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The state and the nation: changing norms and the rules of sovereignty in international relations

  • J. Samuel Barkin and Bruce Cronin


The international relations literature regularly embraces sovereignty as the primary constitutive rule of international organization. Theoretical traditions that agree on little else all seem to concur that the defining feature of the modern international system is the division of the world into sovereign states. Despite differences over the role of the state in international affairs, most scholars would accept John Ruggie's definition of sovereignty as “the institutionalization of public authority within mutually exclusive jurisdictional domains.” Regardless of the theoretical approach however, the concept tends to be viewed as a static, fixed concept: a set of ideas that underlies international relations but is not changed along with them. Moreover, the essence of sovereignty is rarely defined; while legitimate authority and territoriality are the key concepts in understanding sovereignty, international relations scholars rarely examine how definitions of populations and territories change through-out history and how this change alters the notion of legitimate authority.



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We thank Mlada Bukovansky, James McAllister, Kathleen McNamara, Patricia Moynagh, John Odell, Jack Snyder, Hendrik Spruyt, Tami Stukey, and two anonymous reviewers for their comments. An earlier version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Northeast International Studies Association, Providence, R.I., 5–7 November 1992.

1. Constitutive rules can be defined as concepts that create and define new forms of behavior (x counts as y in context c). They are standardized, relatively unchanging practices that constitute a vocabulary for international communication. See p. 455 of Dessler, David, “What's at Stake in the Agent-Structure Debate?International Organization 43 (Summer 1989), pp. 441–73.

2. See p. 143 of Ruggie, John, “Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity: Toward a Neorealist Synthesis,” in Keohane, Robert O., ed., Neorealism and Its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), pp. 131–57.

3. Lipset defines legitimacy as the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions (and institutional forms) are the most appropriate ones for society. See Lipset, Seymour Martin, Political Man (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960), p. 77.

4. Even legal concepts of sovereignty do change over time. For example, the concept of human rights as defined in the United Nations Charter and the various Helsinki accords does diminish the legal rights of sovereign states with respect to their citizens, though this is a separate issue from the one being addressed here.

5. The “rules of sovereignty” are defined as a set of principles by which the international community recognizes the legitimacy of authoritative control over a specified population and territory.

6. We are not suggesting that the state/national distinction is the only or even the most important element of change in the legitimation of sovereignty. We suggest only that it is an important one that can illustrate one way in which understandings of sovereignty can change.

7. Morgenthau sees sovereignty primarily in terms of its legal definition and without reference to its legitimation. Sovereignty is supreme authority to create and enforce laws within a given territory. Therefore for Morgenthau sovereignty is conceptually fixed and indivisible. See Morgenthau, Hans J., Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace, 6th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1985). For Waltz the relevant issue concerning sovereignty is whether states remain independent; the principles on which state authority is legitimized are not important. See Waltz, Kenneth, Theory of International Politics (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1979), especially chap. 5. For Gilpin sovereign authority is derived from one's ability to maintain order and control within stable borders. “Within the territory it encompasses,” Gilpin argues, “the state exercises a monopoly of the legitimate use of forces and embodies the idea that everyone in the territory is subject to the same law or set of rules.” Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 17.

8. See p. 90 of Krasner, Stephen D., “Sovereignty: An Institutional Perspective,” Comparative Political Studies 2 (April 1988), pp. 6694.

9. Thomson, Janice E. and Krasner, Stephen, “Global Transactions and the Consolidation of Sovereignty,” in Czempiel, Ernst-Otto and Rosenau, James N., eds., Global Changes and Theoretical Challenges: Approaches to World Politics for the 1990s (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1989), pp. 195219.

10. Bull, Hedley, The Anarchical Society: A Study of Order in World Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1977), p. 9.

11. See p. 3 of Art, Robert and Jervis, Robert, “The Meaning of Anarchy,” in Art, Robert and Jervis, Robert, eds., International Politics: Anarchy, Force, Political Economy, and Decision Making, 2d ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1985).

