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Why has the concept of Sovereignty proved such a powerful political concept?


That the concept of sovereignty still is a powerful concept can be seen with regard to European integration. The gradual transfer of core powers from EU member states to supranational institutions is a case in point, which consistently reveals the crucial importance of the concept of sovereignty: In the 2009 German Constitutional Court ruling on the Lisbon treaty, the court held that German state sovereignty cannot be transferred to a supranational level as it is ‘simply another name for German democracy’ (Koskenniemi 2010, 241, cf. Grimm 2009). Hence, the question emerges as to why the concept of sovereignty has been able to exert this long-lasting impact. I will argue that this is enabled by its becoming inextricably linked to notions of self-determination and democratic accountability. I will look at this argument from different perspectives, carving out a view on sovereignty as a concept which is fundamentally political, and which is powerful because it provides space for interpretation. My argument will operate against the backdrop of sovereignty conceived of as ‘supreme authority within a territory’ (Philpott 2014, n.p.). Throughout modernity sovereignty has been associated with the state, namely as a conditio sine qua non of the latter. This prevalence of the state is undergoing profound transformations since the second half of the twentieth century. Based on this observation I will explore how linking sovereignty to self-determination and democratic accountability is more relevant for explaining its success than to examine its link with the state. The first part thus analyses the historicity of the concept within the paradigm of state sovereignty, the second looks at its contemporary applicability beyond the state.

I. Sovereignty and modernity

According to Robert Jackson (2007), since the emergence of modernity in the early sixteenth century the concept of sovereignty became tied up to the notion of the supreme and independent state, which marks its connotation as a fundamentally ‘politicallegal term’ (Jackson 2007, 20). Sovereignty became a constitutive part of the state, closely related to its authority. Moreover, this association of sovereignty with the modern state enabled a shift in the ‘locus of sovereignty’ in the course of the following centuries up to the present day, ‘from rulers and dynasties to parliaments and estates or social classes, and then to the nation or people as a whole’ (Jackson 2007, 22). Jackson’s historical account asserts that while the locus of sovereignty changes over time, the basic tenets of political life remained stable:

[T]he land surface of the planet is partitioned into a number of separate bordered territories, … a certain determinate authority is supreme over all other authorities in each territory, and … those supreme authorities are independent of all foreign authorities. (Jackson 2007, 22)

For the present argument, however, what is crucial is the locus of sovereignty: the trajectory from absolutist rulers enthroned by the will of all, as stipulated in Hobbes or Bodin (cf. Hobbes 2008; Bodin 1962), to the notion of ‘popular sovereignty’ (cf. Jackson 2007, 78ff.), in which “the people” hold sovereignty. It is evident in the answer given to the question for who is entitled to sovereignty: in the notion of popular sovereignty, ‘the authority of the final word resides in the political will or consent of the people of an independent state’ (Jackson 2007, 78). This shift in the understanding of self-determination – from a theoretical self-determination as can be found in Hobbes, where people surrender their sovereignty to the Leviathan voluntarily in order to overcome the primordial state of nature and war of all against all, to the factual self-determination of a nation – is of prime importance for the lasting influence of the concept of sovereignty. But how can this change in conceiving the locus of sovereignty be conceptualised?

The shift sheds light on the ‘polemical’ dimension of sovereignty, which surfaces in its its deployment not as a ‘marker of an entity’s sociological thickness but of the needs of present politics’ (Koskenniemi 2010, 232). From this follows a concept of sovereignty operating on two different levels, namely as a term which ‘simultaneously invokes the registers of both description and prescription’ (Kalmo and Skinner 2010, 8). It can be employed both in order to analyse a certain status quo and to express a normative dimension, a desire for a certain outcome. It thus points to the present and the past as well as to the future. Therefore, it is invested with a fundamentally political dimension, which makes it subject to interpretation. The space opened up by this contestability can be seen as a crucial factor for the longevity of the concept: appealing to sovereignty can serve both to repress and justify absolutist rule and to demand emancipation. It is crucially related to the idea of agency, to the question of who de facto holds and exerts sovereignty, and who is seen to be actually entitled to it.

