What is sovereignty

Structured Text on Sovereignty, Nationhood, Statehood - Book index

1 In essence, sovereignty is supreme political authority within the confines of a political order. It is:

  • The power that overrides every other.
  • The justification for governance.
  • The enabler of governance.
  • The boundary to governance.

1.1 Supreme political authority is the equivalent of “the main archy” (from Greek αρχή). It denotes a political order with a locus of power, or else a system where [more] power is concentrated somewhere.

1.1.1 The absence of an archy is a state of anarchy.

1.1.2 This should be disambiguated from the ideologies of anarchism which, strictly speaking, want to set up an instituted system, albeit a distributed one.

1.1.3 An “instituted system” means a political order. It is the product of convention, not the state of nature.

1.2 Sovereignty is always expressed through—is made manifest in—an agent.

1.2.1 If supreme political authority rests in a person, then that person is the sovereign. There is an identification between the magnitude of sovereignty and the agency. Or else, the magnitude is personalised.

1.2.2 Whereas, in the modern era, sovereignty is found in a more abstract construct: the nation. The nation as such is the sovereign. Yet, unlike a person, the nation is impersonal. Sovereignty understood as national sovereignty is expressed through forms of political organisation and modes of governance that are supposed to be consistent with that nation’s culture or traditions.

1.3 Sovereignty conforms with the dual cardinal function of political organisation: recognition and confirmation.

1.3.1 The sovereign is recognised as such either explicitly or implicitly insofar as it remains undisputed. Tacit recognition is the lowest requirement.

1.3.2 Serious challenges to supreme political authority suggest an implosion of the status quo.

1.3.3 Confirmation is the ongoing approval of the recognised supreme political authority. It can also be explicit or implicit.

1.3.4 The absence of disputes hints at the lowest minimum of confirmation. Supreme political authority is allowed to function unencumbered, while its subjects keep on with their daily activities. That suggests a compromise between at least two mutually exclusive options: (i) upsetting the establishment without a clear understanding of what may follow, or (ii) committing to life as usual because the current order is preferable to an unpredictable state of affairs.

1.3.5 The democratic equivalents to recognition and confirmation, those of legitimacy and accountability, set a higher bar for the normative aspects of sovereignty, in conformity with the principles of democracy. So that, for instance, accountability is assessed in accordance with expected procedures and objective criteria rather than just the absence of internal strife. These are differences of degree not substance. While of paramount importance to politics, they are of tangential relevance to metapolitics: a study that seeks to understand things at their formal level.

1.3.6 The idea is that even an absolute despot must enjoy some kind of consent. At least a close group of associates must act in concert with the authority. Else there can be no supreme political authority, for power of this kind does not hinge on the physical capacity of a person to exert control over others. That is severely limited.

1.3.7 Without a modicum of recognition/confirmation (a state of anarchy), other forces within the political order would eventually seek to gain sovereignty. Alternatively, a supreme political authority, or institutional arrangement with the same effect, would have to be devised in an attempt to dissuade such opportunists.

;; The ideal of democratic sovereignty.
;; This assumes a working, modern democratic system.

1.4 For democracies, sovereignty is initially conceived as a composite of the dual cardinal function of political organisation and the values of popular rule (by, with, for the people). This gives us the magnitudes of legitimacy (recognition) and accountability (confirmation).

1.4.1 In essence, democratic life is the interplay between legitimacy and accountability; a feedback loop between the body of citizens and the group of their representatives. Citizens grant authority to their representatives to engage in governance. This makes representative rule legitimate (assuming consistency with the legal order). In turn, representatives act in ways that demonstrate their commitment to the promotion of the public interest. They answer to their electorate.

;; Political organisation is continuous.
;; Legitimation and accountability occur all the time.

1.4.2 Legitimacy is not validated once at the point of its assignment. It is confirmed incessantly through the political process. This is what accountability is about. Representatives must demonstrate that they are performing the task of governance in the service of the public interest at all times. Legitimacy and accountability are two sides of the same coin (hence the notion of a dual cardinal function of political organisation). An official entity can only be legitimate if it may be held accountable. Otherwise it is abusive in proportion to the competences conferred to it and the adequacy of the means for assessing its operations.

1.5 The dual cardinal function of political organisation is not actualised in a cultural-historical vacuum. Each political order has a set of criteria that regulate the various aspects of quotidian life. While forms and content may vary considerably, these range from statutes to customs. In the modern era, the standard is a corpus of law that consists of several branches, each with a particular application on a facet of daily life. At its foundation is the primary law, or else the constitution. Every law must be aligned with it. Complementary to the legal order is a vast body of rules of custom regulating various aspects of social activity and the political process in a more decentralised, bottom-up fashion (since these are not strictly enshrined in law and are not enforced by the judiciary).

