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Who Shares Wins: The New Sovereignty Discourse

Wednesday, 06 April 2011
by Dimitris N. Chryssochoou, Associate Professor of European Integration, Panteion University of Athens, Greece
Who Shares Wins: The New Sovereignty Discourse
1. The Debate

This article theorizes the ways in which the new sovereignty discourse relates to modifications in the nature of statehood and the emergence of new forms of international conduct. States no longer assert their authority on the grounds of jurisdictional exclusivity, but rather decide to share it within collective systems to deal with the realities of a late-modern world. Thus ‘sovereignty no longer equates with statehood’,[1] but a complex network of multi-actor governance domains prompts us to reassess how states have come to perform their functions within a wider context of ‘multiple modernities’, relocating ‘the major arenas of contestation … to new areas in which different movements and societies continually interact’.[2] Also:

The very moment that scholars decided that the meaning of sovereignty lies very much in what we make of it through our linguistic conventions and rhetorical practices, they also opened up a new field of inquiry within which this concept could survive and thrive, albeit now as an object of inquiry rather than as its uncontested foundation … The very focus on the concept of sovereignty brought about by this linguistic reorientation – rather than on the facts or norms of sovereign statehood – has provided a common ground where the concerns of lawyers and political scientists can again meet.[3]

Whether or not one takes sovereignty as a ‘fixed construct’ or as a ‘continuous variable’,[4] ‘in the absence of a normative meta-vocabulary’,[5] the concept is likely to remain open to various interpretations. Yet, one finds it difficult to counter Held’s argument that the late-modern state lies at the intersection of global processes, that
combine to restrict the freedom of action of governments and states by blurring the boundaries of domestic politics, transforming the conditions of political decision-making, changing the institutional and organizational context of national polities, altering the legal framework and administrative practices of governments and obscuring the lines of responsibility and accountability of national states themselves. These processes alone warrant the statement that the operation of states in an ever more complex international system both limits their autonomy (by changing the balance between the costs and benefits of policies) and impinges increasingly  even more upon their sovereignty.[6] 
Shaw also reflects on sovereignty’s problematic predicament:
First, states have increasingly “pooled” their sovereignty … [it] has been internationalized in new forms of cooperative exercise. Second, individual states’ jurisdictions are increasingly understood extraterritorially as well as territorially ... Third, and possibly most important, judicial sovereignty, constitutionally and legally defined, is often seen to have diverged from the substance of power relations.[7] 

2. Transformations

Another factor central to the development of novel forms of understanding contemporary statehood has been the emergence of multiple, overlapping and, more often than not, horizontal patterns of interactions among states and non-state actors and institutions that opetate alongside or even beyond the traditional state level, and whose cross-border effects and transnational policy outcomes impact heavily on the capacity of states to retain their centrality in the management of global affairs. Such trends have been facilitated further by the emergence of what has been termed as the ‘new governance’ approach to domestic and global politics; namely, the proliferation of horizontally co-ordinated modes of collective governing based on power diffusion, informal rules and processes, soft law practices and regulations, collective norm orientation, and flexible codes of conduct, involving a plethora of local/national and regional/global actors and institutions. The overall result has been a transcendence of hierarchical forms of government and the emergence of what has been termed ‘governance without government’.[8] As Caporaso notes, while the latter refers to the institutions and agents occupying key institutional roles, ‘governance’ refers to ‘collective problem-solving in the public realm’, or the way in which relations are governed among constituent units within a system of dispersed political authority.[9]

The new governance discourse, evident in comparative public policy since the late 1980s, has also acted as a system-transforming mechanism of some of the fundamental and perhaps even foundational attributes of contemporary statehood. A clear manifestation of that has been the institutionalization and internationalization of new forms of ‘co-governance’[10] and, in the words of Jessop, of ‘multilevel meta-governance’,[11] as in the emerging polity structures of the European Union, whereby ‘Political hierarchy and steering are replaced by segmented policy-making in multiple arenas characterized by negotiated governance’.[12] The point being made here is that states –what realist and neorealist thinking have long regarded as the basic (or dominant) political units in the international system– are only one set of actors out of many within an even globalizing world setting that has become, to draw from Elazar’s neoteric metaphor, ‘cybernetic’: it is ‘based on multiple arenas, many channels of communication among [actors], and a variety of different mechanisms for mobilizing them to undertake particular courses of actions in place of a single channel’.[13]

