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The Significance of Sovereignty in International Relations

By Edited Jan 1, 2014 0 0

In the study of international relations, few ideals are considered to be static entities since the international community is continuously remodeling in response to its surroundings—presumably in a fashion that benefits the welfare of one’s respective allegiances. Bearing this principle in mind, one facet of interstate relations that was once nearly universally agreed upon was the legitimacy of sovereignty. For even when a nation-state’s sovereignty was disputed during the 20th century in the World Wars and during the Cold War, the collective understanding of sovereignty—the underlying constant that nation-state’s had autonomous jurisdiction—was definitively reflected in the policies of the era. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, for instance, Allied states separately yet definitively acknowledged that Poland’s external sovereignty had been breached; similarly, on the brink of nuclear conflict, Nixon and Brezhnev agreed to détente between the United States and the Soviet Union understanding that the states—as opposed to non-state actors or international sanctions and treaties—maintained primary authority.  However, contemporary interconnectivity, in stark contrast to merely 20 years ago, has no precedent; as a result, treaties and philosophies of the past are vigorously labeled as incapable of discerning an uncertain time in which the previously assumed autonomy of the state is in question—and in the opinion of many—has been surpassed. At the forefront of the debate as to whether sovereignty is declining are the rise of sub-state movements, the increasing influence and capabilities of supra-state organizations, and the evolution of the postmodernist tendency to attempt to spread democracy to those deemed less fortunate. Considering the aforementioned developments, one can hardly make the claim that nation-states abide by the criterion portrayed in the peace treaties of Westphalia, but equally so, sovereignty plays a fundamental role in ensuring that the current nation-state system is far from diminishing into irrelevancy. In many respects sovereignty is of declining significance in international relations, and in other respects sovereignty is of escalating importance in a world of unpredictability. Therefore, if aspects of sovereignty are heading in polarizing directions in terms of importance, sovereignty is indisputably in a transitional stage. Amidst the emergence of the sub-state, supra-state, and external intervention, the nation-state is forced to adapt to a world that now invites non-state actors to the table with the state; so, while facets of sovereignty are diminishing and heightening, coexistence between state and non-state authority—the preservation of a “sovereignty-modern” system (Jackson 2003: 785)—is feasible in a world where the influence and existence of sovereignty is debated.

            One aspect of society that has benefited immensely from global interconnectivity and pertains to the legitimacy of sovereignty is sub-state movements. In accordance, the majority of contemporary sub-state movements network beyond territorial boundaries—ranging from violent terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda to nonviolent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations currently occurring worldwide in response to a perceived lack of integrity by big corporations. The state closely follows these developments because they have the potential to disturb homeland security and economic investment—thus seeming to implicate that a state’s sovereignty is always in the hands of external forces. This established external locus of control in which states are held responsible for economic and security-related downturns has increased significantly due to globalization, but some scholars argue that the nation-state never has had untrammeled sovereignty over the sub-state. For example, whilst considering how the simplistic notion of sovereignty fails to reflect the vast differences between strong and weak nation-states, Tierney writes of a previously dependent Scotland, “Scotland through ‘administrative independence’ enjoyed a level of autonomy comparable to other small European nations which, despite formal independent statehood, have always had to negotiate their autonomy in relation to big powers” (Paterson and Tierney 2005: 168). Taking this into account, one may surmise that sovereignty is only necessary for global powers—especially since it can certainly be claimed that small states’ internal and external sovereignty are derived from having a ‘big brother’ on their side. Additionally, even in terms of sub-state secessionist movements such as in Scotland and Quebec, Tierney notes that, “only 30 percent [of Quebecois] would support sovereignty if there were to be no such prospect of a partnership [economic and political partnership] with Canada,” and similar findings were conducted in Scotland (Tierney 2005: 178). Ultimately, it is strong nationalistic ties, economic in these case studies, which disallow sub-state movements from ever superseding the state (without outside intervention.) The presumed scenario in which a seceding sub-state would be left economically and politically abandoned by neighbors is essential in claiming that sovereignty is still necessary, for proponents of the belief of the decline of sovereignty will surely note that, “a State cannot use federalism or other forms of ‘divided sovereignty’ as its excuse for failure to comply with international obligations” (Seidle 1994: 40). By default, any sub-state movement void of international intervention (revealing the state still has recognized sovereignty according to the predominant international perspective) with the aspirations of overtaking the state is simply irrational. In short, sub-state movements’ interconnectivity forces nation-states to take notice and does reveal sovereignty is declining in that respect, but without supra-state support, ideally the United Nations and NATO, the movements hardly gain enough traction to delegitimize sovereignty, and it is certainly plausible that the international community strengthens the prowess of the state over the sub-state in the sense that the state has ties with chartered international organizations that the sub-state can never attain.

