In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sovereignty

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • The Modern States System
  • Theories Of International Relations
  • International Law

International Relations Sovereignty
Peter Hägel
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0031


The concept of sovereignty designates a form of rule that is intrinsically entwined with the emergence and existence of the modern states system. It relates to states and comprises a set of norms that address an internal (final authority), an external (nonintervention/autonomy), and an intersubjective (recognition) dimension. Individual states’ sovereignty is, however, always a question of degree that varies enormously across countries and over time. As it shapes world order, sovereignty becomes a fundamental political institution, codified in international law. One of sovereignty’s key purposes is the peaceful coexistence of states with different internal political systems. Neglected as a subject of serious analysis in international relations during the Cold War, questions about sovereignty’s continuing relevance in a globalizing world have spurred numerous studies since the 1990s. The major international relations theories have developed accounts of how sovereignty evolves, and the implications of universal human rights, disintegrating states, and globalization are being thoroughly examined. Major change might come with the growth of private and supranational authority structures, but an end of sovereignty seems nowhere near.

General Overviews

Studies about sovereignty can be distinguished into classic works that shaped modern politics and contemporary scholarship that discusses sovereignty within the academic discipline of international relations. The classic texts accompanied the rise of the European states system and explored sovereignty as a way to establish political order. Most of them remain widely read and discussed. Works by Schmitt and Morgenthau are placed in this section as 20th-century classics, though Morgenthau marks the transition to contemporary monographs, which analyze how sovereignty evolves. They follow two approaches: providing conceptual histories of sovereignty as an idea and conducting empirical investigations of how international politics correspond to sovereignty norms. Contemporary edited volumes usually address a wide empirical range of problematic sovereignty issues through a particular theoretical framework.

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