Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Power Capabilities, External Recognition, and Sovereignty: The Case of Lithuanian Independence(*)

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Power Capabilities, External Recognition, and Sovereignty: The Case of Lithuanian Independence(*)

Article excerpt


Of the many contemporary debates in international relations theory, a common theme among them seems to be the emphasis placed on issues of sovereignty. One debate in particular concerns the role of external recognition and power capabilities in attaining and maintaining state sovereignty in the international system. As currently stated, the assertions put forth by both camps are plagued by apparent anomalies, resulting in theories that do not seem to fit the facts. In calling for more research on the subject, Janice Thomson states that "empirical research on sovereignty requires a better understanding of the relative importance of power capabilities and external recognition in empowering and legitimizing the sovereign state."(1) One hindrance to such research, however, is that states usually only attain sovereignty once in their lifetime, either following a long process of nation-state development or as the result of succession from an empire. This results in a limited number of observations, and leaves those who wish to investigate issues of sovereignty with difficulties in comparing what can be very unlike cases.

As a way of circumventing such problems, I offer here an historical analysis of a single nation which examines its struggle to attain and maintain sovereignty. Of course, if, as is true with most nation-states, sovereignty was gained once and with little dispute by other international actors, this would make for a very dull analysis and would add little to the debate. However, a nation-state that had sovereignty only later to lose it and then struggle through foreign oppression to eventually gain it back again would make for an interesting analysis and contribute many empirical facts to the debate. History and the collapse of the Soviet Union have left us with just such a case: the Republic of Lithuania.

Lithuania is a good case in which to study the impact of external recognition and power capabilities on state sovereignty for several reasons. It emerged as an independent state and regional power in the thirteenth century, was later a lesser partner in a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and then suffered under the subjugation of the Russian Empire. In this century alone, it attained independence twice and was occupied on four different occasions by two different powers (not to mention Poland's occupation of the Vilnius region for twenty years). Finally, its sovereignty was recognized by foreign powers even while it was under Soviet control. These facts make Lithuania a good case because all of the variables with which we are interested vary considerably over time. By analyzing these variables and how they interact, we should be able to clarify the roles played by external recognition and power capabilities in constituting state sovereignty. Besides contributing to the theoretical debate on sovereignty, this analysis should also provide us with a better understanding of the Lithuanian nation's struggle for independence.


The abstract concept of sovereignty has been a subject of debate among those interested in politics for centuries, and it is little wonder that the controversy has made its way into the study of international relations theory, where the debate over "might makes right" is alive and well. International relations theorists of the liberal persuasion have expended considerable efforts examining issues of sovereignty and its erosion or transfer, while realist scholars have simply tended to ignore it, taking it as an established fact of nation-states. Perhaps the realists' neglect of sovereignty is best explained by considering Hinsley's understanding of sovereignty: "[m]en do not wield or submit to sovereignty. They wield or submit to authority or power."(2) Sovereignty, rather, is an abstract "concept which men in certain circumstances have applied ... to the political power which they or other men were exercising. …

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