovereignty morphed in other dramatic (and not so dramatic) ways at other junctures in history. The point was not to narrow sovereignty to particular moments in time in ways that reify it, but to analyze the myriad ways sovereignty has been understood and deployed. And historical contingency is often best understood comparatively; that is, by examining the particularity of a moment in time in relation to such particularities across time.

Despite its narrow frame of reference, the globalization debate in the end reconnected sovereignty literature back to its early historic-theoretic roots, and engendered a renaissance that produced a new course of thinking that distanced sovereignty from self-referential reifications of state autonomy, strategic calculation, and elite-driven behavior by focusing on legitimacy, compliance with international norms, and more complex sovereignty architectures. Barkin and Cronin (1994), Chayes and Chayes (1995), Fox (1997), Shue (1997), Barkin (1998), Hurd (1999), Reus-Smit (1999), ICISS (2001), Philpott (2001), Bukovansky (2002), Cohen (2004), and Weinert (2006, 2007b) rearticulated sovereignty in terms of a normative framework involving some degree of endogenous (domestic) and exogenous (international) socialization. On these views, sovereignty appears as a contingent practice, process, and thing constituted and regulated in part by intersubjective norms and rules, to which states must adhere if they are to be perceived as members of the international community in “good standing” (see Chayes and Chayes 1995).

To have good standing means to be perceived as legitimate. By legitimacy, Bukovansky (2002:70) means “the basic requirement that rule must be justified in principle because it rests not just on force but on acquiescence.” Justification in turn fuels the “normative belief by an actor that a rule or institution ought to be obeyed” (Hurd 1999:381). In another idiom, legitimacy concerns “the ways by which political power may be called to account” (Hinsley 1986:25).

How, then, are political power and authority justified? How are they called to account? Certainly, some appeal to interest is necessary, but it cannot be the interests of rulers that are always or even primarily upheld. Even if, as Krasner (1999:50) avows, rulers invoke and adhere to international norms that appeal to constituents so that they will retain power, rule is ultimately contingent on how well and how often those norms are upheld, and how much they cohere with the interests of political community. Sovereignty’s agents must justify their rule and policies in terms of a common interest, lest their rule appear as petty despotism; citizens and society must reap tangible benefits from rule. In other words, as Weinert (2007b:69) formulates it, if sovereignty is a significant statement about the supreme nature of authority in political community, then sovereignty studies must ask toward what ends such authority is directed.

Standards of legitimacy proscribe and prescribe particular conduct. By connecting sovereignty to legitimacy, the literature depicts sovereignty as the fusion of material power with conceptions of social purpose and just political order predicated on shared values. This provides ground on which possible future orders may be constructed, thereby giving concrete expression to what Onuf (1998:89) and Sheldon Wolin (1960) before him called architectonic impulses, or attempts “to mould the totality of political phenomena to accord with some vision of the Good that lies outside the political order” (Onuf 1998:89; for a similar argument, see Murumba 1993). Visions of the Good correspond to certain conceptual orderings of the political universe, or ideas of (how to construct) a just political (world) order. Visions of the Good (as expressions of the content of just political order) inform perceptions of legitimacy, which call to account both domestic and international sovereignty practices. But rather than bracket out transnational associations and social agents in ways that deny causal linkages between (transnational) nonstate agents and international (and domestic) change, or construe transnational relationships and practices as undermining, eroding, or disaggregating the state and sovereignty, sovereignty on this view weaves, through the guise of legitimacy, the work of nonstate actors and their suppositions of the content of just political order into a theory of sovereignty. And this is what Weinert (2007b) means by democratic sovereignty.