In the course of the twentieth century, for instance, the appeal to self-determination served colonised peoples to demand an end to European imperialism (cf. Jackson 2007, 76). While ‘[i]n the mid-twentieth century the “self” in self-determination was juridical and territory-focused more often that [sic] it was sociological and people-focused’ (Jackson 2007, 106), the national liberation movements of the second half of the century were built on the right to assert a certain, i.e. national, self-determination. At this juncture, another crucial aspect of sovereignty surfaces, namely the issue of accountability. It manifests itself in the notion of consent expressed by the governed towards those governing. In a representative democracy, consent is volatile and can be both confirmed and withdrawn in the course of elections. This process is to guarantee that the government consistently takes into account the public will – a relation which in the parts of the world colonised by European states was obviously not given (cf. Jackson 2007, 76). Accordingly, the appeal both to self-determination and to the requirement of consent by the governed – democratic accountability – form part of the discourse on sovereignty. This discursive dynamic with which the concept of sovereignty is invested provides a clear view on why it has proved to be as long-lasting.

II. Sovereignty beyond the state

From those considerations one can deduct a notion of sovereignty as a discursive instrument serving different causes in the hands of different actors. The profoundly political character of appealing to sovereignty can be considered a strong explanation of the powerful role the concept of sovereignty still plays. This can be further explored with reference to the approach developed by Cynthia Weber in Simulating Sovereignty (1995). The work is conceived against the backdrop of the perceived ignorance on behalf of most of International Relations scholars as regards the concept’s historicity (cf. Weber 1995, 2) – a critique in which resonates Rousseau’s dictum that ‘the Sovereign, by the mere fact that it is, is always everything it ought to be’ (Rousseau 1997, 52). I would argue that the critique launched by Weber emerges precisely from the political dimension of sovereignty, a dimension she sees obscured in the mainstream discourse which begs the question as to how a community is constituted (cf. Weber 1995, 8). This again touches on the problematic regarding the notion of “the people”: how is this abstract entity, which by no means corresponds to the empirical population (cf. Kalmo and Skinner 2010, 11), to be conceived? For Weber, who crucially draws on the work of Baudrillard, especially his Symbolic Exchange and Death (1988), considering this question must take into account the profound change from a ‘logic of representation’ to a ‘logic of simulation’ (Weber 1995, 127), which occurs during the second half of the twentieth century.

While the first logic implies the production of an original truth which sovereignty can refer to and which enables political representation (cf. Weber 1995, 123f.), the second logic prevails once the credibility of traditional referents such as “god” or “the people” has vanished. Truth is not produced anymore, but ’seduced’ (Weber 1995, 125). Weber examines the logic of representation for the relation between sovereignty and several twentieth century military interventions, that is, actual violations of sovereignty. Through the very violation of sovereignty in a specific case, however, the concept itself is reproduced. The conceptual pair sovereignty/intervention creates a boundary which ‘produces, represents, or writes the state’ (Weber 1995, 125).

In a logic of simulation, in contrast, the sovereignty/intervention boundary collapses and is replaced by an interchangeability of both, giving way to the emergence of a new term Weber calls “sovereigntyintervention” (Weber 1995, 127). This shift creates the need for the ‘simulation’ of this boundary, in order to keep up the concept of the state and sovereignty itself. Weber illuminates this with regard to the US intervention in Panama, which essentially obliterated the difference between sovereignty and intervention. With Baudrillard, Weber argues that an ‘abili [sic, read: alibi] function’ is deployed, a function which is based on self-referentiality and the closed circulation of interchangeable signifiers (Weber 1995, 128). In a vain ‘to rescue the “reality principle”’ (Weber 1995, 128, cf. Baudrillard 1988, 2), in this case, the reality of sovereignty, intervention is appealed to. Weber describes the resulting circular relation as follows:

For intervention to be meaningful, sovereignty must exist because intervention implies a violation of sovereignty. To speak of intervention, then, is to suggest that sovereignty does exist. In Baudrillard’s terms, intervention or transgression proves sovereignty or the law. (Weber 1995, 128f.)

From this Baudrillardian perspective the persistence of the concept of sovereignty can be explained as an attempt to perpetuate first referents in a time in which those referents have lost their foundation. Against the backdrop of the non-existence of “the people”, the appeal to sovereignty can only remain credible if it occurs within a network of other concepts. However, each of those other concepts in itself depends on being embedded in a network of signifiers, thus creating the above mentioned self-referentiality: there is nothing beyond the sign, it is pure simulation: a network of simulacra. From this Weber concludes that ‘[i]nvestigating state sovereignty … requires investigating how states are simulated’ (Weber 1995, 129).