12. See p. 370 of Claude, Inis L. Jr, “Collective Legitimization as a Political Function of the United Nations,” International Organization 20 (September 1966), pp. 367–79.

13. Giddens, Anthony, The Nation-State and Violence (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), p. 263.

14. The quotation is from Weber, who defines a nation as “a community of sentiment which would adequately manifest itself in a state of its own; hence, a nation is a community which normally tends to produce a state of its own.” See Weber, Max, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, Gerth, Hans H. and Mills, C. Wright, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), p. 176.

15. The term “juridical” is being used here to refer to a formally stated and defined territorial boundary sanctioned by international law.

16. Ruggie, , “Continuity and Transformation in the World Polity,” pp. 142–43.

17. There is some historiographic debate as to whether territorial states as currently understood preceded the communities of sentiment on which nations are based. See, for example, Anderson, M. S., The Ascendency of Europe (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1972), p. 161.

18. For further discussions of nationalism and its development, see Gellner, Ernest, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983); Hobsbawm, Eric J., Nations and Nationalism Since 1780 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983); and Smith, Anthony, Theories of Nationalism (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983).

19. The idea of “national” sovereignty as it is used here should not be confused with ideas of “popular” sovereignty. National sovereignty is in fact a subset of popular sovereignty; it is a particular definition of who the people in “popular” are. There are two predominant ways of understanding popular sovereignty. One is that it means that the state should ultimately be responsible to the people as individual political beings. This has its roots in Lockean political theory and can result in such requirements of government as democracy and civil rights. The other way of understanding the concept is that it refers to the rights of a self-identifying group to govern itself as a separate political entity. This idea has its roots in different ways in both Rousseauian and Hegelian political theory and need not be as democratically oriented as the first understanding. It is this approach to popular sovereignty that is compatible with national sovereignty as it is used here. This distinction follows the distinction between internal and external self-determination discussed by Buchheit, Lee in Secession: The Legitimacy of Self-Determination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1978), pp. 1316.

20. See Hobsbawm, , Nations and Nationalism, pp. 3132.

21. For the logic of balance-of-power theory, see Waltz, , Theory of International Politics, chap. 6; Gullick, Edward V., Europe's Classical Balance of Power: A Cast History of the Theory and Practice of One of the Great Concepts of European Statecraft (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982); and Wolfers, Arnold, Discord and Collaboration: Essays on International Politics (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962), chap. 12.

22. This does not necessarily imply that state borders will be fixed and impermeable. For example, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was not uncommon practice for sovereigns to redistribute territory among themselves, often in the interest of preserving the balance of power. These redistributions, rarely regarded the wishes of the populations of the territories being redistributed; they were undertaken purely for raisons d'état. As such, they can be seen as a stabilizing mechanism from a balance-of-power perspective.

23. Nardin, Terry, Law, Morality, and the Relations of States (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), p. 34.

24. Claude, , “Collective Legitimization as a Political Function of the United Nations,” p. 367.

25. Ibid., p. 369.

26. As Kissinger argues, a stable social order lives with an intuition of permanence, and opposition to it is either ignored or assimilated, while a revolutionary period is characterized by its self-consciousness, because political life loses its spontaneity once the existing pattern of obligations has been challenged. See Kissinger, Henry, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812–1822 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1958), p. 192.

27. Gilpin, , War and Change in World Politics, p. 34.

28. Ibid., p. 36.

29. This runs contrary to Waltz's argument. See his Theory of International Politics.

30. There is a growing literature on the effects of intersubjective understandings on agency in international relations. The school of thought that stresses the importance of examining these understandings is sometimes referred to as “constructivist” or “reflectivist.” For an introduction to this literature, see, inter alia, Wendt, Alexander, “Anarchy Is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics,” International Organization 46 (Spring 1992), pp. 391426; Keohane, Robert, “International Institutions: Two Approaches,” International Studies Quarterly 32 (December 1988), pp. 379–96; Onuf, Nicholas, World of Our Making (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989); Wendt, Alexander, “The Agent-Structure Problem in International Relations Theory,” International Organization 41 (Summer 1987), pp. 335–71; Dessler, , “What's at Stake in the Agent-Structure Debate?”; Friedrich Kratochwil and John Ruggie, “International Organization: A State of the Art on the Art of the State,” International Organization 40 (Autumn 1986), pp. 753–75; and Kratochwil, Friedrich, Rules, Norms, Decisions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).

