Home News The Performativity of Sovereignty: Difficult Essentialism inside IR Concept

The Performativity of Sovereignty: Difficult Essentialism inside IR Concept


Sovereignty has been a constitutive function of worldwide relations (IR) scholarship for the reason that self-discipline’s very inception. As an idea, it permeates each stage of study – from the sovereignty of particular person will and human rights, to the sovereign energy of presidency, and additional on to the territorial sovereignty of the nation-state, setting the boundaries and scope for the enjoying subject of inter-national relations. Nevertheless, by the use of a collection of theoretical essentializations the idea has been rendered an ontology by itself, permitting for the notion of ‘sovereignty’ to exist apriori to its sensible and discursive evocations. Slightly than constituting the open-ended results of gathered follow, sovereignty has grow to be an unquestioned state of being. By invoking ‘anarchy’ as that which exists exterior of the territorial boundaries of the sovereign state, ‘sovereignty’ pre-discursively calls into being the very world envisioned by mainstream IR theorists.

Difficult principle and follow alike, in what follows I reveal how sovereignty is ‘primarily contested’ when you method it by the vital lenses of performativity. I start by outlining the standard understandings that assemble sovereignty as an essence dependent upon goal (although various) standards. By way of enterprise a performative studying of sovereignty as discourse and follow, I then illustrate the methods through which ‘an essentialist notion of sovereign statehood … is just not an harmless conceptual fallacy’ (Aalberts 2004, 257). As an alternative, when trying on the simultaneous consistency and ambiguity of mobilisations of sovereignty within the historical past of worldwide regulation, essentializations of the idea reappear as integral to the ‘[concealment] of sovereignty as a political follow’ (2004, 257). Within the following reflection I thus show that, moderately than invoking one thing ‘to be’ or ‘to have’, sovereignty is successfully carried out.  

Essentializing sovereignty

All through realist, liberal and mainstream constructivist literature the territorially sovereign (nation)state includes the principle unit of study (see Doyle 1986; Morgenthau 1948; Wendt 1992). On the coronary heart of this disciplinary myth-building lies the Peace of Westphalia, signed in 1648 to mark the top of non secular warfare in Europe and the ushering in of territorially outlined statehood (Tickner 2011, 5). This closing demarcation of territorial boundaries enabled the ontological separation of the inside, outlined by unique sovereign authority, from the exterior, marked by the absence of such authority. This separation was to be particularly entrenched in IR literature with the break from classical to structural/systemic or neo-realist principle spearheaded by Kenneth Waltz (1959; 1979), as he conceptualised the world when it comes to a proliferation of ‘formally like items’ whereby sovereignty is contained, disbursed in a global area outlined, within the absence of a better energy, by anarchy (Barkawi 2010, 1361). Aside from recognising variations in energy and functionality between states, their formal likeness, particularly regarding their assumed territorial fixity, affords them the popularity of sovereign statehood – as if endowed by nature. This has made IR principle essentially reliant upon ‘the reification of state territorial areas as fastened items of safe sovereign area’ (Agnew 1994, 77). Wedding ceremony the notion of the state with such fixations of territory whereas designating this area as not solely the ‘home’, but in addition the locus and supply of ‘sovereignty’ itself (additional equated with ‘an inside realm of order and tranquillity’ Doty 1996, 148), has thus enabled the development of sovereignty as a pre-discursive trait or essence of the territorial state.

However, the top of the Chilly Warfare rekindled scholarly curiosity in problems with sovereignty. Questions of when and why sovereignty is recognised, and whether or not sovereignty is essentially tied to a territorial area or could be situated to designate a inhabitants moderately than a state, proliferated with the disintegration of the Balkans and the intensification of globalisation processes (Biersteker and Weber 1996). Some sought to clarify the variations in sovereign expressions and capacities, particularly regarding the obvious failure of ‘postcolonial statehood’ (Aalberts 2004, 245; Doty 1996, 147). Constructivist interventions, notably Wendt’s (1992) re-situation of ‘anarchy’ as being ‘what states make of it’, recognised the social building of sovereignty when it comes to the constitutive relation between sovereignty and statehood and the truth that neither exists exterior of intersubjectively negotiated meanings, social practices and relations. But, much less vital constructivist approaches simply fell into the identical descriptive traps as realist and liberal conceptualisations of the sovereign state, nonetheless assuming the identical image of the worldwide as a construction of formally like items – although acknowledging the social manufacturing moderately pure givenness, of mentioned order. Others nonetheless, took the search additional.

