Seduced by the Map Introduction (Part 3)


To be elevated to the highest level of the political hierarchy, the nation/state/country must be endowed with the ultimate power of sovereignty, the final keyword in the geopolitical lexicon. “Amorphous, elusive, and polysemic” in the words of Wendy Brown, this may be the slipperiest and subtlest term of all.[1] The modern concept of sovereignty is usually dated to the prescriptive works of the French jurist Jean Bodin in the sixteenth century. Worried that religious unrest was threatening the French monarchy, Bodin held that the state should be supreme, indivisible, and unlimited in time,[2] subject to no authority other than God and the laws of nature.[3] Writing at a time when France was extending its power over areas historically linked to the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), he was effectively fighting against claims of supremacy by both the HRE and the papacy. Unfettering France, in Bodin’s view, required dislodging the hierarchical and parcelized forms of sovereignty that had characterized medieval Europe. Ultimate authority had to placed be in the hands of a sovereign power, ideally those of single monarch (although Bodin allowed that groups of individuals could also wield sovereignty). At any rate, Bodin’s idealized schema of unitary rule foreshadowed the present-day model of geopolitical organization.[4]

Most of those who attacked the absolutism of early-modern European potentates retained the concept of absolute sovereignty but transferred it from the monarch (or oligarchy) that held overriding power to the imaginary construct called “the people.”[5] With the French Revolution this transferal was made explicit; the national Assembly’s first decree was an “act of sovereignty” vesting absolute authority in the nation.[6] The sovereign nation was thus born, and with it the sovereign nation-state.

Today, sovereignty is most often viewed as a legal construct specifying the absolute[7] power of the independent state, allowing no imposition of authority by any other entity. But as Peter Russell insists, sovereignty is always a claim rather than an “incontestable fact,”[8] and as Stephen Krasner and others[9] have noted, sovereignty actually encapsulates a number of distinct aspects of power.[10] In practice, moreover, it is routinely partitioned, with some powers delegated up and down the spatial hierarchy.[11] In the U.S., the fifty constituent states and the officially recognized Native American nations routinely proclaim their own sovereignty; in Europe, the EU exercises some of the sovereign powers that we normally associate with the (national) state.  In other words, “sovereignty,” like “nation,” “state,” and “country,” can inhere simultaneously in different levels of the geopolitical order.[12] Historically, sovereignty can even be found in situations in which there is no state to speak of; the sovereign “divine king” of the Natchez of southern Louisiana could order the execution of anyone within his presence, but lacking any sort of administrative apparatus he was powerless to compel anyone not in his immediate vicinity –and that of his henchmen – to do his bidding.[13]

Despite its inherent identification with state power, sovereignty has often been held by commercial enterprises. In the early modern period, the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC) and the British East Indian Company (EIC) exercised sovereign power over vast territories inhabited by tens of millions of people. Although private sovereignty became something of a scandal in the mid nineteenth century, it was revived almost immediately, first in northern Borneo and then in Africa. As Steven Press shows, sovereign rights over lands and persons then became commodities, “accessible to every kind of buyer.”[14] Remnants of commercial sovereignty persist to this day, although some verge on the ludicrous. Examples range from Donald Trump’s feckless bid to purchase self-ruling Greenland from Denmark[15] to the self-proclaimed Principality of Sealand, located on an abandoned military platform in the North Sea, and owned by a single family. For a mere £499.99, one can become a Duke or a Duchess of this parodic nano-realm.[16]  

Regardless of its formal aims, the doctrine of sovereignty has never prevented strong countries – or international bodies – from impinging on the domestic policies of smaller states. Powerful polities have often engaged in such behavior, as the history of U.S. political interventions in the Caribbean and Central America so clearly demonstrates. The “responsibility to protect” doctrine, used by NATO to justify its bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999,[17]allows the international community (or some portion of it) to impinge on the sovereignty of its constituent states in the most direct way imaginable. Aspects of sovereignty are also lodged with international agencies, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.[18] Currently, impositions on national sovereignty seem to be on the rise, owing to globalization, concerns over human rights and environmental despoliation, and aggressive national foreign policies. Such often unwanted interference has led Chinese leaders to call for an international recommitment to non-intervention, sometimes framed as an “Eastphalian” rejoinder to the European tradition of “Westphalianism”[19] (on which more below). Yet the PRC itself is not immune from protests against its own interference in other countries, especially Australia.[20]

