Courtesy Reuters

Rethinking the Nation-State: The Many Meanings of Sovereignty

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

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