THE CONCEPT OF NATIONAL SOVEREIGNTY
In our day, the concept of national sovereignty resembles a fallen Humpty Dumpty whose only hope is that all the king's horses and all the king's men will be able to perform a miracle of restoration. Amid conflicting calls for radical surgery and compulsory euthanasia, some nations are fragmenting, others are expanding their power boundaries, and many of live under the shadow of ever more active international organizations.
The concept of national sovereignty has always had its opponents, but there have been times when the nation-state seemed to be a well-established norm. From within, the greatest attack has consistently come from Revolution, when the people, or part of the people deny the right of the proclaimed sovereign to remain sovereign. From without, the greatest attack has consistently come from Intervention, when one state or group of states denies the right of another to determine its own affairs.
Both attacks proclaim that there is a higher law or power, a different sovereign. Yet national sovereignty is only one manifestation of the larger concept of sovereignty, the belief that someone or some ones are justified in ruling over others. For the most part it is not sovereignty per se that is under attack, but rather state or national sovereignty. In fact, those who attack state sovereignty most intensely often seem to champion a traditional, absolute sovereignty with a different locus.
The fundamental question remains: Does anyone have the right to rule over another? It is quite clear that some have the power to rule over others, but do they have the right to do so? "The essence of the State, considered apart from other States, is the relation between the ruler and the ruled. There must be those who govern and those who are governed, those who command and those who obey." 1
Assuredly, that is the way it is, but is that the way it should be? If there is a right to rule, then what is the source of that right? The claim of a right to rule over others does not in itself constitute the authority to do so. Is sovereignty a divine right, or a Natural Law? Is it gained through the consent of the governed or extracted by force?
I have found the perspectives and insights of some writers very helpful, but for the most part, I have been disappointed in the current books and articles on sovereignty which I have read. Most modern advocates of the State seem to avoid the basic questions or assume that they have already been settled. For them, I suppose, they are settled. After centuries of verbal and military battles, "sovereignty" and "the State" have become facts, not theory. There is no need to rehash the basics. Still, I have not found the place in the literature or in my own mind where these questions have been convincingly settled.
Janice Thomson noted that, "R.B.J. Walker has written that 'the disjunction between the seriousness of international politics and triviality of international relations theory is quite startling.' I agree and would argue that that triviality stems from international relations theorists' willingness to assume away the most theoretically interesting and practically significant puzzles posed by the inter-state system. How did the state get to be the state? What is sovereignty, who has it, and over what? If the state is sovereign, how did it get sovereignty?" 2
That is where I intend to begin.
"Sovereignty" is a notion, a concept, an idea. It is a mental construct that some people have used to describe the physical world as they believe it is or ought to be. It bestows or confirms the legitimacy of certain kinds of power and those who wield that power.
Perhaps there is some Platonic realm where ideas enjoy a pure, disembodied existence, but in the physical realm, the existence of an idea depends upon those who think, believe, or imagine it. An idea which is not thought is like a soap bubble without the soap.
When we speak of ideas, we need to ask, "Who thinks, believes, or imagines it?" An idea is powerless without those who embrace it or struggle against it. An idea is powerless until someone acts in response to it or is punished for their failure to do so.
Those who want to affirm or deny a certain concept act accordingly. Their actions are limited by the strength of their convictions and the means at their disposal, but they can persuade, dissuade, or constrain others, even others who have never before encountered the particular notion they favor.
"Sovereignty" is a notion that has had its believers for a long time, though it has been more extensively articulated in the past several centuries, since the Reformation. International law and the system of states were the discovered common ground in Christendom after the division of the Church.3 Different theorists have shaped the notion in different ways, always in justification of the form of government they favored.
Much in both concept and government has changed in more than four hundred years. Thomas Hobbes and the other early European theorists of sovereignty described the proper structure and art of governance as, to use Isaac Newton's later description of science, "thinking God's thoughts after Him." I.e., the Bible is God's Word, containing His Revealed Law. The world is His Creation, containing His Natural Law. Together they tell us what we need to know to govern ourselves.
It was understood that the human sovereign was subject to God. For example, Bodin "by no means desired that the sovereign should be freed from obligation to any and all law, but, on the contrary, expressly declares that every ruler in the world is subject to the laws of God, of nature, and of nations." 4
Hobbes, Bodin, and Newton lived in a different age. Today, in the West at least, God's thoughts are no longer the substance of either Science or Political Theory. Times change. Different ideas are embraced.
We live in a day when governance is no longer considered an art, but a science, "Political Science." Political Science, of course, is not really a science; not even with a little math thrown in. There are those who believe in Science as the only acceptable measure of Truth, but have the personal misfortune to be drawn to the imprecise arena of the Arts and the Humanities. "Political Science" is the highest compliment they can pay to their politics. After all, Science is supreme, is it not?
Maybe not. The supremacy of Science becomes difficult to maintain when we enter the realm of ideas. After all, ideas are still much too intangible for Science to grasp, measure, and experimentally reproduce.
Who can doubt that one day technology will make the unimaginable imaginable, and the imaginable quantifiable? Until that day, however, we will have to make do with more primitive modes of assessing ideas. Nevertheless, in the spirit of an age where our telescopes are closing in on the origin of the universe, we need to ask, "What is sovereignty, and where does it come from?"
If you would like to send this article to a friend, please select and copy the text above, and paste into body of email message. Please replace the word "friend" with the email address of your friend . Thank you.
Send Article to Friend
What is National Sovereignty?
Where Does Sovereignty Come From?
One World, One Sovereign
Notes & Bibliography