In international politics, no concept is less understood and more misused than that of sovereignty. The term carries at least three meanings in everyday language. First, it denotes "supreme power" -- as in Alfred Lord Tennyson's poem "Oenone," which celebrates "self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-restraint" as the only way to a "life to sovereign power." In a similar vein, Robert Burton, tongue in cheek, praises tobacco as a "sovereign remedy to all diseases." A second meaning of the word denotes autonomy, freedom from constraint, or independence. And the third definition can be found in John Keats' "Hyperion":

For to bear all naked truths And to envisage circumstance, all calm That is the top of sovereignty.

Setting aside the poet's sense of sovereignty as a serene, Stoic state of mind, we are left with two basic, everyday meanings for the word: supreme power and autonomy or independence. This is how most people think when they talk about states and their sovereignty.

In that case, it is of course easy to poke large holes into sovereignty as a central tenet of traditional realist thinking about international politics. Supreme power? Not even the United States, the "last remaining superpower," has it. America's word is not holy writ; it certainly cannot treat the rest of the world in the manner of the Athenians, who famously told the intractable Melians that "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." When the United States goes to war, it usually feels compelled to ask for the approval of the U.N. Security Council. Living in a world of almost 200 countries, Washington must consult, convince, and coax other nations; only rarely can it coerce or ignore them.

This is even more true when it comes to autonomy, the second vernacular meaning of sovereignty. No nation is an island, and not even North Korea is autonomous (literally, "able to make one's own laws"). Nations have always depended on others for resources, support, or security. Even if not forced to do so, they have always compromised their autonomy in countless ways: through treaties, coalitions, alliances, institutions (with their constraints), and confederations.

Thus it seems to follow that there is no such thing as sovereignty. It follows further that the dominant model of international politics -- the realist or balance-of-power construct -- is as useful as a unicycle: you can ride on it, but not very well, if at all. If sovereignty is compromised in myriad ways, so is the conventional model that recalls G.W. Leibniz's "windowless monads" by assuming that states are like billiard balls: hard-shelled, highly polished units without bonding surfaces, propelled only by their internal dynamics, and doomed to a life of perpetual collision.


Here Stephen D. Krasner's most recent work, Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy, makes a most welcome appearance. Right away, Krasner cuts through a tangle of conceptual confusion by sorting out the many ways in which we use and misuse the term "sovereignty." His classificatory scheme is fourfold.

To begin, he rightly makes short shrift of the commonplace idea that sovereignty means freedom from external influences. What he labels "interdependence sovereignty" is usually expressed in pat phrases such as "state sovereignty is eroding because of globalization." Such bromides, Krasner argues, confuse "control" with "authority." Of course states are losing control over the flow of people, goods, pollutants, and currencies across their borders. But this has always been the case. In fact, "by some measures, international capital markets were more open before the First World War than they are now." So there is nothing new under the sun here, nor does the loss of control prove anything about sovereignty itself.

More interesting are Krasner's next three definitions of sovereignty. "Domestic sovereignty" is perhaps the weightiest of them all. Associated most strongly with Jean Bodin, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it is deeply rooted in the Western tradition of political philosophy. Hobbes taught that the only way to escape from the state of nature, really a state of war, was for men "to confer all their power and strength upon one man É that he may reduce all their wills É unto one will." There had to be a supreme authority that enforced the law and adjudicated conflict. "Domestic sovereignty," then, refers to that "final source of authority," as Krasner calls it, which exists in all polities -- even in federal republics like the United States where power is widely shared. The locus of final authority may vary widely, from the politburo in China to a supreme court in the United States, Germany, or Israel. But there has to be such a locus; we would not call an entity without one a real state. "Domestic sovereignty" is part of the logic of statehood.

Next in Krasner's taxonomy comes "international legal sovereignty." This has a higher normative content than does "domestic sovereignty" (although even Hobbes' Leviathan or North Korea's Kim Jong Il cannot live by brute force alone but needs internal legitimacy as well). How do we know "international legal sovereignty" when we see it? Krasner proposes the following tests: "Is a state recognized by other states? Is it accepted as a juridical equal? Are its representatives entitled to diplomatic immunity?" In other words, it is not enough to seize power and control territory. Those who claim domestic sovereignty must be accorded the badge of acceptance by other states -- implying that their claim is right and just. To be a proper actor on the world stage, a political entity must be so certified. In this respect, all states that fulfill the criteria are "sovereign" -- whether puny or powerful, a city-state like Kuwait or a vast landmass like Canada.