;; The democratic feedback loop expressed through the regulation of political processes.

1.5.1 The relationship between the legal order and governance is reciprocal. Laws represent a political order’s commitment to comply with predictable procedures that prevent instances of abuse or tyranny. In a sense, these can be understood as short term restraints. But only as temporary and limited in nature.

1.5.2 The legal order is not exogenous to the political entity. It is the body of citizens, mostly through their representatives, that makes the laws. Every rule is subject to change. Some may be more difficult to amend, such as the constitution, but that does not alter the fact that all laws are conventional.

1.5.3 Strictly speaking, laws do not constrain supreme political authority. For law is an expression of sovereign will. They may limit the actions of the government, or of decision makers in general. Such bodies are performing the function of governance, which is not equivalent to sovereignty. Their nomination rests on sovereignty. Their operations do not exhaust it.

;; Democratic sovereignty is not limited to the powers of the government. Do not forget the people. There are two ways to appreciate this insight:

  • If supreme political authority is limited by another force, then it is not supreme.
  • Democratic sovereignty is initially conceived as the composite of the dual cardinal function of political organisation (recognition/confirmation or else legitimacy/accountability) and the norms and values of popular rule. Democratic sovereignty thus encompasses both the actual powers of the state apparatus and the broader capacity of the people to legitimise and to hold accountable their authorities.

1.5.4 Democratic sovereignty is thus subdivided into state sovereignty and popular sovereignty. These work in concert.

1.5.5 State sovereignty contains the powers peculiar to governance (legitimacy) and the accompanying obligations (accountability). While popular sovereignty describes the functions whereby the people grant legitimacy to the various parts of the state apparatus and then proceed to confirm it through the political process.

1.6 Democratic sovereignty in its outline form is the result of the interplay between the body of citizens and the group of representatives. This, however, is a description that does not correspond to any actual political order. It ignores the temporal dimension, which is embedded in the underlying culture and codified in the legal system.

;; The legal order reflects historical evolution.

1.6.1 The underlying culture and the legal order must be understood in terms of temporality. A continuous evaluation, adaptation, and enforcement of effective morality. Culture and its expression in law maps the evolution of applied ethics to rules that have effect throughout the political order. When law makers pass a new piece of legislation, they are in effect expressing the prevailing collective response to the task at hand. This is contingent on the circumstances and, thus, subject to change over time.

1.6.2 While considering the relationship between the democratic feedback loop and the underlying culture, it is appropriate to think in terms of temporalities. In other words, to understand that what happens in day-to-day politics unfolds at a rate that is not necessarily synchronous to the pace of change that determines a political order’s legal or moral tradition.

1.6.3 Asynchronous temporalities can explain the gradual phases a people goes through in its history. Why a people cannot just vote to break free from the cultural-historical path it follows. It rather is the cumulative effect of incremental changes that can bring about such a wide-ranging transition over the longer term. The very phenomenon of a major paradigm shift is only graspable with the benefit of historical hindsight.

1.6.4 Sovereignty seen from a macro historical perspective is trapped in the web of its present time. Even instances of revolution—presumably measures for accelerated radical reform—are more likely than not to be held back by such inertia.

;; There is no clean slate.
;; People start from somewhere in terms of their current state of knowledge, beliefs, values. Consider how the American Revolution developed a system of representative democracy where the President is not too dissimilar to a monarch, in terms of their powers. Or how the French Revolution paved the way for Napoleon (an emperor, nor a democrat, the historical circumstances notwithstanding). In more recent times, how the Arab Spring largely failed to deliver the speedy democratic transition it was touted to. France eventually broke free from its old order, even though its semi-presidential system has retained certain features of monarchy. Similarly, countries where the Arab Spring took place may eventually realise their original ambition in the future. The point remains: there is no escaping a cultural-historical path. Certainly not in the sense of changing everything at once, from the roots to the branches. Whatever the agency of sovereign will, it is not derived from nothing nor does it operate in nothing. It always springs from and is immersed in a given cultural-historical environment. It exists within those boundaries.

1.6.5 The notion of an absolute sovereignty would have to be qualified as “absolute in the sense of being uncontested”. That would still confine it to the broader magnitudes of historical evolution. If, however, “absolute” means decontextualised or transcendent, then there is no such thing as absolute sovereignty. All sovereignty comes from a cultural-historical milieu and remains couched in those terms.

;; Introducing the distinction between headline and effective sovereignty.

