State, Sovereignty, and Territory

Thomas Biersteker. Handbook of International Relations. Editor: Walter Carlsnaes, Thomas Risse, Beth A Simmons. Sage Publication. 2002.

The concepts of state, sovereignty and territory are central to the study and practice of international relations. For generations of scholars, the concept of the state has been the principal subject and unit of analysis in international politics (Morgenthau, 1948; Waltz, 1979). The principle of sovereignty has provided one of the central bases for order in international relations, particularly in its codified form since the end of the Thirty Years War (Hinsley, 1986). Disputes over territory or struggles over territorial control have figured in virtually every major inter-state war of the past hundred years (Agnew, 1998; Mackinder, 1904).

However, forms of state, meanings of sovereignty and conceptions of territoriality are neither fixed nor constant across time and place. The absolutist states of the seventeenth century are profoundly different from the liberal states of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The meaning of the sovereignty of states that prevailed prior to the French Revolution bears only a limited resemblance to the application and assertions of sovereignty today. The formidably armed territorial boundaries that separated and defined the major states of Europe throughout most of the twentieth century were fundamentally redefined within the European Union by the beginning of the twenty-first.

One of the most important analytical challenges for scholars of international relations is to identify different meanings of state, sovereignty and territory, and to understand their origins, comprehend their changes of meaning, analyze their interrelationships, and characterize their transformations. The purpose of this chapter is to illustrate important changes of meaning of these central concepts over the course of the twenteith century and to suggest some ways of thinking about them.

The concepts of state, sovereignty and territory are each socially constructed. They are defined, and redefined, by the rules, actions and practices of different agents, including in the case of states, by themselves. An examination of the contestation of different practices, resistances, rules, norms, legal challenges and public justifications provides important insights into the changing composition and definition of state, sovereignty and territoriality. It is for this reason that I will take a decidedly constructivist approach to this review.

State and sovereignty are mutually constitutive concepts. As F.H. Hinsley reminds us, ‘In a word, the origin and history of the concept of sovereignty are closely linked with the nature, the origin and the history of the state’ (Hinsley, 1986: 2). States define the meaning of sovereignty through their engagement in practices of mutual recognition, practices that define both themselves and each other. At the same time, the mutual recognition of claims of sovereignty is an important element in the definition of the state itself (although there is a school of thought within international law that maintains that states can exist without formal recognition by other states) (Shaw, 1997: 146–7). Both the concepts of state and sovereignty also have territorial conceptions associated with them. The idealized, Westphalian state has distinct boundaries, and the Westphalian ideal of sovereignty stresses the principle of the inviolability of those borders.

The modern state and sovereignty have been co-determinitive since their common origins as concepts and associated practices in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But while they have always been closely associated, they have not remained constant or been mutually constitutive in the same ways over time (Bartelson, 1995). That is, different forms of state have constituted different meanings of sovereignty and been associated with different conceptions of territoriality over time and across place.

Broad generalizations and timeless categorizations of forms of state, types of sovereignty and concepts of territory are highly problematic. Thus, I will attempt to ground–to historicize and to contextualize–this discussion with consideration of different twentieth-century forms of state, changing meanings of sovereignty and conceptions of territory. The preceding introductory comments suggest how easy it is to demonstrate changes of meaning over a broad range of time (contrasting the sixteenth-century absolutist state with the nineteenth-century liberal state, for example). However, I want to illustrate changes of meaning over a more limited time span. This should be considered a harder test of the principal thesis about the changing meaning of our core concepts. That is, if we can see significant changes of meaning over the course of a single century, it should sensitize us further to the importance of historicizing and contextualizing the concepts over longer time periods.

This characterization of changes in meaning over the course of the twentieth century is being made for illustrative purposes. I do not intend to imply a unitary directionality to the changes described in the next section or to deny the possibility of dramatic reversals, change and/or transformation. Indeed, as I will illustrate, there was evidence at the end of the twentieth century of states attempting to strike back at (or reverse) the redefinition of their sovereignty. Rather, I want to illustrate qualitative changes in meaning across time and place and to suggest how we should try to comprehend the changing meaning of some of the core concepts of our discipline.

Historicizing and Contextualizing State, Sovereignty and Territoriality

Forms of State

It is common for scholars and practitioners of international relations to employ concepts of state (or to invoke lessons from the history of state practices) as if the term described a fixed and unchanging institutional phenomenon. This tendency was especially evident during the latter half of the twentieth century, when scholars first began to articulate the need for ‘a scientific approach’ to the subject in the 1940s (Carr, 1939; Morgenthau, 1948), a movement that was developed further by the behavioral scientific ‘revolution’ that emerged in the 1950s and 1960s (Kaplan, 1962; Singer, 1961). Neorealists writing in the 1970s and 1980s are commonly associated with broadly positivistic assertions about states and about state behavior across time and place (Gilpin, 1981; Waltz, 1979). For Kenneth Waltz, the enduring anarchic character of international politics accounts for the ‘striking sameness’ in the quality of international life over the millennia (Waltz, 1979: 53). While for Robert Gilpin, states ‘throughout history’ have had as a principal objective ‘the conquest of territory in order to advance economic, security, and other interests’ (Gilpin, 1981: 23).

However, the tendency to treat states as fundamentally similar units across time and place is by no means restricted to neorealist analyses. It is also commonly found among neoliberals (Keohane, 1984), contemporary behavioralists (Russett and Starr, 1985), and even among some constructivists (Wendt, 1999: 8–9).1 Not every scholar consistently employs the word ‘state’ to describe the core units of international relations. Although he is commonly associated with state centrism, Hans Morgenthau wrote more extensively about ‘nations’ than about ‘states’ in his classic text Politics among Nations. Nevertheless, the Weberian roots of his core unit of analysis–the state–are both clearly recognizable and firmly grounded in Morgenthau’s classic work (Smith, 1986: 15–16).

While scholars of international relations commonly recognize and acknowledge the presence of a great variety of state forms over time, an explicit analysis of the variation and its implications rarely figures prominently in their theories. The lure of positivist generalization either proves too seductive, or the complexity of differentiation turns out to be too difficult to accommodate.

The literature on the nature of the state typically distinguishes between its origins and absolutist forms in the sixteenth century (Bodin, [1576] 1962; Hobbes, [1651] 1958; Machiavelli, 1965) and the variation in its modern forms. This includes variations from the era of popular sovereignty to the nineteenth-century liberal state, the twentieth-century totalitarian state, and what some have described as the late twentieth-century ‘post modern’ state (Held, 1983). Perry Anderson (1974) has chronicled the origins and functions of the absolutist state, while Charles Tilly (1975), Anthony Giddens (1985) and Michael Mann (1988) have each described the role of war in the making of the modern state. Douglass North (1981) has emphasized the early state’s critical role in establishment and enforcement of property rights, central to the development of capitalism. The relationship between the absolutist state and the origins and functioning of the classical European balance of power system has also been examined extensively in the scholarly literature (Claude, 1989; Little, 1989; Schroeder, 1989). The absolutist nature of the state in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was highly correlated with the diplomatic practices of the period, especially the ease with which diplomats and heads of state were able to settle disputes with the division, re-division and allocation of territory. This absolutist residue is a characteristic of the balance of power system that has troubled democratic leaders of the liberal state throughout the twentieth century. Woodrow Wilson abhorred the political immorality of the balance of power system prevalent at the beginning of the twentieth century and preferred open diplomacy to secrecy, and self-determination over the ‘unconscionable bartering of helpless and innocent peoples’. The tension between the frequently illiberal practices of balance of power diplomacy and the proclivities of democratic liberal states has persisted throughout the twentieth century (Craig and George, 1995).

