The Internet Encyclopedia of International Relations

James Roberts
Towson University
    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. The British Royal Family, 1994That 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 Nations Charter:
"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 Vll."
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:  Indian nationals at the Ganges river are part of the population of the second largest nation-state.
    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. War damage in central Beirut - Did Lebanon maintain effective control? 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.
  1. 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.

  2. 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