Sovereignty is about faces. It makes it easy for us to read an article on the Russian imposition of Ukrainian authority and immediately connect the events to Putin. It makes it easy for us to talk about the American War on Terror and when Saddam Hussain is paired up against George W. Bush. But is that really what is going on? Are world events a mere dialogue between state leaders and nothing else? Do we as constituents not have a say or impact on this dumbed down version of international affairs? I would like to think not, but that does not mean to say that sovereignty has not designed an simple framework of understanding how states interact.
Ever since the dawn of international relations, sovereignty has always been the assumed incumbent when it comes to deciding how we as humans will coexist. And why wouldn’t it be? For hundreds of years it has successfully established the foundation of peace, war and everything in between, but more importantly has created a balance between the power of the people and that of the monarch. The Treaty of Westphalia set the precedent of expecting subjects to respect the authority of a governing body, while also requiring that the state work for the benefit of the nation as a whole, a responsibility that some leaders take more seriously than others. Professor Stephen Krasner of Stanford University makes the claim that this institution was developed much later on in history, but the final point remains the same. Viewing the world through the lens of sovereignty and state leaders is an age old limitation to our perspectives on world events and has created an inexcusable power gap between the government and the governed.
In a perfect world, state leaders wouldn’t need legal agreements or international treaties to understand that their citizens deserve the same power and authority as any government official. And in the same world, citizens would understand that their leaders are not always wholly responsible for the results of the state’s actions and would take one some of that responsibility upon themselves. The rise of democracy shows that the world is making steps towards this new image of shared authority between the people and the government, but there is still room to grow.
Which leads us to our final question. Sovereignty is changing, evolving, maybe even dying. Non-state actors are taking steps into the spotlight and doing so with great stride. Civilian institutions are investigating government bodies and questioning their intentions. And at the same time, states are developing stronger norms in national security and are more capable of dealing with these rising constructivist powers. The system of checks and balances is more entrenched and fervent than it has been in the rest of human history. Slowly but surely, we are removing the veil of misconceptions that has been established by our reliance on the sovereignty framework and moving towards a world where people are accountable for their actions, regardless of national allegiance.
When it comes down to it, states only exist as an assortment of independent voices who speak in the context of that state, not just under the authority of a single leader.