Rethinking National Sovereignty in a Changing World

by Hana Đogović

Traditionally, the concept of sovereignty has been defined as the power of individual nation states to delineate their authority within their territorial boundaries. In 1648, the Treaty of W
estphalia first established the present-day understanding of state sovereignty, which rests basically on two principles: Territoriality and the exclusion of external actors from domestic authority structures through the premises of autonomy, independence and freedom. In the seventeenth century, it was used as a tool for the assertion of royal authority over the feudal class during the establishment of modern territorial states. By singling out the state as the absolute authority, sovereignty differentiates the state from other forms of association that its population participates in over time. But, the issue then becomes, whether this, a somewhat outdated concept, stands a chance at all in today’s globalized world, where issues such as interdependence of nations and ethnic groups, particularly those that cross state boundaries, and other transnational issues have forced the world to reconsider its understanding of state sovereignty.Hana's

The idea of sovereignty is, in general, a widely accepted one. The notion that every state has the right of self-governance over the people inhabiting its territory is as old as the Enlightenment and the longing for authority runs very deep. Max Weber, a German sociologist and philosopher, defines sovereignty as a monopoly of legitimate force in a given territory, and this is where it begins to get complicated. If the sovereign is the source of legitimate coercion, it remains unclear how the sovereign receives legitimacy. In democratic countries, the power of the sovereign is rooted in “we the people,” but the issue remains, not all countries in today’s world are democracies and not everyone views the authority in their state as “legitimate.”

One critical question arises, namely whether the explanatory value of traditional conceptions of state sovereignty are even relevant given changing political and territorial landscapes.  Since traditional understanding is no longer valid or applicable, it is hard to tell what sorts of constructs would replace our understanding of the state and its power and authority within its territorial boundaries. Besides, it is highly disputed how concepts such as state authority, legitimacy, intervention/non-intervention and justice ought to be addressed and contested in a world increasingly confronted with population movements, ethnicity and border issues, poverty and violence.

Particularly in countries experiencing war or protracted conflict, such as many in the Middle East, securing peace may require a whole host of new political, legal and other arrangements that can work to either strengthen state sovereignty or weaken the role of a central state, even in contexts where territorial boundaries remain unchanged. Again, in states with either significantly strong ethnic minority groups or even majority populations, new arrangements, sometimes provoked or supported by external sources, challenge existing norms and notions of state sovereignty.

In Lebanon, for instance, the government and its military are dominant only at the national level, whereas Hezbollah is recognized as the supreme guard of the south of the country, intervening at the same time in Syria at Al-Qusayr, without any consent from the official Lebanese government. Likewise, the Iraqi constitution recognizes Kurdistan as semi-autonomous, with its own armed forces. There are multiple layers of governance in Syria itself, such that these sub-state interventions are even possible.

The concept of sovereignty is especially difficult to maintain in a world where some actors do not believe it exists. Besides, the international system, initially Eurocentric, was based on the idea that states were the central actors, but nowadays many entities are involved in the international sphere, some of which are not perceived as states, but have a strong impact nevertheless. ISIS, for instance, is an unusual creation indeed because it does not believe in state sovereignty. It does not believe in borders – any sovereignty that violates “historically Muslim lands,” depicted in the map of the envisioned “Islamic caliphate,” is completely illegitimate. Its concept of sovereignty is one-sided. While ISIS recognizes itself as a supreme authority for religious reasons, it is unable or unwilling to recognize the legal sovereignty of other states.

Another issue then arises. Even if one agrees to accept static definitions of sovereignty and statehood and holds them to be one of the crucial factors for determining the existence of a certain state that still does not guarantee a stable and functioning political entity. Bosnia and Herzegovina is one example, in which United Nations agencies imposed legal and administrative frameworks intended to end the war and to move the divided country toward some form of state sovereignty. More than twenty years later, however, questions of state sovereignty persist as the presence of the international community continues to influence the power and authority of the state, and deep divisions among ethnic groups continue to cause internal fragmentation.

The problem with the notion of humanitarian intervention is the fact that leaders of some states nominate themselves for involvement, often guided by self-interest, in conflicts that are, realistically, far from a threat to global peace – as Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister during the early years of WWII, once said, “distant countries of which we know little.” As the idea of international legal sovereignty is largely associated with Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean Bodin, it is therefore deeply rooted in the Western tradition of political philosophy.

Like everything else, the meaning of national and political sovereignty is and should be considered relative and open to alteration across time and space and throughout a variety of historical and political contexts. Since the world in general is in constant flux, existing disagreements on this issue are naturally driven by philosophical and ontological quibbles over the status of this concept.

The journey and evolution of the human race, according to modern science, took around 200,000 years, starting in east Africa, before reaching our current level of development. Our ancestors spoke different languages, had different nationalities and evolved among different races, cultures and religions. It is precisely for these reasons that all should consider themselves and everything around them a product of a constant change. The existence of transnational and supranational practice therefore opens up the possibility of envisaging politics and the international system in terms of pluralization instead of fusion, making it possible to restructure the matrix of sovereignty. How it will be articulated and what shape it will take on, however, can only be seen in the years to come.

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