The Notion of Sovereignty and its Implications for the World Today


Sovereignty is a much discussed topic today, in lieu of globalization and increased transnationalism. It is a notion that has been highly misunderstood, misconstrued and abused by individuals and nation states. Sovereignty is often described as a state in which a nation has complete and utmost authority over its territory and the government of the nation is independent in making decisions. The biggest problem with this perception of sovereignty is that it is heavily focused on states and territorial independence. I will be arguing throughout this essay that sovereignty cannot be tied down to these issues.

Sovereignty in the state-centric view is outdated and inapplicable to the highly transnational world we live in. Indeed, many groups and individuals who believe that being sovereign is inexplicably tied to not being affected or linked with any global processes on a transnational level are highly mistaken and naïve: “The glittering bribe the globalists are extending to us is this: Enhanced access to global markets –in exchange for your national sovereignty!” (Buchanan 1994). An anti-globalist, primarily due to fears about this supposed threat to sovereignty, people like Mr. Patrick Buchanan try to rile up hatred against anything “un-American”, arguing that this will lead to the betterment of the USA. There are scores of publications that are promote xenophobia, isolationism, symbolism and national pride as a backlash against the adverse effects of globalization and transnationalism on this cherished idea of sovereignty. Indeed, as Mary Tsai puts it, sovereignty “remains a jealously guarded right of every state.” (Tsai 2000). I will firstly be studying the concept of sovereignty, how it came about and how this history is interpreted and understood today. Following this, I will be examining the importance of sovereignty in our world today, how it is affected by capitalism, the role that international institutions and agreement play in the supposed eradication of sovereignty, and the possible future of sovereignty in the world.

The modern notion of sovereignty has its roots in the 19th-20th centuries. The more popular idea is that the notion emerged in the middle of the 17th century, as a result of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This is primarily because during the time of the Treaty of Westphalia, the modern nation states did not even exist, let alone this fairly modern notion of sovereignty. Indeed, Benno Tesche exposes this myth in his book “The Myth of 1648”, in which he argues that the onset of modern international relations only began with the rise of capitalism and modern state-formation in England. This caused the restructuring of the old feudal regimes in Europe, which was not completely completed until WW1. The geopolitics of the world was administered by dynastic political communities, rooted in feudal regimes well after the Treaty of Westphalia: “Even after 1648, other European actors did not recognize the estates of the empire as sovereign” (Osiander 2001: 273). This suggests that the treaty did not concern sovereignty at all. As Andreas Osiander rightly puts it, the Treaty of Westphalia is “silent on the issue of sovereignty, or, less technically, independence, of European actors. It does not refer to any corollary of sovereignty either, such as nonintervention. It does not deal with the prerogatives of the emperor, nor does it mention the Pope. There is nothing in it about the balance of power” (Osiander 2001: 266). This clearly suggests that the Treaty of Westphalia was not promoting any concept of sovereignty that is strongly valued by significant numbers of people today.

Some people claim that the Thirty Years war and the Eighty Years war were fought because they wanted to impede upon the territorial sovereignty of other dynasties. But  Osiander clearly highlights that “the war was not fought because the Habsburgs were straining to expand their role, but because other actors were seeking to diminish it. The Habsburgs did not want this war and did not threaten the independence of other actors, least of all outside the empire” (Osiander 2001: 260). And if this is true, then the “the traditional interpretation of the 1648 peace cannot be right either” (Osiander 2001: 260). “Sovereignty” was not understood in pre- or post-Westphalia as territorial and individual independence: “in the ancient regime sovereignty was regarded as pertaining to individual rulers, not their dominions or subjects” (Osiander 2001: 282). This is the exact opposite to the individual rights that sovereignty is associated today.

The myth of Westphalian sovereignty may have come about due to translation errors: “the… princes and free cities (of the empire) did the actual governing within their territories. This right, confirmed by the Peace of Westphalia, was known as landeshoheit, literally “territorial jurisdiction.” Scholars writing in English sometimes render it as “territorial sovereignty”” (Osiander 2001: 272). Indeed, the Westphalian treaty maintained control by ensuring the estates (princes and free cities) that were managing parts of the empire were not able to “shake off either kind of restraint unilaterally” (Osiander 2001: 272). It is important to understand the Treaty of Westphalia and know that “sovereignty “as we understand from a territorial aspect is a myth because plenty of individuals who argue against globalization simply for the sake of supposed sovereignty without it use this fundamentally wrong treaty as a prime reason to maintain isolation and xenophobia.

