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Sovereign equality as misrecognition

  • Ayşe Zarakol (a1)


This article makes two contributions. First, I argue that contrary to what was often assumed in the recognition literature, social hierarchies (as in the Hegelian master–slave dynamic) are very stable. Though social hierarchies are relationships of misrecognition, they nevertheless allow for the simulation of recognition for ‘the master’, and also trap ‘the slave’ in that role through stigmatisation. Second, I make a historical argument about the state and its role in recognition struggles. The modern state is relatively unique (historically speaking) in being tasked with solving the recognition problems of its citizens. At the same time, the modern state has to derive its own sovereignty from the recognition of those same citizens. There is an inherent tension between these two facts, which forces the modern state to turn increasingly outward for its own recognition. This is why ‘the master–slave dynamic’ was increasingly projected onto the international stage from nineteenth century onwards (along with the diffusion of the modern state model). As a result, international recognition came to play an even larger role in state sovereignty than domestic recognition (in contrast to common historical practice). This also explains how and why social hierarchies came to dominate international politics around the same time as the norm of sovereign equality.

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1 See, for example, Buzan, Barry and Lawson, George, The Global Transformation: History, Modernity and the Making of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) ; Osterhammel, Jürgen, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, trans. Patrick Camiller (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015) ; Reus-Smit, Christian, The Moral Purpose of the State: Culture, Social Identity, and Institutional Rationality in International Relations (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009) , among others.

2 See, for example, Buzan and Lawson, Global Transformation; Hobson, John M., The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: Western International Theory, 1760–2010 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) ; Hobson, John M. and Sharman, J. C., ‘The enduring place of hierarchy in world politics: Tracing the social logics of hierarchy and political change’, European Journal of International Relations, 11:1 (2005), pp. 6398 ; Zarakol, Ayşe, After Defeat: How the East Learned to Live with the West (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) .

3 See, for example, the discussions in Dunne, Tim and Reus-Smit, Christian (eds), The Globalization of International Society (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016) and Zarakol, Ayşe (ed.), Hierarchies in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) .

4 See, for example, Gong, Gerrit W., The Standard of ‘Civilization’ in International Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984) ; Salter, Mark B., Barbarians & Civilization in International Relations (Sterling, VA: Pluto Press, 2004) ; Zarakol, After Defeat; Shogo Suzuki, Civilization and Empire: China and Japan’s Encounter with European International Society: East Asia’s Encounter with the European International Society (London: Routledge, 2009) ; Towns, Ann, Women and States: Norms and Hierarchies in International Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) .

5 See, for example, Anghie, Antony, ‘Colonialism and the birth of international institutions: Sovereignty, economy, and the mandate system of the League of Nations’, NYU Journal of International Law and Politics, 34 (2002), pp. 513633 .

6 See, for example, Reus-Smit, Christian, Individual Rights and the Making of the International System (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) .

7 For an overview of the development of the concept of recognition in international law, see Clark, Martin, ‘A conceptual history of recognition in British international legal thought’, The British Yearbook of International Law (2018) , available at: doi: 10.1093/bybil/bry003

8 Anghie, ‘Colonialism’, p. 513. The formulation Anghie quotes is from Lassa Oppenheim, International Law: A Treatise (4th edn, Sir Arnold D. McNair ed., 1928): ‘The equality before International Law of all member-states of the Family of Nations is an invariable quality derived from their International Personality.’ Let’s note that Oppenheim’s International Law was first published in 1905. We will return to this history in the third section.

9 This is starting to change: see, for example, 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 (2018), pp. 127 , available at: doi: 10.1177/1354066117745365; Agne, Hans, Bartelson, Jens, Erman, Eva, Lindemann, Thomas, Herborth, Benjamin, Kessler, Oliver, Chwaszcza, Christine, Fabry, Mikulas, and Krasner, Stephen D., ‘Symposium: the politics of international recognition’, International Theory, 5:1 (2013), pp. 94107 ; Bartelson, Jens, ‘Three concepts of recognition’, International Theory, 5:1 (2013), pp. 107129 ; Lindemann, Thomas, ‘The case for an empirical and social-psychological study of recognition in international relations’, International Theory, 5:1 (2013), pp. 473492 ; Burns, Anthony and Thompson, Simon (eds), Global Justice and the Politics of Recognition (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013) ; Lindemann, Thomas and Ringmar, Erik (eds), The International Politics of Recognition (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2014) .

