Concepts of International Relations
a resource for student reference prepared by
Gordon L. Bowen, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science and International Relations
Mary Baldwin College
Staunton, VA USA 24401
For good reason, Prof. Karen Mingst (University of Kentucky) has referred to sovereignty as "a core concept in contemporary international relations."
Origins. The world system of sovereign states emerged as a result of the Peace of Westphalia (1648), and this set Europe on a course that ultimately created a fundamentally changed system of international relations. In time, the system of sovereign states extended to the entire globe. It is a system which has lasted more than three hundred fifty years.
Prior to 1648, the authority of princes and kings was in places limited to only some realms of policy; the ideals of Christendom prevailed in many matters, with the guiding spirit located in the views of the Church in Rome and the Holy Roman Emperor its voice. Princes chafed under these limitations. Many princes wanted more complete and absolute control over their subjects. But a transnational actor, the Roman Catholic Church of Rome, asserted that in significant areas of rule making it, not the princes, would determine standards. Whose authority would, in fact, prevail: kings'/princes' or the Pope's?
A series of wars known now as the Thirty Years War militarily determined the answer: kings/princes would thereafter be fully sovereign. Disastrous especially for the peoples of the many German principalities, the Thirty Years War had destroyed much. Two treaties, of Munster and of Osnabruck, codified the new understandings among European rulers which brought this violence to an end.
- In external affairs, all principalities that were part of the Holy Roman Empire were affirmed to have the right to make their own international covenants, free from interference from Rome. (Clauses in the Treaty of Munster spoke of these alliances not being against the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, but the only sanction attached was that, in making such a violating pact, the offending prince would have violated his "oath" to the Empire. Pointedly, no force was created to compel princes' actions.)
- In domestic affairs, principalities were affirmed to have the general right of free choice of religion, on the basis of the faith of the ruling prince (cuius regio, eius religio). Treaty signatories agreed that existing customs and rules to the contrary would be respected, suggesting to some (e.g., Krasner: 553) that the Peace of Westphalia initially was "a pretty medieval document," inasmuch as these initial exceptions "undermined the power of princes to control religious affairs within their territories." In time, however, supremacy of secular (e.g., royal) power over transnational religious authority came to be understood as the essence of the new system of sovereign states created by the Peace of Westphalia. Indeed, the exceptions initially granted at the signing of the peace treaties may in content have continued to place limits on the authority of princes, but in process they affirmed the ultimate finality of just that authority of princes. After all, it was the sovereign signature of separate princes which established (and could end) any exceptions to their rule making.
Contemporary Meaning. A political entity is a sovereign state to the extent that it and it alone:
- makes the rules which are binding on all within a specific geographic area.
- possesses both the exclusive prerogative to enforce those rules in that area, and does enforce its rules.
- is recognized by other states as the legitimate actor in that area.
- rules over a population sufficient in size and in loyalty to be able to rebuff attempts by other entities to establish sovereignty in that same place.
Philosophic basis. Jean Bodin (1530-96), in Six Books on the Commonwealth, first articulated the basis for sovereignty to be the fundamental principle of international relations. Bodin was concerned that political order be established on a durable and clear basis; he himself had nearly been killed in religious riots in France in 1572. Sovereignty lies, according to Bodin, not in an individual but in the political entity. Thus, sovereignty once established never ends unless that sovereign entity is overtaken by another. In keeping with his times, Bodin also posited that sovereign authority was not absolute, but was limited by divine or natural law; and by the customary limitations imposed on political leaders by the laws established by that community. Agreements with other sovereign entities (e.g., treaties) may also limit the range of choice of the sovereign, according to Bodin. These views were echoed by Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century, and have proven durable far longer. Both the League of Nations (1919) and the United Nations (1945) have been founded on the premise that only sovereign states may be full members.
Illustrations. In our times we have seen many challenges to particular sovereign states, but the system of sovereign states has not been directly challenged. While philosophies have emerged that have defined sovereignty as a transient concept likely to become extinct upon arrival of a better replacement (e.g., Marxism-Leninism), those philosophies have receded far more rapidly than has the fact of sovereignty. In our lifetimes fixtures among the set of sovereign states certainly have disappeared entirely (e.g., the USSR), or have dissolved to become much smaller units (e.g., Yugoslavia). However, each of the sovereign successor states that have emerged (e.g., Russia; Croatia) has established equivalent sovereignty to the other states in the international arena, even though in one sense they are "new."
Sovereignty also can at times be contested.
- The claims of the Palestinian Authority regarding lands controlled by the State of Israel represent a vivid present day example. While disputed, a careful application of the definition of sovereignty will demonstrate that at this time only Israel is sovereign inside both its recognized borders (i.e., the 1967 "Green Lines") and within the disputed areas (i.e.: the West Bank and Jerusalem) it controls. Gaza, a Palestinian inhabited area which Israel abandoned in September 2005, represents a semi-sovereign entity, in that it possesses some but not all of the attributes of sovereignty.
- Many other inter-state disputes over lands are, at bottom, also disputes over sovereignty. Thus, the South Asian regions of Jammu and Kashmir are coveted by both Indian and Pakistan, though neither fully controls these regions. Through military force and other means Pakistan has attempted to challenge India control of parts the region in recent years.
Stephen D. Krasner, "State Sovereignty Is Alive and Well," Foreign Policy (Jan/Feb 2001): 20-31, reprinted in Robert J. Art and Robert Jervis, eds., International Politics: Enduring Concepts and Contemporary Issues sixth edition (NY: Longman, 2003): 551-556.
Stephen D. Krasner, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton NJ: Princeton U.P., 1999).
Karen Mingst, Essentials of International Relations, first edition (NY: Norton, 1999): 27.
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