The conflicted nature of sovereignty in the United States derives in part from the country’s origin in a cluster of separate colonies. As Timothy Zick explains, after the framers of the Constitution borrowed the ideas of “state” and “sovereignty” from Europe, “they proceeded to alter the concepts, first by binding states together in union, and then substantially limiting not only their powers, but those of the central government as well.”[21] Originally constituted more as a confederation of largely separate polities, the United States eventually developed a powerful federal (central) government. But it was not until after the Civil War that the country came to be referred to in the singular, turning the once-common phrase “the United States are” into antiquated grammar.[22]

If sovereignty remained an ambiguous and contested concept for the U.S., it was all the more problematic for the overseas imperial holdings of the leading Western powers. As Lauren Benton demonstrates, early modern European empires were chock full of both spatial and legal anomalies.[23] “Empires did not cover space evenly but composed a fabric that was full of holes, stitched together out of pieces, a tangle of strings.”[24] Sovereignty in such places was often a snarled mess – a far cry from the orderly illusions of most maps.

Similar complexities were found over much of the world before the nineteenth century. At the heart of Europe, the Old Reich, or Holy Roman Empire, was marked by “the omnipresence of condominiums and exclaves, the limitations of the rulers’ territorial superiority, [and] the frequency of overlapping and contradictory political claims.”[25] Rulers, moreover, often enjoyed different kinds of rights and powers over different domains of action in different places. Rather than being based on contiguous, cohesive, and sovereign units, argues Luca Scholz, “the polities of the early modern Empire are better understood as a system of channels, corridors and checkpoints unevenly distributed in space.”[26] The parallels between this system and that of Tokugawa Japan, conventionally depicted as a singular territorial state, were profound. As noted by Fabian Drixler, Japan before 1868 was not one country but rather “a collection of some 250 states and statelets,” some of which were “no more than portfolios of widely scattered villages.”[27]

The Seductive Westphalian Model

The story of geopolitical development sketched above is at odds with mainstream international relations (IR) theory, where the modern system of sovereign states is depicted as having essentially emerged through a single European event: the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Under this settlement, which ended the brutal Thirty Years War, all (European) states supposedly were given equal standing in international law, just as each state was accorded full control over its own affairs without fear of interference. Although this reductive portrayal of what happened at Westphalia has long been subject to harsh criticism by historians,[28] it remains deeply entrenched in IR circles. As Malise Ruthven restates it in his comprehensive atlas of diplomacy, Carving Up the Globe (2018), “The Peace of Westphalia  (1648) … established the basis for the present-day international system whereby states — territorial units controlled by sovereign governments — became the primary actors in international affairs.”[29]

The actual story of state sovereignty and territorial integrity is rather more complicated.[30] The histories of many European polities fail to match the expectations of the Westphalian model in a spectacular manner, Navarre[31]and Neuchâtel[32] being prime examples. It is also important to note that the supposedly sovereign polities that collectively made up the Holy Roman Empire after 1648 included numerous Imperial Abbeys: nano-theocracies as small as a single convent with a few attached villages. Such polities, needless to say, were not fully sovereign actors in international affairs. At the opposite end of the spatial continuum were sprawling composite states[33] made up of separate polities sometimes linked only through the temporary “personal unions” of their shared rulers and held together largely through dynastic ties and patronage. Some of these lasted well into the nineteenth century.[34] In conventional historical mapping, we see a few composite polities that persisted for centuries (the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), as well as others that eventually transformed into conventional states (Spain). But some are essentially invisible, treated as if it had been clear from the start that they were temporary arrangements.