10 IR builds on the field of international law in this particular respect. See Anghie, ‘Colonialism’, p. 514 and Clark, ‘Conceptual history’ for an overview of how international law understands sovereign equality. See also Krasner, Stephen D., ‘Rethinking the sovereign state model’, Review of International Studies, 27:5 (2001), pp. 1742 .

11 See, for example, Reus-Smit, Individual Rights; Wendt, Alexander, Social Theory of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) ; Lebow, Richard Ned, Cultural Theory of International Relations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) ; Lebow, Richard Ned, Why Nations Fight (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) ; Simpson, Gerry, Great Powers and Outlaw States: Unequal Sovereigns in the International Legal Order (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) ; Ringmar, Erik, ‘Recognition and the origins of international society’, Global Discourse, 4:4 (2014), pp. 446458 ; Ringmar, Erik, ‘The recognition game: Soviet Russia against the West’, Cooperation & Conflict, 37:2 (2002), pp. 115136 ; Wolf, Reinhard, ‘Respect and disrespect in international politics: the significance of status recognition’, International Theory, 3:1 (2011), pp. 105142 ; Friedrichs, Jorg, ‘An intercultural theory of international relations: How self-worth underlies politics among nations’, International Theory, 8:1 (2016), pp. 6396 ; Zarakol, After Defeat; Adler-Nissen, Rebecca, Opting Out of the European Union: Diplomacy, Sovereignty and European Integration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) .

12 On this point, see also Strömbom, Lisa, ‘Thick recognition: Advancing theory on identity change in intractable conflicts’, European Journal of International Relations, 20:1 (2014), pp. 168191 .

13 The exception are studies whose focus is on individual actors seeking recognition (even if they are agents of states). See, for example, Adler-Nissen, Opting Out; Pouliot, Vincent, International Pecking Orders: The Politics and Practice of Multilateral Diplomacy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) .

14 Though there is an overlap in some areas, note that the distinction between legal recognition and existential recognition does not map onto the distinction between de jure and de facto sovereignty. Existential recognition is still outward looking.

15 The general assumption is one of transferability from individual motivations to corporate ones. This may be true at times, but it does not account for historical polities that did not exhibit this pattern. In the second and third sections of this article I will instead make a historical argument about the recognition seeking behaviour of modern states.

16 See, for example, Taylor, Charles, ‘Politics of recognition’, Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994) ; Honneth, Axel, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996) ; Williams, Robert, Hegel’s Ethics of Recognition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) . For an extension of Honneth’s argument to IR, see Honneth, Axel, ‘Recognition between states: On the moral substrate of international relations’, in Erik Ringmar and Thomas Lindemann (eds), The Struggle for Recognition in International Relations (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), pp. 5358 .

17 Epstein, Charlotte, Lindemann, Thomas, and Sending, Ole Jacob, ‘Frustrated sovereigns: the agency that makes the world go around’, Review of International Studies, 44:5 (2018) , introduction to the Special Issue. See also, Adler-Nissen and Tsinovoi, ‘International misrecognition’.

18 Most notably in Markell, Patchen, Bound by Recognition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003) . Markell is criticising Charles Taylor’s approach to recognition and multiculturalism, as will be discussed later. See also Epstein, Lindemann, and Sending, ‘Frustrated sovereigns’.

19 Markell, Bound.

20 This reading is also very much inspired by Markell’s reading of Hegel. Unlike some of the other contributions to this volume (to be replaced by actual citations), I do not adopt a Lacanian or psychoanalytic approach. For ways of reconciling the two, see Epstein, Lindemann, and Sending, ‘Frustrated sovereigns’ or Adler-Nissen and Tsinovoi, ‘International misrecognition’.

21 From this point on in this article, the term recognition should be understood broadly and not in the narrow, legal sense, unless otherwise specified.

