Sovereignty, power and global governance

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Sovereignty is one of the most important concepts in international relations but also one of the most problematic. Its meaning and significance are not immutable. There are several schools of opinion, including these three.

First, some scholars have argued that sovereignty is effectively over – for example, Don Herzog of the University of Michigan in his 2020 book Sovereignty RIP. He wrote that it is past time to bury sovereignty, calling it “a zombie concept, undead, stalking the world, terrifying people.”

Second, there are those like Brigid Laffan, former Director of the Robert Schuman Centre, who dismisses what she called “the chimera of sovereignty and taking back control” which had motivated the pro-Brexit side in Britain. She does not reject the concept of sovereignty altogether, instead lauding the EU approach based on pooled sovereignty, which she deems “a more effective response to the 21st century”, in contrast to Brexit Britain’s perceived need for a ‘sovereignty fix’. Recently she has referred to the idea of ‘Collective Power Europe’ as exemplified by what she sees as the EU’s united and agile response to events in Ukraine.

Third, Realpolitker John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago views the respect for sovereignty as the most significant norm in international politics, a norm with the purpose to minimise war and facilitate peaceful relations among states. “Sovereignty means states have the ultimate authority over what happens inside their borders, and that foreign powers have no right to interfere in their politics.”

Recent events in Ukraine have brought sovereignty sharply back into the spotlight. The word itself seems to be on every Western leader’s lips. In 2007 one of Europe’s leading intellectuals, Ivan Krastev, noted that Europe’s policy elite had thought the end of the Cold War meant the emergence of a new European order:

This post-modern system does not rely on balance of power; nor does it emphasise sovereignty or the separation of domestic and foreign affairs. It rejects the use of force as an instrument for settling conflicts and promotes a deliberate increase in mutual dependence and vulnerabilities between European states.

Also in 2007, Krastev wrote fascinatingly about the Russian view of sovereignty, which is completely different. In the view of the Kremlin “sovereignty is not a right; its meaning is not a seat in the United Nations. For the Kremlin, sovereignty means capacity. It implies economic independence, military strength and cultural identity.” We can speak of what Krastev terms a contest of political logics, with Russia believing in “power, unilateralism and the unrestricted pursuit of national interest”. In a further display of prescience, in late 2021 Krastev forecast that sovereignty would be the one idea to define 2022.

Global governance on the ropes

The term global governance has been defined as “the conscious, goal-oriented collective actions of state and nonstate actors to develop new responses to problems that are both transnational and beyond the capacity of individual governments or organizations to resolve.” Although it encompasses more than the United Nations (UN), the UN is central to whether global governance can amount to anything worthwhile.

The Preamble to the UN Charter declares the organisation’s overall purpose of saving future generations from the ‘scourge of war.’ Article 2.1 of the Charter states that the UN is based on “the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.”

However, in the context of globalisation, sovereignty has tended to be considerably undermined. In 2009 Columbia University historian Mark Mazower put it like this: “vast flows of liquidity, migrants, arms, and greenhouse gases – all make a mockery of the idea of sovereign independence.” It is notable that Mazower qualified this claim at the time with the observation that “[w]hat the UN’s present member-states have in common is basically a shared acceptance of diplomatic and legal norms regarding the recognition and mutual interaction of states.”

In the light of recent events in Ukraine this no longer holds, at least not across the board. On 24 February, the day that it launched its invasion of Ukraine, Russia held the rotating Presidency of the United Nations Security Council, the UN’s most important body by far. This surely raises questions about the idea of the Security Council as a key instrument of global governance.

Despite its flaws, the UN remains important to the foreign policies of most of its member states. To focus on Russia again, Philip Remler wrote in a 2020 study for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that Russia’s status as a permanent member of the UN Security Council “boosts its claim to be part of a global oligarchy and grants it the power to veto or undermine initiatives that it deems contrary to its interests.”

A destructive tension?

There is a clearly a tension – and it is not a ‘creative’ one – between sovereignty on the one hand and the process of globalisation on the other. A recent World Economic Forum briefing paper stated that anti-globalisation movements tend to oppose “not only the aims of global governance, which they believe to be rooted in a fictitious, cosmopolitan unity of human interests, but also institutions they believe are biased in favour of other countries or a rootless elite.”

The problem for global governance, at least insofar as the effectiveness of the UN is concerned, would seem to lie in the fact that the sovereignty is intrinsic to the UN’s foundations, while at the same time being out of alignment with the thinking of post-modern elites, something which the latter do not seem to grasp.


Michael Sanfey is a Visiting Fellow in the Global Governance Programme at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. He holds a PhD in Political Science and International Relations from Universidade Católica Portuguesa (UCP) Lisbon.