Sovereignty is a characteristic of a political entity that, within a defined geographical area, possesses and exercises power that is the highest in that area. The sovereign entity's decision is both generally applicable throughout the area and, although extraneous matters such as public or world opinion are not typically disregarded, the sovereign entity acts independently. Sovereignty has, since the European Renaissance, been an important characteristic of the modern state, assisting in the development of national identity. Initially, sovereignty operated within a state, establishing where power resides. Eventually, sovereignty functioned more within the context of international relations, distinguishing one state from another and thereby defining exclusive areas of political power as well as separable national political identities. Both political thought and political realities since the Renaissance have complicated both the intrastate and international applicability of the concept of sovereignty, however.
Within any geographical area, entities compete for power. When the concept of sovereignty developed in the Renaissance, there was competition between ecclesiastical and secular entities. Today, the competition might be between transnational corporate and secular entities. The concept of sovereignty assumes that there is a winner in any competition. This winner would possess the highest power and be able to exercise it independently of other entities. This victor's decisions would govern affairs throughout the area and would be final. This victor would be said to possess sovereignty.
The concept was defined well in Jean Bodin's Six Books of a Commonwealth (1576) and reiterated in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan (1651). Both Bodin and Hobbes assumed a strong state, one that in their time would have been associated with a strong ruler such as a monarch. In the next hundred or so years, John Locke, Montesquieu, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau challenged the assumption that sovereignty rests in such a ruler. They instead invested power in the people or, at least, in a governmental body thought representative of the people. Although the concept of sovereignty and the idea that the state possesses this characteristic survived this challenge, these philosophers generated more democratic thinking, further texturing the concept of identity and democracy.
For example, if the sovereign state is said to possess the highest power, how can that be if the people are ultimately superior, especially if they can demonstrate that superiority by either voting the governors of the state out of power or by reversing the governors’ decisions by referenda? Furthermore, if the people as voters have this ultimate power and if those who govern are aware of its existence as they act, how can the governors’ decisions be said to be truly independent? Are not the decisions to some extent swayed by public opinion?
Many of the emerging democratic governments featured a system of checks and balances among those engaged in ruling the state. If an elected assembly's will can be overruled by an elected executive's veto, then is not that assembly's sovereignty at least qualified? Furthermore, if that assembly's will can be overruled by a court engaged in judicial review, is not that assembly's sovereignty still further qualified? The answer, in cases such as these, may well be to hold the government in its totality sovereign or to posit that a document such as the U.S. Constitution is sovereign, possessing power that is higher, more final, more generally applicable, and more autonomous than any governing body or agent that the document may establish and define.
Democracy, insofar as proponents assume popular sovereignty or features checks and balances, is not the only complication to the idea of sovereignty. The size and resulting complexity of the modern state also complicates the concept. In such a state, there is typically a distribution of power. In such a diffuse system, few acts are as generally applicable as are those of a monarch or despot. Furthermore, in such a state, there are typically layers of power. Final power may be distributed horizontally throughout the system based on jurisdiction as well as vertically based on whether the decision is thought to be trivial or important. Where the highest and final authority rests may well depend on what the matter under consideration is.
Despite these complications, the concept of sovereignty has endured. Theorists seem to grant popular sovereignty, checks and balances, and the diffuse, layered modern government while adhering to the assumption of the sovereign state initially articulated by Bodin and Hobbes. Political realities require qualifications but not a revision of the fundamental concept.
As the names of the philosophers already mentioned suggest, sovereignty is a Western political concept. In the less-developed world, the concept has taken hold and is still functioning much as it did in the Renaissance: as a way to resolve competition for power among entities within a state. In the developed Western world, however, the concept is now functioning less within a state and more among states. In this larger context, sovereignty allows states, however they might be governed, to exercise the highest, the final, and the most all-encompassing power over their internal affairs without interference from other entities. The United Nations (UN) charter, for example, in Article 2, paragraphs 1 and 7, establishes this concept of sovereignty as a basic assumption for the conduct of international affairs in the post-World War II period.
Already implicit in that charter, however, is a complication that undercuts this concept of sovereignty: The charter recognizes the right of the global community to act under certain circumstancesfor example, if human rights are being violated. That concern was important in the post-Holocaust environment in which the charter was written, and that concern has incrementally increased in the decades since. Joining it has been a concern for the common resources of air and water as well as the presumably common frontier of space. If the supposed sovereign state is violating human rights or fouling the commons, the international community should be able to act in some manner to overrule that state's internal decisions. Is, then, the international communityor some international organization such as the UNsovereign? Most would say no, for UN edicts can be ignored by the state. Of course, the renegade state then tempts the UN to enforce its position militarily. Such action, however, would not be viewed as an affront to the state's sovereignty but, rather, an extraordinary response to a sovereign state's affront to internationally recognized standards of conduct that transcend sovereignty.
International law has long wrestled with the conflicting idea of sovereignty and the need to deal with the many matters that either do not stay neatly situated within a state's boundaries or require international intervention on moral grounds. Commerce, of course, was the primary example of boundary-crossing activity after the Renaissance. Initially, those involved could be clearly associated with one sovereign state or another, thereby providing international law as a starting point. Today, the globalization of commercial activities has created an environment in which the individual players are not necessarily under a single sovereign state's jurisdiction but are transnational. Under whose authority are they? Or do they possess power that transcends and perhaps surpasses that of the individual state? If so, perhaps these corporations, as well as other international entities, might be said to possess sovereignty.
Again, despite these complications, the concept of sovereignty and the assumption that it inheres in the state have endured. Theorists seem to admit both the sanctity of the sovereign state in the international arena and the circumstances under which this sanctity might have to be violated. They furthermore grant the many ways in which the autonomy of the state is increasingly a functioning myth. Again, political realities require qualifications but not a revision of the fundamental concept of sovereignty.
The concept of sovereignty then endures. It is, however, the subject of a considerable body of writing. That theorizing attempts to reconcile the fundamental notion found in Bodin and Hobbes, which presumes one kind of state, with newer political realities in many if not most states. Furthermore, that theorizing attempts, first, to modify the concept from one defining power within a state to one useful in defining the terms of relationships among states and, second, to adjust this modified concept to fit newer political realities in international affairs. In this literature, some have suggested that the concept of sovereignty has limited value in contemporary government and international relations. The prevailing opinion, however, seems to be that the concept, although it must be modified to fit contemporary political realities, offers a valuable if somewhat fictitious basis for defining power relations within a single state and among several.
Political Identity, State Identity, Transnationalism
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