Sovereignty Research Paper

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Political scientists trace the conventional definition of sovereignty—supreme legal authority exercised over a particular territory and people—to the writings of European legal and political philosophers from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Many view sovereignty as a defining feature of political modernity, and some critical and postmodern theorists regard sovereignty as a discursive practice and, as such, a central problem for contemporary politics, particularly world politics. It is argued that the discursive practice of sovereignty constructs and sustains the state as the supreme authority in a world in which human well being and social justice would be better served by finding ways of simultaneously holding states more accountable to people and by enlarging the role of global civil society. By some accounts, the sovereign state is the cause of war and international anarchy as well as the primary obstacle to the construction of a humane world order.

Writings on sovereignty over the past four centuries reflect two distinct views, one unlimited and absolute, the other restrictive and conditional. The works of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), Jean Bodin (1530-1596), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and John Austin (17901859) fall into the first category. In Austin’s view law is “the command of the sovereign.” Machiavelli and Hobbes held that the recognition and exercise of sovereignty as supreme authority is necessary to the establishment of effective government. Bodin’s conception was so absolute that, in his view, elected officials could not be said to hold sovereign power at all. Such absolute sovereignty was mitigated when it passed historically from the “divine right of kings” in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries to the state or government. Though Hobbes and Austin did not deny a role for the people, their emphasis on the state as the locus of sovereignty is evident today, as there are no requirements that states be democratic in order to be recognized as possessing sovereign authority accountable to no higher authority, hence the criticism of state sovereignty by today’s human rights advocates. In contrast, John Locke (1632-1704) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) argued for a shift in the locus of sovereignty from government to people.

Recent criticisms of sovereignty as a discursive practice stem largely from the work of the influential postmodernist Michel Foucault (1926-1984), who sought to unveil how sovereignty discourses both correspond to and constrain the way power is constituted in social relations in specific historical and cultural contexts. This exercise reveals the paradox of modernity, where sovereignty, said to reside within the individual, has a totalizing effect when exercised by the state. Philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) also notes the contradiction between, on the one hand, sovereignty understood as one group or individual exercising a superior power over others and, on the other, modernity’s promise of democracy and equality.

Sovereignty can be viewed within particular contexts such as international law, international political relations, or through a network of legal relations within a federal state, such as the United States. In international law, an absolute concept of sovereignty is less relevant than the “sovereign equality” of states. States freely enter into legally binding agreements through treaties, but in doing so, they in effect agree to a diminishment of sovereignty. An example is the optional clause to the Statute of the International Court of Justice, which imposes compulsory jurisdiction on all states signing the clause. Some argue that the members of the European Union give up some state sovereignty in favor of “pooled” sovereignty. A distinction is also made between de jure sovereignty, that is, the legal status of sovereignty, and de facto sovereignty, which allows a state to act sovereign as a practical matter even if not supported by de jure, or legal, recognition.

Sovereign equality is a legal attribute of states in their legal and political relations with another. New states “come into existence” as a result of being recognized by existing states. Thus the success of a people or a secessionist movement in seeking recognition as a sovereign state will ultimately depend on the political will of existing states. States may also experience diminished sovereignty as a consequence of violating international norms or as a result of the enforcement of international law by other states. Following their defeat in World War II (1939-1945), for instance, Germany and Japan formed postwar governments under the supervision of the international community, and their ability to maintain military forces was curtailed as a condition of their defeat. More recently, following the United Nations Security Council enforcement action in 1991, Iraq’s sovereignty was diminished by the International Atomic Energy Commission inspections and the U.N. designation of “no-fly zones.”

