Sovereignty has been a constitutive function of worldwide relations (IR) scholarship for the reason that self-discipline’s very inception. As an idea, it permeates each degree of research – from the sovereignty of particular person will and human rights, to the sovereign energy of presidency, and additional on to the territorial sovereignty of the nation-state, setting the boundaries and scope for the enjoying discipline of inter-national relations. Nonetheless, by the use of a collection of theoretical essentializations the idea has been rendered an ontology by itself, permitting for the notion of ‘sovereignty’ to exist apriori to its sensible and discursive evocations. Reasonably than constituting the open-ended results of gathered apply, sovereignty has turn out to be an unquestioned state of being. By invoking ‘anarchy’ as that which exists outdoors of the territorial boundaries of the sovereign state, ‘sovereignty’ pre-discursively calls into being the very world envisioned by mainstream IR theorists.

Difficult idea and apply alike, in what follows I exhibit how sovereignty is ‘basically contested’ when you method it by the crucial lenses of performativity. I start by outlining the traditional understandings that assemble sovereignty as an essence dependent upon goal (although various) standards. By way of enterprise a performative studying of sovereignty as discourse and apply, I then illustrate the methods through which ‘an essentialist notion of sovereign statehood … just isn’t an harmless conceptual fallacy’ (Aalberts 2004, 257). As an alternative, when wanting on the simultaneous consistency and ambiguity of mobilisations of sovereignty within the historical past of worldwide legislation, essentializations of the idea reappear as integral to the ‘[concealment] of sovereignty as a political apply’ (2004, 257). Within the following reflection I thus show that, slightly than invoking one thing ‘to be’ or ‘to have’, sovereignty is successfully carried out.  

Essentializing sovereignty

All through realist, liberal and mainstream constructivist literature the territorially sovereign (nation)state includes the primary unit of research (see Doyle 1986; Morgenthau 1948; Wendt 1992). On the coronary heart of this disciplinary myth-building lies the Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648 to mark the top of non secular warfare in Europe and the ushering in of territorially outlined statehood (Tickner 2011, 5). This last demarcation of territorial boundaries enabled the ontological separation of the inside, outlined by unique sovereign authority, from the outdoors, marked by the absence of such authority. This separation was to be particularly entrenched in IR literature with the break from classical to structural/systemic or neo-realist idea spearheaded by Kenneth Waltz (1959; 1979), as he conceptualised the world when it comes to a proliferation of ‘formally like models’ whereby sovereignty is contained, distributed in a world house outlined, within the absence of a better energy, by anarchy (Barkawi 2010, 1361). Other than recognising variations in energy and functionality between states, their formal likeness, particularly referring to their assumed territorial fixity, affords them the popularity of sovereign statehood – as if endowed by nature. This has made IR idea basically reliant upon ‘the reification of state territorial areas as mounted models of safe sovereign house’ (Agnew 1994, 77). Marriage ceremony the notion of the state with such fixations of territory whereas designating this house as not solely the ‘home’, but additionally the locus and supply of ‘sovereignty’ itself (additional equated with ‘an inner realm of order and tranquillity’ Doty 1996, 148), has thus enabled the development of sovereignty as a pre-discursive trait or essence of the territorial state.

Nonetheless, the top of the Chilly Struggle rekindled scholarly curiosity in problems with sovereignty. Questions of when and why sovereignty is recognised, and whether or not sovereignty is essentially tied to a territorial house or might be situated to designate a inhabitants slightly than a state, proliferated with the disintegration of the Balkans and the intensification of globalisation processes (Biersteker and Weber 1996). Some sought to clarify the variations in sovereign expressions and capacities, particularly referring to the obvious failure of ‘postcolonial statehood’ (Aalberts 2004, 245; Doty 1996, 147). Constructivist interventions, notably Wendt’s (1992) re-situation of ‘anarchy’ as being ‘what states make of it’, recognised the social development of sovereignty when it comes to the constitutive relation between sovereignty and statehood and the truth that neither exists outdoors of intersubjectively negotiated meanings, social practices and relations. But, much less crucial constructivist approaches simply fell into the identical descriptive traps as realist and liberal conceptualisations of the sovereign state, nonetheless assuming the identical image of the worldwide as a construction of formally like models – although acknowledging the social manufacturing slightly pure givenness, of stated order. Others nonetheless, took the hunt additional.

