A Short Essay on Sovereignty, Territoriality, Nationalism, and Statecraft

“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.” – Carl Schmitt[1]

“The historical appearance of territory- the territorialization of sovereignty- was matched and shaped the territorialization of village communities, and it was the dialectic of local and national interests which produced the boundaries of national territory.” – Peter Sahlins[2]

“The territory as instrument is the privileged space of the exercise of sovereignty and of self-determination.”[3] – Achille Mbembe

Sovereignty is a foundational concept to nationalism. It establishes the right of a state to govern internally while relating with other nation-states within the international nation-state system as equals by creating a dynamic of external anarchy and internal hierarchy. Historically, sovereignty has taken different forms. Sovereignty in the old “dynastic orders” of France, Britain, Prussia and Spain was embodied in the person of the king (and, prior to the Reformation (1517-1648), in the body of the Pope and within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church- a process that aligned somewhat with the rulers of early-modern Europe’s (circa 16th and 17th century) assertions of sovereignty which repudiated the Pope’s authority as the theocratic head of the Church.)[4] and said sovereignty was- to some extent- shared among other members of the royal family in the form of “jurisdictional sovereignty.”[5] Jurisdictional sovereignty refers to (1) the relationship between king and subject, (2) “a form of administration that gave precedence to jurisdiction over territory” and finally, (3) kings and princes’ ceding of rights to domains such as fiefs, balliwicks, counties, bishoprics, seigneuries, towns, and villages, thus allowing for a hierarchical power structure that comprised a mixture of “‘feudal’ forms of domination with administrative circumscriptions of distinct origin.”[6] In the context of the “dynastic order”, Benedict Anderson writes, “the fundamental conceptions about ‘social groups’ were centripetal and hierarchical, rather than boundary-oriented and horizontal.”[7]

“Rex est imperator in regnus suo”: From Rex Regnus to State Sovereignty

Sovereignty in the age of nationalism (that is, post-1850, when industrial developments, concomitant with developing technologies of war enabled the greater reach of the state- with the notable exception of James Scott’s analysis of state formation in Southeast Asia)[8], took on less embodied forms, manifesting in assertions of states’ rights to claim monopolies on violence within a delimited territory, and in more cellular forms, in the shape of “popular sovereignty” in which collectives within a territory (on the basis of a liberal egalitarian “deep horizontal comradeship” between individuals) claimed a right to accountability and governance within the domains (mostly territorial) to which they laid claims on the basis of birth (jus soli) or blood (jus sanguinis).[9] This points to the most recurrent theme in the course with regard to sovereignty- the ways in which belonging to nation-states entrenched territoriality and sovereignty, effectively linking historical and biological (heteronormative, thus a priori and continuous (heterofuturity)- following from Barth’s definition of ethnic groups (proto nationalist) groups as “biologically self-perpetuating”)[10] narratives of the nation and the ‘right’ or ‘authority’ of the central state which bounds or defines the territory within which the nation is contained.[11] Indeed, Jackson writes, “Territoriality became the foundation principle of sovereign statehood in the early-modern period, and it has remained so ever since.”[12]

Sovereignty, in the modern sense, refers to the power exercised by juridically independent territorial entities which exclude external powers from their domestic/internal territories. In his text entitled, Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea, Robert Jackson defines “sovereignty” as, “an idea of authority embodied in those bordered territorial organizations we refer to as ‘states’ (further defined as: “a defined and delimited territory, with a permanent population under the authority of a government[13]) or ‘nations’ and expressed in their various relations and activities, both domestic and foreign.”[14]

In his text entitled, Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees, Peter Sahlins writes specifically about “national territorial sovereignty,” defining states as exercising “exclusive jurisdiction over a delimited territory.”[15] Where Sahlins examines the creation of boundaries and frontiers, rejecting cartographers’ and political geographers’ dualism between boundaries and frontiers, while examining the solidification of the former, Jackson writes, “An international boundary between territorially contiguous sovereign states is the marker of an authority differentiation, and not a power relation.”[16] For Sahlins, the international boundary between France and Spain- particularly along the Pyrenees- is most certainly a product or effect of power relations, both between emergent nation-states, and between villages and states. He writes, “The historical appearance of territory- the territorialization of sovereignty- was matched and shaped the territorialization of village communities, and it was the dialectic of local and national interests which produced the boundaries of national territory.”[17] Straddling the border between France and Spain, Cerdanya stands apart due to its ethnocultural groups which span the ‘political division of two national states.’ In this respect, it is closer to Eastern and Central Europe than Western Europe, but stands apart as the longest-established boundary, having remained more or less stable since the signing of the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees.[18]

