What is sovereignty

Sovereignty is one of those concepts that enters the public mind never to leave it again. It is as foundational as the very distinction between the private and the public good, the institution of property rights, the division of the state’s functions, the binding nature of statutes. In the modern era, sovereignty underpins every instance of international relations. It also underlies any discussion about legitimacy and the rule of law. Contemporary polities are defined by this very concept. They are based on sovereignty. Their state’s powers are permeated by it. Their political processes are meant to harness and to exercise it.

In short, sovereignty matters. It has a profound effect on quotidian life. It lies at the heart of normative discussions about the appropriate distribution of authority within and between states. Its significance is paramount. There is, however, a point of contention: its ambiguity.

As with every major item of political thought, the concept of “sovereignty” occupies a space between clarity and obscurity. It is an age old idea that has guided many a generation of statesperson into forming the specifics of their polity. Its presence in legal-political tradition is central. Primary law, such as national constitutions or the treaties establishing the European Union, draws its legitimacy—its authority qua primary law—by being a codified expression of sovereignty.

Only a political whole exercising effective sovereign control may proceed to establish the particularities of its legal order. Law is, in this specific regard, a predicate of sovereignty. Yet it takes a certain legal order to render a polity sovereign. That very circularity is the source of contention: the presumption of sovereignty as a quasi-transcendent presence that ‘exists’, can always be talked about, named and described, but never fully revealed as to what kind of being it may be.

Sovereignty is not a natural given

Is sovereignty a physical force like, say, gravity? It should then be referred to in precise terms. Measured. Quantified. Be given a clear definition that would not offer plausibility to multiple interpretations. At least that should be the direction. The concept could not afford to remain decisively ambiguous yet still be the cornerstone of political thinking.

Sovereignty cannot be considered in that light though. It is sometimes treated as if it were a natural force: antecedent to political organisation. As if no human intervention or interpretation anyhow contributed to its qualities. Yet this is a mere impression of an outright political phenomenon: the belief that products of convention are, in fact, external to it. Their substance or value is perceived as exogenous. A natural given.

On the face of it, this view could hold merit. Sovereignty is a constant of the world and so all political thinking can be a function of it. Where such reification begins to reveal its shortcomings is in the particulars. How these affect the very presumed constancy of said ‘constant’. What transpires for a people once considered part of a greater sovereign whole to qualify as sovereign in its own right? And what may the ‘atom’ of sovereignty be, the point that cannot be divided any further? Is sovereignty fastened upon any one construct or abstraction thereof? Can new forms of polity become sovereign while old ones fade into oblivion?

Sovereignty as a nominal presence

The more we liken sovereignty to a natural quantity, the greater our confusion will be. It can be a helpful metaphor to simplify things and get the point across. With “metaphor” being the operative term. Instead it is preferable to establish a simple yet crucial distinction between (i) phenomena whose value/substance is dependent on human experience and (ii) those that can occur regardless of it. Gravity would exist even if outlawed. Private property would not. What is contingent on human has a metaphysically nominal value or substance. The rest are natural.

Nominal does not mean arbitrary. It is not a product of whimsy that can be revised without much effort, say, by an eager government. Nominal is that which is arrived at through a series of exchanges between persons within their historical-cultural milieu. Generation after generation of political thinking and practice informs this intersubjective exchange. Nominality is evolutionary and organic, though decisively human in origin. Its main difference to the natural world is found in its potentiality. In principle, it could be revaluated in an instance if everyone involved were to somehow agree to the new norm and passively enforce it through their daily social conduct.

Consider this overly simplified case. The role model of ancient Sparta was the frugal warrior. The guiding figure of Silicon Valley is the entrepreneurial inventor. In functional terms, they are the same. Both act as a point of reference for the highest expected achievement within their social context. In substantive terms they stand apart. That is to be attributed to the differences between the contributing factors to the processes of attaching value to objects of thought. Different cultures, experiences, roles and norms, expectations, basic needs, available technology, and so on.

