Sovereignty: Outline of a Conceptual History

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  • Sovereignty: Outline of a Conceptual HistoryAuthor(s): Nicholas Greenwood OnufSource: Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Fall 1991), pp. 425-446Published by: Sage Publications, Inc.Stable URL: .Accessed: 05/09/2013 12:13

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  • Alternatives 16 (1991). 425-446

    Sovereignty: Outline of a Conceptual History

    Nicholas Greenwood Onuf *

    In explaining the concept of sovereignty, I confess I must enter into -

    dealing as it does with so important and common a concept - a field which is thorny and little-cultivated.

    -Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, 1677

    Sovereignty and Modernity

    Until recently scholars treated the concept of sovereignty with indifference, their eyes glazing at the very mention of it. At least this was so for scholars from the United States, as Steven Krasner, himself a prominent US scholar, has noted, no doubt autobiographically.1 Times change: the concept of sovereignty has experienced a burst of attention in the field of international relations. Why a concept so common and yet so little cultivated, to use Leibniz's words, should suddenly receive such attention, much of it from scholars in the United States, is itself a question worthy of attention.

    Any answer, I want to argue, must address the condition of modernity, for it is modernity's career to which the concept of sovereignty has been ineluctably tied. With modernity taken for granted, the conceptual intelligibility and normative implications of sovereignty went largely unchallenged. With the dramatic appearance in the last few years of serious scholarly debates about modernity's accomplishments and prospects, the concept of sovereignty has come under unaccustomed scrutiny. Modernity confronts a different sensibility, and perhaps a new world in the making - a world in which sovereignty must figure differently, if at all.

    What do I mean by "modernity"? Between 1600 and 1800, or thereabouts, the main features of modernity became clear. First and most

    School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC 20016 USA.


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  • 426 Sovereignty: Outline of a Conceptual History

    important is an interpretation of the world - the world of meaning and the world of experience - as human-centered. Second is an emphasis on individuality, reason, and mastery over circumstance. Third is a preoccupation with method, the differentiation of tasks, and material prosperity, all in the name of progress. Liberalism is modernity's core ideology, capitalism its paymaster, and the state its highest social realization, primary agent, and paramount problem. It is unavoidable redundancy to speak of the modern "state," for there is no other kind of state properly understood. No less is it redundant to speak of the "sovereign state," and no less avoidable. Sovereignty unproblematically defines the state as unique to modernity.

    "It is impossible to have a modern sovereign state that does not incorporate a discursively articulated theory of the modern sovereign state."2 Anthony Giddens wrote these words to illustrate a general claim to which I subscribe:

    The point is that reflection on social processes (theories, and observations about them) continually enter into . . . the universe of events that they describe Consider, for example, theories of sovereignty formulated by seventeenth century European thinkers. These were the result of reflection upon, and study of, social trends into which they in turn were fed back.5

    Of course, there is more to the modern concept of sovereignty than the incorporation of seventeenth-century theories into the practice of states' leaders. Whatever more there is, however, necessarily involves the play between ideas and events. If the history of the state, and of modernity in general, is typically presented to us in the first instance as a matter of events, then sovereignty's history surely ought to come to us first as the history of an idea.

    The standard English language treatment of the history of sovereignty as an idea is contained in . Hinsley's book, now a quarter of a century old, simply and appropriately entitled Sovereignty.4 Hinsley's goal was clear and uncomplicated. He wanted to show how the concept of sovereignty developed in response to, and in support of, the state's emergence as a dominant feature of the modern world. With states came international relations as an overarching feature of that world. To tell this story, Hinsley extricated innumerable strands of political thought and practice from a tangled historical record. He wove them into a tapestry so intricate and richly textured that its pattern disappears into its details. An uncomplicated objective can have ungainly results; texture in this instance robs the story of conceptual coherence.5

    If coherence is the goal, historians of political thought might seem

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  • Nicholas Greenwood Onuf 427

    to offer guidance. Dealing as they do with ensembles of concepts, they search for general statements, or theories, that fix meaning for the ensemble until the next such statement is forthcoming. A succession of these statements organizes the historian's exposition into chapters said to coincide with epochs defined by continuities and commonalities in political thought Through repeated invocation, epoch-defining statements achieve canonical status. The weight of attention increasingly falls to a short list of theorists, and specific concepts appear in the historian's exposition only insofar as particular theorists champion them. In the instance of sovereignty, its history in political thought begins, and all but ends, with Jean Bodin.

    In the search for coherence, a different kind of history is called for - one that avoids both the undue texturing of histories of ideas and the artificiality of histories of political thought A candidate of recent vintage is "conceptual history." Conceptual historians start with the assumption that concepts ought not to be detached from the political discourse within which they are embedded. This is because concepts constitute such discourse. They do so through the conduct of arguments, which, although responsive to events, we can see as having been about concepts. In Terence Ball's words, "political arguments as linguistic performances ... are intended to preserve, extend, and/or change the concepts constitutive of political discourse.1*6 Intentions aside, conceptual innovation is a frequent result as concepts leak across discursive boundaries and disagreements persist "Disagreements about the scope and domain of the 'political' are themselves constitutive features of political discourse."7

    Conceptual historians look for arguments and find conceptual changes - the sort of changes modernity's career would seem to have brought to the concept of sovereignty. Still we must ask: Can a conceptual history of sovereignty span modernity's centuries-long career and end up being any more coherent than Hinsley*s account? In practice, most conceptual historians are able to cover long periods with only the sketchiest of remarks. They then direct most of their attention to a relatively short period during which the concept at hand undergoes a decisive change.