22 Markell, Bound, p. 11.

23 In the Philosophy of Right, p. 4, Hegel defines the essence of human spirit as freedom, but he has a particular understanding of what freedom means, which he provides on p. 23: ‘Only in this freedom is the will completely with itself [bei sich], because it has reference to nothing but itself, so that every relationship of dependence on something other than itself is thereby eliminated.’ See Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Georg, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. Allen W. Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

24 Markell, Bound, p. 104. See also Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Phenomenology of Spirit, pp. 104–10.

25 Ibid., p. 109.

26 Ibid.

27 Ibid., pp. 104–05.

28 Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 114; see also Kojève, Alexandre, ‘In place of an introduction’, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, ed. Allan Bloom, trans. James H. Nichols jr (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980), pp. 715 .

29 Hegel, Phenomenology, p. 117.

30 Ibid. See also Markell, Bound, p. 106.

31 Markell, Bound, p. 106.

32 Taylor, ‘Politics of Recognition’, p. 34. (The essay was republished in 1994.)

33 Ibid. On the point of how identities became more constructed in ‘modernity’, see also Greenblatt, Stephen, Renaissance Self-Fashioning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980) ; Giddens, Anthony, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991) ; Meyer, John W. and Jepperson, Ronald L., ‘The “actors” of modern society: the cultural construction of social agency’, Sociological Theory, 18:1 (2000), pp. 100120 .

34 Taylor, ‘Politics of Recognition’, p. 35. Taylor is too optimistic about how inwardly derived and original modern identity is.

35 Ibid., p. 50; cited in Markell, Bound, p. 91. This is despite the fact that Hegel himself advocated something similar (via the state) in other parts of his writing (more on this to follow).

36 ‘[T]he very desire that animates the struggle for recognition is impossible to fulfill …; consequently, the asymmetry and thus the inadequacy of the relation of master and slave lies in the fact that only one of the two parties has acknowledged this, admitted the impossibility of satisfying its own claims, and conceded its own dependence.’ Markell, Bound, p. 108.

37 ‘By refusing to risk his life in a fight for pure prestige, [the Slave] does not rise above the animals. Hence he considers himself as such, and as such is he considered by the Master.’ The master on the other hand, is ‘as a result of his fight, already human, “mediated”. And consequently, his behaviour is also “mediated” or human, both with regard to things and with regard to other men; moreover, these other men, for him, are only his slaves.’ Kojève, ‘In place’, p. 18.

38 See Kojève, ‘In place’. See also, for example, Fanon, Franz, Black Skin, White Masks (New York: Grove Press, 1967) ; Marcuse, Herbert, Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory (New York: Humanities Press, 1954) .

39 Markell, Bound, p. 107.

40 Kojève, ‘In place’, p. 21.

41 Ibid., 23.

42 Ibid. ‘The future and History hence belong not to the warlike Master, who either dies or preserves himself indefinitely in identity to himself, but to the working Slave.’

43 I will come back to this suggestion in the third section on international misrecognition.

44 Markell, Bound, p. 109.

45 Ibid., p. 110.

46 Ibid. p. 112.

47 Ibid.

48 See, for example, Elias, Norbert and Scotson, John L. The Established and Outsiders (London: Sage Publications, 1994) ; Goffman, Erving, Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963) .

49 Markell, Bound, p. 112.

50 This is not to say stigmatisation is the only response to misrecognition – in real world hierarchies that are more complex and layered than the master–slave figuration, other strategies may be available to actors depending on their status. See, for example, Adler-Nissen and Tsinovoi, ‘International misrecognition’.

51 Hegel, Philosophy of Right (1889), section 3, p. 257.

52 Hegel, Philosophy of Mind (1817), p. 172 (Zusatz to sec. 432). As cited by Markell, Bound, p. 125 (emphasis added by Markell).

53 See, for example, Williams, Hegel’s Ethics.

54 See, for example, works of Edmund Burke, Ferdinand Tönnies, Alexis de Tocqueville, among others.

55 Liberal, utilitarian, and libertarian approaches – one could argue that they are exchanging the goal of positive freedom with negative freedom.

