State Sovereignty

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    Sovereignty refers to power and the ability to govern and is necessary for states to operate effectively. But what is state sovereignty, how does it function, and what challenges does it face in the world of international politics?

    State sovereignty definition

    State sovereignty is a central concept in the international world that considers the power and influence that a state may hold.

    Sovereignty refers to the ability and right to govern oneself. It can be considered synonymous with supreme power or control.

    State sovereignty is significant as it describes the self-control, or autonomy, that a state has without the interference of other powers. Sovereignty lies at the centre of statehood as it defines power and control, central requirements for governance.

    A (sovereign) state is an organised territory headed by a central government with clear borders, population, and international recognition.

    The concept of sovereignty has evolved gradually. Many consider the Peace of Westphalia - a peace agreement following the Thirty Years' War - one of modern sovereignty's foundations.

    The Treaties of Westphalia reshaped Central Europe. The peace agreements negotiated in 1648 led to the redistribution of territories across Europe, such as the Netherlands' independence from Spain.

    State Sovereignty, Peace of Westphalia, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Painting depicting the Peace of Westphalia treaty in Münster, painted by Gerard ter Borch, 1648.

    The treaty highlighted the importance of states controlling their own affairs, such as religion. Many attribute the treaty and the principles it established as the origins of the sovereign state.

    Nevertheless, the past century has seen significant changes, placing further challenges on sovereignty. Various states, such as Italy and Germany, had already begun to form or consolidate during the second half of the 19th century. Nevertheless, several powerful empires also existed, extending their authority over large swathes of territory.

    Both World Wars challenged the existing power structures and resulted in the emergence of even more states, such as Poland and Turkey. The collapse of empires helped enable sovereign states to form across the world, although the Soviet Union did prohibit this for several Western European states. All these political changes helped establish state sovereignty as we know it.

    Regionalism and Globalisation

    Both World Wars represented the international challenges that states now faced and the importance of upholding peace and stability internationally. International bodies and institutions, such as the UN and the Council of Europe, began to form, aiming to unite countries to prevent such horrors from repeating.

    Against this backdrop, globalisation drew states and peoples together, meaning that the world operated in a new international context.

    Globalisation is the process of international integration through the increased share of goods, ideas, and wealth. It has been encouraged by technological and economic advancements.

    For more information, read our explanation of National Sovereignty and Globalisation

    As cooperation continued, more regional organisations, such as NAFTA and the EU began to materialise, seeking to share or pool power for shared decision-making.

    All these changes have challenged the role of state sovereignty and impacted the operation of power on the international level. We will now explore the different challenges that state sovereignty faces.

    Examples of challenges to state sovereignty

    State sovereignty refers to the authority and power of a government over a particular territory. But what challenges threaten this concept?

    Erosion of state sovereignty

    Sovereignty and power are revered as one of the central principles of politics, and as such, threats to sovereignty are a significant focus to theorists.

    Various threats exist, from international decision-making and enforcement to interference from other states, as we will explore. However, one of the most contested ideas is the operation of international organisations and whether they impede sovereignty. We can understand this debate through two opposing terms: zero-sum and pooled.

    Many states that participate in international organisations recognise the benefit of cooperation, believing that more effective decision-making can occur globally by sharing certain areas of decision-making.

    Pooled sovereignty is the idea that states gain greater influence or power by combining sovereignty or decision-making on certain issues.

    Nevertheless, some theorists have a stricter definition of sovereignty, believing that regardless of the benefits, sovereignty should not be sacrificed. For them, pooled sovereignty is a zero-sum relationship.

    Zero-sum (sovereignty) describes how the more sovereignty you give away, the less you have. Relative gains cannot substitute the importance of sovereignty.

    This debate highlights the challenges that international cooperation has placed on the concept of sovereignty.

    The EU - Regionalism and its challenge to state sovereignty

    The EU is one of several important regional institutions, currently uniting 27 states in a shared organisation. It is the best example of a supranational organisation. This is because sovereignty is willingly given up to the EU, enabling it to have legal authority over certain areas of decision-making.

    For more information, read our explanation of Supranational Organisations.

    This again highlights the debate around the benefits of pooled decision-making vs lost control. This debate materialised in the UK's referendum on EU membership.

    One of the central slogans of the Leave campaign was "take back control", evoking the idea of regaining lost sovereignty from the EU. Although there were various issues that the Leave campaign focused on, they capitalised on the notion of control.

    State Sovereignty, Brexit Campaigners, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Photograph of Leave and Remain campaigners near the Houses of Parliament, 2019.

    The EU has control over varying areas of policy-making, such as trade and regulations, and membership entailed the free movement of EU citizens. The campaign focused on the issues of trade, money, and borders.

    The EU is a strong representation of how pooled and zero-sum sovereignty operate in reality. In the context of Brexit, those on the leave campaign saw the relationship as a zero-sum, believing that reclaiming control was more important.

    International law and state sovereignty

    International laws are one of the central features of the globalised world and have existed for centuries.

    International law describes the shared norms and rules that exist between states. These may include fundamental principles such as human rights, or standards developed and set over time.

    Nevertheless, international law has become increasingly important in the globalised world that emerged in the 20th century, with institutions seeking to uphold and regulate them worldwide.