The very conceptualization of the meaning of the modern state has generated extensive scholarly and political debate. Max Weber’s conception of the state as an institution that possesses a monopoly over the legitimate means of coercion and the ability to extract tax revenues has been widely utilized throughout the scholarship of international relations, either explicitly or implicitly (Weber, 1949). The Weberian conception of the state has been particularly influential on the scholarly tradition identified with political realism (Smith, 1986). Indeed, Weber’s construct of the state is central to all of the works of the classical, postwar realists, from E.H. Carr and Hans Morgenthau, to John Herz, Reinhold Niebuhr and Henry Kissinger.2

Alternatives to Weberian conceptions of the state have been provided by scholars working within the Marxist tradition. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels anticipated the eventual withering away of the state, and in some of their early work the state is characterized as little more than the executive committee of the ruling class (Marx and Engels, [1848] 1978). As such, the state could have no autonomous role, independent of the interests of the ruling bourgeoisie.

There is enough ambiguity in the broader corpus of Marx’s early work (as well as in the collected works of more than a few so-called ‘revisionists’) to ensure the emergence of other interpretations of the state within the broader Marxist tradition. Nicos Poulantzas argued that the state could theoretically work against the ruling class, if it served the broader purpose of preserving capitalism as a system (Poulantzas, 1975). Peter Evans and many Latin American dependentistas argued that the state could, in some instances, act relatively independently of dominant social forces and serve its own material interests (Evans, 1979)–a point shared by statist scholarship from outside the Marxist tradition (Evans et al., 1985; Wade, 1987). Suffice it to say, that there have been significantly different conceptions of the state over time, and that there have been significant disagreements about the conceptualization of the state construct. There is enough variation at least to render problematic the tendency within much of international relations to assume the constancy of the state as a unit across time and space.

Discussions of the modern state sometimes conflate the concepts of state, nation and nation-state. The three are analytically separable, and the chapter by Lars-Erik Cederman in this volume explores them at some length. While there is no unanimity on the definition of the state, both the Weberian and Marxist conceptions of the state regard it as a set of institutions and relationships of governance closely connected to, but analytically distinct from (and partially independent of) society. Nations consist of peoples, often with a shared language, history and identity, who might find themselves contained within states, divided between them, or granted self-determination over their own affairs in the form of the nation-state. The coincidence of nation and state in the form of the nation-state has more often than not proven to be an ephemeral phenomenon, however.

It is one thing to establish changes in the form, meaning and conceptualization of the state over time, but yet another to establish its implications for our analysis and understanding of international relations. The basic affinities between the absolutist state and the operation of the classical European balance of power system have already been suggested. Martin Wight identified relationships between the emergence of other forms of state–revolutionary, democratic state forms–and the international systems that developed in later periods (Wight, 1977). More recently, Mlada Bukovansky has illustrated how the French and American revolutions produced new forms of state that challenged the dynastic principles that governed the international system during the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries (Bukovansky, 1997, 1999). These were principles that had been derived from, and were in many ways a continuation of, principles associated historically with the absolutist state. However, enlightenment ideas played an important role in the transformation of the state and of the international political culture that was shaped and formed by state interactions.

It would be possible to trace changes in the meaning of the modern state and their implications for our understanding of the states system from their origins in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (both the origins of the modern state and the origins of the modern states system) (Hall, 1999). However, we can also illustrate the importance of changes in the meaning of states with more contemporary illustrations drawn exclusively from the twentieth century. The great powers (and their imitators) were more than mere states or nation-states at the beginning of the century: they were empires. It was not until the middle of the twentieth century that the nation-state form was truly globalized, following the break-up of formal empires and the transformative process of decolonization. By the century’s end, we had evidence of both ‘failed’ states in Africa and the emergence of a distinctly different polity (or a potential ‘superstate’) in Europe. Thus, while states remained central to international politics throughout the course of the twentieth century, the meaning of ‘state’ has not remained fixed in time or place.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, empires were the ‘natural’ state form for the great powers. The British, French, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires governed most of the world, while Germany, Japan and the United States aspired to empires of their own. According to J.A. Hobson, it was an era ‘of competitive forms of imperialism’ (Hobson, 1902). World maps reflected empires as the principal units in territorial terms, and the language of geopolitics and imperialism tended to take the imperial state for granted. Sir Halford Mackinder worried in 1904 that if Russia, the pre-eminent land power, were to ally with Germany, ‘the empire of the world would then be in sight’ (Mackinder, 1904: 436). Advocates of imperial expansion, from Jules Ferry in France to Cecil Rhodes in England, asserted the economic, political and strategic benefits of imperialism, along with the moral imperative of assuming ‘the selfless burden of empire’ (Kipling, 1903). Imperial expansion was natural and unproblematic, while primacy was given to the physical occupation and possession of territory (a point to which I will return later). The ‘hierarchy of civilizations’ ensured that the world was very much a European world (with Europe on top), and there was widespread belief in the benefits to be derived from the historically progressive aggregation of political units, from nations to states to empires. Adam Watson has described this in terms of ‘the worldwide expansion of European international society’ (Watson, 1992).

The beginning of the twentieth century also saw the emergence of mass politics, and increasingly, at least in some parts of the world, the emergence of mass, democratic politics (Barraclough, 1967). As urbanization and industrialization both advanced, labor became increasingly mobilized and eventually became a political force that generated reform movements within liberal democratic states, and revolutionary upheavals in more autocratic places like Russia and China. Similar forms of mass mobilization and proto-nationalist movements began to emerge throughout the colonial possessions of the empires by the 1920s, from Africa and South Asia, to the Middle East and East Asia. It was the presence of these movements for reform and self-determination, in combination with the great world wars of the twentieth century, that would lead eventually to the demise of the imperial form of the twentieth-century state.

The primacy of the nation-state form is most strikingly apparent during the middle years of the twentieth century, from the 1930s through the 1970s. The ‘welfare state’, the ‘territorial state’, the ‘national security state’, and the ‘developmental state’ are all prominent constructs of the middle part of the twentieth century. The decolonization process following the Second World War distributed the nation-state form throughout the territories of the former colonial empires. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Sir Halford Mackinder commented on the significance of the end of the age of exploration (that had begun with Columbus) and the emergence of a period where ‘there is scarcely a region left for pegging out a claim of ownership’ (Mackinder, 1904: 421). Most of this remaining territory was claimed by empires, a fact that prompted V.I. Lenin to observe that this would inevitably prompt conflict over the division and re-division of territory, since wars between rising and declining capitalist imperial powers would recur (Lenin, 1939). By the middle of the twentieth century, virtually all the empires were gone, and the world was increasingly divided into nation-states. Where new states contained more than one nation, new ‘nation-building’ efforts predominated.

One of the best ways to illustrate the change in the meaning of the state in the twentieth century is to examine changing norms about the legitimate role of the state, both in the economy and in the provision of security. Between the First and the Second World Wars there was a genuine contestation between radically different alternative political forms of the state, from the welfare-nationalist state to the alternatives of the fascist state and the socialist state (Cox, 1987). Each of these three different state forms entailed substantial increases in the degree of the state’s intervention in the economy (Gerschenkron, 1962; Polanyi, 1957). It was not until the end of the twentieth century that there were significant initiatives to reverse the degree of state economic intervention in the economy (Biersteker, 1992).

