Observing International Relations: Niklas Luhmann and World Politics

By Mathias Albert; Lena Hilkermeier | Go to book overview

9

Systems and sovereignty

A systems theoretical look at the transformation of sovereignty

Anders Esmark


Sovereignty all over again?

It is hardly controversial to state that the issue of sovereignty has been the core concern in the field of International Relations. In the words of Hedley Bull, one might even say that IR is a discipline founded on the existence of state sovereignty at both a normative and a factual level (cf. Bull 1995 [1977]: 8). But it is also a fact that the current struggle to come to terms (literally speaking) with globalization within IR has generated some controversy about state sovereignty. The increasing lack of faith in the “international system” of states as a viable conceptualization of contemporary world politics (see Albert’s chapter in this volume) has led to serious doubts as to the existence of sovereignty at both the “normative” and the “factual” level. Thus, it very often follows from the proposition that globalization or even a fully constituted global sphere is a fact of late modern life that state sovereignty is taken to be “losing out, ” in “crisis” or in “decline” (cf. Held 1995; Castells 1997; Sassen 1996, 1998).

However the assumption that globalization necessarily implies a “crisis” or even an “end” of sovereignty is somewhat unfortunate (cf. Walker 2000). Very often, the conclusion is drawn more as a matter of reflex than reflection. In general, this is the case when the issue of sovereignty is discussed within the semantic framework of “the disappearance of the state. ” Here, globalization is seen as a challenge or threat to the state, “hollowing out” the state (cf. Rhodes 1997; Jessop 2001). When sovereignty is regarded as either state sovereignty or popular sovereignty - the two great notions of sovereignty inherent in the nation state - it follows from the semantics of the disappearance of the state that we are also rapidly approaching the end of sovereignty.

It is an assumption underlying the argument of this chapter that globalization is a fact of late modernity. It is also assumed that the “nation state” is indeed becoming a concept of little use to contemporary IR or political science in general, even though the abundance of metaphors for the disappearance of the state may not be the most precise way to describe the situation. Yet what is not argued here is that globalization would produce a “crisis” of sovereignty. Rather, it is claimed that the semantics of sovereignty has made use of the state to facilitate

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