Closely related to "international legal sovereignty" is Krasner's last definition, which he labels the "Westphalian model." It rests on two principles: "territoriality and the exclusion of external actors from domestic authority structures." Reduced to one word, it is the principle of nonintervention.

"Westphalian sovereignty" is a bit of a misnomer. For it suggests -- wrongly -- that back in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years' War, the European powers agreed in Munster and Osnabruck to stop intruding on one another's domestic politics. It is true that the peace recognized the territorial sovereignty of the member states of the Holy Roman Empire, leaving about 300 princes in exclusive charge of their turfs. It also reaffirmed the principle cuius regio, eius religio, meaning that the ruler's faith became the official denomination of his state. Krasner calls this a system of "organized hypocrisy," and right he is, for states have never stopped interfering in the domestic affairs of other states -- especially when they had the appropriate clout.

But Krasner also sets up something of a straw man, as a closer look at the Westphalian system actually designed reveals. To begin with, cuius regio, eius religio was compromised from the start by the principle of religious tolerance. Although those 300 sovereigns were the top dogs in their state churches, they were bound to respect the freedom of worship and conscience of their religious minorities. More important was the realpolitik of the settlement. The two victors and guarantors of the peace, France and Sweden, were granted the right of interference in the affairs of the Holy Roman Empire. Sweden even gained a formal right of participation in the Imperial Diet (as Krasner actually points out elsewhere in his book). So 300 years before the settlements of World Wars I and II, there was already a heavy whiff of Versailles and Potsdam in the Westphalian air: a massive dose of international supervision over the future internal arrangements of Germany. Plus ca change....

Still, "Westphalian sovereignty" is what we should mean when we say "sovereignty" -- as long as we concede that there is a large "ought" concealed in the concept's core. We ought to treat other states as hard-shelled entities by respecting their territoriality as well as their right to noninterference. Empirically, of course, that has never been the case. Since Thucydides, the history of international politics has been the history of intervention, and Krasner's book provides a well-nigh exhaustive survey of how it has been done -- when, where, by, and to whom.

As Krasner puts it,

"principles [of noninterference] have been enduring but violated. Rulers in more powerful states have justified violations of Westphalian principles by invoking alternative norms such as the illegitimacy of revolutionary regimes (the Holy Alliance), the provision of national security (the Platt Amendment imposed on Cuba by the United States), problems of drug running (the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama) or the protection of the Soviet commonwealth (the Brezhnev doctrine)."

The list is endless.


So what? Krasner's real project is not taxonomy, but theory. How best to understand a world of so-called sovereign states? What, if anything, has changed? Krasner's problem is not easily cracked. How do we wield a concept that is both normative and empirical, that describes both the "ought" and the "is?" On the inside of states, "domestic sovereignty" is clearly a reality; there is in the United States, for example, a president who is the supreme commander; there is a Treasury Department that alone may print bills and mint coins. On the outside, "international legal sovereignty" is also for real. We do treat other states, vast or measly, as juridical equals; we accept their right to representation in the United Nations; to them alone do we grant the authority to sign contracts and conventions.

But the issue becomes tricky when we turn to "Westphalian sovereignty." Under this system, all states are pledged to the billiard-ball model, to noninterference and nonintervention, and there is a vast apparatus of international law to go with it. Except not only do they ignore that "ought" in the crunch (if they have the wherewithal). They also undercut the principle voluntarily, by allowing others to penetrate their hard shells in myriad ways. They conclude conventions such as the one Francis I of France and Suleiman the Magnificent signed in 1538, which, as Krasner notes, provided for the exemption of foreigners from Ottoman taxation and for them to be tried under the laws of their home countries in consular courts.