Importantly, he contends, these actors introduce, communicate, and attempt to actualize diverse and not always incommensurable ideas of the content of just political order, which are contingent on 1) widely shared values; 2) our ideas of what can be done to prevent certain deprivations, ameliorate living conditions, and sustain and promote international peace and order; and 3) available moral, material, and ideational resources (see Sen 1999). In the case of the “responsibility to protect,” the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty or ICISS (2001), comprised of academics, former policy officials, diplomats, and assisted by multiple agencies, governments, foundations, and nonprofits, revisited the seemingly intractable problem of humanitarian intervention in light of failures with respect to Cambodia, Somalia, and Rwanda. Based on ideas of how to respond to and even prevent certain deprivations, and cognizant of available resources, the commission reformulated the terms of the debate in a manner acceptable (in principle) to the international community. A “responsibility to protect” both defends the sovereign state as a predominant source of identity and locus of loyalty for people, and locates the state in a larger moral project. If one accepts this premise, then it is easy to conclude that “where the state fails to provide for the good life, its right to the protection of the norm of non-intervention should be called into question” (Wheeler and Morris 1996:151). Intervention, when conducted within certain protective parameters, does not usurp the state and sovereignty but supports it. Put differently, the practice affects changes in how the principle is interpreted and applied.

Broad-based participation in sovereignty regimes does not erode or undermine the sovereign state, though it may reveal tensions between multiple principles – say, the responsibility to protect as a residual international community obligation to those who suffer, and democratic (majority) will to repress a minority. The point of the literature is precisely to emphasize the point about sovereignty’s contingency by highlighting its disjunctive nature (see Barkin and Cronin 1994; Barkin 1998). Weinert (2007b) construes such participation in the language and logic of a “democratic sovereignty,” which remains committed to the state as a viable institution that has important work to do vis-à-vis the specific articulation of values for particular communities. But he highlights with assistance from theoretical and historical evidence that, over time, multiple actors have helped constitute principles that regulate state practices. This makes it possible to construe sovereignty as a much broader social process, not as a thing or necessarily as a reification of agency. The question of sovereignty’s content, in other words, belongs not necessarily to individual states or their ruling elites but to the broader communities within which states are situated. By shifting discourse away from the supreme authority of a particular agent (thing) and toward the supreme authority of the welfare of political community expressed as a broad set of human values (process), we locate sovereignty in a multilayered, global politico-legal order in which it is tied to activities of multiple nonstate actors.

As a legal concept centered on the concept of authority, sovereignty enshrines ideas of the content of just political order in a normative, public legal order, which is why Cohen (2004:15) can remark that “it is the rules of international law that tell us in what sovereignty consists.” Principles of legitimacy thereby make clear a progressive element in international relations too easily dismissed by neorealists and neoliberals, and underdeveloped by constructivists. But according to Thomson and the state-building literature (see Strayer 1970; Tilly 1975, 1990; Giddens 1985) the problem with the legitimacy or responsibility paradigm – that sovereignty is an institution “that developed to serve societal needs like economic growth and protection from military attack” (Thomson 1995:216) – is that there is nothing empirical to support it. Any presumed lack of historical evidence speaks to just that: a presumed lack of precedent, which by no means translates into future impossibility. Thomson’s emphasis on authority, not control, was, in retrospect, right, and propelled the sovereignty literature in another (though not entirely new) direction. But as Barkin and Cronin (1994) and Weinert (2007b), among others, have shown, there is considerable historical evidence to construct a “sovereignty as responsibility” argument. Sovereignty as authority – the very linguistic reformulation of “sovereignty is” reduces the puzzle to a static thing, whereas “sovereignty as” opens horizons of possibilities – begs questions regarding its employment and deployment, its effects and limitations, its inclusions and silences; and this reformulation – sovereignty as, not sovereignty is – gave rise to a logic of sovereignty as responsibility.

