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.