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States before relations: On misrecognition and the bifurcated regime of sovereignty

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 November 2018

Minda Holm*
Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI)
Ole Jacob Sending
Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI)
*Corresponding author. Email:


The symbolic structure of the international system, organised around sovereignty, is sustained by an institutional infrastructure that shapes how states seek sovereign agency. We investigate how the modern legal category of the state is an institutional expression of the idea of the state as a liberal person, dependent on a one-off recognition in establishing the sovereign state. We then discuss how this institutional rule coexists with the ongoing frustrated search for recognition in terms of sociopolitical registers. While the first set of rules establishes a protective shield against others, regardless of behaviour, the second set of rules specify rules for behaviour of statehood, which produces a distinct form of misrecognition. States are, at one level, already recognised as sovereign and are granted rights akin to individuals in liberal thought, and yet they are continually misrecognised in their quest to actualise the sovereign agency they associate with statehood. We draw on examples from two contemporary phenomena – fragile states, and assertions of non-interference and sovereignty from the populist right and non-Western great powers, to discuss the misrecognition processes embedded in the bifurcated symbolic structure of sovereignty, and its implications for debates about hierarchy and sovereignty in world affairs.

Research Article
© British International Studies Association 2018 

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3 As such, we propose a different take on misrecognition than the one offered in a recent piece by Rebecca Adler-Nissen and Alexei Tsinovoi, where misrecognition is defined as ‘a gap between the dominant narrative of a national Self and the way in which this national Self is reflected in the “mirror” of the international Other’, that is, in continuation with the Self–Other literature in IR. Adler-Nissen, Rebecca and Tsinovoi, Alexei, ‘International misrecognition: the politics of humour and national identity in Israel’s public diplomacy’, European Journal of International Relations, Online First (January 2018), pp. 127 Google Scholar .

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22 Weber, ‘Performative states’, p. 78; see also Ringmar, ‘How the world stage makes its subjects’, p. 101; Jackson and Nexon, ‘Relations before states’, p. 293.

23 Oppenheim, International Law, pp. 168, 170, 171, emphasis added.

24 The state as a person is based on an analogy, but it is also real, in the sense that the unified thinking of statehood as a Person/entity permeates how both scholars and political actors think, organise, and act in the international realm. In contrast to human embodiment, then, the juristic category is indeed an ‘as if’, but it is one that real consequences for how statehood is performed. The legal-historical background and thus implications of which are largely bypassed in the otherwise excellent discussion of ‘state as person’ in this journal; see Jackson, Patrick T., ‘Forum introduction: Is the state a person? Why should we care?’, Review of International Studies, 30:2 (2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar .

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68 Zarakol, ‘What made the modern world hang together’; Zarakol, Ayşe and Mattern, Janice Bially, ‘Hierarchies in world politics’, International Organization, 70:3 (2016), pp. 623654 Google Scholar .

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