Problematic Sovereignty: Contested Rules and Political Possibilities

By Stephen D. Krasner | Go to book overview

2
Sovereignty
The Practitioners' Perspective
THOMAS C. HELLER AND ABRAHAM D. SOFAER

Sovereignty is a powerful and complex idea, serving many useful purposes in international law and diplomacy. It is used to support a variety of positions on international issues and has come to be associated with myopic nationalism and irrational resistance to transnational regulation. It is sometimes described in absolute terms, as reflecting a particular status secured at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. In reality, it is a vague formula, with shifting components and uses, arrived at over centuries of experience, and reflecting the complex situation in which nations currently function in the world order. 1 Its varied use and abuse has led Stephen Krasner, among others, to conclude that the concept of sovereignty is “mired in hopeless confusion.” 2

Why, despite the confusion, controversy, adulation, and scorn that surrounds it, is the concept of sovereignty used so extensively and casually in international diplomacy and legal practice? For essentially three reasons, in our view.

First, sovereignty signals a status that has many specific, functional purposes in international diplomatic and legal practice, and to that extent it has concrete and useful meaning. The concept is often used improperly or inaccurately, and such notions as sovereign equality, territorial integrity, and political autonomy are far from absolute. But sovereignty remains useful in practice because it functions as a performative that denotes a core of widespread agreement about powers and obligations that attend the status of statehood. The inconsistencies in applying the rules under which sovereignty is

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