This notion of sovereignty was actually “honed and given its present key role (both interpretive and normative) by the great nineteenth and twentieth century international lawyers.” (Osiander 2001: 281). According to Osiander, technological progress had facilitated the administration of large territories, giving great power to central governments and therefore made each state more closed economically, politically and socially. However, the way the world interacts has changed drastically since then, due to the deepening and spread of capitalism across the planet. John Agnew mentions in his book “Globalization and Sovereignty” the “since the sixteenth century states have always been part and parcel of an evolving world economy that… has long been global rather than national in many of its essential operations” (Agnew 2009: 14). In order to understand the implications and impact of sovereignty in the highly transnational world today, we need to study how people view the notion, its role in democratic states, how it links to the issue of global migrants and finally, the impact on sovereignty by unprecedented levels of capitalism and transnationalism.

Sovereignty or the complete availability of freedom, on an individual and governmental or state-centric level is not available in the world today, and arguably never was, at least with the historical knowledge we have so far. Agnew notes that no single state ever exercised total or absolute sovereignty; sovereignty has also been exercised by entities other than states which are political institutions. From this angle the idea of the withering or disappearing of sovereignty begins from a false premise of an original sovereignty that is now under threat. We therefore have to be careful with is state-centric logic. Linda Weiss correctly states that sovereignty today can only be seen as a “legal concept” (Weiss 1999: 66). Nationalist or patriotic propaganda is used well by almost all nation states to instill their citizens with an attachment to this supposed sovereignty that all “independent” or states with territory possess. This is done with symbols such as national anthems, flags, emblems, coat of arms, and so on. The media and marketing is also heavily used, to create fear and hatred towards foreigners. Having pride in one’s motherland or fatherland is expected to be an inherent trait, and often an individual who criticizes their country of birth or citizenship is viewed as a traitor by society as a whole. These sentiments can be easily manipulated and obviously work in the favor of governments and regimes all over the world. Similarly, xenophobia is also encouraged very often by governments and private companies seeking to eliminate foreign competition in the countries they originated in.

Agnew points out correctly that state-centric discourses of territorial sovereignty are “largely by-products of nationalism” (Agnew 2009: 49). This highly persuasive argument by Agnew about the myths surrounding territorial states helps us avoid the tendency to naturalize historical and social processes; the examples that Agnew provides show how deceitfully state-centric discourses about territorial sovereignty are used to achieve a certain motive politically through the build-up of nationalism: “This how much the ‘sacrifice’ of New York City firefighters of September 11, 2001, has been used to frame the terrorist attacks of that day as attacks on an American “homeland” and not just as assaults on discrete sites that could be given quire different interpretations” (Agnew 2009: 57). Indeed, state-centric discourses about territorial sovereignty are not representative of complete sovereignty at all, but are often used to fulfill nationalist agendas. An example of this can be seen in contemporary social-cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s article “Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination”: “I am among those analysts who are inclined to see globalization as a definite marker of a new crisis for the sovereignty of nation-states, even if there is no consensus on the core of this crisis or its generality and finality” (Appadurai 2001: 4). It is true that plenty of academics also believe in this myth of sovereignty.