            Juxtaposing the limitations of solely sub-state movements, the growing prominence of supra-state organizations transcends traditional alliances and expectations of sovereignty—most notably in economic transparency and international jurisdiction. Quite clearly, membership in multiple international organizations is going to restrict a nation-state’s freedom of self-governance. An ongoing example is how, since Germany is part of the European Union, the economically stable state is essentially obligated to bailout failing economies in other EU member-states. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher simplified the situation nicely when stating, “Almost every major nation has been obliged by the pressures of the post-war world to pool significant areas of sovereignty so as to create more effective political units” (Thatcher 1975: 1). On the surface, the aforementioned statement seems to implicate that the state is indentured to the international community—similar to how the sub-state is at the mercy of the sovereign state and her allies. Hence, sovereignty would be on the decline since the international community would always have authority in deciphering whether a state deserves sovereign status. Adversely, scholars such as James Hsiung of New York University argue that the decentralization of state control coupled with a neorealist, anarchical system can coincide—thus suggesting that the balance of anarchy allows for sovereignty and international law to coexist. As Hsiung points out, It is precisely anarchy that gives rise to international law, properly understood, since orderly relations are dictated by the self-interest of sovereign states” (Hsiung 1994: 224). Hsiung cites the “United States’ unilateral interpretation of sovereign immunity to exclude acts which are commercial by nature” (Simmons 2000: 228) to justify his claim that international law will not interfere with national interests; but, assumedly proponents of liberalism would suggest that this only reiterates the unfair leeway that stronger states have over weaker states. However, Hsiung’s allusion to how stronger states can circumvent international jurisdiction—one need not look far beyond the invasion of Iraq in 2003 without international consent or human rights violations occurring in China for examples—advocates that strong states, both militarily and economically, will retain sovereignty regardless of the rise of the supra-state. So, essentially, the world’s powers relinquish some sovereignty to international bodies whether it is in the likes of reducing carbon emissions or providing humanitarian aid, but when the state is faced with choosing between international interest and national interest, strong states will gladly choose the latter—like Hobbes or Morgenthau would have told us they would. But where does this leave small, weaker states when the strong state and supra-state are constantly vying for power at the expense of the smaller states’ interests? Based upon what many small states were promised in Helsinki or in the UN Charter, their sovereignty relies squarely upon international defense if their sovereignty was ever unjustly threatened. But again, quite cyclically, if the strong state can circumstantially ignore international law, then the small state must put faith in strong states who will act in their respective national interests. Therefore, small states’ sovereignty is synonymous with the preservation of fair and practiced international law. Summarily, as supra-state bodies gain prominence sovereignty declines for strong states that are subject to international obligation—but they can sometimes find loopholes in the bureaucracy. Inversely, while small states lose some sovereignty in domestic affairs to supra-state ascension, the international community serves as a strong security blanket—protecting sovereignty—for the feeble state.

