InternationalInternational Relations

Sovereignty and Power in World Politics

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For a long period of time, the idea of sovereignty has turned into a major issue in contemporary politics around the world. This concept is being discussed by a number of politicians as well as political science theorists.  

The recent debate on sovereignty and politics is primarily regarding the new meanings and interpretations of sovereignty that have emerged in various political as well as economic contexts. However, sovereignty can be traditionally defined as the quality of possessing absolute independence on a particular territory or geographical region. In power, the aspect of sovereignty is reflected in the right to legislate and rule over a region from a political point of view[1].

The Westphalian Sovereignty and Degree of Absoluteness

Fundamentally, all the modern notions of sovereignty are linked with the Westphalian notion of the concept. In the Westphalian notion, the separation of church from the state was done in order to create a non-domestic political organization that has the right to legislate without the influence or threat of any external or internal lobbies[2]. Therefore, a state can be considered as truly sovereign when it is free from external or internal pressures whilst legislating for its people. However, this notion of sovereignty has undergone a massive change over the past few years.

Now sovereignty is considered to be an essential element in world politics due to multiple reasons. The idea of absoluteness is always associated with sovereignty and its degree is discussed and debated upon. Traditionally, any sovereign political entity in the world enjoys absolute sovereignty in the absence of a binding or restricting constitution or a law[3]. In such cases, there are no policies or laws in place which can control it. However, in recent times, there are factors that can significantly control or restrict the exercise the sovereignty in certain situations. For instance, International Law along with other cooperative policies confirmed by international organizations can restrict the exercise of absolute sovereignty in the world.

The Concept of Power in the World

The concept of power has been defined by a number of scholars from all around the world. According to Blau, Power is “the ability of persons or groups to impose their will on others despite resistance through deterrence either in the form of withholding regularly supplied rewards or in the form of punishment, inasmuch as the former, as well as the latter, constitute, in effect, a negative sanction”[4].

Sovereignty and Politics –

In recent times, this kind of power is witnessed to be exercised by the United States when it puts sanctions on the countries violating its interests. The recent example of Iran is considered to be a quintessential application of power by the United States where an Iranian General was assassinated, and sanctions were imposed on Iran for threatening to retaliate[5].

Power and Sovereignty in the World

Scholars tend to argue that power and sovereignty are extremely contested and ubiquitous terms in the field of international relations. Both of these concepts are understood in various forms and they tend not to co-vary. However, scholars claim that the link between power and sovereignty has weakened especially in recent times[6].

For instance, Martin Wolf who is a senior economic commentator argues that sovereignty is not the same as power. This means that a reduction in sovereignty does not reduce power in a fundamental manner.

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In the case of Brexit, the United Kingdom has exercised its sovereignty to withdraw from a regional organization of which it had been a part of since the beginning[7]. However, this has not resulted in a reduction of powers for the United Kingdom, but it has proved to a test for the United Kingdom to exercise both Internal and External Sovereignty[8]. Both of these are discussed below.

Internal Sovereignty and its Recent Trends

Another important aspect of sovereignty, prevailing in the world today, is internal sovereignty. This aspect emphasizes the degree of control of state over its citizens[9]. In this kind of sovereignty, the idea of legitimacy plays a pivotal role in its exercise. According to scholars such as Mälksoo (2008), the basis of legitimacy lies in the right on which a state exercises authority and power over its citizens. This aspect of legitimacy is often claimed in monarchies as a royal right of the monarch with some kind of a social contract in the society.

The aspect of internal sovereignty tells us about the right of a state to exercise jurisdiction over the internal features of the state[10]. A state with internal sovereignty is mostly set up with the consent of the government through its vote. This results in the creation of significant legitimacy that supports the decision-making process of the government of that state. This type of sovereignty is also important because in case it becomes weak, many internal organizations can come up with the intention to take over the state authority and dismiss the government.

For instance, according to scholars, the present authority generated by a state’s internal sovereignty has been greatly affected by different rebel groups around the world such as Al-Qaeda and Taliban etc.[11]

External Sovereignty and its role in Contemporary world

In the content of exercise of sovereignty, the most important form of sovereignty that is exercised in power relations is the external sovereignty. According to scholars, the external sovereignty emphasizes on the overall relationships in the international arena. These relationships are between a state and its external factors such as external states of political and economic organizations[12].

However, in recent times, a number of aspects from international law are also involved with this idea of sovereignty. This involves the right timing and situation for a particular state to interfere in the activities of another state. According to the contemporary rules and regulations formulated by international law, sovereignty can be exercised by a morally justified government[13] that can exercise almost complete authority over the operations in a specific state or territory.

There is no specific rule that can be used in order to identify or recognize the degree of sovereignty possessed by a political entity such as a state. A massive range of information and data is considered in order to assess the territory or the state, and its sovereign power. For instance, a sovereign power can only become a member of the United Nations until and unless it gets the approval of the General Assembly.

According to scholars, the Security Council plays a massive role in this context when providing the General Assembly with the help in making this decision[14].


In the end, we can conclude that the aspect of sovereignty is actually important in the contemporary era because it is not just the right of the government but also the right of the people to elect their favorite government and laws, etc. However, the concept of sovereignty implies that a certain territory is to be respected as a representation of rights. Thus, we can say that sovereignty is more of a power than a right. In political theory, this concept has played a massive role along with the notion of international law and international regimes. However, many a time, the interpretations of sovereignty might differ, and this causes disputes to arise in the contemporary world. For instance, in monarchies, sovereignty is ascribed to the king while democracy assigns this sovereignty to an elected government.

[1] Solingen, Etel. “Three scenes of sovereignty and power.” Back to Basics: State Power in a Contemporary World (2013): 105.

[2] Straumann, Benjamin. “The peace of Westphalia as a secular constitution.” Constellations 15, no. 2 (2008): 173-188.

[3] Slomp, Gabriella. “On sovereignty.” Issues in International Relations (2008): 33.

[4] P. M. Blau, Exchange and Power in Social Life, New York: John Wiley, 1967, p. I 17

[5] Marwan Bushara, The US, Iran, and the fallout of Soleimani’s assassination, Al Jazeera 2020.

[6] Solingen, Etel. “Three scenes of sovereignty and power.” Back to Basics: State Power in a Contemporary World (2013): 105.

[7] Martin Wolf, “Brexit: sovereignty is not the same as power” Financial Times, 2016.

[8] Young, A., and G. Gee. “Regaining sovereignty, Brexit, the UK Parliament and the common law.” European Public Law 22, no. 1 (2016).

[9] Bellodi, Leonardo. “Libya’s Assets and the Question of Sovereignty.” Survival 54, no. 2 (2012): 39-45.

[10] Slaughter, Anne-Marie. “Sovereignty and power in a networked world order.” Stan. J. Int’l L. 40 (2004): 283.

[11] Carment, David, and Dane Rowlands. “Three’s company: evaluating third-party intervention in intrastate conflict.” Journal of Conflict Resolution 42, no. 5 (1998): 572-599.

[12] Thompson, Helen. “The case for external sovereignty.” European Journal of International Relations 12, no. 2 (2006): 251-274.

[13] Roth, Brad R. Governmental illegitimacy in international law. Oxford University Press on Demand, 2000.

[14] Talmon, Stefan. “The Security Council as world legislature.” American Journal of International Law 99, no. 1 (2005): 175-193.

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