In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many were quick to resurrect the idea of sovereignty to rebuke Russia’s hostility against a neighbor, yet their use and grasp of the concept seemed, if not opportunistic, tenuous at best. While they were certainly correct to assert that Moscow had violated the very sovereignty of Ukraine, such a stance in defense of national and territorial integrity as a lynchpin of the rules-based international order had been long absent from Washington’s lexicon, especially when it came to past conflicts where the primary aggressor was not a chief rival or adversary of the United States and its allies in the North Atlantic. Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria all could have espoused the same argument in defense of sovereignty as Ukraine today. Yet, such arguments were given short shrift in the North Atlantic foreign policy establishment. This raises important questions about the theoretical basis and applicability of sovereignty—substantively and historically speaking—and its relationship with the similarly-elusive concept of the national interest.
Public attitudes can vary widely about the nature and definition of the national interest, often confounding it with the private interests of a governing elite. Some great powers will cynically invoke the idea of sovereignty to defend smaller countries or regional balancers that fit their grand strategic designs while blatantly and concurrently violating the sovereignty of other nations they see as rivals or adversaries. The concept is thus worth unpacking to the best of our ability in order to avoid falling into narratives where this notion is invoked solely as a rhetorical device for electoral politics or to persuade domestic and foreign audiences—devoid of concrete meaning in its own right. Despite the ambiguity of what sovereignty is as an ideal, however, it soon becomes apparent that a certain common thread runs through all conceptions of it.
Sovereignty, at its core, is the ultimate arbitrating authority that controls a specific territorial unit. A sovereign is a political figure or body that effectively has the final say on decision-making and is only equal in its relations to external actors (i.e., other sovereigns), but holds supremacy over other internal actors within the scope of its geographic extent. Once an abstract concept discussed only by thinkers, the concept became normalized in the international realm officially with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that brought to an end the extremely destructive and religiously tinged Thirty Years War that raged in Europe. It was found that allowing the various princely German states to have full domestic autonomy, including freedom for the government to choose its religious denomination within their own borders and treat eachother as legal equals in their external affairs, was the kind of compromise that worked well in early modern Europe’s hyper-competitive inter-state system. With the colonial expansion of certain European states outside of the region — as well as the adaptations made by the more successful non-European states in reaction to this expansion — versions of this type of diplomacy would eventually go global. This process would pick up yet again as newly independent post-colonial nations sought to assert their own sovereignty and independence as the era of European dominance came to a close.
Concepts of what the state controls in its power monopoly were hardly unique to Europe. In the Middle East, Southern Asia, and East Asia thinkers also grappled with these questions. Numerous other people, including many who came from primarily illiterate cultures, clearly had understandings of what they ruled and what they did not and how to conceptualize the difference. However, the specific articulation of the distinct fields of foreign policy and domestic policy from eachother that we use today is something that comes from a lineage directly traceable to the ferment of ideological sectarianism and attempts to overcome it in early modern Europe. To further define what it is when most talk about sovereignty today, it is to that intellectual lineage that one must first turn.
A comprehensive overview of the subject is provided by Raia Prokhovnik’s “Sovereignty: History and Theory”. Published in 2008, the book is a summary of the major and differing takes regarding the concept of sovereignty in European philosophy from its early modern birth into the contemporary era. Prokhovnik’s account explains how most political conceptions of the inside vs outside dynamic of any group, going back to the Greek city-states, were tribalistic and rooted first in cultural lifestylism rather than a fixed territorial unit that transcended such loyalties. Even the massive Roman Empire was a kind of super-sized extrapolation of Roman civic identity less focused on the specifics of the territory and more on acculturating various ruling classes into copies of those in the capital city.
Jean Bodin, a 16th Century French juror and philosopher, is the first theorist of sovereignty the author examines. Bodin was explicitly reacting to the rise of the Reformation and the subsequent civil strife that engulfed the French state. His intention may have been to sideline the culture war of his day by diminishing the influence of both the new firebrands as well as the Pope. This would be done by strengthening the monarchy as an explicitly territorial entity. Importantly, Bodin acknowledged that other types of governments existed and were also legitimate, but was primarily focused on empowering the monarchy of his era. This monarchical power was still subordinate to the interests of the state itself and was merely the ultimate arbiter of its interests rather than the entirety of the national entity. In this way, Bodin became the first to elevate the state as something apart from any one specific form of governing elite.