            In addition to the effects of the sub-state and supra-state, the relation between an interconnected and arguably interventionist world and sovereignty must be analyzed. Specifically, actual contemporary case studies may make the strongest case for the idea that sovereignty is on the decline. When one looks at offshore Chinese drilling in Australia, or Bush and Blair invading Iraq without sufficient evidence of weapons of mass destruction, or states such as Iran or rising power India who abstain from the NPT, or listening to hawkish American politicians insisting that the international community destroy supposed Iranian facilities when troops are already occupied in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and several other nations, it is extremely difficult to fathom that sovereignty is not declining in every state. Even former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan hints at the intangible limitation and decline of state sovereignty when asserting, “Any such evolution in our understanding of State sovereignty and individual sovereignty will, in some quarters, be met with distrust, scepticism, even hostility. But it is an evolution that we should welcome” (Annan 1999: 7136). In the context of human compassion for external suffering, then the decline of sovereignty should be welcome as Annan says; conversely though, empowering external forces opens the door to unwelcome intervention—surely the peoples of colonized Africa or many present-day Middle Eastern citizens could attest. Solidified by a nuclear age in which multiple countries have the capability of ceasing human existence, sovereignty must be dually declining and on the rise. The knowledge of mutually assured destruction—as the United States and the Soviet Union exemplified—deters conflict and consequently enhances state sovereignty in the sense that neither state will jeopardize its existence. But juxtaposedly, sovereignty can also be considered to be declining when every decision that the state or supra-state makes must ensure that there is no possibility of nuclear ramifications. And finally, a modern analysis of case studies and what they portray regarding the state of sovereignty must include the recent developments of the Arab Spring. Quite arguably, the idealistic, utopian message of sovereignty inspired change in favor of democratic values. And states such as Egypt, at least according to the media, appeared to triumph—subsequently revealing that popular sovereignty in favor of alternative governance can be an effective means of sparking the creation of newfound accredited sovereignty. Libya is slightly more complex because some critics claim that international intervention in Libya infringed upon their external sovereignty, while others claim that it was the duty of the UN to intervene in favor of the oppressed citizens as a testament to basic human rights. Again, sovereignty is on the incline and decline—declining because the international community has the ability to intervene with unprecedented rapidity in a state, yet on the incline because the international community, at least in most cases, abides by the sentiments of the native peoples interpretation of sovereignty.

            In conclusion, the state of sovereignty is certainly open to debate and, in my opinion, various aspects of sovereignty are increasing and decreasing. Simplistically, sovereignty is on the decline because states are being forced to compromise aspects of national interest to appease the international community more than ever before; but, on the other hand, sovereignty is not declining because states remain the primary actors, and when they do have to compromise with the international community, initiatives that maintain national sovereignty (for states that are deemed worthy of sovereignty) are generally strived for. Perhaps former Secretary General of the United Nations Boutros Boutros-Ghali summarizes the current state of sovereignty best when he claims, “Respect for [the state’s] fundamental sovereignty and integrity [is] crucial to any common international progress. The time of absolute and exclusive sovereignty, however, has passed; its theory was never matched by reality” (Boutros-Ghali 1992: 17). From the sub-state, to the supra-state, to common intervention, sovereignty of the state is being redefined; it is the duty of all parties involved to enact policy that legitimizes the positive influence of the state and non-state in a globalizing time.        


Kofi A. Annan, Secretary-General’s Speech to the 54th Session of the General Assembly, UN Doc. SG/SM/7136 (1999).


Hobbes, Thomas, and C. B. Macpherson. Leviathan. London: Penguin, 1988. Print.

Hsiung, James C. Anarchy and Order: The Interplay of Politics and Law in International Relations. Boulder CO, London: Lynne Rienner, 1997. Pp. x, 245. Index. 55.

Jackson, John H. SOVEREIGNTY-MODERN: A NEW APPROACH TO AN OUTDATED CONCEPT. Cambridge University, UK. 782-802: Vol. 97. 2002.


Paterson, Lindsay. Autonomy of Modern Scotland. Edinburgh, UK. Edinburgh University Press. 209. 1994

Seidle, Leslie. Asymmetry: Rejected, Conceded, Imposed (ed) Seeking a New Canadian Partnership: Assymetrical and Confederal Options. Institute for Research on Public Policy Montreal. Montreal, QC. 40. 1994.

Simmons, Beth A. Is Sovereignty Still Relevant?. The American Journal of International Law. 226-231.Vol 94. 2000.

Thatcher, Margaret. Speech in Hendon (European Referendum Campaign). Thatcher Archive: CCOPR 486/75. Christ College School, Hendon

Tierney, Stephen. Reframing Sovereignty? Sub-State National Societies and Contemporary Challenges to the Nation-State. British Institute of International and Comparative Law.  162-185. 2008.



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