Ansell and Weber, however, classify a sovereign state somewhat differently. They say that a state claims “exclusive jurisdiction on a piece of territory over activities, which are then labeled domestic” (Ansell & Weber 1999: 74). After this, there is mutual recognition by states of these claims. This formally implies that the state is an equal actor. “The state (then) monopolizes the legitimate use of violence to sustain its authority internally and to protect it from external intrusion. The system of states remains anarchic, without legitimate forms of central governance autonomous from states.” (Ansell & Weber 1999: 74). There are still some problems with this definition of a sovereign state. Firstly, it is wrong to assume that all “sovereign states” or states with their own territory are equal. Iraq could never send over its army to the US and topple over their government, but the US can and has done this to Iraq. Similarly, if the same sort of definition is applied to individual sovereignty, it would be wrong once again. A blue-collared worker in the SU will most definitely be treated differently for any crime, as compared to a Fortune 500 CEO or chairman. There are hierarchies between and within countries that contradict this idea of sovereignty. In addition, Ansell and Weber are very state-centric; they assume that the state completely controls the use to violence to sustain authority. This is not always true for all nations. Multinationals that stand to gain by the presence of the current government will do everything in their power to make sure it does stay. Also in the case of the Middle East, it can be seen that the US wholeheartedly supports brutal regimes such as that in Saudi Arabia, while lashing out against regimes such as Sadam Hussain’s, which while brutal, were not as unfair to the people of Iraq as that of Saudi Arabia. This is only because the Saudi government dances in tandem to American oil companies.

Agnew maintains throughout his book that having territory along does not mean that sovereignty has been achieved. He believes that state-centric views on territorial sovereignty are myths. From a young age most of us are exposed to rigid maps and boundaries and this idea of the innate presence of a state. Different cultures across mankind also often strongly believe that they need their own country or state. Agnew also claims that there is a misleading assumption made that all territories “have equal sovereignty over their territories… and state territories are exclusive jurisdictions with ‘territorial integrity’ in which no other type of power than the state’s sovereign power can be rooted or is capable of penetrating” (Agnew 2009: 49). It is clear that no single state in the world today has complete sovereignty. It is ridiculous to claim that countries can act completely autonomously in the high levels of transnationalism that we experience today. Agnew rightly states that a myth dealing with state-centric territorial sovereignty that is commonly believed is that there is “(no acknowledgement of any) agency beyond that of states as independent and self-contained actors” (Agnew 2009: 49). This is clearly wrong given the power multinationals and to a certain extent, international institutions have in the major decisions made in the world today.

It is people who believe this myth of sovereignty and are state-centric, who are likely to believe that the US is an empire that is impeding upon the sovereignty of other nations:  “the word empire traps… analysis in a world of territorialized sovereign power when (you) hope to extend it into realms of disciplinary and biopolitical power that are both more diffuse… and less territorialized” (Agnew 2009: 87). The reason territory is seen as such an integral part of national sovereignty, according to Dauvergne is “because ‘populations remain territorial’” (Dauvergne 2004: 594). This, of course, once again ignores the fact that there are very powerful transnational forces that often have more power than governments. However, his point makes it easier to see why many people stay stuck on this state-centric notion of sovereignty. This is the primary reason the issue of migrants in most Western nations is taken very seriously and often negatively: “cracking down on illegal migration functions as an assertion of both the internal and the external dimensions of sovereignty.” (Dauvergne 2004: 594). Indeed, “illegal migration is an affront to sovereignty because it is evidence that a nation is not in control of its borders” (Dauvergne 2004: 594). As governments such as the USA strive to promote this idea of sovereignty however, they also need to maintain their capitalist economy. And capitalism inherently leads to greater migration of people across the world, for blue-collared and white-collared work. So while the government implements all these fences on the US-Mexican border, it is no secret that the US needs to have cheap laborers from Mexico working illegally. It is no secret that the US and Canada and Australia cause plenty of brain drain in developing countries due to the migration of educated and experienced professionals. Even the “most sovereign” nation in the world is not fully “sovereign”, as the government cannot operate autonomously.

Indeed, capitalism refutes complete “sovereignty” or national and individual freedom.  Firstly, capitalism is a system that creates and deepens inequality within and between all states. This immediately impedes upon national and individual sovereignty. Capitalism intensifies disparities between different strata in society. When an American multinational or any multinational with corporate headquarters in a developed country starts production or manufacturing operations in developing countries, that often exploit the laborers by paying them less than they would back ‘home’, giving them worse working conditions, no compensations, and so on. This occurs in developing countries across the world, including Indonesia, Vietnam, South Africa, China, and Mexico – all “sovereign” countries. This just stresses the absence of complete sovereignty in the world, and how capitalism serves to reduce sovereignty. Going back to the phenomenon of global migration by humans, it is clear that “the worldwide stakes to recruit the most highly qualified migrants are heating up. The competition for the world’s best and brightest also contain lessons about current challenges to sovereignty” (Dauvergne 2004: 602). Indeed, the migration laws at this point show that being able to voluntarily migrate (especially as a white-collar employee) is a type of privilege that not everyone can attain. In Canada and Australia, permanent residency is easily obtained by foreign nationals who study there. It is more common for someone who belongs to higher strata to begin with to get an education in Western nations, and consequent residency. This example really drives home the point by Dauvergne that “for those with more, globalisation makes more available, for those with less, there is less. Inequalities are increased, exclusions are underscored” (Dauvergne 2004: 603).