The struggle between different state forms, resulting in the defeat of fascism during the Second World War, and subsequently the defeat of socialism at the end of the Cold War, led to substantial increases in the security apparatus of the twentieth-century nation-state (Lasswell, 1941). These are increases that have often proven more resilient than the increases in state economic intervention, particularly in much of the developing world. The imitative behavior of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War led to replications of each other’s tactics, behavior and strategies, although in the US case it was tempered by its anti-statist tradition (Friedberg, 2000). At the end of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union were spending significant amounts on the maintenance of the national security apparatus of the state.

Another indication of the predominance of the nation-state form at the middle of the twentieth century is contained in the Charter of the United Nations. The UN Charter is founded on the defense of the inviolable norm of non-intervention into the affairs of member nation-states, inscribed in Article II, Chapter 7 of the Charter. The United Nations as an institution has, since its founding in 1945, been strongly associated with asserting the rights and defending the concerns of its member states. It is a profoundly statist institution.

Although the nation-state form was universalized during the middle part of the twentieth century, not every observer viewed this development as benign. The intense nationalism associated with the origins of the Second World War also contributed to a global search for institutions that would transcend the nation-state construct, from an interest in regional integration (Deutsch et al., 1957; Haas, 1958) to the expansion of global institutions more generally (Ruggie, 1993a).

By the end of the twentieth century, the intense statism associated with its middle decades began to show evidence of waning. There were substantial reductions in the degree and nature of state intervention in the economy, beginning in the late 1970s. By the early 1990s this transformation was virtually universalized, as the global expansion of capitalism was achieved under the banner of ‘economic reform’ and the neoliberal state. The national security state was increasingly challenged by the transparency of the Internet, but it was doing its best to defend itself by enhancing its surveillance capacity. Governance had become increasingly complex (Held, 1995).

At the same time, the failure of the explicit state-building project of the post-colonial era was becoming increasingly apparent in many parts of Africa. The considerable promise of post-colonial development and nation-building was replaced by recurring crises of development and the specter of state failure and incapacity. Also at the same time, Europe, the birthplace of the nation-state, was moving away from the separate nation-state form, in the direction of a polity whose definition remains ambiguously situated between a collection of nation-states and a single, superstate (Wallace, 1983). While there is no consensus on a label for the modal state form at the beginning of the twenty-first century, candidates range from the self-restrained, neoliberal or postmodern state to the defective, retreating or failed state.

Up to this point, most of the discussion about different forms of state has focused on its change of meaning over time. The form of the state has changed across the centuries, and it has also shown significant changes within them. However, not only does the form of the state change over time, but it also changes across location, place and space. That is, the salience, importance and meaning of state economic intervention and the nature of the relationship between state and society are profoundly different in different places on the globe at the same point in time. The differences are most apparent when we compare the salience of the nation-state in contemporary Western Europe with its contemporary salience throughout most of the developing world. The contrasts between Europe and North America on the one hand, and Asia on the other, are equally striking, regardless of level of development. These contextual differences have implications both for the ways we need to understand the nature of state economic intervention, as well as for the nature of the relationship between state and society (Katzenstein, 1978).

In the final analysis, why should differences between twentieth-century forms of state–between the imperial state and the nation-state, for example–concern us? Why should this be of interest to students of international relations in particular? State forms matter, because they provide essential forms of political identity, around which people mobilize, kill others and commit their lives. The defense of empire is far more abstract and qualitatively different from the defense of the nation-state. State forms also play a critical role in the construction of the culture of international relations. The culture of international relations during the era of empires, balance of power geopolitics and competitive imperialisms was significantly different from the culture of international relations during the high point of the nation-state, with its imperfect norms of non-intervention and multilateralism. Different state forms can also define the likelihood of international conflict. This is especially the case, if advocates of the democratic peace hypothesis are correct about their assessment of the probability of conflict among democratic states.

It may often appear to be convenient to ignore differences in state form over time and place, in an effort to increase the number of historical cases from which to generalize about international relations. However, the gains in terms of increased sample size may not justify the losses in terms of the misunderstanding of important international phenomena, a point to which we will return in the conclusion of this chapter.

States of Sovereignty

Stephen Krasner has characterized sovereignty as ‘organized hypocrisy’ (Krasner, 1999: 42). Krasner argues that although the institution of sovereignty affirms the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of other states, intervention has always been a normal feature of international affairs. Organized hypocrisy refers to a stable game-theoretic solution to the contradictory practice of asserting the inviolability of territorial boundaries on the one hand and the practice of constant interference on the other. The informal understanding that states are sovereign, yet subject to constant intervention, is best characterized as organized hypocrisy.

Krasner is basically correct, as far as he goes. In constructivist terms, the practices of states serve to define the operational meaning of sovereignty, and these practices are by no means consistent. States are hypocritical and have always intervened in each other’s affairs. The Westphalian ideal of sovereign non-intervention has always been just that: an ideal. As Daniel Deudney has suggested, ‘although the Westphalian system of authority and power has been hegemonic in modern world politics, it has not been universal’ (Deudney, 1996: 191).

The principal limitation with Krasner’s conceptualization of sovereignty is that it is essentially a static one. It does not help us comprehend the possibility of change in the operational meaning of sovereignty, and it does not suggest (or allow for) any typology for the different forms and meanings of sovereignty over time and across place. Like the tendency to treat states as fundamentally like units, Krasner’s conceptualization of sovereignty is essentially fixed and unchanging. It does not help us understand the significance of challenges to sovereignty or the possibility of its transformation.

In this sense, Krasner’s work does not take us very far beyond the insights about state sovereignty contained in the pioneering work of Carl Schmitt or in the work of F.H. Hinsley and Alan James. For Schmitt, ‘[S]overeign is he who decides the exception’ (Schmitt, 1985: 5). For Hinsley, sovereignty is ‘the idea that there is a final and absolute political authority in the political community’ and that ‘no final and absolute authority exists elsewhere’ (Hinsley, 1986: 26). For James, sovereignty is defined in terms of constitutional independence, an authority derived from a state’s constitution, ‘which exists in its own right’ (James, 1986: 40). While each of these works defines the essence of the concept of sovereignty, like Krasner, they concentrate on its transcendent characteristics rather than its variation in form, its change in operational meaning across time and space, or the possibility of its transformation. We need a framework and an approach to help us understand this phenomenon, something I will propose later.

Like the previous discussion of changing forms of state, I will also illustrate changing states or forms of sovereignty across time and place. While it would be easier to demonstrate the magnitude of changes by contrasting the sovereignty of the absolutist state with that of the contemporary state, as in the preceding discussion, I will illustrate important, qualitative transformations in the operational meaning of state sovereignty with reference primarily to the twentieth century. One of the best ways to track important changes in the meaning of sovereignty is by examining the criteria explicitly articulated by states when they decide to recognize other states as sovereign. As will be evident from the discussion that follows, the practices of recognition show important variation over the course of the twentieth century.

In order to be recognized as a sovereign state, effective control over territorial space is essential. Article I of the 1933 Montevideo Convention on Rights and Duties of States identifies a defined territory, along with a permanent population, government and a capacity to enter into relations with other states as minimal criteria for statehood under international law (Shaw, 1997: 140). Although there can be important differences in the criteria for recognition across different states–including differences between countries sharing fairly similar legal traditions like the United Kingdom and the United States–a brief case study of changes in US recognition criteria well illustrates important changes in the operational meaning of sovereignty over time.