    The brief compass of most conceptual histories leaves little choice. For example, a recent collection of histories of concepts such as constitution, representation, public interest, public opinion, and rights devoted an average of twenty-two pages of printed text to each concept8 In these circumstances a detailed recapitulation of anybody's arguments is impossible. The alternative is to confine a particular conceptual history to the moment a concept changes decisively, as identified in arguments specific to that moment In these instances, however, coherence is hard to achieve. As an example, another recent collection of conceptual

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  • 428 Sovereignty: Outline of a Conceptual History

    histories used the drafting and adoption of the Constitution of the United States as a self-evidently decisive moment of change for a host of political concepts.9 Although most of the essays attended to arguments quite specifically, the concepts about which these arguments were conducted have a fleeting, almost disembodied character - where they came from, what finally happened to them, and how they might have been connected are questions that the collection's format inhibits its contributors from trying to answer.

    The first of these collections does not include sovereignty among its fourteen concepts. Closest is Quentin Skinner's "The State," in which he concluded that the state had become the "master noun of political argument" by the mid-eighteenth century. Thereupon "a number of other concepts bearing on the analysis of sovereignty had to be reorganized or in some cases given up."10 This is an exceptionally perceptive judgment, but not one that Skinner pursued. The other collection offers two conceptual histories of sovereignty in the late-eighteenth-century context of the founding of the United States - history that necessarily turns on the arguments over the distribution of powers in a federal republic.11 While this is an important strand in the story, to render it coherently hardly suffices for the larger need to put sovereignty's relation to modernity in conceptual perspective.

    I suspect that doing justice to a full-scale conceptual history of sovereignty would yield results that differ from Hinsley's only in emphasizing the mutability of political discourse. The complexity ofthat discourse would stand reaffirmed, and we would still lack the perspective necessary to look back across several centuries of modernity. What those of us in the field of international relations need is the sketchier sort of conceptual history - an outline that imposes coherence at sacrifice to detail while marking more closely the moments of conceptual change. Such an outline follows. It presents the history of the concept of sovereignty in three sections, the first of which makes conceptual stability its theme. By examining the standard definition of sovereignty, this section sketches the political organization of modernity in the most general terms.

    The two remaining sections turn to the moments of conceptual change bounding sovereignty's long history as "an essentially uncontested concept."12 More precisely, the next section depicts sovereignty's conceptual antecedents and their fusion in the crucible of modernity. This it does by reference to four distinctive idioms of political thought, two of which fell into a distincdy secondary position as modernity came into its own.13 The last section suggests that modernity's problematic condition today is matched by the declining intelligibility of the concept of sovereignty. In some measure, that decline corresponds to a renewal of political discourse in idioms long reduced in significance. Perhaps

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    latter-day versions of the four idioms identified in the context of sovereignty's conceptual fusion will superintend its decomposition and take back its conceptual constituents.

    One of the four idioms, liberalism, is far more than an idiom. As I have already suggested, it is modernity's core ideology - an ideology systematically connecting the individual and society through the medium, and in the idiom, of rights. States become rights-holding individuals by analogy; the power of this analogy effectively grants unearned credibility to the concept of state sovereignty. If the language of rights accounted for much of the concept's evident stability over the last two centuries, the three remaining idioms provided its conceptual antecedents.

    Two of them have a classical provenience: the republican idiom of "civic life" - of virtue as a public disposition - and the imperial idiom of power and prerogative. The last is an early modern rapprochement of republicanism and Protestantism that strengthens the former's already substantial ethical orientation by turning virtue into a vocation and civic life into a religiously inspired calling. The classical idiom of power and prerogative became the modern idiom of statecraft. It also came to be inseparable from liberalism. Long in liberalism's shadow, idioms of virtue and vocation nonetheless contributed to modernity's distinctive character. They seem likely to return to prominence insofar as modernity's condition calls increasing attention to itself.

    Given the remarkable events of the last two or three years, especially in Europe and the Soviet Union, I might have concluded this outline with a discussion of the impact of those events on the concept of sovereignty. Yet such a discussion would inevitably be superficial, speculative, and one-sided.14 It would especially have been one-sided in that the search for meaning in events underestimates the importance of changes in the meaning of modernity itself - changes with large if occluded effects on Giddens's "universe of events." If I write too one- sidedly of ideas, others are sure to write of the events that all but monopolize our attention in the short term. As conceptual historians note, concepts take on their meaning only as they are brought to bear in argument Like earthquakes, arguments are themselves events. Unlike earthquakes, political events never just happen; events and concepts depend on each other. Together they are deeds, and through our deeds we make the world we know.15

    The Standard Definition of Sovereignty

    I start with Hinsley's definition of sovereignty: "final and absolute political authority in the political community."16 His addendum, "and no final

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