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

  • Minda Holm (a1) and Ole Jacob Sending (a1)


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.


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1 Ringmar, Erik, ‘How the world stage makes its subjects: an embodied critique of constructivist IR theory’, Journal of International Relations and Development, 19:1 (2016), pp. 101125 (p. 101) ; similarly, Weber, Cynthia, ‘Performative states’, Millennium, 27:1 (1998), pp. 7795 (p. 78) . Our reference is, of course, to the seminal text introducing social-theoretical work on relationalism into IR: Jackson, Patrick J. and Nexon, Daniel H., ‘Relations before states: Substance, process and the study of world politics’, European Journal of International Relations, 5:3 (1999), pp. 291332 .

2 This is also a direct response to Emirbayer and Mische’s account of relationalism, where they were explicit about their framework not accommodating corporate actors such as the state. Emirbayer, Mustafa and Mische, Ann, ‘What is agency?’, American Journal of Sociology, 103:4 (1998), pp. 9621023 (p. 974) .

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 .

4 See 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 Sahlins, Marshall, Apologies to Thucydides (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004), p. 156 ; Sending, Ole Jacob, ‘Agency, order, and heteronomy’, European Review of International Studies, 3 (2016), pp. 6375 .

5 On state performativity, see Campbell, David, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992) ; Weber, ‘Perfomative states’; Ringmar, ‘How the world stage makes its subjects’.

6 Epstein, Lindemann, and Sending, ‘Frustrated sovereigns’.

7 Markell, Patchen, Bound by Recognition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 22 .

8 Vázquez-Arroyo, Antonio Y., ‘Re-cognizing recognition: a commentary on Patchen Markell’s Bound by Recognition ’, Polity, 38:1 (2006), pp. 412 .

9 See Butler, Judith, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (Columbia, NY: Columbia University Press, 2012 [orig. pub. 1987]) ; for a good overview and discussion, see Epstein, Charlotte, ‘Who speaks? Discourse, the subject and the study of identity in international politics’, European Journal of International Relations, 17:2 (2010), pp. 327350 .

10 See Hurd, Ian, How to Do Things with International Law (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017) . See also Aalberts, Tanja, ‘Misrecognition in legal practice: the aporia of the Family of Nations’, Review of International Studies, 44:5 (2018) , this Special Issue. For an overview, from within international law, see Koskenniemi, Martti, ‘The politics of international law’, European Journal of International Law, 1:1 (1990), p. 4 ; Koskenniemi, Martti, ‘The politics of international law – 20 years later’, European Journal of International Law, 20:1 (2009), pp. 719 . For an analysis at the interstices of international law and international relations, see Rajkovic, Nikolas M., Aalberts, Tanja, and Gammeltoft-Hansen, Thomas (eds), The Power of Legality: Practices of International Law and Their Politics (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016) .

11 Craven, Matthew, ‘Statehood, self-determination, and recognition’, International Law, 3 (2010), pp. 203251 ; Pufendorf, Samuel Freiherr von, Of the Law of Nature and Nations: Eight Books (London: J. and J. Knapton, 1728), digital version available at: { }.

12 Hall, William Edward, A Treatise on International Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press; London: H. Frowde, 1895), p. 22, digital version available at: { }.

13 With Alexander Wendt for example arguing for a psychological conception of state personhood for the purpose of accountability – the very reason personhood was construed in international law. Wendt, Alexander, ‘The State as Person in international theory’, Review of International Studies, 30:2 (2004), pp. 289331 . A notable but dated exception is Carr, E. H., The Twenty Years’ Crisis: 1919–1939 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1939) .

14 Oppenheim, Lassa, International Law: A Treatise (London: Longmans, 1905), p. 110, digital version available at: { }.

15 Ibid., p. 122.

16 Ibid., p. 124.

17 Klabbers, Jan, ‘The concept of legal personality’, Ius Gentium, 11:35 (2005), p. 5 .

18 Kantorowicz, Ernst, The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Vol. 22 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press) .

19 Schmitt, Carl, The Leviathan in the State Theory of Thomas Hobbes: Meaning and Failure of a Political Symbol (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008), pp. 3334 , emphasis added.

