Sovereignty Defined

Despite frequent predictions of its demise, and criticisms of inherent inadequacies, sovereignty remains a fundamental feature of statehood and the preeminent organisational mechanism of the modern international system. Recent decades have seen a slew of national independence movements and former colonies striving for sovereign statehood, with almost two hundred sovereign states spanning the globe today.

While in the realm of philosophy sovereignty may be considered a simple quality of ‘supreme authority’, in international relations it conveys a web of commonly agreed upon rules that define the holders of sovereignty and their prerogatives, thence providing what may be called a ‘normative constitution’ which organises and governs the authority of sovereign states within an anarchic international system.

In the realm of classical realist thought, the idea of national sovereignty is acknowledged to have arisen from the Peace of Westphalia. Before this, the idea of sovereignty – although taking shape to some extent in England and France during the 14th century and existing as a legitimate system in Renaissance Italy – had been largely circumscribed by Civil War and the Roman Catholic Church; which often intervened in the affairs of kings and nobles.

However, in 1648, the basic principles informing the notion of state sovereignty which promulgated the modern European political-economic model were first codified by the Treaty of Westphalia. While previously some prerogatives of sovereignty had been enjoyed during the Middle Ages, Westphalia brought the concept into the normative sphere by establishing their legitimacy and consistent practice. It made the sovereign state the legitimate political unit by establishing the basic attributes or criteria of statehood; the existence of an authoritative government with control of its territory and population.

Drawing from the advances made by Westphalia, the modern norms predicating what constitutes sovereign statehood can be specified through four key tenets: authority, legitimacy, supremacy, and territoriality. Firstly, authority is the right to control and command and, correlatively, be obeyed by subordinates. However, this sovereign authority also requires legitimacy to be upheld, as opposed to mere direct power or coercion.  This means that the authority must be assented to or considered part of normal, proper state of affairs; thereby evoking allegiance and respect. Even for the Hobbesian ‘Leviathan’, which elucidates an absolutely powerful law-giving monarch, the notion of providing a basis for consensus and assent is elucidated as a precondition for the ‘principle rights’ of sovereign authority.

The third normative condition of sovereignty is supremacy. Philpott describes this element as an essential point of definition because “a police chief, priest and a corporate executive all have legitimate authority, but rarely are they called sovereign.” Therefore, supremacy predicates that in the authoritative chain of command, the hold of sovereignty is highest – a position which may not be questioned nor legitimately opposed. In the international system, sovereignty is accordingly a relationship comprised of supremely authoritative actors who do not themselves possess authority over one another.

The final point of definition, territoriality, provides the means of delineation between these various authoritative actors. As authority would not be supreme if there were “challengers within its realm”, territoriality confines this authority to a discrete tract of land bound by borders; in order to ensure supremacy. Taking into account each of these tenets which conceptualise sovereignty, Philpott defines sovereignty as “supreme legitimate authority within a territory”. Although throughout history rulers would have enjoyed claims over the prerogatives of some of these elements, it was the unity of these normative conditions which defined the modern European political system.

For the pioneering articulators of modern sovereignty, such as Bodin and Hobbes, the sovereign was not only above human law, but the very source of it. However, this has changed since the 18th century as constitutionally advanced Western states paved the way with constitutions and international legal agreements which defined the scope of the rulers’ and citizens’ legitimate authority, thence subordinating human lawgivers. As a result, sovereignty need not be held by a single individual, but may reside in political offices, a body of law or as Rousseau envisioned, in the people.

As an authority relationship, sovereignty also “possesses both an internal and an external face”. Internally, sovereignty denotes the highest authority within a state. It implies a hierarchic relationship between the sovereign and domestic subordinates. In the past, this authority would have likely been a monarch but today is a head of government, or in cases of popular sovereignty, the people.

Historically, this effective control over territory as an ‘ultimate authority’ was considered a pre-requisite for recognition by the international community, however, more recently it has become increasingly demarcated from the second face of sovereignty in this regard. This ‘external face’ implies a relationship of formal equality upon which states recognise mutual legitimacy in an anarchic system. Kenneth Waltz aptly suggested that in this inherently social concept between states, “none is entitled to command; none is required to obey”. This juridical face therefore confers the recognised inviolable norms of national self-determination and non-intervention within the sphere of international law.

In ensuing centuries, the norm of sovereignty remained largely unchanged and confined to Europe. This was further embedded by the rise of colonisation, which led to the perception that sovereignty was the privilege of the ‘civilised’ Europeans. The Berlin Conference of 1885 was indicative of this mindset, as European powers set “standards of civilisation”, effectively dividing the world into those who could and could not enjoy sovereignty, equality and participate as members of the international community.

However, the subjugation of nations driven by this trend led for concerted calls for the norms of national self-determination and guarantee of minority rights to be incorporated into a revised conception of sovereignty. These challenged ‘criteria for membership’ and ‘essential prerogatives’ faces of the norms of sovereignty, as defined by Philpott. They were concerned with the notion that sovereignty is not just the privilege of the elite, but a basic right that every nation should be able to rule the territory it inhabits; to live in its own state without being submitted to a foreign power.

Accordingly, sovereignty began to be acknowledged as the cornerstone for establishing the independence of a state, and essential in its recognition by and as part of the international community. However, it was not until the process of de-colonisation began after World War Two that these norms began to be realised. As a result, in the twentieth century we have seen an unprecedented geographic diffusion of sovereignty, and today we see sovereign states covering the surface of the globe.

Almost three centuries after the landmark developments of Westphalia, the notion of sovereignty was further reinforced by the Charter of the United Nations, which categorically asserted in Article 2 that the “territorial integrity and independence of states are inviolable” and that “each state has the right freely to choose and develop its political, social, economic and cultural systems”. The International Court of Justice later held in Nicaragua v United States that between independent States, “respect for territorial sovereignty is an essential foundation of international relations” and that the principle of non-intervention involves “the right of every sovereign State to conduct its affairs without outside interference.”

Together, the classical conception of Westphalian sovereignty and the more recent legal arrangements codifying its contemporary development, establish the essential prerogatives which exist for sovereign states as ‘de jure’ norms. These can be summarised as legal equality between states, the right of political self determination, and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. These prerogatives are resultantly considered inviolable and fundamental principles of international law and serve as the foundation for the contemporary system of world order. As such, international law is premised on the notion that sovereign states are supreme within their territories and that outside interference, regardless of ‘good cause’, amounts to an outright infringement of that sovereignty.

In the 21st century, the expansion of regional blocs, and the ever-increasing strength of non-state actors and networks, have accelerated a trend towards greater diffusion of power and authority. Additionally, concern for the human rights of the individual has come into conflict with absolutist conceptions of sovereignty. Resultantly, many consider that sovereignty is an archaic concept which is being eroded. However, through their development in the last half millennium, the ‘norms of sovereignty’ have not only entrenched themselves but also proved adequately flexible to overcome challenges such as national self-determination for subjugated minorities. Developments such as the European Union and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, which appear at odds with the Westphalian paradigm, may be viewed instead as the opportunity to revise the norms of sovereignty to suit the political needs of an increasingly globalised and interdependent world.

Nicholas Kavass is studying Law and International Relations at Bond University. He is the current Sponsorship Director and Treasurer for BUUNSA.


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