Thomas Jefferson, the first American Secretary of State, employed a conception of legitimacy borrowed from the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, when he was first confronted with the question of the new republic’s criteria for the recognition of another state. In response to an inquiry from the American Minister to Paris in 1792 about recognition during the course of the French Revolution, Jefferson wrote: ‘It accords with our principles to acknowledge any Government to be rightful which is formed by the will of the nation, substantially declared’ (Hackworth, 1931: 120). In practice, the particular form of governance did not matter, and the United States recognized monarchies, as well as fledgling democracies. The crucial point for recognition purposes was that the state maintain effective territorial control and that it be accorded some form of popular legitimacy.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, an additional criterion was added to the list of recognition criteria. States were recognized as legitimate if they were capable of fulfilling their international commitments and obligations, especially as they related to property rights. This criterion was applied to Colombia in 1900, to Honduras and the Dominican Republic in 1903 and to Haiti in 1911 (Hackworth, 1931: 122–3). The addition of this criterion is an important illustration of American convergence with established European criteria and is indicative of changing American concerns once the United States began to emerge as a major power on the world stage, with substantial economic interests of its own. The concern with a state’s capacity to fulfill international commitments and obligations was especially prominent in the 1920s debate over the recognition of the revolutionary regime that had assumed control in Russia. The revolutionary ideology of the new regime was not viewed as consistent with the standards of the major powers of the time and is one of the reasons it took the United States until the 1930s to recognize the new state of the Soviet Union.

During the 1920s, the United States experimented with the idea of adding the criterion of democratic governance (and explicit rejection of non-constitutional changes of regime), at least with regard to five Central American states. This principle was not generalized to the rest of the world, however, until after the end of the Cold War. During the immediate post-Second World War period, the United States generally followed the lead of the former European colonial powers when it came to granting of recognition to the new states formed out of the process of decolonization.

During the Cold War, the United States appears to have lost sight of Jefferson’s relatively tolerant practice of following the general will. Recognition became one of the tools of Cold War politics. A semblance of territorial control, fulfillment of international obligations and Cold War alignment mattered more than the presence of a democratic regime when it came to the recognition of the Congo, South Korea and South Vietnam. Democracy was more important in the discursive justifications for recognition than in the practices of recognition.

By the end of the twentieth century, particularly following the end of the Cold War, democratic governance increasingly became a prerequisite for state recognition. In its 1991 declaration on ‘Guidelines on the Recognition of New States in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union’, the European Community noted that recognition required commitments with regard to the rule of law, democracy and human rights, as well as guarantees for the rights of ethnic minorities (Shaw, 1997: 301). These ideas were also adopted by the United States in the ‘new world order’ statements of the elder Bush’s administration and by the rhetorical and diplomatic practices of the Clinton administration throughout the 1990s. Even more significant is the fact that when Croatia and Bosnia were first recognized in 1991, neither possessed firm, territorial control. Not only did this provide a new vehicle for external intervention (using diplomatic recognition to influence developments on the ground), but it also suggests a potentially profound departure from practices that had prevailed throughout the course of the twentieth century. However, the controversy generated by the practice of recognition in these two cases raises questions about whether it will be sustained in the twenty-first century.

Changes in recognition criteria have been, and will continue to be, contested and challenged by states. It is best to think of the meaning of sovereignty in terms of a continual contestation of practices, with some agents pushing the boundaries and frontiers of legitimate practice, and others resisting and countering at every point. The important point here is that the norms of recognition have changed significantly over time, again, even over the course of a single century. Whether they are moving in one particular direction is less important than the fact that they are not fixed in meaning in time and place. There is, however, some evidence that the international community has become increasingly more intrusive into what was once assumed to be under the domain of the domestic affairs of states. That is, there is some evidence of a progression in recognition criteria over time.

At the outset, elements of the territorial state are basic to recognition (from territorial control, to Weberian ideas about legitimate means of coercion and an ability to extract resources). This is a limited, ‘Weberian’ form of sovereignty. If we add to this the Rousseauian ideal that a recognized state must be an expression of the general will, it is reasonable to expect that this ideal is likely to secure the territorial control. States that are a genuine expression of the general will are also likely to be better able to fulfill their international obligations, both in financial and in alliance terms. This was critical during the middle part of the twentieth century, during the heyday of the period of ‘state’ sovereignty. The establishment of democratic forms has only recently become a global norm for recognition, but it reinforces the likelihood that the state is an expression of the general will and it may also be associated with the fulfillment of international obligations. Finally, the recent relaxation of the requirement of firm, territorial control in certain instances suggests a potentially significant departure from historical practices of recognition (as well as a new means of external intervention), should it be sustained. Thus, by the end of the twentieth century, sovereignty increasingly appeared to be ‘conditioned’ sovereignty.

Thus, when we examine the history of changes in recognition criteria over the course of the past century, there is some evidence to suggest that there has been a general progression, direction, or ratcheting up of intrusion into the domestic affairs of states. The path has been uneven, inconsistent, resisted and occasionally reversed. Chilean claims about the status of General Pinochet, Russian assertiveness over Chechnya, Chinese resistance to World Bank claims, and US Senator Jesse Helms’s declarations of the primacy of US sovereignty at the end of the twentieth century were all illustrations of efforts to reassert elements of traditional state sovereignty. Nevertheless, there appears to have been not only important qualitative change in the operational meaning of sovereignty over time (as indicated by changing recognition criteria), but there is also a certain directionality to that change.

Like the discussion of changing forms of state, this change in states of sovereignty is not restricted to change over time. There are also important differences in the operational meaning of sovereignty in different places on the globe at the same moment in time. It is no accident that those who have historically borne the brunt of external intervention in the developing world are the most ardent defenders of traditional conceptions of state sovereignty, the inviolability of state borders and the importance of the principle of non-intervention (Sha, 1995). China, Malaysia and Russia are reluctant to accept the presence of a democratic regime as an important criterion for state or regime recognition. In the contemporary period of conditioned sovereignty, only the remaining superpower, the United States, has the capability to resist most forms of self-restraint and assert an unconditioned form of sovereignty with some degree of credibility.

Like the discussion of changing forms of state, changing states (or forms) of sovereignty also have important implications for international relations. Because the norms of sovereign recognition determine who are allowed to be principal agents in international affairs, changes in these norms have important implications for the nature of the states themselves. It is no longer sufficient just to maintain territorial control and fulfill international obligations. To be recognized as a sovereign state, one increasingly has to possess democratic institutions (or a plan to consolidate them). Indeed, this may even be more important than territorial control in some instances. This changes the very definition of what it means to be sovereign.

Changes in the form of sovereignty also have significance for justifications for external intervention. Just as discursive justifications serve to define the meaning of sovereignty (Weber, 1995) so too do different forms of sovereignty enable (or undermine) different justifications for intervention. During the middle part of the twentieth century, the nature of the polity in control of territory generally did not matter, and non-democratic states were not only recognized as legitimate, but were also often protected by the institution of sovereignty. At the century’s end, the maintenance of democratic institutions or the defense of universal human rights could be used to justify external intervention.

Finally, if the form of conditioned sovereignty prevalent at the end of the twentieth century remains in place for an extended period, along with the operational practices of recognition associated with it, there could be important systemic implications. This is particularly the case if the advocates of the democratic peace hypothesis are correct. That is, the prevailing practices of recognition could serve to extend the democratic form of state, hence transforming the nature of international politics and the likelihood of international conflict itself.

