Sovereignty is the claim to be the ultimate political authority, subject to no higher power as regards the making and enforcing of political decisions. In the international system, sovereignty is the claim by the state to full self‐government, and the mutual recognition of claims to sovereignty is the basis of international society. Sovereignty is the other side of the coin of international anarchy, for if states claim sovereignty, then the structure of the international system is by definition anarchic. Sovereignty should not be confused with freedom of action: sovereign actors may find themselves exercising freedom of decision within circumstances that are highly constrained by relations of unequal power.

The doctrine of sovereignty developed as part of the transformation of the medieval system in Europe into the modern state system, a process that culminated in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. In some ways the emergence of the concept of sovereignty ran parallel with the similar emergence of the idea of private property, both emphasizing exclusive rights concentrated in a single holder, in contrast to the medieval system of diffuse and many‐layered political and economic rights. Within the state, sovereignty signified the rise of the monarch to absolute prominence over rival feudal claimants such as the aristocracy, the papacy, and the Holy Roman Empire. Internationally, sovereignty served as the basis for exchanges of recognition on the basis of legal equality, and therefore as the basis of diplomacy and international law.

From: Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics (3rd ed.), Oxford University Press, 2009.

In the decades after the wars of Latin American independence (1810-1830), the region became divided into countries (or nation-states) and these most of the time recognized each other’s sovereignty. Argentina, we can imagine, says to Chile, “Here’s the border. You butt out of our business over here and we’ll butt out of your business over there. On this land, the Argentine government is sovereign and on that land, the Chilean government is sovereign.” Sovereignty is a way of saying “we control our own fate.”

Globalization in the past decades has challenged national sovereignty as people, animals, and things move across borders. Is the Dominican Republic really be sovereign if it is dependent on foreign tourists for its national wealth? How can Ecuador be sovereign when it uses US dollars as its domestic currency? How can Honduras be sovereign when multinational gangs and corporations call the shots in many of the country’s regions? If this compromised sovereignty is the case today, one of the questions we will be considering this semester is whether nation-states were ever truly sovereign.

For now, discuss with your partners the many ways that the global movement of goods and people challenges national sovereignty and what that might mean for you as a participant in a (in theory, at least) democratic society.