    International law broadly represents shared interests and can again tap into the idea of pooled sovereignty. They exist to support fair and equal conditions internationally, meaning that no country should be worse off than another through them.

    The UN plays a central role in international governance and upholding shared laws.

    The UN enforces international law through a range of organisations.

    State Sovereignty, United Nations, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Flags of UN members outside the United Nations headquarters in Geneva.

    For example, UN peacekeepers operate in areas of conflict to protect civilians and prevent atrocities, hoping to end the violence. On a broader level, UN members can settle disputes through the International Court of Justice, offering another way that the UN can enforce international law.

    International Law - a challenge to sovereignty?

    Upholds shared principles, leading to more even and fair policies.Whose interests do they represent - some norms are western-centric.
    Advice and support, not authoritative control.Clashes over sovereignty can impact a state's position or reputation.
    No world police - the sovereign state is still supreme.International institutions, like the EU and the UN, operate with significant power.

    State sovereignty and human rights

    Similar to international law, human rights represent universal norms that operate globally.

    Human rights are the fundamental rights afforded to every person simply for being human.

    Human Rights became increasingly important following the horrors of WWII, with the UN producing a shared document on human rights to which most states adhere. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is central to the modern political world and has dictated how international law and norms are applied.

    To learn more, read our explanation of Human Rights!

    Human rights - a challenge to sovereignty?

    To some, human rights can help support sovereignty by offering universal protections and standards which states can use to protect their citizens.

    However, some states contend that Human Rights restrict their decision-making or apply unfair pressure.

    In 2014, the Dominican Republic was found to have breached human rights by "denying identity documents to thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent and arbitrarily depriving them of their nationality".1 The Dominican President rejected the ruling, arguing that it was biased and violated the country's sovereignty.

    Humanitarian intervention and state sovereignty

    Humanitarian intervention is a contentious topic that refers to significant efforts by powers to intervene in the domestic affairs of other states to prevent crises.

    Humanitarian intervention involves active intervention, often through the military or resources, attempting to prevent human suffering and crises.

    Building upon our understanding, humanitarian intervention can represent a clear breach of state sovereignty. States like the US and UK have increasingly become involved in humanitarian intervention, particularly in acting to remove despotic leaders for the "good of the world" or that country's citizens (Such as seen in Iraq). Opponents of such action would claim that it is an unfair exercise of power or an example of modern imperialism.

    Nevertheless, in some cases, there has been consensus around the role of intervention in upholding sovereignty.

    Following the genocide and atrocities witnessed across the 1990s, the international community and the UN focused on the issue of national sovereignty. They set up the International Commission on Intervention and State sovereignty. Its main legacy was the principle of Responsibility to Protect.2

    The principle describes how state sovereignty is not just power but the responsibility to protect one's citizens. And if a state fails to protect its citizens, other states have the responsibility to step in. With this mindset, state sovereignty can be violated if doing so could prevent genocide.

    State Sovereignty - Key takeaways

    • State sovereignty refers to a state where the government has ultimate control and autonomy over its territory. The origins of the concept can be drawn back to the Peace of Westphalia.
    • Some theorists believe that international institutions can extend the role of state sovereignty through 'pooled sovereignty'. However, others contend that any sovereignty given up is a 'zero-sum' transaction as sovereignty has been lost regardless of the benefit.
    • State sovereignty has come under increasing pressure through the operation of international institutions and globalisation. Brexit can be considered a reaction to 'lost sovereignty'.
    • There exists a range of modern challenges to sovereignty. These include the operation of international law, human rights, and humanitarian intervention, all of which can impede a state's choices.


    1. Robin Guittard, National sovereignty vs human rights?, November 6, 2014.
    2. UN, Responsibility to Protect, United Nations.
    3. Fig. 2 - Brexit Demonstrators (, by ChiralJon (, Licenced by CC BY 2.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about State Sovereignty

    How does the EU challenge state sovereignty?

    The EU is a supranational organisation, meaning that states must give up an element of their sovereignty or decision-making to the EU in order to join. For some, this is an example of pooled sovereignty, where collective decision-making may lead to better results. But for critics, it's a zero-sum relationship, meaning it is simply a loss of sovereignty with no equivalent gain.

    What is state sovereignty?

    State sovereignty describes the autonomy or self-control a state has to govern itself. It is the power a government holds over its territory and people, over law, trade etc.

    Does humanitarian intervention violate state sovereignty? 

    In a simplistic sense, humanitarian intervention can be seen as a violation of state sovereignty - such a position is often used as a criticism. Nevertheless, the UN set the Responsibility to Protect principle, arguing that the right to sovereignty is conditional on protecting one's citizens - otherwise other states must intervene.

    What is the impact of globalisation on state sovereignty?

    Globalisation has led to the internationalisation of politics, making some levels of cooperation inevitable. This has included the rise of regional organisations and institutions. Shared decision-making has inevitably challenged the notion of state sovereignty.

    Why is sovereignty important to a state? 

    Sovereignty is important as it defines statehood and power. It gives states the authority to make independent decisions and to lead themselves.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What does sovereignty mean?

    What is a state?

    When was the Peace of Westphalia?


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