Those displacements of the discursive use of the concept of sovereignty reflect its prolonged attraction. In other words, returning to the above mentioned ambiguity as regards its use (it can be employed to describe as well as to prescribe), sovereignty’s very texture has been characterised as ‘sponge-concept’ (Bartelson 1995, 237), from which derives an ‘uncertainty about what sovereignty is’ (Walker 1995, 27). Therefore, Kalmo and Skinner hold that if sovereignty is conceived of ‘as an argument, as a claim to authority, than there is no sense at all in which it can be “reduced” (Kalmo and Skinner 2010, 7).

This brings us back to my argument as to the importance of the factors of self-determination and democratic accountability. First, precisely because self-determination has no empirical referent, but depends on invoking an abstract “people”, this people’s sovereignty can never be achieved, and therefore has to be appealed to persistently. In the hands of different actors it takes different shapes and refers to different aims, but it always has a prescriptive dimension. The same holds, second, for democratic accountability. Consent is never fixed, because “the people” who articulates this consent are not. Accordingly, democratic accountability is instable, too, as the governing have to take into account the possibility of the popular consent being withdrawn. The appeal to sovereignty by the multitude, Hardt and Negri (2000), for instance, hold, is floating, and per definition as ‘inconclusive [a] constitutive relation’ as the multitude itself (Hardt and Negri 2000, 103). One answer to the question for the ongoing impact of the concept of sovereignty therefore is that it is an ‘argumentative resource’ (Kalmo and Skinner 2010, 24), while the credibility of its functioning as an analytical tool erodes.


The Baudrillardian theoretical construct is geared to devaluate all “traditional” ways of conceptualising sovereignty, as here it is subsumed under a theoretical framework in which simulation has substituted all “reality”. Yet it provides an enriching perspective on the discursive character of the concept of sovereignty, and therefore helps understanding the persistence of its use. The very intangibility of the concepts sovereignty refers to, be it “the people” or “consent”, leaves open a gap which contestation can pierce into. My argument showed that those referents of sovereignty, however, are mediated through the factors self-determination and democratic accountability, which therefore provide the essential link through which the discourse on sovereignty proceeds. Accordingly, while the Baudrillardian perspective developed by Weber mainly looks at the appeals to sovereignty by states themselves, it can also serve emancipatory movements for articulating political demands. What can be said in conclusion, then, is that the very ambiguity of the concept of sovereignty as expressed in the demand for self-determination, for instance, is what made and makes it successful.


Bartelson J 1995, A Genealogy of Sovereignty, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP.

Baudrillard J 1988, ‘Symbolic Exchange and Death’, in: idem., Poster M (ed. and intr.), Selected Writings, pp. 119-148, Stanford: Stanford UP.

Bodin J 1962, The Six Bookes of a Commonweale ,McRae K D (ed.), Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP.

Grimm , D 2009, Souveränität. Herkunft und Zukunft eines Schlüsselbegriffs , Berlin: Berlin UP.Hobbes T 2008, Leviathan, Gaskin J C A (ed.), Oxford: Oxford UP.

Hardt M and Negri A 2000, Empire, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP.

Jackson R 2007, Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea, Cambridge, Malden, Mass.: Polity.

Kalmo H and Skinner Q 2010, ‘Introduction: a concept in fragments’, in: idem., Sovereignty in fragments: the past, present and future of a contested concept, pp. 1-25, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP.

Koskenniemi M 2010, ‘Conclusion. vocabularies of sovereignty – powers of a paradox’, in: Kalmo H and Skinner Q (eds.), Sovereignty in fragments: the past, present and future of a contested concept, pp. 222-242, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP.

Philpott D 2014, ‘Sovereignty’, in: Zalta E N (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), URL http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2014/entries/sovereignty, accessed 08 Feb. 15.

Rousseau J J 1997, The social contract and other later political writings, Gourevitch V (ed.), Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP.

Walker R B J 1995, ‘From International Relations to World Politics’ in: Camilleri J A, Jarvis A P and Pasolini A J (eds.), The State in Transition: Reimagining Political Space, pp. 21–38, Boulder, Colo.: L. Rienner.

Weber, C 1995, Simulating Sovereignty, Cambridge, New York: Cambridge UP.

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