Sovereignty and Territory are the three main concepts of the study and
practice of IR. They all result of social constructions (its meanings have been
established according to ideas).
State has been
the principal subject of theoretical debates and unit of analysis in International
Relations. Sovereignty is one of the central, main bases for order and
organization in IR. In almost every big war between states in the last 200
years, territorial disputes played a main role as the cause.
All of these
concepts are not fixed notions, not throughout time or space. They can change.
As examples we can pick the differences between and absolutist state in the 18th
century, compared to the liberal states in the 19th and 20th
centuries. The meaning sovereignty had before the French Revolution only has a
small resemblance with the ones from today and the European Union has in the first
years of the 21st century, redefined the main territorial boundaries
in Europe, specially between the major countries such as France and Germany for
The main goal
of the author in the text is to show the changes of meaning of these three
concepts (mainly) over the last 100 years and to help interpret them.
Sovereignty are self-constructing concepts, they need one another (at least
nowadays, because it has not been always like that and there are those who
disagree on the idea that a state needs to be acknowledged by others in order
to exist or be legitimate). Both have territorial ideas associated to them, as
for example some of Sovereignty’s main principle of non-intervention and
non-violation of boarders.
a different meaning given to one, also lead to a different interpretation given
to the other (state à sovereignty à
territory). Generalizations tend to be made, maybe because identifying all the
differences is a way too hard job. This can cause a lot of misinterpretation
problems, so that contextualizing and taking into account the differences
(mainly) between the 20th and 21st centuries of these
concepts is a very important task.
It is very
common for IR scholars to describe “state”, as something fixed that does not
change, and that is not true. Forms and locations of states have been altering
over time. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century,
empires were seen as the natural state form for great powers such as the
British, French, Ottoman, etc. Imperial expansion was seen as something
legitimate but after the WWII this scene changed. As decolonization was taking
place, the idea of nation-states was being disseminated around the world,
throughout former empires territories.
At the end of
the 20th century, the power of states began to grow weaker
(something different from previous decades), having less control for example,
over the economy.
The term “Sovereignty” first appeared during
the 16th and 17th century. Even though it is based on the
non-intervention principle, intervention has always been a prime characteristic
of international relations (and it has been increasing in the last few years as
for example in the “responsibility to protect”), therefore it is appropriate to
say that it has been hold only as an ideal. Scholars such as Krasner also tend
to fixate Sovereignty’s meaning, not concentrating on its evolution through
time. It has changed mainly during the 20th century (before and
after the Cold War), when additions were made and taken (or not) into
consideration, when recognizing a sovereign state. So, it is possible to notice
a growing number of criteria required for acceptance over time, at the same
time that some requirements have historically “lost” importance, like
Exactly like the “State”, “Sovereignty” changes its
meanings not only over time, but also in different locations in the world (at
the same time). The changing states of sovereignty are important to IR, because
it is according to them that players of international affairs are legitimated
and are able to play. It is linked to the nature of the state. Its dimension
can be divided into external, the international recognition by other states,
and internal, the legitimacy given to the authority by the population. It is
important to highlight that the main components of it, authority, identity and
territory, are also social constructions.
geographical boarders are nothing new, specially related to great powers.
Therefore territory, just as the other two concepts, is not a fixed idea. There
have been important variations of territories and boarders, specially regarding
their porosity (mainly associated with the movement of people and goods). Some
thinkers, like Norman Angell discuss the benefits of direct territorial
possession. According to him, the basis for wealth was connected to the use
given to that territory.
Globalization, technological advance, etc. have been
some factors on which political geographers rely when raising questions about
the changing nature and function of boundaries. It is convenient to point out
that geographical differences, when talking about concepts, ideas, information,
etc., seem to be mattering less and less over the time, even though this does
not happen on an equal tendency around the globe.
reflect in an important way in IR. The reduction of importance of direct
territory possession and control has diminished considerably one of the main
causes of conflicts between great powers.
it is also important to highlight that authority no longer belongs only to
states and international institutions. NGOs, people, firms, and even markets
have been competing over this type of power. The weight of public opinion has
been growing more and more important, so that states tend to take it more into
consideration. All of this leads to question an alternative to sovereignty as a
way to organize the international system.