Sovereignty: An Introduction and Brief History

By Philpott, Daniel | Journal of International Affairs, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview
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Sovereignty: An Introduction and Brief History


Philpott, Daniel, Journal of International Affairs


Most citizens of most states recall, in eulogy or in censure, a founding moment when battles, heroes, speeches, debates and compromises brought about a new constitution, an enduring new orthodoxy of political authority and principles. They speak of 1776, 1789 and 1917, of preserving the spirit of the revolution and the intentions of its founders. Rarely, though, do such sentiments apply to international relations. Occasionally scholars write of our "Westphalian system," but only cooly to categorize and chronicle not to pronounce or polemicize. Why the reticence? It probably has much to do with the dominance of the realist tradition, according to which the history of international relations is an endless competition between armies and economies; rules, constitutions and notions of political authority, then, are only deceptive, forgettable surface reflections. I will argue for the reality of these reflections. International relations, too, has something akin to a constitution, embodied in what I will call "norms of sovereignty," and this constitution is formed through revolutions: Tumult yields novel orthodoxy.

Today sovereignty is again the issue. There is evidence that another revolution is afoot. Against the spirit of "the end of history," new actors are claiming new forms of authority. The European Union and the United Nations endorse the right to independence of secessionist Yugoslavian republics; the U.N. and its proxy armies intervene in Somalia, Iraq and Rwanda for humanitarian reasons and apply sanctions on Haiti on behalf of democracy, all without the consent of local parties; legal scholars note an "emerging right to democratic governance" which makes domestic government a matter of international concern; and E.U. states make new progress toward the "pooling" of authority in a common institution.[2] These trends are still partial; whether they will become durable norms in the new world order is not yet certain. But if they do, together they will amount to one of the rare international revolutions in sovereignty since medieval times.

If the current relevance of the state is our question, then these emerging norms of sovereignty are noteworthy. They are not, however, all that is important to the state. Increased flows of trade, money, information and armaments, and changes in laws governing ownership and citizenship dramatically alter the state's functions and efficacy, but have little to do with sovereignty, which itself is purely a matter of legitimate authority. Although revolutions in norms of sovereignty are only part of important political change, they are an inestimably important part, and we ought to know something about their nature and history. I seek, then, to introduce sovereignty in two stages. First, I offer a sorely needed definition and explore some of its variations. I then offer a brief history of its crucial historical junctures and founding moments.

International lawyers have so thoroughly delineated, demarcated, explicated, qualified and categorized sovereignty that the term's continued useful precision is open to question.[3] Yet, because sovereignty has so often been appealed to or claimed, in both polemics and preambles, by statespeople, diplomats and members of parliament concerned about the integrity of their authority, and because it comprises the struts and joists without which statecraft would not exist, it cannot be scuttled.

But sovereignty needs definition. Precisely because of its complex historical evolution, finding a definition encompassing every usage since the 13th century is a pipe dream.[4] However, there is a broad concept - not a definition, but a wide philosophical category - which unites most of sovereignty's past, and with which we can begin: authority. Authority is "the right to command and correlatively, the right to be obeyed."[5] It is legitimate when it is rooted in law, tradition, consent or divine command, and when those living under it generally endorse this notion.

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