Etymology of ‘Sovereignty’ – Eliisa Carter

“A supreme power or authority,” “authority of a state to govern itself or another state,” and “a self-governing state” all emerge on Google search. These definitions of ‘sovereignty’ are relatively synonymous. However, when applying sovereignty to the international arena, the description of a sovereign must be specific to achieve universal understanding.

Stephen Krasner’s “Think Again; Sovereignty” often refutes common misconceptions about sovereignty. He states the international arena have been testing and amending ‘sovereignty’ since the term’s inception. What many people believe to be the extinction of sovereign state due to globalization, Krasner claims to be a part of the continuous change of an international norm.

Many of the misconceptions Krasner presents seem to be stemmed from a commonly forgotten, blurred line between a state’s two types of sovereignty: internal and external. Internal sovereignty is the relationship between the sovereign power and its constituents, while external sovereignty is state’s international recognition and relations (“Sovereignty”). Krasner’s section, “Sovereignty Means Final Authority,” demonstrates a public confusion with internal/external sovereignty, instead of having the two coexist. Krasner’s article has much to do with sovereignty in relation to the international political system than a state’s domestic governance. The widespread claim, “sovereignty means supreme, domestic authority,” applies to internal affairs of a nation. He showcases contemporary views of external sovereignty as an independent, autonomous state that has control over trans-border movements and can enter international agreements.

What is the definition of sovereignty today? Under international law, a sovereign state possesses a permanent population, defined territory, government, and ability to enter relations with other sovereign states (Montevideo Convention). Krasner refutes the common statement, ‘the Treaty of Westphalia created the modern sovereign state.’ Krasner is right to the extent that the political climate of 17th century Europe led implementation of Westphalia’s principles to be overlooked, therefore not creating the modern state. However, the principles of sovereignty in that treaty established a precedence of and are consistent with the rights and duties of states we know today. Westphalia established the concepts of a nation-state, sovereignty, and an international power system (Kissinger). Comparatively, Europe is under a unique, interdependent multistate structure quite different from the old, aggressive European world order. This was an antique order mainly principled by French Cardinal Richelieu’s raison d’etat, the urge of state to pursue their national interest, which defined Europe’s power system as competitive maintenance of power dynamics (Realists’ balance of power concept) that lasted well into the 20th century. Raison d’etat, established by French policy prior to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, overshadowed Westphalia’s principles of political self-determination, equity among states, and non-intervention within another state’s internal affairs (Ledgerwood). Krasner observes that the conductors of the Peace only did lip service, instead of carrying out its tenets. These principles may not be the today’s exact definition of sovereignty, but they are still widely accepted today as the normative duties of a sovereign state. The evolution of the definition only backs Krasner’s claim that sovereignty is always adapting instead of dying.

Sovereignty and its principles are examples of norms, universal social expectations of states that reflect and are accepted in the international system. Widespread concern over globalization’s effect on sovereignty, as Krasner states, is altering the scope of sovereignty, but not eliminating its existence. Globalization, defining the spread of ideas, economic dependence, and social norms, can be traced since the principles of Westphalia were established in the diplomatic European arena. And like sovereignty, the particular norms of globalization are constantly evolving.

Kissinger, Henry. “New World Order.” In Diplomacy. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994. 21.



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