The dream of having this unattainable sovereignty that has been popularized across the West and most of the rest of the world is definitely impossible with capitalism. Globalization brings along with it transnationalism due to the need for capital to constantly open up new markets and look for new and profitable areas to invest itself in.  Indeed, as Weiss rightly states, “policy autonomy (is) only partial, and its foundations (lie) beyond the territorial control of any single state. National (policy) networks of interaction… (are) closely intertwined with international ones” (Weiss 1999: 69). Jayasuriya supports this argument when he states that “at the heart of new global ordo-liberalism is the privatization of public governance” (Jayasuriya 2002: 456). It is clear that no single state has complete authority or sovereignty, even if they are territorially independent and have a flag under their name.

Along with multinationals, international institutions and agreements and their role in the world order also impedes upon the sovereignty of states or governments. The reason institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and partnerships or alliances such as NAFTA, ASEAN, SAARC and the EU were created was because of the rapidly growing transnational nature of the world system. It was quite clear at the creation of each of these organizations or agreements that there needed to be more transnational authorities to address a growing number of transnational issues. As Agnew maintains, even the US, a “sovereign” state, as a hegemon, continues to work multilaterally through international institutions and alliances to exert influence worldwide. Judge Alvarez of the International Council of Justice stated correctly that “We can no longer regard sovereignty as an absolute and individual right of every State, as used to be done under the old law founded on the individualist regime, according to which, States were only bound by the rules they had accepted”” (Tsai 2000). And while the US has on some occasions refused to comply with international agreements or jurisdictions such as the Kyoto Protocol, they have not done so because they want to protect their sovereign rights, but because there were plenty of powerful American Fortune 500 companies whose bottom lines will be destroyed by the acceptance of this protocol.

For all the commotion made about the impeding of national sovereignty by international institutions, however, the institutions are not as powerful as they are made out to be: “the United Nations Charter, in acknowledging the continuing importance of sovereignty in international law, emphasized that the Charter should not be read to authorize… “(intervention) in matters that are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter.”” (Tsai 2000). Indeed, Tsai mentions that when the UN Charter established the Economic and Social Council, the principle of nonintervention was included in Article two to protect member states against UN interference in their economic policies. The UN General Assembly has also stated that “”every state has the right to choose its economic system “without outside interference coercion or threat in any form whatsoever.” This right thus includes the right to determine what economic policies the government and the body politic deem necessary to further development” (Tsai 2000). This shows that the UN was made to not conflict with sovereign, national interests.  This explains why the United Nations is not very successful in non-humanitarian missions, which is unfortunate since transnational governance is what the world desperately needs to counteract weak governments that are strongly influenced by lobbyists from large multinationals and conglomerates.

Mary Tsai argues that the problem to national sovereignty by international institutions comes in the form of conditions imposed upon nations by institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank. She defines conditionality as “the linking of the disbursement of a loan to understandings concerning the economic policy which the government of the borrower country intends to pursue” (Tsai 2000). These intrusions by the World Bank and the IMF into the economic policies of the countries it aids often affects governance issues within those countries too. Both these institutions are notorious at imposing generic neoliberal conditionality upon countries they lend to; ignoring the way in which their markets work and the type of economic system they use. It is no surprise then that “conditionality handicaps the debtor nations’ ability to develop their own solutions to economic disasters, thereby infringing on their affirmative sovereignty. Thus, the conditionality requirements imposed by the IMF and the World Bank further exacerbated the effects of globalization on state sovereignty.” (Tsai 2000). According to Tsai, conditionality and globalization are distinct “yet intertwined, challenges to sovereignty today… (with) globalization (representing) a challenge to defensive sovereignty, while conditionality (threatening) a state’s affirmative sovereignty” (Tsai 2000). It is clear that international institutions, while important in our transnational world, help the process of globalization and capitalism. And while capitalism is in full force, this probably will not change.