Conceptions of Territory

Border changes are neither new nor particularly out of the ordinary. From the age of the absolutist states of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, through the Napoleonic wars of the nineteenth century, the boundaries defining the great powers have shown dramatic changes (Kratochwil, 1986; Sahlins, 1989). The same is true if we glance at any map of Europe over the course of the twentieth century. We can readily see tangible evidence of the emergence and the disappearance of states, state forms and political entities over the course of the century. The decade of the 1990s alone witnessed the break up of the former Soviet Union, the former Yugoslavia, the division of the former Czechoslovakia and the unification of Germany. However, like forms of state and states of sovereignty, the salience of territory and even the meaning of ‘the border’ that separates territories are neither fixed nor constant across time and place. There are important variations both in the salience of physical territorial possession and in the degree of permeability of borders, the functions of borders (Kratochwil, 1986), or what some scholars have described as the degree of ‘hardness’ or ‘softness’ of boundaries (Mostov, 2000).

At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, there was an obsession with physical possession and control of territory, along with generally unchallenged assumptions about the benefits to be derived from that control. The nineteenth-century scholar of geopolitics Friedrich Ratzel developed the concept of the organic theory of the state, ‘which treated states as competitive territorial entities vying with one another for control over parts of the earth’s surface’ (Murphy, 2001: 2). Control over physical territorial space was also vital for Sir Halford Mackinder (Mackinder, 1904), while for Captain A.T. Mahan, it was dominion of the seas that produced control of distant countries, the possession of colonies, and (dependent on these colonies) the potential for an increase of wealth. According to Mahan, even in instances where land forces were outnumbered, as was the case with the English forces in India during the eighteenth century, the mysterious power … was not in this or that man, king or statesman, but in that control of the sea which the French government knew forbade the hope of maintaining that distant dependency against the fleets of England. (Mahan, 1895: 278)

These assumptions about the virtues and benefits of territorial acquisition remained predominant until Norman Angell forcefully challenged them in 1910, with the publication of the first edition of The Great Illusion. Angell identified how widespread these views were at the turn of the century in both Britain and Germany, and he defined the ‘great illusion’ as the idea that territorial acquisition would provide a basis for prosperity and affluence (Angell, 1910: 30–1). For Angell, territorial conquest and acquisition were futile, since the conqueror acquired liabilities along with the assets of the conquered populace. He contended that the basis of wealth was not to be found in the physical possession of territory, but in the use to which that territory was put.

During the middle decades of the twentieth century, when the nation-state emerged as the predominant state form and the principle of nonintervention was widely proclaimed (if not always practiced), the boundaries between states became increasingly sharply drawn. The Covenant of the League of Nations (1919) bound its members to respect the territorial integrity of its members, while the Charter of the United Nations (1945) similarly asserted the principle of non-intervention in the affairs of member states (James, 1992). The movement of peoples, so widespread during the nineteenth century, became increasingly difficult, as state after state raised barriers to entry. In the economic realm, national capital controls and international monetary agreements protected national currencies from the destabilizing influences of international market forces (Ruggie, 1982). Elaborate alliance networks guaranteed the security and territorial integrity of their members, whether they were allied with the United States or the Soviet Union.

It was only after the advent of the nuclear age that states reluctantly began to recognize their strategic vulnerability, and their increased reliance on the symbolic territorial protection provided by nuclear deterrence. The change in thinking about the salience of territory is striking. Hans Morgenthau described the importance of having a large physical territory to guarantee the survival of a country from a potential nuclear attack. When he pointed out to a group of British military specialists that it would take only four well-placed nuclear weapons to destroy the United Kingdom, they strongly protested, insisting that it would actually take six (Morgenthau, 1970). Over the course of the past fifty years, major powers have grown accustomed to (if not comfortable with) this vulnerability. American efforts to develop a national missile defense shield could be interpreted as an attempt to reconstruct a hard, and a virtually physical boundary around the United States, a development that prompted strong objections from allies and potential adversaries alike.

By the end of the twentieth century, both the salience of physical territory and the significance of borders appeared to be on the decrease in most issue areas, with the only major exception involving the movement of people. There has been ‘a subtle shift away from the state as the spatial unit within which problems are assumed to be most appropriately confronted’ (Murphy, 1999: 235) and a belief that growing challenges to the state ‘will direct attention to the nature and meaning of the changing spatial organization of politics’ (Murphy, 2001: 18). Control of networks–of finance, of information, of raw material flows, of cyberspace–is increasingly more important than control of physical, territorial space. This is an observation made by geographers (Agnew and Knox, 1994; Murphy, 2001), and political scientists (Luke, 1991; Strange, 1996) alike. As sociologist Saskia Sassen reminds us, all transactions take place on some territorial space, but the precise location of those transactions is increasingly ambiguous, and they tend to be located in different places for different purposes (Sassen, 1996).

Following the end of the Cold War, the emerging European world order has been associated with a declining desire for territory (Tunander, 1997). Carl Schmitt’s distinction between ‘Friend’ and ‘Foe’, where major powers are defined in terms of their conflicts with each other, no longer seems to prevail in a system ‘characterized by all the major powers aiming for participation in the same system, none of them defining each other as an enemy in the radical sense’ (Waever, 1997: 84). While there is plenty of differentiation and ‘othering’ going on, the ‘other’ as enemy has largely disappeared from great power politics in the post-Cold War world. ‘The decreasing importance of territory hinges on whether states define the Other as enemy’ (Waever, 1997: 84).

Beyond changes in the salience of territory, the meaning and significance of boundaries had also changed by the end of the twentieth century. With the expansion of interdependence, innovations in communications and information technologies, and the advent of globalization, political geographers started ‘raising questions about the changing nature and function of boundaries’ (Murphy, 2001: 13).

Political theorist Julie Mostov has distinguished between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ boundaries to describe the phenomenon, arguing that a real alternative to the traditional discourse of external sovereignty and hard borders ‘would be to “soften” the boundaries of the state and radically rethink notions of internal sovereignty, self-determination and citizenship rights’ (Mostov, 2000: 6–7). Late twentieth-century increases in the flows of finance, of goods, of information, and in some employment sectors, even of people, have rendered boundaries increasingly porous or ‘soft’. This development has been resisted by some state actors, and the tendency is by no means consistent or uniform across different activities. It is still much easier for finance to move across political boundaries than for people to move across them. Nevertheless, it is striking to observe the ways the states emerging out of East and Central Europe have been willing to forego some of the traditional territorial prerogatives of the sovereign state in exchange for the opportunity to join Europe. They appear eager to transfer authority to Brussels, accept greater institutional transparency and allow increasingly porous borders.

Changes in the organization of global finance have ‘rendered ambiguous’ the traditional territorial imagery of international political economy (Rosow, 1994), and some have suggested that we need to ‘unbundle’ our concept of territoriality (Ruggie, 1993b: 171). Control over flows and over networks is becoming more important than hierarchical control over physical territorial space (Luke, 1991). The emergence of the ‘region-state’–economic zones with integrated industrial investment and information systems that straddle national boundaries in an increasingly borderless world–is yet another manifestation of this blurring of traditional conceptions of territoriality (Ohmae, 1995: 79–82). This blurring of territoriality is apparent in the intense, and growing regional interdependence between the United States and Mexico. The recession in Mexico following the peso crisis in the mid-1990s had significant effects on the regional economy of the American southwest, and in many spheres of activity, what happens in Mexico City has become more important for Los Angeles than what happens in Boston.