2 Supreme political authority is not limited to a legal or normative claim on all the rights and responsibilities—the concrete powers and potentiality—of ruling over a political order.

2.1 Supreme political authority refers to the highest form of authority within the political whole. The main archy. “Who governs”. Other notions of sovereignty that are bound to some sense of propriety, such as the democratic sovereignty described above, are matters of convention.

2.1.1 “Conventional” signifies that which is in conformity with the prevailing practical morality: with what is considered appropriate in the given time and space.

;; Headline sovereignty is supreme political authority on paper.

2.2 To signify the facet of sovereignty that is aligned with convention, we borrow a term from economics: headline. Headline sovereignty describes the state of affairs as it ought to be in accordance with the established rules of custom and legal principles. It is the indicator of supreme political authority within a political order that is unadjusted for the prevailing circumstances.

2.2.1 The economist employs the term “headline” as a shorthand for denoting that the indicator under consideration does not describe things in fullness. For example, headline inflation does not tell us anything about the general price level’s adjustments resulting from fluctuations in energy prices.

2.2.2 In the modern era, headline sovereignty is enjoyed by nation states that are internationally recognised as such.

;; Effective sovereignty is supreme political authority in practice.

2.3 The adjustment to the actual conditions gives us effective sovereignty. It refers to supreme political authority within a political order as it actually stands.

2.3.1 The term “effective” is used to signify that which is in effect; the one that holds true in practice. Similar to how we employ the concept of “effective control”.

;; The equality of states pertains only to headline sovereignty.

2.4 In an ideal scenario headline and effective sovereignty are matched. All entities that enjoy headline sovereignty also have the capacity to exercise effective sovereignty to a degree commensurate with it. That, however, necessitates a global equilibrium where every political order is equal to all others in terms of its capacity for effective sovereignty.

2.4.1 In the absence of such an equilibrium, there can only be instances of a mismatch between headline and effective sovereignty. Either magnitude exists in greater proportion to the other.

;; Power understood as a set of factors of effective sovereignty.

2.5 Whether we refer to perfect symmetry between political orders, or the lack thereof, we are hinting at the power each entity wields. Where powers are equal, there is an equilibrium of the sort here considered. Where they are not, some entities enjoy greater effective sovereignty at the expense of the rest.

2.5.1 Power is a broad term. Perhaps a description that is more conducive to further research is “factors of effective sovereignty”. This covers any state of affairs or driver that enables or otherwise enhances the capacity to exercise supreme political authority under the circumstances.

2.5.2 The factors of effective sovereignty are context-dependent. Here is a short enumeration of some of the most obvious and common ones, with the proviso that these are not necessarily discreet and independent of each other: economic robustness, reduced exposure to environmental risks, internal peace, capacity to leverage the knowledge base for formulating policy, reliable military that dissuades aggressors while backing diplomatic initiatives, credible alliances.

;; Examples of the factors of effective sovereignty.
;; While non-exhaustive, these should give a fair idea of the concept.
;; Ultimately though, the factors need to be appreciated in the specifics of each case.
;; This is not a check list. It has to follow an evaluation of what applies under the circumstances. A political order with sound finances may be in a better negotiating position when it comes to signing a relevant deal. It has a higher chance to get things its way. That makes fiscal/financial solidity a factor of effective sovereignty within those circumstances. Those following EU politics can relate this to the dominant position of Germany during the years of the euro crisis, compared to the countries of the European South. Internal peace is contingent on a number of issues, such as the rule of law, fair burden sharing, solidarity between the people, equal opportunities, an inclusive body politic that does not marginalise communities. Internal peace renders the people more likely to act in support of each other in the face of a common challenge to their way of life. The absence of internal peace makes it easier to undermine the political order’s capacity to wield supreme political authority (divide and conquer). A relevant example would be homegrown terrorist cells. They mostly develop in places where marginalised communities and parallel societies are present. At its extreme, social exclusion can be likened to a time bomb that is placed at the political order’s foundations.

;; Politics and supreme political authority are inseparable.

3 Supreme political authority is inherent to a political order.

3.1 The absence of a political order is the state of nature. The only constant therein is the rule of might exercised through the use of brute force (law of the jungle).

3.2 What distinguishes the various applications of sovereignty from each other is the distribution of power and control across the members of the political order. Those are the modal features: whether we refer to a personalised or an impersonal sovereign, the rule of one or the rule of many, the concentration or diffusion of power, the compulsory or consensual nature of inter-personal relations and social experiences, and so on.

3.2.1 “Modal” denotes a feature that is specific to a mode of being. So not just that something is, but the exact way in which it is.