Whatever will happen to the sovereignty of nation states in the future is a popular question that has been pondered upon by many statesmen, politicians, and theorists alike. When he was the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan argued that “states are now widely understood to be instruments at the service of their peoples, and not vice versa” (Annan 1999: 49). While this is wishful thinking, the point he was trying to prove was that international institutions such as the UN, that can consciously aim “to protect individual human beings, (and) not to protect those who abuse them” (Annan 1999: 49), thereby putting human security over economic security. He supports this by using the example of the East Timor genocide that had occurred in the same year and the genocidal assault launched against Kosovo’s civilian population the year before: “The tragedy of East Timor, coming so soon after that of Kosovo, has focused attention once again on the need for timely intervention by the international community when death and suffering are being inflicted on large numbers of people, and when the state nominally in charge is unable or unwilling to stop it” (Annan 1999: 49). He is clearly suggesting that states need to have the aim of human security in mind and reach a consensus on intervening in nations where there are heavy violations of human rights, and deciding upon what action to take “when, and by whom” (Annan 1999: 50). Nations therefore need to commit to international institutions such as the United Nations that bring them together. The UN is, however, flawed. The five permanent members with veto power on the UN Security Council are the US, France, the UK, Russia and China – all large and developed or rapidly developing economies. It is also ironic that Kofi Annan would mention the importance of responding quickly to crises, considering his passive and drawn-out response to the Rwandan genocide in 1994 as he directed UN peace keeping operations. It will therefore take more than a heartwarming article to get countries to come together and act quickly for the sake of human security. It will require a non-capitalist world that has an efficient, transnational authoritative body.

Mary Tsai also offers a solution on the way in which international institutions can modify themselves in order to address pressing economic problems. She argues for what she calls ‘limited conditionality’: “the IMF and the Bank would be required to recognize and distinguish between those economic problems that are caused by a nation’s policies and those that are not. In this way, they would only impose conditions on those problems over which the nation has control” (Tsai 2000). This is a good idea, since it means that they would actually be customizing economic crisis solutions for each country they help, rather than offering a generic one to everyone. Appadurai suggests that there should be a new form of global governance since “states… have certainly eroded as sites of political, economic, and cultural sovereignty… momentous changes in the meaning of state sovereignty are underway… (this) suggests that successful transnational advocacy networks might be useful players in any new architecture of global governance” (Appadurai 2001: 16). He thus foresees transnational institutions such as the UN rising to power over state powers and creating a new global system in the world. This is very realistic, as mentioned before, due to the rising transnationalism in the world today and the lessening authority of individual states in decision making in the global arena. In the same way, Ansell and Weber argue that individuals and the world needs to adapt to the new and rapidly unfolding world order and have a “open-system perspective on sovereignty” (Ansell & Weber 1999: 74).

In conclusion, it is clear throughout this essay that sovereignty is not about not being colonized anymore or signing an independence charter or having the ability to vote. It is preposterous to simply talk about the need for governments to retain their “sovereignty” by being xenophobic and isolationist, while not taking into account the unparalleled level of transnationalism that is occurring in the world today. With the way in which globalization has exploded due to the spread of capitalism across the world, it is absurd for any country, let alone a large one such as the United States to not participate in globalization, or rather for an individual to think that the government has an option to participate or not. Indeed, it is not governments that are responsible for transnationalization, but capitalism. Capitalism deepens inequalities within social strata between and within countries, since it is a transnational process, not a state-centric one. As it does this, it impedes upon the “sovereign right” of countries. It is clear that nation states by themselves already do not have complete sovereignty, and nor did they ever in the past. It is a myth that has been propagated to manipulate citizens of countries to maintain order, differences amongst territorial borders, and behave in ways suitable to the bourgeoisie of the time. It is time for people to stand up for human security and true individual sovereignty, rather than this illusionary one our minds are constantly fed with.



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