Those authors cite ample evidence including the extension of individual religious liberty effectuated by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia; abolition of slave trading and advocacy of the monarchical principle, both of which were articulated at the 1815 Congress of Vienna; proliferation of human rights norms and law; the campaign against apartheid; advocacy of democracy as a standard of international legitimacy; the 1997 Ottawa Convention banning the production, use, sale, and stockpiling of antipersonnel landmines; a UN-based certification scheme to prevent the sale of “blood” or “conflict” diamonds; development of international criminal responsibility in international law; environmentally protective initiatives; and Jubilee 2000, a Catholic-based transnational movement that advocated and eventually obtained debt forgiveness of the world’s poorest countries by the world’s wealthiest, among others. Importantly, most of the cases reveal 1) that sovereignty is modified by multiple actors, which, in turn, 2) eschews the singular agent orientation of most sovereignty definitions; 3) indicates that we must be more critical in our conception of authority (if indeed sovereignty is a significant statement about authority) and for what purposes such authority is instituted and exercised; and, most importantly, 4) “that the ‘thing’ (sovereignty) that constitutes the state likewise modifies it and its behavior, forcing us to retreat from the position that sovereignty is a ‘hard’, invariable fact of international political and social life” (Weinert 2007b:8).

The view fleshes out R.B.J. Walker’s concerns that we frame sovereignty “as a question about the very possibility of politics, rather than as a powerful, still persuasive, but limited account of what politics must be” (Walker 2002:17). And it is this opening of sovereignty to change, to the idea that it can act as a “generative grammar” – by which Ruggie (1998:63) means “the underlying principles of order and meaning that shape the manner of [a thing’s] formation and transformation” – that directs attention to larger issues of global governance; normative change in world politics (see Acharya 2006); and the meanings and roles of the state and sovereignty given new constellations of issues, interests, actors, and resources. No doubt these issues will continue to propel sovereignty literature.

The responsibility or legitimacy paradigm has accomplished a few notable tasks thus far. First, it has distanced sovereignty from its image as an immutable structure of command and control driven by elite, rational calculations of material and ideational interests despite international norms or citizen preferences (see Krasner 1999). True, elite formulations still matter. But historically minded literature has demonstrated that very real endogenous and exogenous forces constrain sovereignty’s deployment. If prerogative has been a synonym of sovereignty, then so too in varying degrees has been responsibility.

Second, this paradigm has connected sovereignty to processes of socialization and rule construction buttressed by perceptions of legitimacy. This line of argument opens sovereignty theory to normative mutations and developments in international relations. Socialization affects state identity and behavior by providing a context within which states negotiate the contours of what it means to be sovereign. No doubt, socialization produces forms of learning: an inherently social activity whose lessons are borne out through experience and reflection. Learning is never unilinear; progress may be punctuated by regression. States do not exist in social vacuums, but in contexts animated by competing interests and values, cooperation and dialog, exchange and interpretation. Sometimes these dialogic and interpretive networks yield convergences of interests and values (especially in times of and after crises), and these convergences provide fertile new ground on which to construct sociopolitical orders and explore new ideas about the just content of such orders. These convergences sometimes lead to the generation and transformation of normative structures; these in turn constrain sovereignty practices and alter its meaning through a myriad of social and legal norms – both soft (general and relatively imprecise behavioral prescriptions and proscriptions) and hard (relatively precise directives) – which precipitate from new material and ideational conditions, and are continually revised through negotiation, application, interpretation, and reflection.

Third, importantly, the sovereignty as responsibility paradigm resituates ethical discourse centrally within sovereignty theory. In this regard, sovereignty literature need not necessarily imagine alternative nonsovereign futures, but rather think of sovereignty “as a question about the very possibility of politics, rather than as a powerful, still persuasive, but limited account of what politics must be” (Walker 2002:17). Walker’s earlier point (1993) was precisely that while sovereignty divides domestic from international spaces, political activity transcends the divide. Refocusing our attention on sovereignty as responsibility or legitimacy might then prove a very useful tool in correlating political activity inside the state to such activity outside the state.


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The Carnegie Council aims to promote ethical leadership in diverse policy arenas through a variety of educational and research oriented programs. Accessed July 25, 2009.

Sovereignty and its Discontents, SAID was established in 2005 to “stimulate wider discussion and debate on the changing nature of state sovereignty” and “to initiate collaborative research projects” to that end. Accessed July 25, 2009.

The UN and the Responsibility to Protect, This website compiles documents related to the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’s “responsibiltiy to protect” (R2P) principle, which aims to protect peoples from genocide, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing. R2P represents the latest challenge to an orthodox conception of sovereignty.