31. There is a growing literature on the relationship between political process and political outcomes. See, for example, Wendt, “Anarchy Is What States Make of It.”

32. See Schroeder, Paul W., “The Collapse of the Second Coalition,” Journal of Modern History 59 (June 1987), pp. 244–90.

33. See Ford, Franklin L., Europe, 17801830 (London: Longman, 1970), chap. 30.

34. Holsti, Kalevi, Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order 1648–1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 117.

35. Kissinger, , A World Restored, p. 82.

36. The declaration is quoted in Hobsbawm, Eric J., The Age of Revolution: 1789–1848 (New York: Mentor, 1962), p. 81.

37. Hayes, Carlton J., The Historical Evolution of Modem Nationalism (New York: Russell and Russell, 1968), p. 69.

38. Hobsbawm, , Nations and Nationalism, p. 86.

39. Ibid.

40. Kissinger, , A World Restored, p. 56.

41. As Metternich stated, “There is only one real problem in Europe, the Revolution.” See International Commission for the Teaching of History, The Congress of Vienna and Europe (New York: Pergamon Press, 1964), p. 29.

42. See Kissinger, , A World Restored, p.56.

43. Ford, , Europe, 1780–1830, p. 298.

44. See Ferrero, Guglielmo, The Reconstruction of Europe: Talleyrand and the Congress of Vienna, 1814–1815 (New York: G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1941), p. 261.

45. Sir Webster, Charles, The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh, 1812–1815: Britain and the Reconstruction of Europe (London: G. Bell and Sons, 1931), p. 393.

46. Sir Webster, Charles, The Congress of Vienna, 1814–1815 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1934), p. 140.

47. For an excellent account of the discourse during the congress, see Webster, The Foreign Policy of Castlereagh.

48. See, for example, Gullick, Europe's Classical Balance of Power.

49. Breunig, Charles, The Age of Revolution and Reaction, 1789–1850 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1977), p. 17.

50. Hobsbawm, , The Age of Revolution, pp. 128–29.

51. Metternich is quoted in Holsti, Kalevi, “Governance Without Government: Polyarchy in Nineteenth-century European International Politics,” in Rosenau, James N. and Czempiel, Ernst-Otto, eds., Governance Without Government: Order and Change in World Politics (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 28.

52. The conclusion of World War I saw the collapse of four empires: German, Austro-Hungarian (Hapsburg), Ottoman, and Russian.

53. Ferrell, Robert H., Woodrow Wilson and World War One: 1917–1921 (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 118.

54. McDougall, Walter, France's Rhineland Diplomacy, 1914–1924: The Last Bid for a Balance of Power in Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), p. 16.

55. Mee, Charles, The End of Order (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1980), p. 11.

56. Ferrell, , Woodrow Wilson and World War One, pp. 125–26.

57. Baker, Ray Stannard, Woodrow Wilson and World Settlement, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1922), p. 12.

58. This was of course true only to a matter of degree. One of the principal points of contention at the Congress was the disposition of Poland and Saxony. While the conflict was not over nationalist sentiments, it did involve the legitimist principle, which recognized that sovereigns could not be deprived of their dynastic rights. See Broglie, Le Duc de, ed., Memoirs of the Prince de Talleyrand, vol. 2 (New York: AMS Press, 1973), part 8.

59. Holsti, , Peace and War, p. 192.

60. Ambrosius, Lloyd, Wilsonian Statecraft: Theory and Practice of Liberal Internationalism During World War I (Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 1991), p. 110.

61. Ibid., p. 12.

62. Ibid., p. 52.

63. Ferrell, , Woodrow Wilson and World War One, p. 140.

64. At that point in time pan-Slavism was as potent a nationalist force as the self-identification of such groups as the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes.