Deconstructing sovereignty as ontology

Departing from mainstream worldwide principle, vital students who as a substitute drew on poststructural considering sought to situate sovereignty inside the burgeoning literature on social building and performativity. ‘Its which means is likely to be marginally contestable by constitutional legal professionals and different connoisseurs of tremendous traces, however for probably the most half state sovereignty expresses a commanding silence’ R. B. J. Walker (cited in Weber 1992, 199) contemplated in 1992. As an alternative of recognising sovereignty as ‘primarily contested’ given the proliferation of enquiries into the character of sovereign statehood, Walker (1992) concluded that sovereignty remained an ‘primarily uncontested’ idea. To discover the ‘commanding silence’ characterising discussions of what state sovereignty actually entails, we are able to use Jackson (1991) as a key pattern of the reification of sovereignty in IR literature.

If conceptions of sovereign statehood had been conventionally understood within the Westphalian phrases of anarchy/exterior versus sovereignty/inside, the Eighties marked a shift in scholarly consideration to cope with the rising subject of particularly sub-Saharan African postcolonial states’ revealing of the alternative: (alleged) internationwide accord and intrastate dysfunction and violence (Doty 1996, 148). ‘On this context one would possibly surprise what which means could be attributed to sovereignty’ Aalberts (2004, 247) notes, ‘now that it could actually additionally signify its reverse, i.e. a zone of anarchy.’ To make sense of this inversion of the which means of sovereignty, Jackson (1991; Jackson and Rosberg 1982) set out his thesis of the quasi versus actual state. Signalling a shift within the worldwide normative order, African postcolonial states got here into being at a time when the factors of the so-called constructive sovereignty of empirical statehood was now not crucial to achieve worldwide recognition for being a sovereign state (Jackson 1991, 1). As an alternative, newly unbiased states had been granted the ‘formal-legal situation’ of detrimental sovereignty, defending them from exterior interference regardless of not having fun with the ‘empirical standards’ of ‘substantial and credible statehood’, corresponding to ‘a capability for efficient and civil authorities’ (Aalberts 2004, 252-53).

In marking the non permanent situation of postcolonial states to be granted ‘entry into the worldwide order’ earlier than (the argument goes) their crucial and pure development into possessing constructive sovereignty, quasi-statehood successfully reiterates the standing of ‘actual’ statehood. Additional, it serves as a reminder of the constitutive function of sovereignty in structuring the worldwide order, normatively and materially. Although underscoring sovereignty as a part of productive ‘language-games’ central to the development of worldwide regulation and politics, this account, ‘given the assumed empirical kernel of “actual statehood” … [still] renders sovereignty an establishment that exists other than worldwide follow’ (2004, 256). It so fails to maneuver past the ‘descriptive fallacy’ of ‘typical sovereignty discourse’, as a substitute looking for to ‘save sovereignty itself’ by ‘reaffirming the “actual” and “true” foundations of sovereign statehood’ (Doty 1996, 149). As such, ‘the evaluation on quasi-statehood … function a consultant of a technology of essentialist readings of sovereignty’ (Aalberts 2004, 247).

To primarily contest sovereignty then, is to fully recast and rethink sovereignty and its relation to statehood, as a ‘topic in course of’; a state of turning into moderately than being. Linking Butler’s principle of the performativity of intercourse and gender to the topic of the sovereign nation-state, Weber (1998, 79) demonstrates how, moderately than belonging to the separate realms of the pure versus the social or cultural, sovereignty and statehood should be rethought as ‘co-constitutive and inseparable.’ Located inside bigger buildings of which means, sovereignty and statehood represent one another by a collection of representational/citational practices the place the which means of both is derived from how it’s carried out and put into follow. Slightly than stopping at Jackson’s descriptive declare that what explains the popularity of juridical statehood could be present in a shift in worldwide normative regimes, a performative studying of sovereignty gives a deeper explanatory alternative probing into the very manufacturing and reiteration of mentioned regimes.