Thus, as in the cases of forms of state and states of sovereignty, there have also been important changes in conceptions of territory–both in the salience of territorial possession and in the meaning of boundaries–over the course of the twentieth century. Once again, change over time is not the only important variation. There are also important differences in salience of territory and the meaning of boundaries across different locations on the globe at any particular moment. States lagging behind in the technological breakthroughs of the late twentieth century have tried to deny (or to retard) the shift to the importance of control over networks and flows, rather than over physical territory. However, they are not well equipped to stem the flows of finance, goods or people across their frontiers.Changes in the salience of territory and in the meaning of borders have important implications for international relations. The declining salience of direct, physical territorial possession and control has removed one of the principal sources of great power conflict. Symbolic attachments to specific places remain, but the means to hegemony is no longer believed to be through territorial acquisition, but through involvement in and control over networks, be they financial, informational or technological.

At the same time, the use of the border to protect and insulate a population from external influences has been replaced with the belief that, in many arenas, greater openness, rather than closure, may be the most effective way to advance the interests of a population. While there have been recurring efforts to reverse the radical acceptance of nuclear vulnerability (the ultimate in soft boundaries), the reintroduction of national missile defenses has yet to prove capable of restoring a hard boundary in the critical realm of national security.

Tables 8.1 and 8.2 provide a summary of the illustrations presented up to this point about important changes in meaning of the state, of sovereignty, and of territoriality over time and across place. The categories in the table should be considered as central tendencies, rather than absolutes. That is, there is not a perfect correspondence between the different periods and a particular state form, type of sovereignty (or set of criteria for the recognition of sovereignty), or conception of territoriality. The Portuguese Empire persisted until the mid-1970s, and there was early evidence of the phenomenon of a failed state in Lebanon during the same period. However, while the imperial state as a legitimate state form was the norm in 1900, it was universally delegitimated by the end of the century. The direction of change over the course of the twentieth century is fairly clear, but it is by no means irreversible. As already suggested above, there are plenty of resistances and efforts to reverse the trends, particularly when it comes to the variety of different ways in which states are constantly negotiating their sovereignty. It is also important to stress once again that this summary characterization is not intended to imply that we are moving inexorably in a single, irreversible direction or toward some certain goal or endpoint.

Implications of the Changing Meanings of Core Concepts for the Analysis of International Relations

Having illustrated some important, qualitative changes of meaning in some of our core concepts within international relations, how should we best go about incorporating these changes into our analyses of the subject? First, we should avoid making sweeping generalizations about our subject that are insensitive to either time (historicization) or place (contextualization). Second, as I will elaborate at greater length below, we should redirect our analytical attention to the practices that redefine our core concepts.

The changes in meaning of our core concepts of state, sovereignty and territory should make us cognizant of the limitations of sweeping generalizations about the state or the state system. It should also sensitize us to the pitfalls of relying on history as a uniform database for evaluating our theories and insights. This suggestion is not meant to imply that we should retreat entirely into history or that we should avoid evaluating hypotheses with empirical information derived from historical or comparative analysis. However, it is important that we do so with careful attention to when and how the meanings of some of our core concepts are undergoing important change and transformation. We should not assume uniformity across long expanses of time and place and need to take qualitative changes of meaning into consideration when we attempt to evaluate hypotheses and make valid statements about international relations.

Changes in meaning of our core concepts should also encourage us to redirect our focus to an analysis of the practices that produce different forms of state, states of sovereignty and conceptions of territoriality. Not only will this give us insight into the nature and direction of change, but it will also help us solve some of the persistent analytical deficiencies associated with some of our core concepts. In the section that follows, I will illustrate this general point with reference to the theoretical and conceptual literature on sovereignty.

The Westphalian ideal of state sovereignty–where states claim absolute and final authority over a wide range of issues, national identities are largely unproblematic, and boundaries are clear and unambiguous–was far from the actual meaning and practice of sovereignty during the final decades of the twentieth century. As already demonstrated, the criteria employed by states for the recognition of other states underwent important changes during the course of the twentieth century, enabling us to identify different operational meanings of what it takes to be sovereign at different points in time.

However, much of the theoretical and conceptual literature on the meaning of sovereignty has struggled with the significance of potential challenges to the Westphalian ideal of state sovereignty and concluded that sovereignty’s central role as an organizing principle is essentially undiminished, see Hinsley, 1986; Jackson, 1990, 1999; James, 1986; Krasner, 1999.

These authors are generally reluctant to accommodate qualitative changes or variation in the operational meaning of sovereignty into their analysis. However, by redirecting our focus to the practices of making and recognizing claims of authority, it is possible to gauge significant change in the meaning of sovereignty and to move beyond sterile debates about whether sovereignty is eroding. It also enables us to consider how to recognize when different types or forms of sovereignty have emerged.

It is helpful to begin with a conception of sovereignty as a social construct. Social construction links identity with practice (Biersteker and Weber, 1996: 278), and sovereignty is an inherently social concept. States’ claims to sovereignty construct a social environment in which they can interact, ‘the international society of states’ (Bull, 1977), while at the same time the mutual recognition of each other’s claims to sovereignty is an important element in the construction of states themselves. Moreover, each of the core components of sovereignty–authority, identity and territory–is also constructed socially.

Sovereignty entails the external recognition (by states) of claims of final authority made by other states. However, like the institution of private property, these claims are not absolute (Kratochwil, 1992). The authority claims made by states vary from one issue area to another and are not fixed over time. This is the key to understanding the changing meaning and forms of sovereignty. The question is not whether sovereignty exists as a unitary condition or state of being, but how claims of authority are issue-specific and change over time.

To come to terms with the changing meaning of sovereignty, we do not need to search for an alternative to the system of sovereign state authority that already exists, or is about to emerge. It is not necessary to identify a clearly defined, new global authority or imagine a return to the heteronomy of the Middle Ages, to comprehend emerging states of sovereignty. A more fruitful way to proceed is to focus on variation in claims of authority themselves.

Power and authority are closely related, but authority is used here to refer to institutionalized or formal power. What differentiates authority from power is the legitimacy of the claim (implying both the rights of some superior or some location of authority and obligations on the part of subordinates or subjects of that authority). Legitimacy implies that there is some form of consent or recognition of authority on the part of the regulated or governed. This consent, itself, may be earned or it may be generated by the rhetorical practices of political leaders. Consent is the product of persuasion and trust, rather than overt coercion.

Sovereignty is variable in its meaning because the range of issues over which authority is claimed (and/or is recognized as legitimate by other states) is not fixed in space and time. Authority claims (and their recognition by others) vary, and this variance determines the change in the meaning of sovereignty itself. This approach allows us to move beyond static, essentialist notions about the timeless nature of sovereignty.

Many scholars interested in the study of sovereignty have long differentiated between the internal and the external dimensions of sovereignty. The internal dimension generally refers to the consolidation of the territory under a single authority and the recognition of that authority as legitimate by the population, while the external dimension generally refers to external recognition by other states. This distinction between the internal and external dimensions of sovereignty can be adapted to this argument about the issue-specific nature of sovereignty. That is, both the number and range of authority claims has changed (the traditional ‘internal’ dimension of sovereignty), as have the number and range of claims that are externally recognized as legitimate (the ‘external’ dimension). The discussion about the changing criteria for recognition earlier in this chapter provides an illustration of change in the external dimension of sovereignty.

Since the range of authority claims is variable, where does the authority over specific issues previously claimed or recognized by states go? Does it disappear? If not, who or what inherits the authority that states no longer claim or are recognized by others to possess? There has been a significant dispersal in the location of authority in the global system in recent years, or what Susan Strange labeled a ‘diffusion of power in the world economy’ (Strange, 1996). The state is no longer the predominant location of authority on a growing number of issues, and it faces challenges from other locations. In some cases, the state no longer claims to have authority, in other instances, it is no longer externally recognized by others as possessing authority in certain domains, and in still other cases, it faces competing claims and challenges from non-state actors. This can be illustrated by discussing, in turn, examples of each of these three types of challenges to traditional (or idealized) state authority claims.

