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Meaning of Sovereignty and the Extent of Contemporary Nation-State Sovereignty Essay

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Updated: Jul 10th, 2019


Sovereignty is supreme authority inferred upon a country or state that makes it immune to jurisdiction outside its boundaries. For sovereignty to be achieved a territory a nation-state must have an effective government that exercises independency from the influences of other governments of other nation-state (McNeely p.38).

This paper discusses the notion of sovereignty as applied to nation-states. The paper first examines the definition and concepts of sovereignty and then explores the application of sovereignty in the contemporary world.

This paper notes that sovereignty has been overly responsible for the relative peace stability and prosperity among nation-states; however, there is a new form of war that exists within territories of nation-states, among various nation-states, that is threatening their capacity to exercise authority hence, their sovereignty.

Other than the internal threat to sovereignty, nation-states are also losing their classical form of sovereignty to emerging multinational corporations and international organizations that exercise their authority of decision-making beyond traditional territorial boundaries.

Contemporary nation-states are no longer sovereign if the classical definition of sovereignty is considered. This paper therefore offers a brief analysis of the contemporary view of sovereignty.

Classical Definition of Sovereignty

Sovereignty is an idea of supremacy and depends on the expression of absolute supremacy to suffice. The idea has been in existence as long as the formation of state boundaries goes. It forms the essence of having state boundaries to differentiate a state’s sovereignty from another (R. H. Jackson ix).

Sovereignty forms the epicentre of political and legal application of the world. Initial conception of sovereignty occurred during the controversies and wars that engulfed seventeenth-century Europe and has evolved and spread in the present world (R. H. Jackson ix).

In the formation and organization of contemporary nation-states, state sovereignty forms the foundation. The sovereignty of the state follows opposite ideals from those followed by theocratic and transnational idea present in the medieval times such as the Latin Christendom. Sovereignty now extends across religions, cultures, languages, race and other divisions of humanity.

With the advent of sovereignty as a global authority system, people can no longer live outside any jurisdiction of a sovereign state as was possible before the wide adoption of state sovereignty. Nation-state sovereignty is a political and legal of a state within a system that is recognized by other states.

Origin of Sovereignty

Kings and rulers, to respond to the circumstances facing their authority, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe (Devenney p.154), worked out the idea of sovereignty. Further notable refinement of the idea of sovereignty was undertaken after the World War I.

Allies in the war discussed very little about their goals and principles apart from military objectives and there was no clear distinction of the two sides in the war in terms of what was their view of the international order after the war. Each country in the war had its own intentions and coalitions developed based on superficial agreements.

The US president Woodrow Wilson intervened on the arrangement of the Allied forces and came up with a statement of principles to differentiate each ally among themselves and from the central powers.

Wilson declared that the war was as an end to all wars by formulating a balance of power, and creation of self-determination and democracy for the world populations. Wilson defined a legitimate nation as one with a defined national population and with a government accountable to its people (Barkin and Cronin p.120).

Britain and France eventually accepted the ideas brought up by Wilson after the war as the basis to form an international order. France in particular proposed a post war settlement that rests peace on the principles of self-determination and the protection of minority rights.

Britain agreed that a lasting peace required the recognition of the sanctity of treaties, territorial dispute resolution based on self-determination and the establishment of international organizations that will thwart possibilities of future wars. Germany also turned to the program laid down by the president of the United States on the verge of their defeat (Barkin and Cronin p 121).

The Principle stating that people should not be bartered from sovereignty to sovereignty came into play when Germany freed its former colonies and placed them in the protective wing of the League of Nations, which later appointed various nations as guardians (Barkin and Cronin p. 122).

State Sovereignty

The holder of sovereignty has authority in form of the right to command and the right to enjoy obedience within the boundaries where the jurisdiction is applicable (Phillpot para. 5). Territory is a principle of defining community members and offers a powerful definition that surpasses identity.

All people inside a state fall under the authority of the state’s ruler. Modern sovereigns assume supremacy within geographical territories (Phillpot para. 7).

Sovereignty exists in a plural form of many sovereign states in the world. The manner in which there states exercise their sovereignty is in relation to other sovereign states. The political map of the world is only formed by states that demonstrate a sovereign authority.