Prokhovnik then moves on to the most famous theorist of sovereignty in the English-speaking world, Thomas Hobbes. The origin point for much of the language we use to discuss the concept of sovereignty even today, Hobbes is often considered the founding father of the modern conception of the state in the North Atlantic. This is interesting, as he was so at odds not only with the values of much of his country in his own time, but in all subsequent times since then. However, it is his concept of sovereignty, that of a specific autonomous political unit made up of individuals surrendering full autonomy to a “Sovereign” in order to achieve a level of security that serves as the starting point for most discussions in western political realism on the nature of the state.
Hobbes, Prokhovnik notes, has been stereotyped as everything from a conservative and authoritarian figure to a radical innovator. He was personally a monarchist but wrote his most famous work on statecraft, “Leviathan” to be of use to any type of government. His thought, where the sovereign is absolute to keep the peace and can have any number of ideological inclinations, is open for use and interpretation by a variety of divergent actors. The final arbitration of the state he advocates for then enables civil society by providing dispute resolution and security against person-on-person violence. It is worth noting that the one thing Hobbes placed above the ultimate power of the sovereign was the laws of nature, as nature is the stage in which all sovereigns share. Here, the definition of sovereignty is multifaceted and focused on absolutism, a term that in Hobbes’ day meant ultimate superior authority in dispute resolution, rather than personal despotism over every aspect of society as is often assumed today. Indeed, as a counterpoint to many stereotypes of Hobbes, the contemporary philosopher John Gray, in his book “The Two Faces of Liberalism” even comes to see Hobbes as offering a liberating path where an indifferent state transcends divisions of ideological and cultural sectarianism to guarantee autonomy and difference to multifaceted communities in a modern world which is becoming increasingly homogenized by modernity.
Hobbes’ contemporary, Baruch Spinoza, offers an interesting comparison. Spinoza’s concept of sovereignty was one of naturally occurring communitarianism that developed historically over time and caused each state to become socially and politically divergent from others. These states could be decentralized along local levels, such as Spinoza’s home nation of the Dutch Republic, and jealously guard their local differences while still presenting as one unified sovereign entity towards foreign nations. Here, the messy realities of history show that practical functionality matters more than the ideals behind them and that state law must always trump religion. This is because questions of theology are different from the rest of philosophy and an open inquiry into a quest for God is impossible under the rule of a single religious faction. As Prokhovnik states, “What Spinoza advocates is, in Hobbes’ terms, neither absolutism or state sovereignty on the one hand, nor popular sovereignty on the other, but a shared sovereignty which reaffirms the separateness of the parts and holds them in dramatic tension.” In other words, the messy compromises of history are not to be abolished, but rather embraced by communities seeking differentiation as states. The unifying aspect is a distinct territorial entity.
The author then takes us to John Locke, whose individualist conception of rights was rooted in a state fully wedded to the idea of checks and balances between the various branches of government. Consent of individuals is the ultimate final arbiter of what can and cannot be done at the level of civil society. An individualist definition of sovereignty, however, is likely to end up with a universalist conception of the term, rendering it either moot in the realm of international affairs or as an open-ended excuse for expansion by a Lockean society wishing to “spread liberty” to others. Prokhovnik contrasts this with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s equally idealistic but far more communitarian conception of individuals upholding and affirming their rights through collective participation in politics. Unlike Locke, this requires a strong state, preferably a republic, in order to strengthen the body politic by integrating more people into its deliberative process. Like Hobbes, however, Rousseau upholds that the unity of the state is more important than its specific form and so his popular community is still one which is undeniably a “sovereign.” This is at variance with Locke.
The narrative then moves to the thinker perhaps most hostile to the concept of differentiated sovereignty, that of Immanuel Kant. Taking an opposite track from Hobbes and Spinoza’s pragmatism, Kant extrapolates a politics of rational moral agents whose principles matter far more than the results they achieve. This faith in rationality leads Kant to develop a linear and teleological view of sovereignty where everyone eventually realizes that peace and republicanism is best and that their communities should gradually and continuously expand their umbrella of like-minded positive affiliations. A sovereignty of ideology rather than territory or experience, in other words. Sovereign states will gradually lose the will to fight eachother over time as the obvious rationality of their adopted policies become apparent to more of their neighbors. History, needless to say, does not bear this out. However, it is obvious that many ruling elites in North Atlantic countries believe a form of this ideology to this day.