In her text entitled, Walled States, Waning Sovereignty, Wendy Brown highlights a litany of paradoxes inherent to sovereignty. Sovereignty simultaneously refers to both absolute power and political freedom. Sovereignty generates order through subordination and freedom through autonomy. Sovereignty has no internal essence; rather, it is dependent and relational (best conceived within an international system of anarchy, in which the ‘standard’ geopolitical unit of social organization is the nation-state) even as it represents “autonomy, self-presence, and self-sufficiency.”[19] Relatedly, sovereignty is both generated and generative, yet it is ontologically a priori, always presupposed and original. Here, Brown refers to Jean Bodin’s statement that sovereignty is not conferred. This paradox is illustrated clearly in the notion of “founding violences.” Borne within the context of the dynamic relations of war (which, presupposes sovereignty on the part of all state parties involved), “founding violences,” Achille Mbembe argues, establish sovereignty within a territory.[20]

A final paradox, which Brown highlights, is that sovereignty produces external anarchy and internal hierarchy. Indeed, as Jackson writes, “Sovereign states are Janus-faced. They simultaneously face inward at the population of the country, and outward at other countries.”[21] This paradox strikes at sovereignty’s undemocratic core. Even as the nation-state makes claims to sovereignty, it produces internal hierarchy; that is, it is always “over” its internal subjects, citizen or not. The 1649 Treaty of Westphalia signified the end of the 30 Years War, simultaneously, as Philpott argues, consolidating the modern state while, as Marx points out, bringing internal conflicts to the fore.[22] Establishing a state system of equal, sovereign states, the Treaty of Westphalia, in theory, introduced a state system that was anarchic.[23] While internal homogeneity is the imagined ideal within the Westphalian nation-state model, which was emergent in an era where ethnic minorities, national minorities in Europe (most clearly in Eastern Europe) were displaced at unprecedented levels, it can be argued that sovereignty in practice subverts this ideal through the creation or reification of internal hierarchies.[24]

Moreover, it is important to decouple internal and external sovereignty. For example, a colony can have internal sovereignty even as it lacks external sovereignty (indeed, “a ‘state’ could be a colonial state in an empire”).[25] This differentiates colonial sovereignty from the sovereignty of a nation-state, which, barring status as a ‘failed state’, can lay claim to both internal and external sovereignty. Colonialism is an interesting vantage point from which to look at sovereignty, because even as the colony itself cannot claim external sovereignty, the colonizing nation-state is exercising its external sovereignty in asserting its colonial claims on a particular territory.

For example, the 1885 General Act of the Berlin Conference, to which Great Britain, Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Russia and the United States were signatories, recognized and codified the “the obligation to ensure the establishment of authority in the regions occupied by them on coasts of the African continent.”[26] Essentially, the international nation-state system was presumed to only include the signatory states. That is, members of the anarchic international nation-state system were assumed to be the only ones with legitimate claims to internal and external sovereignty, and the latter extended to the colonies to which they laid claim.

Sovereign State as Protector

“Now, all the duties of  rulers are contained in this one sentence: the safety of the people is the supreme law.” – Thomas Hobbes[27]

“Security is a presupposition of presupposition of sovereign statehood. Insecurity is a sign of state weakness, lack of will, loss of control, collapse, failure.” – Robert Jackson[28]

Thomas Hobbes could be termed as the first political philosopher to formulate the sovereign state as protector.[29] In Man and Citizen, Hobbes writes that the state, in its role as protector, must possess the “sword of war,” “right to arm” and the “sword of justice” (alternatively, the “right to punish”- or the right to write and enforce the law with the exercise of force.).[30]

In Jackson’s text, he writes that security is a presupposition of the sovereign state- that is, sovereignty entails a monopoly on violence within a state’s borders.[31] Of course, he notes that not all nation-states meet this criterion. Many states, by this definition of sovereignty, are failed in that they cannot guarantee total security throughout their territorial boundaries, or they have the status of “quasi-states propped up by the international system, states in a condition of internal war.”[32]