20 Ibid., p. 47.

21 See Portmann, Roland, Legal Personality in International Law, Vol. 70 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), p. 250 . This is the perspective of the state as a ‘fact’, whereby legal personality is defined through a set of criteria mirroring the development of sovereignty, codified through The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States in 1933, which states that ‘a state exists when it possesses ‘(a) a permanent population, (b) a defined territory, (c) government, and (d) capacity to enter into relations with other States’.

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) .

25 Simpson, Gerry, ‘Two Liberalisms’, European Journal of International Law, 12:3 (2001), pp. 537572 . See also Schlesinger, Stephen C., Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations: A Story of Superpowers, Secret Agents, Wartime Allies and Enemies, and Their Quest for a Peaceful World (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2004) ; Mazower, Mark, No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009) .

26 Simpson, ‘Two Liberalisms’, p. 556.

27 Ibid., pp. 540–1.

28 Crawford, James, The Creation of States in International Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), pp. 152 , 155.

29 Simpson, ‘Two Liberalisms’, pp. 554–5, emphasis added.

30 Barnett, Michael, ‘The new United Nations politics of peace: From juridical dovereignty to empirical sovereignty’, Global Governance, 1:1 (1995), pp. 7997 ; International Commission on Intervention, State Sovereignty, The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2001) ; Evans, Gareth, The Responsibility to Protect (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 1529 .

31 See, for example, Orford, Anne, International Authority and the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) ; Donnelly, Jack, ‘Human rights: a new standard of civilization?’, International Affairs, 74:1 (1998), pp. 123 ; Koskenniemi, Marti, The Gentle Civilizer of Nations: The Rise and Fall of International Law 1870–1960, Vol. 14 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001) .

32 McConaughey, Meghan, Musgrave, Paul, and Nexon, Daniel H., ‘Beyond anarchy: Logics of political organization, hierarchy, and international structure’, International Theory, 10:2 (2018), pp. 181218 .

33 Ibid., p. 187.

34 Ibid., p. 189.

35 See Jackson and Nexon, ‘Relations before states’, p. 304; Emirbayer and Mische, ‘What is agency?’; and McConaughey, Musgrave, and Nexon, ‘Beyond anarchy’.

36 MacDonald, Paul K., ‘Embedded authority: a relational network approach to hierarchy in world politics’, Review of International Studies, 44:1 (2018), Online First, pp. 123 (p. 19), available at: doi:10.1017/S0260210517000213 .

37 Ibid., p. 21.

38 Chowdhury, Arjun and Duvall, Raymond D., ‘Sovereignty and sovereign power’, International Theory, 6:2 (2014), pp. 191223 .

39 Ibid., p. 206.

40 See also Benjamin de Carvalho, Niels Nagelhus Schia, and Xavier Guillaume, ‘Everyday sovereignty: International experts, brokers and local ownership in peacebuilding Liberia’, European Journal of International Relations (2018).

41 Bayart, Jean-François and Ellis, Stephen, ‘Africa in the world: a history of extraversion’, African Affairs, 99:395 (2000), pp. 217267 .

42 For an overview, see Rosenau, James N., ‘Governance in a new global order’, in Anthony McGrew and David Held (eds), Governing Globalization: Power, Authority and Global Governance (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), pp. 7086 ; Sassen, Saskia, Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008) .

43 For a recent discussion on this, see Minda Holm, ‘What, when, and where, then, is the concept of sovereignty?’, in Julia Costa Lopez, Benjamin De Carvalho, Andrew A. Latham, Ayşe Zarakol, Jens Bartelson, and Minda Holm, ‘Forum: In the beginning there was no word (for it): Terms, concepts, and early sovereignty’, International Studies Review, 20:3 (2018).

44 Bartelson, Jens, Sovereignty as Symbolic Form (London: Routledge, 2014) , kindle loc. 405–18, emphasis added.

45 Ibid.

46 Ibid., p. 81.

47 Ibid., p. 87.

48 Ibid.

49 Aalberts, Tanja, ‘Rethinking the principle of (sovereign) equality as a standard of civilisation’, Millennium, 42:3 (2014), pp. 767789 ; Krasner, Stephen D., Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999) ; Krasner, Stephen D., ‘Sharing sovereignty: New institutions for collapsed and failing states’, International Security, 29:2 (2004), pp. 85120 ; Biersteker, Thomas J. and Weber, Cynthia, ‘The social construction of state sovereignty’, in Thomas J. Biersteker and Cynthia Weber (eds), State Sovereignty as Social Construct (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 12 ; Sassen, Saskia, Losing Control? Sovereignty in the Age of Globalization (Columbia, NY: Columbia University Press, 1996) .