In a federal system such as the United States, sovereignty can be reserved or shared between the federal and state or provincial governments. Additionally, indigenous peoples within a state can exercise or assert indigenous sovereignty. Although the term indigenous has gained widespread use internationally, U.S. law refers to “tribal sovereignty,” while Canada and other settler states refer to “aboriginal” sovereignty. The history of tribal sovereignty in the United States has been troubled, uneven, and often inconsistent, in large part because U.S. law asserts congressional “plenary power” over indigenous peoples. U.S. law treats tribal sovereignty as a lesser or subordinate form of sovereignty. Though eroded through many of the court decisions during most of the twentieth century, in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the right of self-determination has been strengthened as U.S. law recognizes that indigenous tribes and nations possess many attributes of sovereignty. A move toward international recognition of indigenous rights may further strengthen the legal and political basis of indigenous sovereignty, which indigenous peoples often regard as the ability to control one’s own political destiny.

Sovereignty has no intrinsic moral authority. As a legal doctrine or norm, sovereignty is said to have settled the church-state authority crisis of the sixteenth century. Its legitimacy, however, rested at that time on the notion of divine right, whereby authoritative uses of power were grounded in the moral claims of religious loyalty. With the rise of nationalism in the eighteenth century, the moral basis shifted from the church to the people in the form of the nation, so that divine right gave way to popular sovereignty. It soon became evident that nationalism was exclusionary, and as an ideology it could be used to justify heinous atrocities against “others” who did not belong to the national group controlling the state.

Sovereignty today is the subject of much debate, with some calling for the “deterritorialization” of sovereignty and others heralding the erosion of the sovereign state in favor of a combination of simultaneously more local and more global societal relations.


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  2. Balke, Friedrich. 2005. Derrida and Foucault on Sovereignty. German Law Journal 6 (January 1).
  3. Barker, Joanne. 2005. Sovereignty Matters: Locations of Contestation and Possibility in Indigenous Struggles for Self-Determination. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  4. Bartelson, Jens, ed. 1995. A Genealogy of Sovereignty. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Bodin, Jean. 1992. On Sovereignty: Four Chapters from the Six Books of the Commonwealth. Trans. and ed. Julian H. Franklin. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press. (Orig. pub. 1576).
  6. Foucault, Michel. 2003. The Essential Foucault, eds. Paul Rabinow and Nikolas S. Rose. New York: New Press.
  7. Hobbes, Thomas. 1982. Leviathan, ed. C. B. McPherson. New York: Penguin Books. (Orig. pub. 1651).
  8. Ivison, Duncan, Paul Patton, and Will Sanders, eds. 2000. Political Theory and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  9. Kamuf, Peggy. 1991. The Derrida Reader. New York: Columbia University Press.
  10. Krasner, Stephen. 1999. Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  11. Krasner, Stephen. 2001. Problematic Sovereignty. New York: Columbia University Press.
  12. Locke, John. 2003. Two Treatises on Government and a Letter on Toleration, ed. Ian Shapiro. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. (Orig. pub. 1689).
  13. Machiavelli, Nicolo. 1984. The Prince. New York: Bantam Classics. (Orig. pub. 1532).
  14. Machiavelli, Nicolo. 2003. The Art of War. Trans. Christopher Lynch. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Orig. pub. 1520).
  15. Nelsen, Brent F., and Alexander Stubb, eds. 2003. The European Union: Readings on the Theory and Practice of European Integration. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.
  16. Philpott, Daniel. 2001. Revolutions in Sovereignty: How Ideas Shaped Modern International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  17. Porter, Robert Odawi. 2004. Sovereignty, Colonialism, and the Future of the Indigenous Nations: A Reader. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.
  18. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1968. The Social Contract. Trans and ed. Maurice Cranston. New York: Penguin Books. (Orig. pub. 1762).
  19. Slaughter, Anne-Marie. 2004. A New World Order. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  20. Trask, Haunani Kay. 1999. From a Native Daughter: Colonialism and Sovereignty in Hawaii. Manoa: University of Hawaii Press.
  21. Weber, Cynthia. 1994. Simulating Sovereignty: Intervention, the State, and Symbolic Exchange. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  22. Wilmer, Franke. 1993. The Indigenous Voice in World Politics. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

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