56 ‘To the preceding acquisitions could be added the acquisition in the civil state of moral liberty, which alone makes man truly the master of himself. For to be driven by appetite alone is slavery, and obedience to the law one has prescribed for oneself is liberty.’ Jean Jacque Rousseau, On the Social Contract, Book I, ch. 8.

57 A notable exception is Nietzsche, who is not satisfied with the solution offered by the state nor has much patience for the empty freedom offered by liberalism, calls for the ‘last man’ of modernity to be replaced by the Ubermensch. See Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

58 Zarakol, Ayşe, ‘States and ontological security: a historical rethinking’, Cooperation & Conflict, 52:1 (2017), pp. 4868 .

59 Markell, Bound, p. 125.

60 We can debate whether the ‘end of history’ ideal state as Hegel envisions it escapes this asymmetry, but the debate is irrelevant to the current discussion.

61 Markell, Bound, p. 128. Also see Karl Marx, ‘Critique of Hegel’s Doctrine of the State’ (1843) and ‘On the Jewish Question’ (1844); Brown, Wendy, States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995) .

62 Markell, Bound, p. 145.

63 Ibid., p. 146.

64 In fact, some argue that the disillusionment in the modern state is one of the reasons for the failure of the modern project and its replacement with post-modern and reactionary critiques. See, for example, the works of Bauman, Zygmunt, for example, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity, 2000) , or Harvey, David, for example, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1991) .

65 See, for example, Buzan and Lawson, Global Transformation.

66 As discussed in the first section of this article. See also fn. 30.

67 Jens Bartelson, ‘Dating Sovereignty’ (unpublished manuscript, 2017), p. 2. See also Philpott, Daniel, ‘Sovereignty: an introduction and brief history’, Journal of International Affairs, 48:2 (1995), pp. 206245 .

68 Krasner, Stephen D., ‘Compromising Westphalia’, International Security, 20:3 (1995–6), p. 115 .

69 Krasner, ‘Rethinking’, p. 19.

70 Ibid., p. 20.

71 Ibid.

72 Ibid., p. 21.

73 See Teschke, Benno, The Myth of 1648 (London: Verso, 2003) for a rare argument for dating it earlier than Westphalia, but Teschke’s focus is not on sovereign recognition.

74 See, for example, Reus-Smit, Christian, The Moral Purpose of the State (Princeton: Princeton University, 1999) ; Beualac, Stephan, ‘The Westphalian legal orthodoxy – myth or reality?’, Journal of the History of International Law, 2 (2000), pp. 148177 ; Osiander, Andreas, ‘Sovereignty, international relations and the Westphalian myth’, International Organization, 55:2 (2001), pp. 251287 ; Krasner, ‘Rethinking’.

75 And it can be demonstrated that the notion of supreme authority existed outside of Europe as well. Even the European label of ‘Oriental Despotism’ as used to denounce Asian polities points to its existence elsewhere. See Hobson and Sharman, ‘Enduring place’ for a discussion. In other words, supreme authority is a necessary but not sufficient component of ‘Westphalian’ sovereignty of the modern state. See also Ayşe Zarakol, ‘A non-Eurocentric approach to sovereignty’, in Lopez, Julia Costa, De Carvalho, Benjamin, Latham, Andrew A., Zarakol, Ayşe, Bartelson, Jens, Holm, Minda (eds), ‘Forum: In the beginning there was no word (for it): Terms, concepts, and early sovereignty’, International Studies Review, 20:3 (2018) .

76 See, for example, Branch, Jordan, ‘Mapping the sovereign state: Technology, authority and systemic change’, International Organization, 65:1 (2011), pp. 136 ; Bartelson, ‘Dating Sovereignty’; Buzan and Lawson, Global Transformation. See also Elden, Stuart, The Birth of Territory (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013) , Benton, Lauren, A Search for Sovereignty (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009) .

77 See, for example, Croxton, Derek, ‘The peace of Westphalia of 1648 and the origins of sovereignty’, The International History Review, 21:3 (1999), pp. 569591 ; Krasner, ‘Rethinking’; Kayaoglu, Turan, ‘Westphalian Eurocentrism in International Relations theory’, International Studies Review, 12 (2010), pp. 193217 .

