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Obsolescence Of Sovereignty?

Given the condition of the political map in the aftermath of the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), with its checkerboard of nation-states, sovereignty might seem to be a doctrine with global purchase, taken as universally efficacious and valid. Yet in many places the idea of sovereignty never really took hold, and in many contexts there may be good reason to declare its erosion or increasing irrelevance.

In certain cases, the spread of European political and legal values in the wake of colonialism often was received with indifference, if not hostility. New Zealand's early colonial history is instructive. When the British arrived to settle Aotearoa in the mid-nineteenth century, they entered into an agreement, the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), with some of the tribal elders of the Polynesian (Maori) population that ceded—or so the colonizers thought—"absolutely and without reservation all the rights and powers of Sovereignty" to the English Crown. The Treaty, set down in both English and Maori languages (of which the latter is the official version), takes as the equivalent for sovereignty the word kwanatanga, a term that means something like "trusteeship" in Maori. Indeed, it remains unclear whether the Maori had any vocabulary at the time that could plausibly be translated as "sovereignty," simply because their worldview, not to mention political and legal language, was so differently constituted than that of the Pakeha (Europeans). The consequences of this crucial failure on the part of the British to recognize the cultural specificity of "sovereignty" resonate into the twenty-first century, as the Maori and Pakeha populations of the country struggle to accommodate the tribal social, economic, and legal system that was never actually surrendered in the context of a representative democracy that claims the status of a sovereign state.

Another illustration of the breakdown of sovereignty derives from the appearance, especially since World War II, of transnational regimes in both the public and private spheres. Economic globalization, free trade zones, and the easy flow of capital across national borders obviously threaten the ability of sovereign states to make crucial decisions about the welfare of their citizens. Moreover, quasi-governmental and nongovernmental agencies and institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union have been granted (some say, usurped) many of the rights and powers customarily associated with sovereignty, whether in a legal, economic, military, or cultural sense. Little wonder that in a 1999 appraisal of the topic, Stephen Krasner refers to the very idea of sovereignty—in our own times, and perhaps even in the past—as "organized hypocrisy." The interdependence that ties together the international state system seems increasingly likely to relegate sovereignty to the dustbin of obsolete concepts.

At the same time, sovereignty throughout the world has come under direct challenge from subnational groupings as well. The rise of regional independence movements, often built around ethno-nationalist agendas, sets in question the basic principle that public power must derive from a single autonomous and supreme source. One encounters the demand for autonomy and sometimes secession even in highly developed nation-states with strong traditions of sovereign authority, such as the United Kingdom, Spain, and Canada. It is little wonder that some scholars during the last several decades of the twentieth century spoke about the "re-feudalization" or "re-tribalization" of the political scene globally.


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Cary J. Nederman

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adam Smith Biography to Spectroscopic binarySovereignty - Early Concepts, Early Modern Views: Absolutism, Early Modern Views: Popular Sovereignty, Later Developments