How to evaluate international relations

Applying the distinction between headline and effective sovereignty

Advanced issues of political organisation (POL410)

In this seminar I want to talk about how to evaluate international relations. To present ways of thinking about the effects of cross-border policies; to examine the interplay between states and corporations in an ever connected world. The evaluation is made in relation to the nation state and its capacity to exercise supreme political authority, or else sovereignty.

To proceed with the analysis, we need a concept of sovereignty that accounts for the actual power a state can wield compared to the normative claims it may have. By that I mean that there is a distinction to be made between two facets of sovereignty, namely, headline and effective sovereignty.

Headline sovereignty is what we typically refer to when we speak about internationally recognised nation states. Every state enjoys the rights of equality, independence, and territoriality.

  • Equality means that no one nation’s sovereignty can take precedence over another’s.
  • Independence suggests that each nation state is a political whole, and that other nations cannot interfere in its internal affairs.
  • As for territoriality, it provides the physical confines within which the nation can claim a right to sovereign authority.

Further to these aspects of headline sovereignty, we can add the principles of continuity, uniformity, and nationhood.

  • Continuity is the quality of a state to persist over time, even if its legal order undergoes substantive changes or experiences a period of crisis, such as civil war.
  • Uniformity concerns the conception of a nation state as a singular diplomatic personality and actor in the theatre of international affairs.
  • And nationhood is the normative link between the state and the culturally-defined people residing within its territory—hence the concept of “nation state”.

The second facet of sovereignty, what I call “effective sovereignty”, only concerns the factors that contribute to the exercise of supreme political authority; the factors that may enable, amplify, hinder, or otherwise prevent the formation of sovereign will. Effective sovereignty is intimately linked with governance. What a state can and cannot do within the context-specific constraints. It is, in other words, the actual boundary to its current power over policy initiative, implementation, and pursuit of the desired results thereof.

The factors of effective sovereignty can vary considerably. For the sake of putting us in the mindset I will just outline a non-exhaustive list and then proceed to the more general point:

  • Economic stability combined with a distribution of benefits is a factor of effective sovereignty because it helps safeguard social cohesion; and social cohesion is crucial to maintain social peace.
  • The rule of law is an enabling factor of sovereign will formation. It engenders trust in the political process. It makes inter-personal relations, such as economic transactions, predictable. It underpins the credibility of the state and, therefore, is essential to maintaining a virtuous cycle between popular will and state power.
  • Military might and robust security are essential to preserve the state’s independence. They decisively prevent other states from interfering in the internal affairs.
  • Energy autonomy or else access to a large number of suppliers is another factor of maintaining independence. Dependency on a certain provider can potentially hamper a nation’s capacity to formulate its own policies whenever a dispute arises.
  • In a similar fashion, we can think of access to digital technology—including free and open source software—as a form of collective self-determination. A country that can harness the necessary expertise may opt to run bespoke software that better suits public policy. It also is a way of removing a strong dependency on the agenda of a service provider, typically a large corporation.

The list can grow considerably longer, but the general point is rather straightforward: there are phenomena or conditions that help the nation state realise its potential as a sovereign entity, while there are other scenarios where the state has limited options even though it maintains the same normative claims on sovereignty.

Effective sovereignty and international relations

Against this backdrop, we can expand our understanding of effective sovereignty as a function of various arrangements of international relations. And this is where we can really start to evaluate political phenomena on the global stage.

Headline sovereignty remains constant. It is what each nation state can claim on paper. Whereas effective sovereignty is derived from the circumstances: each case delineates a realm of possibility. The process is, of course, dynamic. This is just to suggest that by analysing the concept of “effective sovereignty” we can arrive at an understanding of various emergent scopes of realisable supreme political authority.

Perhaps it is best to proceed by means of an example. Suppose that State A wants to impose a tax on its wealthiest companies. But State A happens to share a free trade area with State B. The companies have the freedom to move capital and even their headquarters to State B. In effect, they can avoid the tax burden. The only way for State A to exercise effective sovereignty, is if it coordinates its efforts with State B. They would need to harmonise their laws so that companies could not move their resources around in an attempt to avoid paying taxes.

In this scenario we can discern two types of international relations with respect to their impact on a state’s effective sovereignty: those that empower a state to act and those that prevent it from doing so. Consider the presence of a supranational jurisdiction: the free trade agreement. By its nature, any form of law that exists above the national level can act as both a hindrance or amplifier of a national government’s power over a given policy. It all depends on the specifics of the matter at hand. In this example, the free trade agreement limits the power of the state, because it renders illegal any form of trade barrier, such as capital controls. If we were to consider tax policy in isolation, we would have to judge this supranational legal framework as a net negative. Now think about the other option of harmonising the policies of the states involved. This too could come in the form of a supranational covenant, such as a fiscal union featuring a common corporate tax base and tax rate. Again, if tax policy were our sole yardstick, such a type of supranational law would actually give more power to the government to pursue its original ambition.

The inference to be drawn is that we cannot entertain simplistic notions about how politics on the global scale works. It is a form of dogma to claim that national isolationism is a necessary good in that it always “brings back control”, or, conversely, that supranational state building—such as in the case of the European Union—is by design detrimental to the interests of the participating countries. The fact of the matter is that every instance of international relations can open up new opportunities, different ways of handling effective sovereignty. At the same time, they can impose constraints on what can be done; constraints that will most probably appear to actively diminish each nation state’s headline sovereignty.

With that in mind, we ought to mention the European integration process, for it captures much of what we have been discussing here. The EU is an international organisation that draws its legitimacy from treaties that are signed and ratified by its member countries. Without going into the specifics, the treaties are the Union’s de facto constitution, while the EU practically works like a federation. In general terms, the EU gains competences from its underlying international agreements. And this distribution of competences basically means that power is, at least in principle, transferred from the national to the supranational level. That is why the most common objection to the EU is that it takes away the nation’s sovereignty. Because indeed that is the case, though only insofar as headline sovereignty is concerned.

This is where things become nuanced. While it may appear that nations are losing power, the truth is that they are gaining access to venues that were theretofore unavailable. For instance, the euro limits each country’s monetary sovereignty. On the flip-side though, it provides qualities such as predictability, reduced transaction costs, higher chances of fostering cross-country trade, and so on. Depending on the policy and the context under consideration, it can be argued that while the euro reduces headline sovereignty it grows the potential of effective sovereignty. The same can be said for virtually every aspect of the European integration process.

Sovereignty is not absolute

The gist is that we cannot afford to think of sovereignty as monolithic or static and absolute. That is a method that is guaranteed to lead to erroneous findings. Instead, we can apply the distinction between headline and effective sovereignty. It helps be more eclectic and maintain a more refined theoretical framework for understanding phenomena.

The implication of applying the conceptual bifurcation I am suggesting, is that it becomes nearly impossible to deliver definitive judgements on the propriety or general qualitative features of instances of international relations. The analysis has to account for the specifics. It needs to be holistic. And it most certainly cannot remain fixed on a static worldview that sees nation states as silos of sorts, where supreme political authority is necessarily limited to their own borders.

As such, the conclusion to this seminar must be rather anti-climactic: to evaluate international relations, we need to understand the intricacies of sovereignty, and then we need to engage in a case-by-case study, knowing that our judgements are dependent on the particularities.

That is it. Thank you very much for your attention.


This seminar was produced using only free and open source software.

  • The audio was captured and edited with Audacity.
  • The presentation slides were prepared in LibreOffice and converted from a .pdf into .jpg using Imagemagick.
  • The video editing was done with Kdenlive.
  • The transcript was written in Vim.
  • All working on a GNU/Linux machine, specifically Arch.