As states ‘are locked into a diversity of processes and structures which range in and though them, linking and fragmenting them into complex constellations’,[14] the emerging forms of global organization reflect the growing fusion between foreign and domestic lines,[15] and a corresponding desire for global governance. Held explains:

Any conception of sovereignty that interprets it as an illimitable and indivisible form of public power is undermined. Sovereignty itself has to be conceived today as already divided among a number of agencies – national, international and transnational – and limited by the very nature of this plurality.[16] 

All the above defy any absolutist interpretation of sovereignty, through which the modern state was recognized as the supreme authority within its borders, possessing undominated freedom of internal and external action. Rather, it is through sovereignty-sharing within collective systems that states can achieve more for their citizens than they possibly can by acting alone. The global plurality, anarchical as it may be –due to the continuing absence of a global political authority– but at the same time structured and made up of intertwined political spaces, policy domains and arenas for action, suggests that the once unchallenged functions of political control exercised by states has become all the more contested and diffuse – to the extent that states ‘no longer serve as the exclusive nexus between domestic politics and international relations’.[17] But even the shift from ‘positive sovereignty’ –‘the substantial capacity for self-government’[18] – to institutionalized shared rule does not invalidate the innate need of states to continue acting as ‘the ultimate guardians of the popular interest’.[19] Rather, it accords with the metaphor of the ‘eclipse’ of sovereignty: the latter may not be as visible as it used to be, but has found new ways of adjusting itself to the changing requirements of the day. As Wendt argues,

the result is neither anarchy nor hierarchy but the emergence of a new form of state and thus states system which breaks down the spatial coincidence between state-as-actor and state-as-structure. As such the erosion of individual state sovereignty does not imply the erosion of the state … By transferring it to a collective, states may actually strengthen their capacity to solve problems. Internationalization is a way of reorganizing and redeploying state power – not a withering away of the nation state.[20] 

This is reflected in a new ‘grand dialectic’, whereby the strength of the whole is positively related to the strength of the parts.[21] Taylor explains:

This is a world in which links are established between the internal arrangements of the state and international society, and, indeed, in which international society has legitimate access to those arrangements. This a world in which attention is focused, not on the eternal verity of sovereignty, but upon the changes in the conditions under which it is exercised.[22] 

Yet, ‘the territorial structure of the international state system appears to be one of the great constants in human affairs’.[23] As a result, ‘[t]here may be disagreement over how much authority state leaders should have, but it is generally assumed that the political map of the future will look much like that of today, aside from some adjustments in certain unstable areas’.[24] Despite sovereignty’s capacity for adaptation, new forms of synarchy and codetermination have altered the ability of states to act on their own terms,[25]  shaking the foundations of the Westphalian system: ‘sovereignty was now a condition, even a form, of participation in the larger entity … the right to be involved, to participate in the mechanisms of international society and to represent there the interests of the state’.[26] Thus states are taken as sovereign also on the basis of their ability to act in accordance with the norms and rules of the global plurality:
Sovereignty increasingly defined a unit of participation and established a right to participate in the institutions and arrangements of the international community. Having the right to participate in the management of common arrangements with other states was a much more important consideration in sovereignty than the traditional right to exclusive management of any single function, even defence and foreign policy.[27]

3. A Conclusion

It is true that ‘sovereignty always had to take account of the circumstances of the time and of the place’, in that ‘[i]t was an absolute which had to be constantly reinterpreted in the light of the actual limitations placed on state behaviour’.[28] Today, in a world of ‘overlapping communities of fate’,[29] and in view of the changing norms and conventions of global organization, sovereignty can be considered a reflection of the constitutive role of the whole: ‘the international community could constitute the state and express its sovereignty’.[30] This ‘dialectical quality in sovereignty’ has led to a state of ‘consonance’:[31] neither the system exists independently of the parts, nor do the latter operate independently from the whole.[32] Rather, ‘the sovereignty of states obliged them to meet the norms of the international community but the norms of the international community were a product of the sovereignty of states’.[33] Whether the global system remains anchored to its structural anarchy or moves towards an ordered plurality, its actors are coming to realize the potential rewards of ‘who shares wins’.