Later on, in Vienna in 1815, minority protection was extended to ethnic groups such as Poles living in Prussia, Russia, and Austria. After World War I, minority treaties were even embedded in national law. So the breach of the Westphalian model was never just a matter of coercion or imposition; it also involved contract and convention. Add to this the more recent human rights conventions of the United Nations, voluntarily shouldered by states, which seek to constrain rulers from inflicting their nasty habits on hapless subjects. This leads to something of a paradox: "The very fact," notes Krasner, that "rulers could freely sign such agreements [limiting their domestic sovereignty] is an affirmation of their international legal sovereignty" -- of the fact, in other words, that "they are recognized by other states as competent to enter into international accords."

So what does it all mean? Krasner's problem is this: If Westphalian sovereignty is "organized hypocrisy," can we still understand the world in its terms? His response is ambivalent, and rightly so. Krasner faults the realists for standing on a state- and sovereignty-centered foundation while ignoring the fact that that foundation is, and always has been, crumbling (although without ever disintegrating). But Krasner is too smart (or is himself too much of a realist) to plant his flag among the new conventionalists of international relations theory, be they institutionalists, constructivists, globalizationists, or interdependentists.

Those who are not drawn to the battle of the schools, which Krasner renders with impressive analytical insight in his second chapter, will profit handsomely from his last, the conclusion titled "Not a Game of Chess." Although he starts out by (again) castigating the realists for ignoring the forces that have undermined sovereignty and autonomy since the days of Francis and Suleiman, he politely applies his analytical scorn even more liberally to correcting the "new worlders" -- those who see globalization as a novel and radical phenomenon.

Take increased capital flows, which are said to undermine the state. "The degree of change from the past and the extent to which global capital markets have been fully integrated have often been overrated." Take the foremost multinational of its time, the German Fuggers. Krasner aptly quotes the great French historian Fernand Braudel: "The empire of this huge firm was vaster than the mighty empire of Charles V and Philip II, on which as we know the sun never set." He points out that in the nineteenth century, a quarter of British wealth was invested overseas -- something that cannot be said of the United States or Germany, the world's top traders, today.1 International trade flow as a fraction of GDP? It rose rapidly until 1914, then dropped until the mid-1940s, not reaching "earlier levels for some countries until the 1980s." International migration? It was at its highest level in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. The spread of disease? Forget aids and recall the Black Death that claimed the lives of one-third of Europe's population in the fourteenth century.

The most interesting point is that globalization and state activity, rather than being inimical, have actually risen in tandem. Given that European peacetime government spending has soared from about 10 percent of GDP in the nineteenth century to about 50 percent today, how has the state been rendered obsolete or moribund? Indeed, how can we even posit obsolescence in the face of the relentless multiplication of state sovereignties? Not even 50 such entities were present at the creation of the United Nations; today there are almost 200.

The most interesting case institutionalists and integrationists can make today is that of the European Union. There is no gainsaying the fact that its members have voluntarily relinquished (but not truly alienated) sizable chunks of sovereignty and autonomy. One dramatic instance is monetary union, launched in January. That was the end of national monetary policy, and 2001 will spell the end of the sovereign minting prerogatives of 11 states. European national courts accept the verdicts of the European Court of Justice. European "desovereignization" is now like a coral reef: it keeps sprouting as we speak, and no European "states' righter" has yet proposed taking an axe to it.


So Krasner is right when he concludes that the "international system is not a game of chess," that sovereignty, in its multiplicitous meanings, is not an "accurate description" of the real world. But is there a sharper construct to be found? Would Krasner do away with the iron-clad distinction between domestic and international politics -- between the authoritative, legitimated ways of political communities within and the self-help system that dominates their lives on the outside?

Not really. Nor does Krasner deliver pat answers. Instead, he has cut through a lot of sloppy thinking with a breathtaking wealth of historical detail and analytical acumen, which is why serious aficionados of international politics should put Sovereignty, though not always easy fare, on their must-read list. Sovereignty, the author tells us, has been compromised in myriad ways, and the power of states has been curtailed by norms, conventions, and institutions. But in the end, the realist prevails. International politics is different from domestic politics, and states continue to live in a self-help system. Or as Krasner puts it in his last sentence, "In a contested environment," also known as the state system, "clubs can always be trump."

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  • Josef Joffe, visiting Payne Lecturer at Stanford University, is Editorial Page Editor and Columnist of the Suddeutsche Zeitung in Munich and Associate at Harvard University's Olin Institute for Strategic Studies.
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