It might be argued that sovereignty can be shared such as the case of the European Union’s legal and political authority; however, this does not amount to supremacy because individual countries making the EU retain territorial sovereignty to address vital questions like peace and security (R. H. Jackson).

Sovereignty has two dimensions, the inside of a territory where everybody within the territory subscribes to the authority of the government of the territory and the outside or external environment of the authority where its independence is tolerated and unharmed by other sovereigns.

A colonial government does not possess supremacy of decision in the world politics and therefore is not a sovereign state. It has to rely on external authority from its imperial powers to carryout commercial relations or declare war (Nash p.27). The authority of sovereignty has two absolutes. It either exists or does not. In the same manner, supremacy is also categorical, such that a government is either supreme or not supreme.

However, power possessed by sovereigns is relative. It is a capacity to act concerning the activities of a government in relation to other activities involved. All governments have power structures to carry out decisions and policies.

The extensiveness of the structures at the disposal of a government to exercise its authority within its boundaries sum up to its capacity, however the capacity does not give the government authority.

Before the World War I, governments could assume authority by exercising their powers beyond their territories and colonize populations but the ability to use power to get authority became unlawful after the war (R. H. Jackson p.14-16).

The recognition of treaties and independence of states makes all aggressions against other states unlawful and illegitimate. In the same manner that authority does not come out of power, it does not diminish in the absence of power. Weak governments are still sovereign. The argument of whether a state is strong or weak does not constitute the definition of sovereignty.

Sovereignty is a matter of freedom from legal subordination to another authority (R. H. Jackson p. 16). For example, Mexico is a sovereign country and is a far weaker power economically and militarily than the United States. The difference in power significantly bears on the international relations of the two countries however; the power difference does not withdraw sovereignty of Mexico.

Contemporary View of Sovereignty

As an idea, sovereignty is evolving and the contemporary understanding of the idea is not the same as the initial understanding in the sixteenth century (J. H. Jackson p. 788). The linkages also involve international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF). These and other related reasons make the reader question the relevancy of sovereignty.

The erosion of the idea of sovereignty as evidenced above does not warrant a total elimination of the principles that it. Instead, a new approach to understanding the extent of sovereignty is required.

The antiquate version of sovereignty does not exist. The version of sovereignty that dwells on absolute supremacy of authority over subjects within a territory unchallenged by any higher law unless the nation consents in a meaningful way is antique.

Subscription of the idea of sovereignty is not applicable in totality. The relative peace enjoyed in the world in the last two centuries has can be attributed to the concepts of sovereignty of nations. Sovereignty has cultivated world order through legal protections against any type of external intervention.

It also forms the core of recognition of treaties, how international organizations are formed as well as how international law is developed. Without sovereignty, there would be no clear channel for representatives and market economies to emerge in many nations. In the contemporary world, sovereignty still serves as the basis of democracy, prosperity and peace.

An Allocation of Power Analysis of Sovereignty

The practical use of sovereignty today rests in the allocation of power of governments to make decisions. This means that certain set of decisions are supposed to take place at a nation-state level and not in the international level.

To further understand this concept, the reader may ask is it is okay for governmental decisions to be made in Geneva or Washington, D.C. when the two cities are not within the territory of the government in question. In the current global politics power is allocated exclusively to state governments who then relinquish some of it to international bodies through treaties and other international agreements.

Allocation of power occurring among states is termed vertical allocation while subsidiarity of power within state entities like legislature, the executive and judiciary is termed horizontal power allocation.

The decision on how to allocate power depends on answers to questions raised. Answers to problems facing a single area within a state like street lighting require allocation of power within the state entities however; complex issues such as food safety standards for the integrated global market efficiency pose deeper decision challenges on where to allocate decision-making power.

A set of values are considered when looking at the task of allocating decision-making power. First, the reasons why governmental action at an international level is desired are formulated. In the case of international standardization, governments finds themselves in situations where failure to coordinate internationally leads to a damage for the states and others.

Economically, factor mobility of capital and labour warrants placement of decision-making power on a higher level than the government. Environmental concerns also bring up reasons for having a bigger than state institution to make decisions mainly because environmental concerns are global commons and degradation in one part has negative externalities on another.

Trade issues of monopoly may also form reasons to consider allocation of power at a higher hierarchical order than the state government (J. H. Jackson p. 782).