Deconstructing sovereignty as ontology

Departing from mainstream worldwide idea, crucial students who as a substitute drew on poststructural considering sought to situate sovereignty throughout the burgeoning literature on social development and performativity. ‘Its that means could be marginally contestable by constitutional legal professionals and different connoisseurs of tremendous traces, however for probably the most half state sovereignty expresses a commanding silence’ R. B. J. Walker (cited in Weber 1992, 199) contemplated in 1992. As an alternative of recognising sovereignty as ‘basically contested’ given the proliferation of enquiries into the character of sovereign statehood, Walker (1992) concluded that sovereignty remained an ‘basically uncontested’ idea. To discover the ‘commanding silence’ characterising discussions of what state sovereignty actually entails, we will use Jackson (1991) as a key pattern of the reification of sovereignty in IR literature.

If conceptions of sovereign statehood have been conventionally understood within the Westphalian phrases of anarchy/outdoors versus sovereignty/inside, the Eighties marked a shift in scholarly consideration to take care of the rising difficulty of particularly sub-Saharan African postcolonial states’ revealing of the other: (alleged) internationwide accord and intrastate dysfunction and violence (Doty 1996, 148). ‘On this context one would possibly marvel what that means might be attributed to sovereignty’ Aalberts (2004, 247) notes, ‘now that it might additionally signify its reverse, i.e. a zone of anarchy.’ To make sense of this inversion of the that means of sovereignty, Jackson (1991; Jackson and Rosberg 1982) set out his thesis of the quasi versus actual state. Signalling a shift within the worldwide normative order, African postcolonial states got here into being at a time when the standards of the so-called constructive sovereignty of empirical statehood was now not essential to realize worldwide recognition for being a sovereign state (Jackson 1991, 1). As an alternative, newly unbiased states have been granted the ‘formal-legal situation’ of destructive sovereignty, defending them from exterior interference regardless of not having fun with the ‘empirical standards’ of ‘substantial and credible statehood’, similar to ‘a capability for efficient and civil authorities’ (Aalberts 2004, 252-53).

In marking the momentary situation of postcolonial states to be granted ‘entry into the worldwide order’ earlier than (the argument goes) their essential and pure development into possessing constructive sovereignty, quasi-statehood successfully reiterates the standing of ‘actual’ statehood. Additional, it serves as a reminder of the constitutive function of sovereignty in structuring the worldwide order, normatively and materially. Although underscoring sovereignty as a part of productive ‘language-games’ central to the development of worldwide legislation and politics, this account, ‘given the assumed empirical kernel of “actual statehood” … [still] renders sovereignty an establishment that exists aside from worldwide apply’ (2004, 256). It so fails to maneuver past the ‘descriptive fallacy’ of ‘standard sovereignty discourse’, as a substitute in search of to ‘save sovereignty itself’ by ‘reaffirming the “actual” and “true” foundations of sovereign statehood’ (Doty 1996, 149). As such, ‘the evaluation on quasi-statehood … function a consultant of a era of essentialist readings of sovereignty’ (Aalberts 2004, 247).

To basically contest sovereignty then, is to fully recast and rethink sovereignty and its relation to statehood, as a ‘topic in course of’; a state of changing into slightly than being. Linking Butler’s idea of the performativity of intercourse and gender to the topic of the sovereign nation-state, Weber (1998, 79) demonstrates how, slightly than belonging to the separate realms of the pure versus the social or cultural, sovereignty and statehood have to be rethought as ‘co-constitutive and inseparable.’ Located inside bigger constructions of that means, sovereignty and statehood represent one another by a collection of representational/citational practices the place the that means of both is derived from how it’s carried out and put into apply. Reasonably than stopping at Jackson’s descriptive declare that what explains the popularity of juridical statehood might be present in a shift in worldwide normative regimes, a performative studying of sovereignty supplies a deeper explanatory alternative probing into the very manufacturing and reiteration of stated regimes.