65. The quoted term is used throughout the Charter of the United Nations (UN).

66. Of this dilemma Sir Ivor Jennings said, “On the surface it seems reasonable: let the people decide. It was in fact ridiculous because the people cannot decide until someone decides who are the people.” Jennings is quoted in Buchheit, Secession, p. 9.

67. This is stated in the first paragraph of the first article of the charter. See United Nations Office of Public Information, Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice (New York: United Nations, 1974), p. 3.

68. Ibid., article 2, paragraph 4, and article 51.

69. Ibid., article 1, paragraph 2, and article 2, paragraph 7.

70. There is of course a tension here inasmuch as self-determination may serve in cases as an expression of nationalist sentiment. This tension is recognized in practice by the UN but is often resolved in favor of the cohesion of existing states. See Buchheit, , Secession, pp. 1420.

71. For example, the Covenant of the League of Nations stipulates that “the Members of the League reserve to themselves the right to take such action as they shall consider necessary for the maintenance of right and justice” (article 15, paragraph 7). This reference to right and justice as a legitimate basis for state action is in marked contrast to the emphasis on international peace and security in the Charter of the UN.

72. See, for example, Carr, Edward Hallet, The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939 (London: Macmillan, 1946), chap. 5.

73. In all three of these examples, “nations” were divided into two states, each in the sphere of influence of a different superpower. This willingness to subordinate national unity to superpower spheres of influence indicates that the termination of international conflicts was considered more important than national self-determination in these cases.

74. See, for example, Craig, Gordon, Europe Since 1815, alternate edition (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974), pp. 506–10.

75. This is not meant to imply that there was any sort of consensus on what constituted “good government.” The Western view of good government was based on individual welfare and political rights, whereas the communist view stressed social welfare and economic rights. The key point here is that both the individualist view and the class view are markedly different from a nationalist view, understood in the fascist sense.

76. Once again this refers to the view that sees the “nation” as something apart from the aggregate of the people that requires representation in its own right.

77. See Garthoff, Raymond L., Detente and Confrontation (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1985), chap. 1.

78. For the Soviet view on secession, see Porter, Bruce, The U.S.S.R. in Third World Conflicts: Soviet Arms and Diplomacy in Local Wars, 1945–1980 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), p. 220.

79. Examples of this include ethnically motivated genocides in Ethiopia and East Timor.

80. Internal imperialism refers to such obvious cases as the Soviet Union, South Africa, and Yugoslavia but also includes some Western countries such as Spain.

81. For the purposes of this article, it is reasonable to define the winning coalition of the cold war in the same way as was done for the cases discussed above: the members of the military alliance that triumphed. In this case, the coalition would include the members of such groups as the North Atlantic and South East Asia Treaty Organizations.

82. See Gaddis, John Lewis, “The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System,” in Lynn-Jones, Sean M., ed., The Cold War and After: Prospects for Peace (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), pp. 144 and pp. 3334 in particular.

83. See, for example, Yearbook of the United Nations, 1986, vol. 40 (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1990), pp. 124–25.

84. Ibid. The continuity in the texts of these resolutions supports the suggestion that the discourse has become fixed around the established goal.

85. On the subject of the continuity of formal institutions in international relations, see Krasner, , “Sovereignty: An Institutional Perspective,” pp. 67 and 74.

86. Gordon, Michael, “British, French, and U.S. Agree to Hit Iraqi Aircraft in the South,” The New York Times, 12 August 1992, p. A1.

87. Gordon, Michael, “A Shield for Iraq,” The New York Times, 20 August 1992, pp. A1.

88. Ibid.

89. Stability does not refer here to the absence of conflict but to the maintenance of the system intact without drastic changes in its form. This usage follows that of Waltz in Theory of International Politics, pp. 161–63.

90. Holsti, , Peace and War, p. 352.

91. It is beyond the scope of this article to suggest whether it is shifting more toward multipolarity or unipolarity.

92. Waltz, , Theory of International Politics, pp. 204–10.

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