50 See also Nexon, Daniel and Musgrave, Paul, ‘American liberalism and the imperial temptation’, in Noel Parker (ed.), Empire and International Order (London and New York: Routledge, 2016), pp. 131149 . Nexon and Musgrave speak of the ‘two extremes’ of liberal ideas of governance – liberal enlargement, and liberal intergovernmentalism – but stop short of discussing how these are also institutionalised within the very concept of state subjectivity in the international system, and thus what consequences they have for broader ideas of sovereignty.

51 Laruelle, Marlene (ed.), Eurasianism and the European Far Right: Reshaping the Europe-Russia Relationship (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015) ; Shekhovtsov, Anton, Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir (London: Routledge, 2017) .

52 Website of the Hungarian Government, ‘Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Speech at the Closing Event for the National Consultation’ (29 June 2017), available at: {}, our highlight.

53 Adler-Nissen, Rebecca, ‘Stigma management in international relations: Transgressive identities, norms, and order in international society’, International Organization, 68:1 (2014), pp. 143176 ; Zarakol, Ayşe, ‘What made the modern world hang together: Socialisation or stigmatisation?’, International Theory, 6:2 (2014), pp. 311332 .

54 Aris, Stephen, ‘The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation: “Tackling the Three Evils”: a regional response to non-traditional security challenges or an anti-Western bloc?’, Europe-Asia Studies, 61:3 (2009), pp. 457482 .

55 Gleb Bryanski, ‘Putin likens UN Libya resolution to crusades’, Reuters (21 March 2011), available at: {}.

56 Official Internet Resources of the President of Russia, ‘70th Session of the UN General Assembly’ (28 September 2015), available at: {}, emphasis added. The paradox, of course, is that this vision also coexists with an idea of Russia having a particular ‘right’ of influence in its ‘Near Abroad’, echoing geopolitical ideas of Schmitt and others.

57 See Broome, André and Quirk, Joel, ‘Governing the world at a distance: the practice of global benchmarking’, Review of International Studies, 41:5(2015), pp. 819841 ; Cooley, Alexander and Snyder, Jack (eds), Ranking the World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) ; Neumann, Iver B. and Sending, Ole Jacob, Governing the Global Polity: Practice, Rationality, Mentality (Ann Arbor, MI: Michigan University Press, 2010) .

58 Roland Paris, ‘Competing Conceptions of World Order: The Ideational Dimensions of Power Transition’, paper presented to the ISA Conference, San Francisco (5 April 2018). While ‘Westphalia’ and its principles are debated (cf. Stéphane Beaulac, The Power of Language in the Making of International Law: The Word Sovereignty in Bodin and Vattel and the Myth of Westphalia (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2004), the UN Charter has a unquestionable role in laying down the principles discussed here.

59 On this, see Neumann, Iver B. and Pouliot, Vincent, ‘Untimely Russia: Hysteresis in Russian-Western relations over the past millennium’, Security Studies, 20:1 (2011), pp. 105137 .

60 Markell, Patchen, ‘Tragic recognition: Action and identity in Antigone and Aristotle’, Political Theory, 31:1 (2003), pp. 638 ; Honneth, Axel, ‘Integrity and disrespect: Principles of a conception of morality based on the theory of recognition’, Political Theory, 20:2 (1992), pp. 187201 ; Taylor, Charles, The Ethics of Authenticity (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992) .

61 See Jackson, ‘Forum introduction’.

62 Reus-Smit, Christian, ‘Cultural diversity and international order’, International Organization, 71:4 (2017), p. 879 .

63 Waltz, Kenneth, Theory of International Politics (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1979), p. 88 .

64 As such, we disagree with Wæver in seeing it as a Weberian ideal-type; for Weber, ideal-types had to be explicitly historical, while Waltz is here trying to make a transhistorical claim. Wæver, Ole, ‘Waltz’s theory of a theory’, International Relations, 23:2 (2009), pp. 201222 .

65 Wendt, Alexander, ‘Anarchy is what states make of it: the social construction of power politics’, International Organization, 46:2 (1992), p. 400 .

66 Ibid., p. 412.

67 Ibid., p. 413.

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 .


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

  • Minda Holm (a1) and Ole Jacob Sending (a1)


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