As an alternative of deriving pre-discursively as a vital state of being, it’s this enacting of what it means to ‘be’ a sovereign state or ‘assert’ sovereign energy, that constitutes the de facto locus of sovereignty. If ‘anarchy is what states make of it’, states are what states do. Importantly, nonetheless, when states do they successfully name their sovereignty into being – in myriad, each logical and inconsistent methods. Nonetheless, located inside and indivisible from bigger constructions of energy, recognising sovereignty as carried out doesn’t entail that every one states take pleasure in equal alternatives of its enactment, recognition and supreme ‘success.’ The ability to each assert and recognise state sovereignty can in flip turn out to be instruments with which to disclaim or contest the sovereign legitimacy of others. This double utilisation of sovereignty is a central function of worldwide relations normally and worldwide humanitarian legislation (IHL) specifically, whereby some states assert their sovereign energy and so reinforce their very own sovereignty by designating different states as incapable or unqualified – certainly, as quasi.

To reiterate, this isn’t to say, as does mainstream worldwide idea, that sovereignty is thus one thing a state merely has or doesn’t have relying on sure goal standards. As an alternative, when highlighting sovereignty as performative, the seemingly ‘pure’ standards of having fun with sovereignty or not and the practices by which processes of recognition or denial happen, are denaturalised and rendered options of a bigger system of normativity/deviance manufacturing: ‘… understood as the continued processes whereby “common topics” and “requirements of normality” are discursively constituted to offer the impact that each are pure slightly than cultural constructs’ (Weber 1998, 81). The following part will discover an instance of those processes of distinction, delineating the metrics of inclusion and exclusion within the worldwide by reifying and naturalising discourses of sovereignty and assertions of sovereign energy.

Sovereignty in apply

Consideration to practices of differentiation in establishing the worldwide critically undermine the explanatory capabilities of Jackson’s idea of quasi-statehood. Pointing to the historic consistency of which states are recognised as absolutely sovereign topics and that are rendered undesirable, thus conquerable, objects within the worldwide, Jackson’s negative-sovereignty/positive-sovereignty binary reappears again and again because the exploitable product of specific configurations of energy. By way of ‘splitting sovereignty into constructive and destructive, and positing to every an essence that invokes photos of identification which were current in lots of the previous imperial encounters between the North and the South’ (Doty 1996, 151), up to date discourses which differentiate between actual/functioning and quasi/rogue states thus perpetuate an extended historical past of colonial justifications for domination.

That is notably evident in IHL frameworks. Take as an example the Accountability to Defend (R2P) precept. Marking yet one more worldwide normative shift from viewing sovereignty as the best to non-interference to a duty of non-indifference, the R2P bestows upon all UN member states the best to intervene every time a state just isn’t prepared or capable of defend its inhabitants from genocide, crimes towards humanity, warfare crimes and ethnic cleaning (Mamdani 2009; Williams and Bellamy 2011). Of curiosity right here, is the actual fact of the R2P regime’s enabling of a ‘bifurcation of the worldwide system between sovereign states whose residents have political rights’ and ‘trusteeship territories whose populations are seen as wards in want of exterior safety’ (Mamdani 2009, 53). This echoes former divisions of the worldwide alongside ‘the requirements of civilisation’ legitimising the colonial conquest of non-European lands and peoples (Anghie 2007) – these but to be civilised – by endowing ‘sovereign’ states with a proper to intervene in these failing its ‘rights to sovereignty.’ The purpose right here is to not argue towards or in favour of the R2P and its utility, however to spotlight the fleeting even ambiguous function of sovereignty as idea and apply in structuring worldwide legislation, constantly mobilised on behalf of stronger (‘actual’) states to delegitimise the sovereignty of (‘failed’) Others to justify interventionist insurance policies. The act of naming some states rogue/failed/quasi – and even queer (Weber 1996) – thus serves to authentic navy and different interventions within the title of humanity, whereas reinforcing and reiterating the sovereign standing of the performing states towards the ‘incompetent’, ‘evil’ state being acted upon.

