How did the transition from a world of empire to a global international system organised around the sovereign state play out? This article traces the transition over the past two centuries through an examination of membership debates in two prominent intergovernmental organisations (IGOs). IGOs are sites of contestation that play a role in the constitution of the international system. Discussions within IGOs reflect and shape broader international norms, and are one mechanism through which the international system determines questions of membership and attendant rights and obligations. The article reveals that IGO membership policies during this period reflected different compromises between the three competing principles of great power privilege, the ‘standard of civilisation’, and universal sovereign equality. The article contributes to Global IR as it confirms that non-Western agency was crucial in bringing about this transition. States in Africa, Asia, and Latin America championed the adoption of the sovereignty criterion. In this, paradoxically, one of the core constitutional norms of the ‘European’ international system – the principle of sovereign equality – was realised at the hands of non-European actors.
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