Interestingly, both Robert Jackson and Arjun Appadurai highlight the example of terrorism in the age of globalization and its role in undermining perceptions of state effectiveness and monopoly over violence within a territory. The alternative to state security apparatuses, writes Jackson, is not privatized non-state actors. Even as they act to ensure security within national borders, terrorists’ effectiveness and continued existence depends, in part, upon the existence of terra firma “safe havens” within states which “tolerate them or lack the will or capacity to suppress them.”[33]

In Appadurai’s formulation, terrorism is a “cellular system” or formulation in a global system, which relies, to some extent, upon the “vertebrate system” of the international nation-state system as both its haven and its antithesis.[34] For Appadurai, terrorism is a “quotidian war,” (which is also a total war) that defies and undermines classical definitions of war, which presuppose an engagement between two sovereign states.[35] This dovetails with Jackson’s text, in which he writes:

“It would be difficult to make sense of terrorism and the response to terrorist attacks on Nairobi, Moscow, New York and Washington, Bali, Madrid, Ankara, London, Amman, Mumbai and other places without presupposing the fundamental security responsibilities of sovereign states and the states system. That is so even though a ‘war’ on international terrorism does pose awkward problems for sovereign states, which are adapted for making war with one another and against one another, not against non-state actors. But it is easy to discern the targets of international terrorism: the governments and citizens of sovereign states.”[36]

Terrorism is deterritorialized and diffuse, even as it is enacted in the heart of nation-states’ jurisdictions. As such, it destabilizes assumptions typically concomitant with formulations of sovereignty in nation-states, including (1) the notion that peace is the natural marker of social order and (2) the nation-state as the natural guarantor and container of order.[37] Moreover, it does raise the question of whether acts of terror fall within national or international jurisdictions. If indeed, a terrorist act falls under the legal category of an “act of war” or a “criminal act.” The former falls under international law, whereas the latter typically calls under national or federal legal jurisdiction. These two dovetail in the United States, following the passage of the United States Patriot Act of Congress.[38]

            Over all, terrorism illustrates the ways in which forces of globalization have undermined the perceptions of national sovereignty within the nation-state system as a ‘hard shell.’ If sovereignty can be understood in terms of borders, territory and claims to authority within a territorial jurisdiction, then the cellular character of terrorism and it’s unpredictable, politicized violence against civilians within national boundaries poses a fundamental challenge to modern conceptions of sovereignty. This is particularly true in the case of national security, which, as Hobbes wrote, is essential to the assertion of national sovereignty. If the state cannot be a guarantor of safety (particularly in the face of acts of terror) within its territorial jurisdictions, then is it truly sovereign in the strictest sense?

Conclusion

            In sum, modern conceptions of sovereignty codify states’ claims to authority within their territorial jurisdictions through internal sovereignty, while securing their egalitarian position within an international nation-state system through assertions of external sovereignty. This sovereignty emerged out of early modern European kings’ demands for autonomy from Papal authority, beginning with King Henry VIII of England’s 1534 procurement of an Act of Supremacy, which established his and his descendants’ “supreme headship of the Church of England and immunity from ‘foreign law.’”[39] (Jackson) Thereafter, sovereignty took on the form of “jurisdictional sovereignty” in which the limited reach of the state meant that kings and princes ceded administrative authority over localized domains, allowing for a syncretic power structure which combined feudal relations of power with “administrative circumscriptions of distinct origin.”[40] (Sahlins) As industrialization and the evolution of warcraft enabled the further reach of the state (Marx, Gellner), nation-making, a dialectic process between local communities and authorities and state authorities (across linguistic, religious, and cultural lines) was able to produce what is termed the “nation-state.” This expanding reach of the state legitimated claims to sovereignty over particular territories, rather than simply sovereignty over a jurisdiction whose boundaries were subject to change.