Concurrently, nonetheless, not solely the stripping of sovereignty for the sake of facilitating intervention but additionally the popularity of sovereignty might be equally utilised by stronger states as a key piece in power-political struggles. Libya constitutes a major instance of each processes. On the one hand, the ‘coalition of the prepared’, spearheaded by the US, UK and France, utilised the R2P as a justificatory body by which to denounce Libyan president Gaddafi’s sovereign authority and so intervene militarily by what became a de facto regime-change marketing campaign (Wai 2014); marking a key occasion of the dangers of R2P abuse in wider energy political struggles. Alternatively, the ‘worldwide neighborhood’s’ choice and recognition of the Transnational Nationwide Council (TNC) amid ongoing battle marks a selected apply of legitimacy and drive which ‘ought to be interpreted within the context of the colonial historical past attending this drawback’s prior articulations’ (Çubukçu 2013, 49).

These articulations floor within the logic of 19th century colonial powers’ granting of ‘authorized character [to select native representatives] within the type of sovereignty exactly to allow the switch of this sovereignty’ again to colonial directors, passing on the rights to buying and selling, territory or title (Anghie 2007; Çubukçu 2013, 49). Worldwide intervention in Libya in 2011 thus ‘additionally concerned the issue of recognizing “who’s sovereign and why”’ (Çubukçu 2013, 49). The US and allies’ granting of sovereignty to the TNC consequently facilitated a ‘new authorized personhood in Libya who can signal treaties and enter into contracts (with their corporations) to commerce oil, to “reconstruct” the nation, and, … to “decide to all worldwide conventions and protocols referring to Counter-Terrorism”’ (2013, 49). Briefly, to do ‘the West’s’ bidding.


The fluid but generative utilization of sovereignty within the Libyan case, succinctly illustrates that ‘to talk of sovereignty … is rarely to call one thing that already is’ (Ashley and Walker 1990, 381). Nonetheless, to contest sovereignty as a pre-discursive actuality or state of being, just isn’t the identical as arguing that standard understandings of how sovereignty is constructed or operates (or to who it belongs) are always fallacious or irrelevant. As an alternative, this essay has demonstrated that contesting sovereignty as such means highlighting the performative nature of sovereignty as exercised slightly than possessed. Each older and newer conceptualisations of sovereignty in worldwide idea, Jackson being a key instance, has remained safely behind the partitions of description. In so doing they’ve failed in explaining simply how and why sovereignty, in that means and apply, slightly seems as an elusive course of varyingly operationalised for specific political goals, located specifically historic contexts: at occasions serving energy, in others offering a recognised language to talk fact to energy.

Contesting essentializations of sovereignty additional permits a deeper and extra complete understanding for a way sovereignty can directly be mobilised inside its standard binary confines (sovereign/non-sovereign; actual/quasi; useful/failed; empirical/judicial) within the service of energy politics, in addition to undertake queer and undecipherable types (see Weber’s 1999 dialogue on queering Castro’s Cuba). As with idea (Cox 1981), ‘sovereignty’ is all the time for somebody and a few function; generally stripped, in others recognised – and but in others, as Libya reveals, each directly. Worldwide humanitarian legislation thus underpins sovereignty as a socio-cultural product by demonstrating its discursive mobilisation and sensible enactment within the service of particular pursuits. IHL additional highlights the paradoxical and ambiguous nature and invocation of sovereignty all through historical past, underscoring its important contestation. Reasonably than demarcating one thing mounted and basically ‘identified’, sovereignty reappears as a continuing state of changing into. In the end, this denaturalisation of essentializations of sovereignty help us in understanding how idea, similar to Waltz’, Jackson’s and their predecessors’, has been and proceed to be, integral to perpetuating the structuration of the worldwide order as one among hierarchy slightly than anarchy. Worldwide Relations curricula would profit from paying attention to this.


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