78 Croxton, ‘The peace of Westphalia’, p. 571, citing also Hinsley, F. H., ‘The concept of sovereignty and the relations between states’, in In Defense of Sovereignty, ed. W. J. Stankiewicz (New York: Oxford University Press), pp. 275277 .

79 Krasner, ‘Rethinking’, p. 20. See also Bartelson, ‘Dating Sovereignty’ and Stephane Beaulac, ‘Emer de Vattel and the externalization of sovereignty’, Journal of the History of International Law, 5:2 (2003), pp. 237292 .

80 Osiander, ‘Sovereignty’, p. 279.

81 Ibid., p. 281.

82 Ibid., pp. 281–2.

83 Jens Bartelson, ‘Recognition: A Short History’ (unpublished paper, 2016), p. 6.

84 Ibid., p. 14. Bartelson also counts Hegel among those who had this understanding, for example, in the Philosophy of Right.

85 Bartelson, ‘Recognition’, p. 15, citing Wheaton, Henry, Elements of International Law (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1836), I.II, p. 21 .

86 Bartelson, ‘Recognition’, p. 16. Bartelson here is referring especially to Lorimer, James, The Institutes of the Law of Nations: A Treatise of the Jural Relations of Separate Political Communities (Edinburgh: William Blackwell and Sons, 1883) . The exact quote from Lorimer is as follows: ‘As a political phenomenon, humanity, in its present condition, divided itself into three concentric zones or spheres – that of civilized humanity, that of barbarous humanity, and that of savage humanity. To these, whether arising from peculiarities of race or from various stages of development in the same race, belong, of right, at the hands of civilized nations, three stages of recognitionplenary political recognition, partial political recognition, and natural or mere human recognition … The sphere of plenary political recognition extends to all the existing States of Europe, with their colonial dependencies, in so far as these are peopled by persons of European birth or descent; and to the States of North and South America which have vindicated their independence of the European States of which they were colonies. The sphere of partial political recognition extends to Turkey in Europe and in Asia, and to the old historical States of Asia which have not become European dependencies – viz. to Persia and the other separate States of Central Asia, to China, Siam and Japan. The sphere of natural or mere human recognition, extends to the residue of mankind: though here we ought, perhaps, to distinguish between the progressive and non-progressive races.’ Emphasis added. On Lorimer, see also Kosenniemi, Marti, ‘Race, hierarchy and international law: Lorimer’s legal science’, The European Journal of International Law, 27:2 (2016), pp. 415429 .

87 From Article 22 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, as cited by Zarakol, After Defeat, p. 86. On the Mandate system see also Anghie, ‘Colonialism’.

88 Other sovereigns were deprived of external recognition altogether.

89 See Zarakol, After Defeat, ch. 2 for a discussion of these standards evolved.

90 After all, there are even examples of rulers treated as gods.

91 Or we could say that even tributes were important to the extent they came from the ‘world’ of the sovereign. The opinion of genuine foreigners is irrelevant.

92 See also Zarakol, ‘States and ontological security’.

93 Not to mention Hegelian notions about the state.

94 Why and how this homology emerges is discussed extensively in Zarakol, After Defeat. See also Zarakol, Ayşe, ‘What made the modern world hang together: Socialisation or stigmatisation?’, International Theory, 6:2 (2014), pp. 311332 . See also the World Polity School, for example, Meyer and Jepperson, ‘The “actors” of modern society’.

95 See Zarakol, After Defeat.

96 Markell, Bound, p. 107.

97 See fn. 9.

98 There are potentially productive links between reading recognition as a simulation, on the one hand, and the politics of recognition as a modern phenomenon, on the other, with Baudrillard’s argument about the historical evolution from the real towards the simulacra (image). The article’s scope did not allow me to pursue that line of inquiry. For an application of Baudrillard to IR theory, see Weber, Cynthia, Simulating Sovereignty: Intervention, The State and Symbolic Exchange (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).



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