As an alternative of deriving pre-discursively as an important state of being, it’s this enacting of what it means to ‘be’ a sovereign state or ‘assert’ sovereign energy, that constitutes the de facto locus of sovereignty. If ‘anarchy is what states make of it’, states are what states do. Importantly, nonetheless, when states do they successfully name their sovereignty into being – in myriad, each logical and inconsistent methods. However, located inside and indivisible from bigger buildings of energy, recognising sovereignty as carried out doesn’t entail that every one states take pleasure in equal alternatives of its enactment, recognition and supreme ‘success.’ The ability to each assert and recognise state sovereignty can in flip grow to be instruments with which to disclaim or contest the sovereign legitimacy of others. This double utilisation of sovereignty is a central function of worldwide relations basically and worldwide humanitarian regulation (IHL) specifically, whereby some states assert their sovereign energy and so reinforce their very own sovereignty by designating different states as incapable or unqualified – certainly, as quasi.

To reiterate, this isn’t to say, as does mainstream worldwide principle, that sovereignty is thus one thing a state merely has or doesn’t have relying on sure goal standards. As an alternative, when highlighting sovereignty as performative, the seemingly ‘pure’ standards of having fun with sovereignty or not and the practices by which processes of recognition or denial happen, are denaturalised and rendered options of a bigger system of normativity/deviance manufacturing: ‘… understood as the continuing processes whereby “common topics” and “requirements of normality” are discursively constituted to provide the impact that each are pure moderately than cultural constructs’ (Weber 1998, 81). The subsequent part will discover an instance of those processes of distinction, delineating the metrics of inclusion and exclusion within the worldwide by reifying and naturalising discourses of sovereignty and assertions of sovereign energy.

Sovereignty in follow

Consideration to practices of differentiation in developing the worldwide critically undermine the explanatory capabilities of Jackson’s principle of quasi-statehood. Pointing to the historic consistency of which states are recognised as totally sovereign topics and that are rendered undesirable, thus conquerable, objects within the worldwide, Jackson’s negative-sovereignty/positive-sovereignty binary reappears repeatedly because the exploitable product of specific configurations of energy. By way of ‘splitting sovereignty into constructive and detrimental, and positing to every an essence that invokes photos of id which have been current in most of the previous imperial encounters between the North and the South’ (Doty 1996, 151), modern discourses which differentiate between actual/functioning and quasi/rogue states thus perpetuate a protracted historical past of colonial justifications for domination.

That is notably evident in IHL frameworks. Take for example the Duty to Defend (R2P) precept. Marking yet one more worldwide normative shift from viewing sovereignty as the suitable to non-interference to a accountability of non-indifference, the R2P bestows upon all UN member states the suitable to intervene at any time when a state is just not prepared or capable of defend its inhabitants from genocide, crimes towards humanity, struggle crimes and ethnic cleaning (Mamdani 2009; Williams and Bellamy 2011). Of curiosity right here, is the actual fact of the R2P regime’s enabling of a ‘bifurcation of the worldwide system between sovereign states whose residents have political rights’ and ‘trusteeship territories whose populations are seen as wards in want of exterior safety’ (Mamdani 2009, 53). This echoes former divisions of the worldwide alongside ‘the requirements of civilisation’ legitimising the colonial conquest of non-European lands and peoples (Anghie 2007) – these but to be civilised – by endowing ‘sovereign’ states with a proper to intervene in these failing its ‘rights to sovereignty.’ The purpose right here is to not argue towards or in favour of the R2P and its utility, however to spotlight the fleeting even ambiguous function of sovereignty as idea and follow in structuring worldwide regulation, repeatedly mobilised on behalf of stronger (‘actual’) states to delegitimise the sovereignty of (‘failed’) Others to justify interventionist insurance policies. The act of naming some states rogue/failed/quasi – and even queer (Weber 1996) – thus serves to reliable navy and different interventions within the title of humanity, whereas reinforcing and reiterating the sovereign standing of the appearing states towards the ‘incompetent’, ‘evil’ state being acted upon.