Secondly, the principle of subsidiarity forms another value factor for allocating state power. This principle arises from the catholic philosophy of the nineteenth and early twentieth century (J. H. Jackson p. 782).

It advocates for allocating decision-making power to the lowest level of state hierarchy in the interaction with constituents on the belief that only the state entities at the closest to constituents know the needs of the constituents.

Accountability at the lowest government is guaranteed because decisions made directly affect constituents. The notion of subsidiarity was the basis of various movements for decolonization in the nineteenth century (J. H. Jackson p. 793).

John H. Jackson discusses the modern interpretation of sovereignty as a focus on subsidiarity. He notes that subsidiarity proposes that government functions are allocated within a hierarchical government institution framework to those most near the constituents (Amar p.1427-1429). He attributes these anomalies to the division of sovereignty to facilitate diplomatic compromise.

Furthermore, he concludes that the concept of sovereignty appears to be misleading and affords politicians and the media an excuse to avoid complex thinking about real policies involved in international relations (J. H. Jackson p. 788).

Thirdly, there are factor values that support both subsidiarity and higher allocation of power. Such a factor arises when the discussion centres on a particular issue and leadership divisions emerge on whether to use state entities on top of the power hierarchy or at the bottom.

For example, a policy to prevent a government misuse of power might receive arguments for implementation at an international level however; those arguing against such a move will point out the chances of power misuse at the international level brought out by increased bureaucracy.

The essence of having a power analysis is to overcome hypocrisy that surrounds the concepts of sovereignty. The analysis has pointed out other factors that concern the sovereignty of a state, other than the core authority issues.

Sovereignty in contemporary world faces various challenges brought out by instant communication, fast and cheap transportation, weapons of mass destruction and emerging viral diseases. A new concept of sovereignty is required to cope with these and other emerging challenges (J. H. Jackson p. 799-802).

The Modern Threats of Classical Nation-State Sovereignty


There is a silent war going on in part of the major continents of the world. The protagonists of the war have been designated are street gangs and their allies. The new war is undermining national sovereignty of the affected countries daily. The illicit commercial motives of these gangs have become a portentous political agenda (Jouvenel p.98).

This paper has discussed state sovereignty based on the concept of supreme authority within a territory and the independence from other authorities outside the nation-state. The kind of gangs referred here do not undermine state sovereignty by interfering with its independence through a major coup or in prolonged revolutionary wars as has been observed with insurgents and rebel groups.

Instead, gangs take control of a street at a time, a business at a time or a government office at a time. When governments fail to extend their legitimate sovereign presence throughout their national territory, they leave a vacuum that gang, cartels, insurgents and other power competing interests to operate.

The gangs and other illegitimate groups challenge the state authority in the following five major ways as described by Manwaring (p.10-11).

Gangs strain governments’ capacity and therefore power to exercise its authority. They undermine the principle of sovereignty as the right to be obeyed by subjects within a territorial boundary.

Secondly, gangs challenge the legitimacy of the state especially where the state is unable to exercise jurisdiction due to corruption challenges and an inferior political system that does not function well to provide basic goods and services for its constituents. Thirdly, the challenge of sovereignty come to play when gangs act as surrogate governments in the areas ungoverned by the legitimate government due to inadequate capacity.

Fourth, these gangs dominate the informal economic sector, form business that do not fall under formal state regulation and use coercion and co-optation of government authorities so that they have an upper hand in the competition with legitimate businesses.

The slow and indirect means that gangs undermine state authority within its boundaries result to a gradual sliding of the state to failure where the state loses all capacity and will to exercise its authority within its territory through state entities (Manwaring p.14-16).


To abandon sovereignty entirely is not feasible because it forms the fabric of international law. However, the modern world has numerous examples in which sovereignty in its classical definition faces neglect (J. H. Jackson p.788). A new form of sovereignty is emerging in the global world that supersedes the sovereignty of individual nations.

Shumaker (p.92) has named this new form of sovereignty; an empire, because its authority moves traditional territorial boundaries and is only limited by mobile or temporary boundaries. In the globalized world empires exist in military formation, international trade formation and political formations. The nature of the formation of the empire determines the extent of sovereignty that the empire exercises.

An empire succeeds a combination of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy such that it assumes different characteristics of each type of government at any single time.

