The Internet Encyclopedia of International Relations
Sovereignty is the principle that establishes the nation-state
as an independent actor within the international system. Sovereignty
is defined in the glossaries of many introductory international relations
texts as having supreme political authority. While this is true,
there is much more to sovereignty that is not captured in this definition.
Sovereignty has both an observable or emprical aspect and a juridical or
legal aspect. Sovereignty is based on two doctrines in international
law, the doctrine of nonintervention and the doctrine of formal equality.
It is because of sovereignty that international relations is said to exist
in a system of anarchy.
The modern concept of sovereignty traces its history
back to the emergence of centralized absolutist states from the decentralized
political systems of feudal Europe. While it is impossible to place
an exact date on when the modern nation-state emerged, it is often associated
with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia in
1648. This treaty ended the Thirty-Years War in Europe and established
the national self-determination as a principle for the formation of a state. That
is, states were recognized as political units associated with a population
that had a common cultural, language, religious, or historic heritage.
Sovereignty was embodied in the monarch who ruled with freedom from interference
from other authorities and who enjoyed formal equality with other monarchs.
These rights enjoyed by the monarch became the doctrine
of nonintervention and the doctrine of formal equality in modern international
law. Nonintervention has been codified in many treaties and agreements.
Most notably, it appears in Article 2, Principle #7 of the United
"Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the
United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the
domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit
such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle
shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter
Nonintervention, simply put, means that sovereigns have the right to be
free from interference by others in their domestic affairs. The doctrine
of formal equality was also codified in Article 2 of the UN Charter.
"The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign
equality of all its Members."
Certainly not all nation-states are equal in their capabilties, but the
formal equality of sovereignty means that they are legally equal in terms
of their rights and obligations in the international system. For example,
China, with 1.2 billion people, has one seat in the United Nations General
Assembly as does the Republic of Palau with 17,000.1/
These two doctrines together form the juridical
or legal aspect of sovereignty. There is, however, an empirical or
observable, aspect of sovereignty as well. For a political community
to be sovereign, it must have some level of the following qualities:
effective rule over that territory and population; and
recognition of other nation-states.
Nation-states cannot exist without people and territory.
To have territory is to control territory. Until recently, the Palestinian
Authority claimed to represent one million people but the Authority did
not have control over territory. With the Oslo Peace Accords, the
Palesitnian Authority now can claim to have some control over territory.
Is the Palestinian Authority legitimately sovereign? No, it still
is not recognized by the other nation-states as the sovereign power over
a state of Palestine. In the late 1980's, much of Lebanon was controlled
either by competing militia or by the occupying forces of Syria and Israel.
Although Lebanon could lay claim to having people and territory, it did
not have effective rule over many of the people and much of the territory.
Was Lebanon a sovereign? Yes, throughout the civil war, the government
of Lebanon was able to retain the recognition of most of the world's nation-states
and maintained its seat at the United Nations. It was recognized
as the sovereign power, even though its ability to maintain order over
its people within its borders was seriously diminished.
These two examples point out the importance of the
juridical aspect of sovereignty. A political community is not formally
sovereign until it is recognized as being sovereign. How many states
must recognize it as being sovereign? That is impossible to determine.
Most nation-states are recognized as sovereign by all the other states.
A few are in dispute.2/ The
United States Department of State maintains the list of states
recognized by the United States government on a web-page.
Sovereignty, therefore, is granted in a socio-legal
context. Yes, political communities must have some or all of the
observable characteristics of sovereignty. This, however, is not
enough. For a political community to be truly sovereign, it must
gain recognition of a sufficient number of other states. Thus sovereignty
is a legal and social phenomenon more than an empirical phenomenon.
Formal equality does not hold in terms of membership
in the UN Security Council. While all states have equal rights and
responsibilities before the Council, five states - China, France, Russia,
the United Kingdom, and the United States - are permanent members with
veto power. This means that if any one of them vote no on a resolution
before the Council, the resolution fails. See the encyclopedia entry
for the UN Security Council for more details.
Return to the Text.
For example, the United
States Department of State web site on independent states has this
to say about Yugoslavia: "The US view is that the Socialist Federal Republic
of Yugoslavia has dissolved and no successor state represents its continuation.
Serbia and Montenegro have asserted the formation of a joint independent
state, but this entity has not been formally recognized as a state by the
US." Return to the Text