 
FOOTNOTES


[1] Schmitt, Carl. (1985). Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Trans. Schwab, George. Cambridge: MIT Press

[2] Sahlins, Peter. (1991). Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Pp

“Do a people or nation determine the territorial extent of their sovereign jurisdiction, or do bordered territorial jurisdictions define and delimit the sovereignty of peoples or nations? The doctrine of self-determination prescribes the former, but the latter situation is closer to historical reality.” (104)

[3] Mbembe, Achille. (2000) At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality, and Sovereignty in Africa. Public Culture Winter 2000 12(1): 259-284

[4] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. xi

[5] Sahlins, Peter. (1991). Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Pp 28

[6] Sahlins, Peter. (1991). Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Pp 29

[7] Anderson, Benedict. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso). Pp. 15

[8] This is in keeping with Gellner and Posen’s instrumentalist arguments with regard to nationalism. Alternatively, Scott argues that geographic features and the resultant ways of living and being among the “Hill people” of Southeast Asia shaped their relationship to the state, while structuring and delimiting the extent of state capture in a region.

Gellner, Ernest. (1983). Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Posen, Barry R. (1993). Nationalism, the Mass Army, and Military Power.” International Security. Vol. 18, No. 2 (Autumn 1993). Pp 80-124

Scott, James C. (2009). The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

[9] Anderson, Benedict. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso). Pp. 7

[10] Barth, Frederik. (1998). Ethnic Groups and Boundaries: The Social Organization of Cultural Difference. Longgrove, IL: Waveland Press. Pp. 11

[11] Essentially, nationality conferred (or belonging mediated) on the basis of birth (jus soli) or blood origin (jus sanguinis) within a territory entrenches human life as domain of sovereignty, legitimating the sovereign state as a form of territoriality.

[12] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 104

[13] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 8

[14] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. iv

[15] Sahlins, Peter. (1991). Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Pp 4

[16] Sahlins, Peter. (1991). Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Pp 4

Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp 9

[17] Sahlins, Peter. (1991). Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Pp 104

“Do a people or nation determine the territorial extent of their sovereign jurisdiction, or do bordered territorial jurisdictions define and delimit the sovereignty of peoples or nations? The doctrine of self-determinination prescribes the former, but the latter situation is closer to historical reality.” (104)

[18] Sahlins, Peter. (1991). Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Pp 6

[19] Brown, Wendy. (2010). Walled States, Waning Sovereignty. London: The MIT Press. Pp. 53

[20] Mbembe, Achille. (2001) On the Postcolony. Berkeley: University of California Press, pp. 26

[21] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 27

[22] Marx, Anthony. (2003) Faith in Nation: Exclusionary Origins of Nationalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 36

[23] Philpott, Daniel. (2000). The Religious Roots of Modern International Relations, World Politics, Vol. 52, No. 2 (January 2000), pp. 211

[24] Ramon, Grosfuguel. (2008) “A Decolonial Approach to Political Economy: Transmodernity, Border Thinking and Global Coloniality.” Revista Crítica de Ciências Sociais 80

[25] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 6, 126,

[26] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 3

[27] Hobbes, Thomas. (1993). Man and Citizen (De Homme and De Cive), ed. B. Gert. Indianapolis: Hackett Press, pp. 258

[28] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 137

[29] Hobbes, Thomas. (1946). Leviathan. Ed. M. Oakeshott. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Press

Hobbes, Thomas. (1993). Man and Citizen (De Homme and De Cive), ed. B. Gert. Indianapolis: Hackett Press

[30] Hobbes, Thomas. (1993). Man and Citizen (De Homme and De Cive), ed. B. Gert. Indianapolis: Hackett Press. Pp 176-77

[31] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 137

[32] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 137

[33] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 137

[34] For Appadurai, “vertebrate systems” need not be centralized or hierarchical. (Appadurai, 25) Rather, they are reliant “upon a system of semiotic recognition and communication, composed of simple items as flags, stamps, and airlines and by much more complex systems such as those of consulates, ambassadors, and other mutual forms of recognition.” Furthermore, they are based upon a “set of coordinated, regulative norms and signals.” (Appadurai, 26)

Appadurai, Arjun. (2006). Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Duke University Press. Pp 25-6

[35] Appadurai, Arjun. (2006). Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Duke University Press. Pp 31

[36] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 136

[37] Appadurai, Arjun. (2006). Fear of Small Numbers: An Essay on the Geography of Anger. Duke University Press. Pp 33

[38] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp. 136

[39] Jackson, Robert. (2007). Sovereignty: The Evolution of an Idea. Cambridge: Polity. Pp 3

[40] Sahlins, Peter. (1991). Boundaries: The Making of France and Spain in the Pyrenees. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Pp 29

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