As Philip Bobbitt[35] has exhaustively demonstrated, Westphalia was merely one step in the lengthy transition from the pre-modern order of personal states, essentially defined by allegiance to dynastic families, to the modern order of territorial states.[36] The Peace of Westphalia was preceded by the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and followed by the equally important Treaty of Utrecht (1713) and Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). Still, the fully modern territorial state – Maier’s “Leviathan 2.0” – did not crystalize until the mid-nineteenth century, with the national state only becoming the norm with the Treaty of Versailles (1919). The modern nation-state, held to be universal, did not gain center-stage until the decolonization movement shattered the global Europeans empires in the early Cold War era.[37] The actual heyday of the conventional nation-state system was surprisingly short, essentially lasting from 1960, when seventeen African countries gained independence, to the early 1990s. Then, in a rapid reconfiguration between 1991-1993, three multi-ethnic countries in Central Europe and Eurasia – Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and the USSR – collapsed, eventually yielding 24 newly recognized sovereign polities.

Despite its poor fit with the facts, the idea that the international system of equal and sovereign states emerged full-blown in 1648 looms large in the diplomatic and scholarly imaginations, informing entire schools of analysis. Like the world model that it underlies, it is seductively simple, making the sovereign state appear to be far more solid than it actually is. By our reading, the standard model of international relations is based on a geopolitical structure whose lifespan was closer to 35 years than 350: one that did not fully gel until 1960, and that was already beginning to fracture three decades later. It is hardly surprising that it fails to offer an adequate account of the world, whether today or in the past.

[1] Brown (2014, 48). According to Brown, the concept of sovereignty is inherently contradictory, especially when applied to democratic states, given its absolutist qualities: “It is nearly impossible to reconcile the classical features of sovereignty—power that is not only foundational and unimpeachable, but enduring and indivisible, magisterial and awe-inducing, decisive and supralegal—with the requisites of rule by the demos.” She goes on to suggest that “we have known all along that sovereignty has been, if not a fiction, something of an abstraction with a tenuous bearing on political reality” (p. 49).

[2] Bodin’s three stipulations—that sovereignty must be absolute, undivided, and perpetual—have been subject to on-going interpretation and debate. It is clear, however, that he did not mean that an independent ruler should necessarily have unlimited power, but he did believe that the sovereign should be above human-made law: “[T]he “principal mark of sovereign majesty and absolute power is the right to impose laws generally on all subjects regardless of their consent … And if it is expedient that if he is to govern his state well, a sovereign prince must be above the law” (Bodin 1955 [1576], p. 32). By “perpetual” power, Bodin meant that of the ruler, not the state: “A perpetual authority therefore must be understood to mean one that lasts for the lifetime of him who exercises it” (1955 [1576], p. 26). The thorniest issue is probably that of “undivided sovereignty.” Bodin believed that ultimate authority could be held by the people as a whole (in a democracy), by an aristocratic body, or by a single monarch (his favored solution). But he denied that it could be divided between or among these three elements (Bodin 1955 [1576], p. 52; see also Andrew 2011, p. 77). This assertion, as Bodin understood, ran counter to most classical theories of political order. Polybius, drawing on Aristotle, argued that much of Republican Rome’s strength was derived from its mixed constitution in which sovereign authority was intricately divided among the one (the consuls, actually two in number), the few (the senate), and the many (the popular assemblies) (see Herman 2014). (Such theorizing was of crucial importance in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution.) According to Bodin, however, neither Aristotle nor Polybius actually understood what sovereignty entailed: “they treated the subject so briefly that one can see at a glance that they did not really understand the principles involved” (1955 [1576], 41) and “It is clear therefore that none of the three functions of the state that Aristotle distinguishes are properly attributes of sovereignty” (1955 [1576], p. 43).