Concurrently, nonetheless, not solely the stripping of sovereignty for the sake of facilitating intervention but in addition the popularity of sovereignty could be equally utilised by stronger states as a key piece in power-political struggles. Libya constitutes a big instance of each processes. On the one hand, the ‘coalition of the prepared’, spearheaded by the US, UK and France, utilised the R2P as a justificatory body by which to denounce Libyan president Gaddafi’s sovereign authority and so intervene militarily by what was a de facto regime-change marketing campaign (Wai 2014); marking a key occasion of the dangers of R2P abuse in wider energy political struggles. Then again, the ‘worldwide neighborhood’s’ choice and recognition of the Transnational Nationwide Council (TNC) amid ongoing battle marks a specific follow of legitimacy and pressure which ‘ought to be interpreted within the context of the colonial historical past attending this downside’s prior articulations’ (Çubukçu 2013, 49).

These articulations floor within the logic of 19th century colonial powers’ granting of ‘authorized character [to select native representatives] within the type of sovereignty exactly to allow the switch of this sovereignty’ again to colonial directors, passing on the rights to buying and selling, territory or title (Anghie 2007; Çubukçu 2013, 49). Worldwide intervention in Libya in 2011 thus ‘additionally concerned the issue of recognizing “who’s sovereign and why”’ (Çubukçu 2013, 49). The US and allies’ granting of sovereignty to the TNC consequently facilitated a ‘new authorized personhood in Libya who can signal treaties and enter into contracts (with their corporations) to commerce oil, to “reconstruct” the nation, and, … to “decide to all worldwide conventions and protocols regarding Counter-Terrorism”’ (2013, 49). Briefly, to do ‘the West’s’ bidding.


The fluid but generative utilization of sovereignty within the Libyan case, succinctly illustrates that ‘to talk of sovereignty … is rarely to call one thing that already is’ (Ashley and Walker 1990, 381). However, to contest sovereignty as a pre-discursive actuality or state of being, is just not the identical as arguing that typical understandings of how sovereignty is constructed or operates (or to who it belongs) are always incorrect or irrelevant. As an alternative, this essay has demonstrated that contesting sovereignty as such means highlighting the performative nature of sovereignty as exercised moderately than possessed. Each older and newer conceptualisations of sovereignty in worldwide principle, Jackson being a key instance, has remained safely behind the partitions of description. In so doing they’ve failed in explaining simply how and why sovereignty, in which means and follow, moderately seems as an elusive course of varyingly operationalised for specific political goals, located specifically historic contexts: at occasions serving energy, in others offering a recognised language to talk reality to energy.

Contesting essentializations of sovereignty additional permits a deeper and extra complete understanding for a way sovereignty can without delay be mobilised inside its typical binary confines (sovereign/non-sovereign; actual/quasi; useful/failed; empirical/judicial) within the service of energy politics, in addition to undertake queer and undecipherable varieties (see Weber’s 1999 dialogue on queering Castro’s Cuba). As with principle (Cox 1981), ‘sovereignty’ is all the time for somebody and a few objective; typically stripped, in others recognised – and but in others, as Libya reveals, each without delay. Worldwide humanitarian regulation thus underpins sovereignty as a socio-cultural product by demonstrating its discursive mobilisation and sensible enactment within the service of particular pursuits. IHL additional highlights the paradoxical and ambiguous nature and invocation of sovereignty all through historical past, underscoring its important contestation. Slightly than demarcating one thing fastened and primarily ‘identified’, sovereignty reappears as a relentless state of turning into. In the end, this denaturalisation of essentializations of sovereignty assist us in understanding how principle, corresponding to Waltz’, Jackson’s and their predecessors’, has been and proceed to be, integral to perpetuating the structuration of the worldwide order as one among hierarchy moderately than anarchy. Worldwide Relations curricula would profit from paying attention to this.


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