SSHRC Grant to Study Changing Understandings of Sovereignty
I was delighted to receive an Insight grant this year from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to examine changing understandings of sovereignty.
Sovereignty is often described as a set of rights and rules that recognize the territorial integrity and political independence of states and prohibit outside interference in their domestic affairs. This is, in fact, the dominant Westphalian understanding of the concept. Yet there are older forms of sovereignty that predate the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, the putative genesis of the modern state. Some of these older versions portray sovereignty as the power of leaders to act outside the constraints of formal rules in both domestic and international politics (“extralegal sovereignty”), while others characterize sovereign power as the quasi-mystical connection between a people and their leader (“organic sovereignty”). At the same time, alternative versions of sovereignty have emerged in recent years, including concepts of cosmopolitan and relational sovereignty that purport to transcend the territorial boundaries of the modern state.
This project examines evolving understandings of sovereignty in the official statements of major states in the twenty-first century. Some observers argue that we have been witnessing the return or reaffirmation of Westphalian sovereignty, including in calls to “take back control” of national policy by reversing globalization, along with a corresponding weakening of cosmopolitan and relational sovereignty. By contrast, this project will also consider the possibility that the older, extralegal and organic understandings of sovereignty have also been resurgent in the official discourse of major powers.
Why does this matter? Sovereignty is the foundational norm of international relations, defining what states are and how they should and should not behave. If understandings of sovereignty change, so can these norms. 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.