[3] Bodin emphatically held that sovereigns should be beholden to natural law: “A TRUE king is one who observes the laws of nature as punctiliously as he wishes his subjects to observe his own laws… .” (1955 [1576], p. 59). Although Bodin has been vilified by many recent authors because of his absolutist interpretation of sovereignty, Daniel Lee (forthcoming) seeks to recuperate his interpretation, arguing that Bodin also stressed the responsibilities of the sovereign.

[4] See the discussion in Andrew 2011, p. 78.

[5] Russell 2021, p. 41.

[6] Russell 2021, p. 39.

[7] As Wendy Brown (2014, p. 50) puts it, “There can be no ‘sort of sovereignty’ any more than there can be a ‘sort of God. …”

[8] Russell 2021, 10.

[9] Krasner 1999. See also the discussion in Caspersen (2012, pp. 13-14) and Brown (2014, p. 22).

[10] Krasner (1999, 3-4) distinguishes four types of sovereignty: international legal sovereignty (“practices associated with mutual recognition”); Westphalian sovereignty (“exclusion of external actors from authority structures within a given territory”); domestic sovereignty (“ability of public authorities to exercise effective control within the borders of their own polity”); and interdependence sovereignty (“the ability of public authorities to regulate the flow of information, ideas, goods, people, pollutants, or capital across the borders of their state.”)

[11] As noted by James Sheehan (2006, p. 2), “As a doctrine, sovereignty is usually regarded as unified and inseparable; as an activity, however, it is plural and divisible.”

[12] As Charles Maier (2012, p. 7) puts it, “Although political theorists have often insisted that sovereignty is absolute, in practice it has often been partial or nested within imperial or associative structures.”

[13] Graeber and Wengrow 2021, pp. 391-396.

[14] Press 2017, p. 173.

[15] As a constituent country of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland verges on sovereignty, and is certainly not a geopolitical commodity that could be traded on the open market. Trump was reportedly so irritated by the rebuff that he received from bewildered officials in Copenhagen that he cancelled a state visit. See “In Denmark, Bewilderment and Anger Over Trump’s Canceled Visit,” by Martin Selsoe Sorensen. The New York Times, August 21, 2019.

[16] See the Sealand Webpage:

[17] See Russell 2021, p. 106.

[18] Graeber and Wegrow 2021, p. 421.

[19] Kim, Fidler, and Ganguly 2009.

[20] For a balanced consideration of this controversy, see “When It Comes to China’s Influence on Australia, Beware of Sweeping Statements and Conflated Ideas.” The Conversation: Academic Rigor, Journalistic Flair, April 10, 2018.’s-influence-australia-beware-sweeping-statements-and-conflated-ideas-0

[21] Zick 2005, 232.

[22] According to Google Books Ngram Viewer, the tipping point occurred in roughly 1890.

This contentious process of restricting sovereignty to the national level in the United States has never reached completion; as Zick (2005, p. 233) notes, “the [U.S.] Supreme Court has waffled famously on this issue.” By the turn of the twenty-first century, it seemed that the power of Washington had overridden almost every aspect of constituent-state sovereignty, leading legal scholar Steve Gey (2002) to argue that sub-national sovereignty is a mere myth. Subsequent events, however, indicate that the situation remains complicated. At the time of writing, for example, U.S. federal law expressly prohibited cannabis, restricting it more severely than cocaine or morphine. Yet cannabis is fully legal in many U.S. states, and is allowed medicinally in many more. Under the provisions of the Rohrabacher–Farr amendment, moreover, the federal Justice Department cannot spend funds to interfere with state medical-cannabis laws (See the Wikipedia article “Rohrabacher–Farr amendment.”–Farr_amendment#cite_note-3). Evidently, in this domain, the federal law has essentially become a dead letter, with constituent-state authority once again running supreme.

[23] Tellingly, the title of Lauren Benton’s crucial book on this topic is A Search for Sovereignty (2009).

[24] Benton 2009, p. 2.

[25] Scholz 2020, p. 32.

[26] Scholz (2020, p. 89.

[27] Drixler 2015, p. 23.