Ceding Claims of Final Authority

First, states may cut back on the range of claims of final authority they make. The ceding of competences over certain issue domains from individual states to the European Union is a good example of reducing claims of authority. Similar, though far less extensive, transference of authority can be seen in the emergent dispute resolution mechanisms within the NAFTA.

Other international institutions have also been ceded legitimate authority. States created and willingly abide by the strictures of these institutions. For example, the United Nations has sanctioned humanitarian interventions in a growing number of instances. The operative issue is no longer one of whether these interventions are justified, but whether the UN can accommodate the large demand for action in so many different locations. There has also been a significant increase in the frequency, the extent and the apparent acceptability of conditionality by international financial institutions. This has ranged from the International Monetary Fund’s enhanced surveillance, its demands for institutional reform during the Asian financial crisis, and its criticism of military spending in member countries, to the political conditionality of the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the World Bank’s interest in environmental (or green) conditionality. The growing recognition and use of the dispute resolution mechanisms of the World Trade Organization provides yet another illustration. Similarly, the International Court of Justice has begun to hear cases that apply the principle of harms in transborder pollution cases, and international lawyers prosecuting international war crimes tribunals have pushed litigation well beyond the intentions and wishes of the major powers that initiated the proceedings. Issues that were once unambiguously ‘inside’ the realm of state responsibility have been delegated to ‘outside’ institutions. The boundary separating inside and outside has moved, and dramatically far, in some instances.

Changing Norms of External Recognition of Authority Claims

Second, there have been important changes in the external recognition, both by other states and by international institutions, of some of the claims previously made by states. For example, states are no longer recognized as legitimate final authorities when it comes to the violation of the human rights of individuals or groups located within their domains. Shortly after it was first promulgated in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be dismissed as just another United Nations proclamation, with no effective international enforcement mechanism. The influence of the declaration was contingent on the backing of major powers, primarily the US, which applied it when convenient during the Cold War, but ignored it when a critical alliance partner was involved. Today, however, ideas about the universalization of human rights have been institutionalized to the extent that they have begun to challenge some of the prerogatives of traditional state sovereignty. While there are important regional variations in conceptions of human rights (and a good deal of legitimate debate about their scope, from narrow applications to individuals to broader applications to groups) (Hurrell, 1995), there is a global acceptance of the discourse of human rights. That is, virtually everyone constructs their arguments in terms of a discourse of different forms of legitimate human rights (Sikkink, 1993). This is as significant for the global development of democracy as was the extension of suffrage throughout the world earlier in the twentieth century.

At the same time, as discussed extensively above, there have been important changes in the norms of recognition for new states. Until recently, the principal criteria for external recognition were associated with meeting the requirements of internal, Weberian sovereignty (physical control over the territorial space, acceptance by the subject population, clearly established lines of governmental authority, etc.). Increasingly important today, however, are requirements such as the establishment and consolidation of democratic institutions, the treatment of the rights of minority populations, and even the management of the economy.

International institutions have withheld recognition of some of the claims of states not just with regard to the actions of coercive agents of the state against subject populations, such as torture or fundamental violations of individual rights, but also with regard to the protection of other aspects of the lives of private individuals within states. The emergence of third party human rights law has extended the range of international law to issues like racial discrimination in housing, gender employment and relationships within the family (previously considered part of the domain of the ‘private’). Other international institutions like the World Trade Organization have begun to extend their intrusive-ness into the previously sacrosanct domain of the ‘domestic’ by criticizing some labor policies, consumer product safety standards and environmental accords as non-tariff barriers to free trade.

Emergence of Competing Locations of Authority

Third, and finally, competing claims of authority have started to emerge from non-state actors in the world system: from individuals, from firms, from non-governmental organizations, from private organizations, and even from markets. Individuals now have rights to challenge the actions of states and international institutions, as manifested in the European Court of Human Rights or the World Bank’s Inspection Panel schema. In the case of the European Court, individuals have the right to appeal to a supranational institution with jurisdiction over nation-states. There are very specific circumstances under which individuals can appeal, but the arrangement establishes a competing location of authority to the state. In the case of the World Bank Inspection Panel, any two individuals who can claim a significant material harm from a World Bank project can initiate a quasi-independent review of investment decisions taken by the Bank. Although the Inspection Panel is located within the Bank, it is technically independent of it. Not only do individuals have the power to initiate a review of Bank decisions, but their intervention can lead to the termination of a project. The individuals who initiate the review do not need the sanction or backing of their own government for their actions, reinforcing the principle that individuals are recognized as legitimate agents by both states and by the intergovernmental institutions states have created.

Even more significant are the actions of transnational issue networks that operate most effectively in the domains of human rights and the global environment. Transnational issue networks have increasingly begun to constrain the actions of middle powers. The global acceptance of the discourse of human rights has been facilitated by the global reach of the media that has increased the visibility of state actions and increasingly exposed them to potential opinion sanctions from NGO networks operating across the globe. Traditional state claims of sovereign authority are increasingly competing with other sources of legitimate authority in the international system, especially the emerging moral authority of expertise represented by transnational issue networks, that some observers have described as evidence of the emergence of a global civil society (Lipschutz, 1996). NGO actors in global civil society set standards of international behavior that increasingly constrain the actions of individual states. The weight of global public opinion is such that states increasingly have to be concerned about the reactions of other states, of the publics of those states, and of non-governmental organizations, in order to avoid being labeled a pariah state, to gain entry into the society of states, to obtain access to conditional resources, or to enter regional common markets such as the European Union.

Transnational issue networks operate by drawing attention to issues, mobilizing their networks and placing issues on the global agenda. The practice of convening parallel meetings of NGOs alongside major UN-sponsored state congresses has become routine in recent years: from the human rights conference in Vienna to the conference on the environment in Rio, on women in Beijing, and on social development in Copenhagen. This has further legitimated the role of NGOs, as they put issues on the global agenda and even define the terms of the debate, in some instances.

Finally, the globalization of finance and the emergence of integrated global financial markets have increasingly begun to discipline all states, even the most powerful. There has been a major shift away from sharply demarcated national financial boundaries–with effective currency controls in place–toward increased financial liberalization, the elimination of currency controls, and the increased ease of cross-border financial transactions. This tendency toward financial liberalization has facilitated the emergence of new financial actors (bond traders, currency traders, portfolio investors, hedge fund managers) who have developed global strategies and operate on an around-the-clock and around-the-globe basis. As a result, the emerging world financial market ‘is not comprised of linked national markets’ but is ‘a network integrated through electronic information systems that entails “… more than two hundred thousand electronic monitors in trading rooms all over the world that are linked together” ’ (Kobrin, 1997: 20). This network has itself become a location of authority in the economic world, with an ability to reward (and to discipline) countries that pursue policies it deems prudent (or unsustainable). It operates, in effect, like a global ‘hard budget constraint’ on the behavior of economic and financial decision-makers who have ceded informal authority to the markets through both their public statements and their practices. When a finance minister or head of state begins to believe and publicly declare that markets have the power to discipline their actions, they signal their consent and participate in empowering markets as legitimate authorities within certain domains.

