Published in International Organization 74:3 (Summer 2020)
A principal theme of international relations scholarship following the Cold War was the apparent erosion of state sovereignty caused by globalization's integrative effects and the proliferation of international institutions and networks. In recent years, however, scholars have noted a reverse trend: the reassertion of traditional, or Westphalian, state sovereignty. By contrast, I highlight another recent trend that has gone largely overlooked: the reaffirmation of older “extralegal” and “organic” versions of sovereignty by three of the world's most powerful states—Russia, China, and the United States. After tracing the genealogy of these older concepts, I consider how and why they have gained prominence in the official discourse of all three countries. I also explore the implications of this shift, which not only illustrates the importance of “norm retrieval” in international affairs, but also raises questions about the foundations of international order. Contrary to Westphalian sovereignty, which emphasizes the legal equality of states and the principle of noninterference in domestic affairs, the extralegal and organic versions offer few constraints on state action. If anything, they appear to license powerful states to dominate others.