Sovereignty is nominal, a nominal force if you will. It is the supreme authority within a polity. The entity considered to be sovereign partakes of sovereignty. It has a quality of being sovereign. This quality amounts to the ultimate right to exercise force—the legitimate use of force—, whereby “force” is interpreted broadly to include, among others, legal acts that specify the rights, obligations, and expected behaviour of persons to whom it applies.

The sovereign is not predefined. It can be an individual, as in old monarchies. It may be an impersonal agency, such as a nation. Some of the effects of globalisation indicate that the sovereign may even be a level of political organisation that emerges between nation states. Whatever the specifics, we are dealing with nominal magnitudes whose substantive particularities can be envisaged in line with—or in juxtaposition to—tradition (effectively to the previous value attached to them).

The study of sovereignty

To recapitulate on this overview, sovereignty is:

  • Intelligible. An object of thought—an abstraction—that exists in the realm of political thinking as both a magnitude as well as the quintessential quality of a legitimate governing entity.
  • Nominal. A product of human convention whose specifics are formulated intersubjectively in a manner that is gradual and dependent on the historical-cultural particulars.

We study sovereignty to gain insight into the underlying themes of political organisation. Modern politics is inconceivable in the absence of this fundamental concept. The inquiry also has implications on normative propositions. Discourses of agency and legitimacy are guided by their conception of sovereignty. Who or what is the appropriate actor of political initiative? Where is the locus of authority? Which are the factors that render it acceptable as supreme? Is sovereignty absolute or context-dependent? And what are the ramifications on the polity as such and in its association with other states? Are nations necessarily sovereign or is the exercise of supreme authority a prerequisite to a nation qua nation state? Are sovereignty and nationality connatural? Can there be a sovereign without a nation? And what could that be?

These and related questions probe into a number of areas of interest that are all connected by their status as foundational or primary in the context of political organisation. The study is largely theoretical due to the subject of inquiry. These are abstract themes. They may be political but have no direct comparison to day-to-day phenomena such as party politics, electoral campaigns, public opinion polls, and the like.

It may seem counter-intuitive to talk about political issues in a manner that is detached from daily experience. Politics is, after all, thoroughly practical. About managing everyday issues and planning ahead for the future. Yet politics is not a value-free exercise in management, be it of people, resources, or whatnot. The political process, intersubjectively emergent as it is, is formulated in accordance with a set of accepted truths about a range of issues. Sovereignty is but one of them. Others would include individuality, the family unit, social status, gender roles, institutional function, etc. with whatever values attached to them. These may not be the direct or main subject of politics, though they most certainly inform, permeate, and penetrate all sorts of discourses about political organisation.

Sovereignty is special in one important way. It is not necessarily about the nominal qualities bestowed on the person or group thereof, as are the notions of individuality, family, class. It is more about the overarching design of the polity. Standing alongside it are such perhaps consubstantial magnitudes as power, legitimacy, legality. That renders it less immediate to the subjective experience. Its abstract nature does not, nonetheless, make it remotely relevant or secondary to more pressing issues of the practical sort. All it does is call for the appropriate method of analysis. To understand it for what it actually is. To identify its place in the totality of political thought and its function in political practice in general.

Remaining dubitative and inquisitive

The title of this article—What is sovereignty—implies certainty. That we know exactly what sovereignty is and that a definition will suffice. The truth is that we are in the dark and are trying to understand the topic based on what is available to our faculties of thought and experience. We tackle one issue at a time in an attempt to arrive at meaningful conclusions. The objective is to form an understanding of the greater whole based on observations of the specifics. What we may get might still not be definitive. The study is likely to be open ended; the terminus we set standing as nothing but arbitrary.

Even so, there is truth to be had in what effectively is interpretation. Absolute certainty is not a prerequisite to action. Just like perfect knowledge is not presupposed in any instance of scientific inquiry. Politics both in its theoretical and practical dimensions occurs in a realm of relative uncertainty and ignorance. And there is a degree of inventiveness in all of it. We figure things out as we go. The study of sovereignty can be no different.