Prokhovnik then examines the philosophy of Georg Hegel as it is related to questions of sovereignty. Like Spinoza, Hegel is rooted in the state as a natural outgrowth of community, and, like Hobbes, he believes that loyalty to the state is in most people’s rational interest as that state enables the safety required for personal pursuits. Unlike those two thinkers, however, Hegel believes that the state has a role in a teleological process where competing states eventually converge into similar forms through diplomatic and military rivalries, which, like in Kant’s thought, would eventually make them less likely to overtly engage in war in the long term. Though for Hegel, sovereignty would not be abolished gradually along with struggle, but retain itself.
Staying in Germany but moving forward a century, the author then examines the thought of Carl Schmitt. The controversial thinker accepted a largely Hobbesian definition of sovereignty but introduced a key innovation: that sovereignty is not a permanent but rather temporary state of affairs that must be periodically renewed after inevitable periods of weakness. Reacting to the weakness of the Weimar Republic, Schmitt warned that state fragmentation seemed to be a very real possibility when abstract ideas seemed to have more influence than established governments. More robust and secure countries could allow themselves the ability to have acrimonious public debates, but insecure countries risked state failure and had to present a more unified front to survive. Therefore, Schmitt postulated that true sovereign was “he who holds the exception not the rule,” or in other words, the sovereigns are the leaders who can transcend laws and social contracts and impose emergency rule in times of strife. The state, therefore, can remain even as laws recede until the emergency is over and a new set of updated laws can be brought into being. Sovereignty thus comes about through political and historical struggles, not by dialectical debate and legal construction. This is a reality for many embattled states today, but because of this we also see many countries with decades-long impositions of emergency rule, turning ‘the exception’ into a bit of a parody of a stagnant security state.
To close out her narrative, Prokhovnik finishes with the deconstruction of sovereignty implicit in the works of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s position is, essentially, a critique of sovereignty as something that masks the true relations of power rather than elucidates them. The very concept could be replaced with domination and subjugation. The preexisting and inherited webs of power that lie under the official surface of state-directed political discourse are the true nature of obfuscating the techniques of coercion under a prestigious legalistic guise. This may well be true, but it is a theory of sovereignty that does not meaningfully interrogate the question of the desirability of political differentiation between different states.
Prokhovnik’s book is a great place to start in summarizing much of the discussion regarding this critically important topic in international relations. Telling the history of a concept succinctly yet still completely is a remarkable feat. Going forward, however, the conventional narrative of sovereignty must begin the process of branching out into a greater selection of cultures to show that the utility of the concept is not at all the Eurocentric history that might appear to be at first glance. Shen Buhai and Han Fei of the legalist school of Chinese philosophy had Bodin and Hobbes beat by not much less than 2,000 years in coming up with the theoretical framework for a morality-neutral bureaucratic state with a specific set of power monopolies over a territory. India too pioneered discussions on the specific nature of the state and its functioning beginning with the influential career of the statesman Chanakya during the Mauryan Empire of the Classical Era. Spinoza’s concept of multiple sovereignties that include internal regional variation as part of an international network of solidarity describes many tribal confederations of non-urbanized people in history, many of which became quite significant geopolitical actors. Such arrangements were particularly common in indigenous North America, of which the most obvious example was the Haudenosaunee, better known today as the Iroquois Confederacy.
It does appear that the world is entering a period of increasing multipolarity where there is no fully hegemonic power to export its values globally unchallenged. Geopolitical differentiation and sovereignty will once again be keys to understanding this shift. Considering that thinkers on sovereignty seem to crop up in times of great political instability, it seems extremely likely that there will be more such theorists in the near future who will continue the process of examining state power’s role in autonomy and its obligations to the governed. One suspects that such a trend will emphasize the divergent multiplicity of states, and how the concept of sovereignty is useful for them in their relations with one another. Thus it will not be limited to any single totalizing definition. Despite these divergences, however, the similarities that remain are of paramount importance for the functioning of diplomacy: and key among these similarities is the respect given from one country to another regarding its own domestic affairs, no matter how different their system might be.
Mutually respected sovereignty is the bare minimum requirement for international relations to work at any kind of basic and reciprocal level. It also safeguards another pillar of stability in upholding the political expression of a sufficiently large and rooted culture to choose how to handle challenges in ways best tailored to its own experience. In a world forcibly wedded to a now declining global neoliberalism, questions of how best to explore alternatives would be best served by rejecting yet another globally universal project and rather by letting differentiation and divergence reassert itself. Sovereignty would be a vital aspect of this geopolitical change and thus a concept worthy of further study as we move into the future. Embracing it would also allow our diplomats to retain a level of consistency that currently eludes so much of the present rhetoric.