Each of these broad sets of practices–the ceding of final authority to other institutions, the changes in external recognition of final authority, and the emergence of competing locations of final authority–are indicative of, and participate in the construction of, important changes in the meaning of sovereignty. At some point, the cumulative impact of these incremental changes in practices could lead to a situation in which the authority claims of states become increasingly hollow. The indivisibility of the concept of state sovereignty may well remain, but its operational significance becomes increasingly empty. As that occurs, we may begin to be able to comprehend an alternative to sovereignty as an organizing principle of the international system. If we do not focus on changes of practices over time, we are not likely to comprehend the qualitative transformation of sovereignty as a generative principle of the international system, when it occurs.

We could extend this kind of analysis of changes in the meaning of sovereignty to the other conceptual changes considered earlier (forms of state and conceptions of territoriality), by looking for other kinds of practices that indicate and produce change. With regard to forms of state, the scope of state intervention in the economy and/or justifications for international intervention would indicate the sources of variation in state form. With regard to changing conceptions of territoriality, the degree of attention to physical control of territory and/or the porosity of borders would be indicative and constitutive of change.

Agendas for Future Research

There are a number of issues raised, and left unresolved, by historicizing and contextualizing core concepts like state, sovereignty and territoriality. This chapter is intended to serve as a beginning, and as a stimulus to further reflection and work on the core concepts of international relations, rather than an attempt to reach closure on them. Thus, I would like to use this conclusion to begin to chart the course of some promising future research initiatives, and to suggest where some contemporary research is taking us.

Emerging Forms of State

As already suggested above, there is no consensus on how best to characterize the emerging form(s) of state. While the concept of ‘failed state’ has received a great deal of attention in recent years (Herbst, 2000), others have suggested the emergence of the ‘postmodern state’ (Harvey, 1989), the ‘defective state’ (Strange, 1995), or the ‘self-restraining state’ (Schedler et al., 1999). Some of the most creative efforts to think about contemporary state forms have been stimulated by efforts to characterize the polity emerging in the wake of the deepening of the European Union (Jorgensen, 1997; Schmitter, 1996; Wallace, 1999).

Another important area of contemporary research on the nature of the state is found in the globalization literature. In a return to many of the familiar issues associated with the debate over interdependence and the role of the state during the 1960s and 1970s (Nye and Keohane, 1977), the contemporary globalization debates pit those who emphasize the magnitude of the phenomenon and its implications for the changing role of the state (Dicken, 1992; Kobrin, 1997; Mittleman, 2000; Strange, 1996) against those who are highly skeptical about the significance of the phenomenon (Wade, 1996; and Hirst and Thompson, 1996; Pauly, 1997; Weiss, 1998). There are also important works that attempt to stake out a middle ground in the debate (Sassen, 1998).

Another of the most promising areas of contemporary research on the state is based on an effort to invert the pessimism of the ‘failed state’ literature and to begin to explore the domain of state capacity and/or incapacity. In many ways, this is a return to the classic literature on nation-building during the 1960s (Bendix, 1964), a literature that was initially driven by the practical needs and concerns stemming from the process of decolonization. It is also of great interest within international institutions concerned with development, like the United Nations and the World Bank. Twenty or thirty years ago, the subject of state-building would have seemed esoteric, applicable only to the few remaining colonial territories, trusteeships and to collapsed states like Lebanon. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is an agenda relevant to international interventions and to post-conflict reconstruction and development efforts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, The Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Bosnia, as well as to regions like Kosovo and Chechnya. State-building is also central to the process under way in East Timor (arguably under a problematic and contested UN trusteeship).

Finally, there is important new work being done on emerging political forms of confederation within multi-ethnic states (which have become the modal form of state in the world today) (Koslowski, 2000). Creative work on the norms of recognizing claims of self-determination, and the construction of new institutional forms capable of addressing the legitimate interests of minorities within states, have important theoretical as well as practical significance (Lustick, 1993).

States of Sovereignty

The crisis in the Balkans and the failure or collapse of some states in Africa have led to controversial calls for the reinstitution of forms of trusteeship by the international community (Lyon, 1993). In a de facto sense, this has already begun to emerge in several post-conflict zones, ranging from Sierra Leone, to Kosovo and East Timor. However, many of the normative implications of this development have yet to be explored. It is also likely to be an extremely difficult undertaking, one that raises significant questions about the credibility, capability and legitimacy of international institutions. Moreover, while this may be an important development from a practical standpoint, it is likely to be only a temporary, or transitory phenomenon.

Not only is sovereignty a social construct, but so too are each of its constitutive elements (authority, identity and territory). Thus, there is a wealth of literature exploring the construction of identity and authority, as well as some important research under way on the emergence of non-state based (or private) forms of authority. Most of this research has been confined to the realm of the international political economy (Cutler et al., 1999), but there has also been some important research on the moral authority exercised by non-governmental organizations (Lipschutz, 1996). There is also some pioneering work on the emergence of the market itself as an authority (Hall, 2000).

The emergence of these potentially new locations of authority in the international system has given rise to significant concerns about the democratic accountability of these new forms of agency. There are serious, normative questions about the accountability of non-governmental organizations, institutions that are accountable to their members, but have an influence over (and make claims on behalf of) a far broader range of potential subjects. There are also under-examined normative issues raised by the extension of the global human rights regime, particularly about the extent to which values are universally shared, as well as the scope and domain of the international court of justice and the international criminal court. Within the realm of the international political economy, there are important questions about the accountability of private, market actors (and/or the lack of transparency in the manner in which authority has been transferred to some of them) (Sassen, 1998). This has led to increased calls for countervailing movements to bring public scrutiny and participation to bear on market actors.

Finally, there have been some important issues raised by theorists about the de-linking of state and sovereignty and moving beyond the concept of state sovereignty itself (Hoffman, 1998), research that has significant implications for both sovereignty and for political theory more generally. As already suggested, empirical research on the making, ceding and recognition of claims of authority (by states and non-states alike) holds great promise for our understanding of the changing meaning of sovereignty.

Conceptions of Territoriality

As control over physical territorial space has become less salient over the course of the past century, control over networks is increasingly important (Kobrin, 1997; Strange, 1996). However, much important research remains to be done on the operational meaning of networks within different domains. There is considerable variation in the scope and salience of networks, from financial to technological. There are also important questions about how networks emerge, how they function, how they are sustained, how they are regulated, and how they might be transformed (Deibert, 1997).

There are also a number of questions about how to conceptualize alternatives to the system of states. There is an important theoretical and conceptual debate about whether we are witnessing the emergence of a globalization or a regionalization of the world economy. For some scholars, the movement away from the nation-state as the principal market unit is leading to the rise of regional economies, rather than to an integrated, global one (Ohmae, 1995; Storper, 1997; Storper and Scott, 1992).

There is also a great deal of promising research on the salience and meaning of boundaries themselves (Andreas, 2000). The porosity of boundaries (soft versus hard) has already been discussed (Mostov, 2000). Anthropologists and students of literature have increasingly drawn our attention to the importance of understanding the phenomenon of border culture, a syncretic cultural conception that stresses the role of borders in constructing various forms of identity, as well as the multilayered nature of that identity (Donnan and Wilson, 1999).


No concept or analytical framework is ever complete, or entirely adequate for all situations or phenomena. Future research on the concepts of state, sovereignty and territoriality, like research of the past, will be driven by the dialectical interplay between events and theoretical efforts to interpret, comprehend and understand them. The limitations and contradictions contained within existing theoretical concepts, frameworks and explanations will be tested by their adequacy (or inadequacy) to explain contemporary events. At the same time, they will also play a role in the shaping of those events themselves. It is for this reason that it is so important to understand the origins, changes of meaning and transformations of the central concepts of state, sovereignty and territoriality in international relations.