What is sovereignty?

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What is Sovereignty?*

Alain de Benoist
The concept of sovereignty is one of the most complex in political science, with many definitions, some totally contradictory.1 Usually, sovereignty is defined in one of two ways. The first definition applies to supreme public power, which has the right and, in theory, the capacity to impose its authority in the last instance. The second definitionrefers to the holder of legitimate power, who is recognized to have authority. When national sovereignty is discussed, the first definition applies, and it refers in particular to independence, understood as the freedom of a collective entity to act. When popular sovereignty is discussed, the second definition applies, and sovereignty is associated with power and legitimacy.
1. Translated by JuliaKostova from “Qu’est-ce que la souveraineté? in Éléments, * No. 96 (November 1999), pp. 24-35. 1. Cf. Charles Merriam, History of the Theory of Sovereignty since Rousseau (New York: Columbia University Press, 1900); Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolute State (London: New Left Books, 1974); Jens Bartelson, A Genealogy of Sovereignty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Bertrand deJouvenel, De la souveraineté (Paris: Génior, 1955); In Defense of Sovereignty, ed. by W. J. Stankiewicz (London: Oxford University Press, 1969); Joseph Camillieri and Jim Falk, The End of Sovereignty? (Aldershot: Edward Elgar, 1992); A. H. Chayes, The New Sovereignty (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995); State Sovereignty as Social Construct, ed. by Thomas J. Biersteker and C. Weber (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 1996); Bertrand Badie, Un monde sans souveraineté. Les États entre ruse et responsabilité (Paris: Fayard, 1999). Discussion of this subject has become so confused that the notion of sovereignty tends to lose its political character, as is the case with Patricia Mishe, who claims that only the earth is sovereign. (“Ecological Security and the Need to ReconceptualizeSovereignty,” in Alternatives No. 14, pp. 390-391), or with Robert Garner, who wants to extend sovereignty to animals (“Ecology and Animal Rights. Is Sovereignty Anthropocentric?” in Laura Brace and John Hoffman, eds., Reclaiming Sovereignty [London: Pinter, 1997]).




Sovereignty and Political Authority On the international level, sovereignty means independence, i.e.,noninterference by external powers in the internal affairs of another state. International norms are based on the principle of the sovereign equality of independent states; international law excludes interference and establishes universally-accepted rules. Thus, sovereignty is eminently rational, if not dialectical, since the sovereignty of a state depends not only on the autonomous will of itssovereign, but also on its standing vis-a-vis other sovereign states. From this perspective, one can say that the sovereignty of any single state is the logical consequence of the existence of several sovereign states.2 It is thus a serious mistake to assume that sovereignty is possible only within the framework of the classic type of state, i.e., a nation-state, as do representatives of the“realist” school, such as Alan James and F. H. Hinsley, or neo-Marxist theoreticians like Justin Rosenberg.3 One should not confuse the concepts of nation and state, which do not necessarily belong together, or assume that the concept of sovereignty was formulated clearly only in terms of the theory of the state. Closer to the truth is John Hoffman’s assertion that “sovereignty has been an insolubleproblem ever since it became associated with the state.”4 Even though a concept of sovereignty did not exist before the 16th century, it does not follow that the phenomenon did not exist in political reality, and that it could not have been conceptualized differently. For example, Aristotle does not mention sovereignty, but the fact that he insists on the necessity for a supreme power shows that he...