In military conflict the pentagon as the military arm of the United States rules over the world with its array of weapons of mass and vast destruction (Khagram p.110). International economic institutions like the World Bank and World Trade Organization also fit the description of monarch empires when they exercise their jurisdiction beyond traditional boundaries (J. H. Jackson p. 789).

Aristocracy tendencies of empires appear when few elitist states govern the flow of economic affairs of the world as well as international governance. Such an empire exists in form of the G8 meetings or the UN Security Council meetings and the exercise of their authority, which covers other states that have no capacity to exercise the same authority (Schumaker p.92).

International corporations also act as aristocracies by monopolizing trade in certain types of goods by controlling all production levels of the good around the globe. These corporations are able to determine how domestic policies of a country shape up through the influence of capital inflows to the countries.

Major world corporations like Wal-Mart, Coca Cola and General Electric have turnovers that dwarf the GDP of some developing countries (Baker, Gamble and Seawright p.400). Lastly, empires demonstrate democratic characteristics when they claim to represent the global population even though such a claim is often illusionary (Schumaker p.92).

Nation-states forming the membership of the United Nations are assumed to represent the interest of their individual populations (Nash p.46-48). An empire therefore claims sovereignty over existing sovereign nation-states. Now nations cannot claim absolute independence from other sovereign states because there is a higher authority that oversees the various implementation of jurisdiction among nation-states.

The dominant nation-states of the world enjoy a higher level of sovereignty than the subordinate nation-states. The transformation of the global sovereignty from individual nation-states to global empires such as international institutions has only been effective for dominant nation-states.

In some cases, national sovereignty was not a reality, as countries claiming to be sovereign did not have capacity to exercise independent authority within their territories. The undermining of authority was brought up by reliance on dominant nation-states for governance assistance that came with influence of domestic affairs and international commitments to suit those of the dominant nation-state (Devenney p.92).


The classical definition of sovereignty specifies the need for a nation-state to have independence in exercising authority within its territorial boundaries. The exercise of this authority is categorical and is determined by the power or capacity that the nation-state has.

Any threat to the authority exercised by the nation-state within its boundaries amounts to a threat to its sovereignty. Therefore, in the contemporary world characterised by international organizations, multinational corporations whose jurisdiction extends beyond traditional territorial borders, nation-states cease to be sovereign in the absolute sense of the idea of sovereignty (Opello and Rosow p.94).

Works Cited

Amar, Akhil Reed. “.” 1987. Faculty Schorlaship Series. Web.

Baker, David, Andrew Gamble and David Seawright. “Soveriegn nations and global markets: mordern British Concervatism and hyperglobalism.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 4.3 (2002): 399-428.

Barkin, Samuel and Bruce Cronin. “The State and the Nation: Changing Norms and the Rules of Sovereignty in International Relations.” International Organization 48.1 (1994): 107-130.

Devenney, Mark. Ethics and politica in contemporary thoery: between critical theory and post marxism. London: Routledge, 2004.

Jackson, John H. “Sovereignty-Mordern: A new approach to an outdated concept.” The American Journal of International Law 97 (2003): 782-802.

Jackson, Robert H. Sovereignty: evolution of an idea. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007.

Jouvenel, Bertrand de. Sovereignty: an inquiry into the political good. London: The Syndics of The Cambridge University Press, 1957.

Khagram, Sanjeev. “Possible Future Architectures of Global Governance: A Transnational Perspective/Prospective.” Global Governance 12 (2006): 97-177.

Manwaring, Max G. “A Contemporary challenge to state sovereignty: gangs and other illicit transnational criminal organizations in central America, El Salvador, Mexico, Jamaica and Brazil.” 2007. Strategic Studies Institute. Web.

McNeely, Connie L. Constructing the nation-state: international organization and prescriptive… Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Nash, Kate. Contemporary Political Sociology: Globalization, Politics and Power. West Sussex: Blackwell Publishers, 2010.

Opello, Walter C Jr. and Stephen Rosow. The Nation-State and Global Order: A Historical Introduction to Contemporary Politics. 2nd. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2004.

Phillpot, Dan. “.” n.d. The Stanford Encyclopedea of Philosophy(Summer 2010 Edition). Web.

Schumaker, Paul. The Political Theory Reader. West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 2010.

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