[28] As Stuart Elden frames the issue (2013, p. 309), “In recent years there has been a consolidated challenge to the prevailing orthodoxy, with a recognition that the treaties of Westphalia say little that is claimed of them, and that to privilege this as a turning point is misleading in a number of ways.” Jordan Branch (2014, p. 125) is more blunt, arguing that the 1648 settlement “contained little if any change in the deep grammar of political authority.” He goes on to conclude that “Westphalia was anything but the founding moment of modern international relations”  (2014, p. 128).

[29] Ruthven 2018, p. 9.

[30] Indeed, Ruthven’s own description of the Peace of Westphalia (2018, p. 80) acknowledges that “sovereignty and statehood were neither explicitly referred to, nor defined” in the Westphalian treaties.

[31] The important medieval Kingdom of Navarre was split in the early sixteenth century (first by internal dynastic disputes, then by invasion from neighboring Castile and Aragon). Its main geobody was annexed to Spain while its northern, trans-Pyrenees salient was linked in personal union with France. Although northern Navarre was fully incorporated into France in 1620, the ruler of that state was still officially styled “King of France and Navarre” until the Revolution. Southern Navarre, by contrast, survived under Spanish conquest as an autonomous polity, endowed with a quasi-constitutional legal system (fueros) until 1841. Certainly through the period of Habsburg rule (1516-1700), Spain was a multinational, composite state in which the bounds of sovereignty were not always as clear-cut as they appear in historical atlases. Sources from the time often referenced even the empire’s Iberian heartland not as “Spain” but rather as “the Spains.”

[32] In the eighteenth century, Neuchâtel was both a region associated with the Old Swiss Confederacy and a hereditary principality under the personal rule of the king of Prussia. Neuchâtel was allowed to join the Swiss Confederation in 1815, but Switzerland at the time was still a mere political association. In the revolutionary year of 1848, local republican rebels seized power in Neuchâtel just as the Swiss confederation was transformed into a sovereign federal state. Eight years later, an unsuccessful pro-Prussian coup tried to reestablish monarchical rule in Neuchâtel. When that failed, Berlin broke diplomatic ties with Switzerland and threatened war. As international tensions mounted, Prussia agreed to relinquish its claims to Neuchâtel, but only after its king was mollified by being allowed to keep a symbolic princely title to the little realm. Needless to say, such events do not exactly illustrate the Westphalian model in action.

[33] The concept of the composite state is usually traced to H. G. Koenigsberger’s 1978 essay on the relationship between monarchs and parliaments in early modern Europe. In his formulation (1978, p. 202), “Most states in the early modern period were composite states, including more than one country under the sovereignty of one ruler. … A ruler, therefore, did not normally confront just one parliament, but several, and each one of them on quite different terms.”

[34] According to J. H. Elliott (1992), the composite state was the dominant political form in Europe in the sixteenth century and only very gradually yielded to the unitary territorial state. The “composite” mode of governance had its own disadvantages, but enjoyed numerous advantages as well. Elliott rightly scoffs at the idea that “the composite state of the early modern period was no more than a necessary but rather unsatisfactory way-station on the road that led to unitary statehood” (1992, p. 51).

[35] Bobbitt 2002.

[36] For Bobbitt (2002), the “territorial state” per se was merely one step in a progression from the personal state of the monarch to the modern nation-state, which he thinks could soon yield to the market-state. Azar Gat (2013, p. 4), however, objects to the idea of the territorial state, arguing that it is a “rather meaningless concept, as all states have territory.” For us, the crucial issue is whether territory is used as a defining characteristic of the state. That was certainly not the case in most medieval European polities, which grew and shrank through dynastic succession and the awarding of landed dowries. The so-called Angevin Empire, for example, had some control over a number of scattered and periodically changing territories, but that hardly made it a territorial state. On the history of the idea of “territory” more generally, see Elden 2013.

[37] These dates reflect the partition and independence of British India in 1947 and the dismantling of the Portuguese empire in 1975.