  1. M. Shaw, Theory of the Global State: Globality as an Unfinished Revolution, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 228.
  2. S. N. Eisenstadt, ‘Multiple Modernities’, Daedalus, 129(1), 2000, p. 24
  3. J. Bartelson, ‘The Concept of Sovereignty Revisited’, The European Journal of International Law, 17(2), 2006, p. 464.
  4. Ibid., p. 466.
  5. Ibid., p. 474.
  6. D. Held, Models of Democracy, 2nd edition, Cambridge: Polity Press, 196, p. 352.
  7. Shaw, Theory of the Global State, pp. 185-186.
  8. J. Rosenau and E.-O. Czempiel (ed.), Governance Without Government: Order and Change in World Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. See also R. A. W. Rhodes, ‘The New Governance: Governing without Government’, Political Studies, 44(5), 1996, pp. 652-667.
  9. J. Caporaso, ‘The European Union and Forms of State: Westphalian, Regulatory or Post-Modern?’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 34(1), 1996, p. 30.
  10. J. Kooiman, Governing as Governance, London: Sage, 2007.
  11. B. Jessop, ‘Multilevel Governance and Multilevel Metagovernance’, in I. Bache and M. Flinders (eds), Multi-level Governance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 22004, pp. 49-74. See also Kooiman, Governing as Governance.
  12. B. Laffan et al., Europe’s Experimental Union: Rethinking Integration, London and New York: Routledge, 1999, p. 98. See also, S. Hix, ‘The study of the European Union II: The “new governance” agenda and its rival’, Journal of European Public Policy, 5(1), 1998, pp. 38-65
  13. D. J. Elazar, Constitutionalizing Globalization: The Postmodern Revival of Confederal Arrangements, Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998, p. 55.
  14. D. Held et al., Global Transformations: Politics, Economics, Culture, Cambridge: Polity, 1999, p. 445.
  15. J. Rosenau, Along the domestic-foreign divide: Exploring governance in a turbulent world, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
  16. Held, Models of Democracy, p. 352.
  17. G. Marks et al., ‘European Integration from the 1980s: State-Centric v. Multi-level Governance’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 34(3), 1996, p. 372.
  18. G. S?rensen, ‘An analysis of contemporary statehood: consequences for conflict and cooperation’, Review of International Studies, 23(3), 1997, p. 260; quoted in Shaw, Theory of the Global State, p. 226.
  19. P. Taylor, International Organization in the Age of Globalization, London: Continuum, 2003, p. 53.
  20. A. Wendt, ‘Identity and structural change in international politics’, in Y. Lapid and F. V. Kratochwil (eds), The Return of Culture and Identity in IR Theory, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1996, p. 61; quoted in Shaw, Theory of the Global State, pp. 93-94.
  21. P. Taylor, International Organization in the Age of Globalization, p. 5.
  22. P. Taylor, International Organization in the Modern World: the Regional and the Global Process, London: Pinter, 1993, p. 251.
  23. A. B. Murphy, ‘The sovereign state system as politico-territorial ideal: historical and contemporary considerations’, in T. J. Biersteker and C. Weber (eds), State Sovereignty as Social Construct, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p. 81.
  24. Ibid.
  25. D. N. Chryssochoou, Theorizing European Integration, 2nd edition, London and New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 131-146.
  26. P. Taylor, International Organization in the Age of Globalization, p. 47.
  27. Ibid., pp. 52-53.
  28. Ibid., p. 52.
  29. Held et al., Global Transformations, p. 455.
  30. P. Taylor, International Organization in the Age of Globalization, p. 52.
  31. Ibid., p. 52 and p. 213.
  32. Ibid., p. 213.
  33. Ibid., p. 54.

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