AskDefine | Define sovereignty

Dictionary Definition



1 government free from external control
2 royal authority; the dominion of a monarch [syn: reign]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. In the context of "of a nation": The state of making laws and controlling resources without the coercion of other nations.
  2. In the context of "of God": Supreme authority over all things. (Ref. ‘King of kings, and Lord of lords’)
  3. In the context of "of self": The liberty to decide one's thoughts and actions.


of a nation: the state of making laws and controlling resources without the coercion of other nations.
  • Dutch: soevereiniteit
  • German: Souveränität
  • Japanese: 主権
  • Kurdish:
of God: supreme authority over all things
  • German: Souveränität
of self: the liberty to decide one's thoughts and actions
  • German: Souveränität

Extensive Definition

Sovereignty is the exclusive right to have control over an area of governance, people, or oneself. A sovereign is the supreme lawmaking authority. Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in Book III, Chapter III of his 1763 treatise Of the Social Contract, argued, "the growth of the State giving the trustees of public authority more and means to abuse their power, the more the Government has to have force to contain the people, the more force the Sovereign should have in turn in order to contain the Government," with the understanding that the Sovereign is "a collective being" (Book II, Chapter I) resulting from "the general will" of the people, and that "what any man, whoever he may be, orders on his own, is not a law" (Book II, Chapter VI) – and furthermore predicated on the assumption that the people have an unbiased means by which to ascertain the general will. Thus the legal maxim, "there is no law without a sovereign."
In this model, national sovereignty is of an eternal origin, such as nature, or a god, legitimating the divine right of kings in absolute monarchies or a theocracy.
A more formal distinction is whether the law is held to be sovereign, which constitutes a true state of law: the letter of the law (if constitutionally correct) is applicable and enforceable, even when against the political will of the nation, as long as not formally changed following the constitutional procedure. Strictly speaking, any deviation from this principle constitutes a revolution or a coup d'état, regardless of the intentions.
In constitutional and international law, the concept also pertains to a government possessing full control over its own affairs within a territorial or geographical area or limit, and in certain context to various organs possessing legal jurisdiction in their own chief, rather than by mandate or under supervision. Determining whether a specific entity is sovereign is not an exact science, but often a matter of diplomatic dispute.


Sovereignty ("by God" or "by people") must be distinguished from its exercise by branches of government. In democratic states, sovereignty is held by the citizenry. This is known as popular sovereignty; it may be exercised directly, as in a popular assembly, or, more commonly, indirectly through the election of representatives to government. This is known as a representative democracy, a system of government currently used in most countries. Popular sovereignty also exists in other forms, such as in constitutional monarchies, usually identical in political reality as in the Commonwealth realms. Systems of representative democracy can also be mixed with other methods of government, for instance the use of referenda in many countries.

History of the concept of sovereignty

Basileus is the Greek word for "king," who has auctoritas, the Latin root for authority, which is to be distinguished from simple imperium, also a Latin concept of power, akin to that retained by an archon the ancient Greek equivalent to something like a "magistrate".
Jean Bodin (1530-1596) is considered to be the modern initiator of the concept of sovereignty, with his 1576 treatise Six Books on the Republic which described the sovereign as a ruler above human law and subject only to the divine or natural law. He thus predefined the scope of the divine right of kings, stating "Sovereignty is a Republic's absolute and perpetual power" . Sovereignty is absolute, thus indivisible, but not without any limits: it exercises itself only in the public sphere, not in the private sphere. It is perpetual, because it does not expire with its holder (as auctoritas does). In other words, sovereignty is no one's property: by essence, it is inalienable.
These characteristics would decisively shape the concept of sovereignty, which we can find again in the social contract theories, for example, in Rousseau's (1712-1778) definition of popular sovereignty, which only differs in that he considers the people to be the legitimate sovereign. Likewise, it is inalienable – Rousseau condemned the distinction between the origin and the exercise of sovereignty, a distinction upon which constitutional monarchy or representative democracy are founded. Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu are also key figures in the unfolding of the concept of sovereignty.Italic text
Carl Schmitt (1888-1985) defined sovereignty as "the power to decide the state of exception", in an attempt, argues Giorgio Agamben, to counter Walter Benjamin's theory of violence as radically disjoint from law. Georges Bataille's heterodox conception of sovereignty, which may be said to be an "anti-sovereignty", also inspired many thinkers, such as Jacques Derrida, Agamben or Jean-Luc Nancy.

Different views of sovereignties

There exist vastly differing views on the moral bases of sovereignty. These views translate into various bases for legal systems:
  • Partisans of the divine right of kings argue that the monarch is sovereign by divine right, and not by the agreement of the people. Taken to its conclusion, this may translate into a system of absolute monarchy.
  • The second book of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Du Contrat Social, ou Principes du droit politique (1762) deals with sovereignty and its rights. Sovereignty, or the general will, is inalienable, for the will cannot be transmitted; it is indivisible, since it is essentially general; it is infallible and always right, determined and limited in its power by the common interest; it acts through laws. Law is the decision of the general will in regard to some object of common interest, but though the general will is always right and desires only good, its judgment is not always enlightened, and consequently does not always see wherein the common good lies; hence the necessity of the legislator. But the legislator has, of himself, no authority; he is only a guide who drafts and proposes laws, but the people alone (that is, the sovereign or general will) has authority to make and impose them.
  • Democracy is based on the concept of popular sovereignty. Representative democracies permit (against Rousseau's thought) a transfer of the exercise of sovereignty from the people to the parliament or the government. Parliamentary sovereignty refers to a representative democracy where the Parliament is, ultimately, the source of sovereignty, and not the executive power.
  • Anarchists and some libertarians deny the sovereignty of states and governments. Anarchists often argue for a specific individual kind of sovereignty, such as the Anarch as a sovereign individual. Salvador Dalí, for instance, talked of "anarcho-monarchist" (as usual, tongue in cheek); Antonin Artaud of Heliogabalus: Or, The Crowned Anarchist; Max Stirner of The Ego and Its Own; Georges Bataille and Jacques Derrida of a kind of "antisovereignty". Therefore, anarchists join a classical conception of the individual as sovereign of himself, which forms the basis of political consciousness. The unified consciousness is sovereignty over one's own body, as Nietzsche demonstrated (see also Pierre Klossowski's book on Nietzsche and the Vicious Circle). See also self-ownership and Sovereignty of the individual.
  • Republican form of government acknowledges that the sovereign power is founded in the people, individually, not in the collective or whole body of free citizens, as in a democratic form. Thus no majority can deprive a minority of their sovereign rights and powers.
  • Imperialists hold a view of sovereignty where power rightfully exists with those states that hold the greatest ability to impose the will of said state, by force or threat of force, over the populace or other states with weaker military or political will. They effectively deny the sovereignty of the individual in deference to either the 'good' of the whole, or to divine right. See Karl Marx, Mao Zedong, Adolf Hitler.
The key element of sovereignty in the legalistic sense is that of exclusivity of jurisdiction.
Specifically, when a decision is made by a sovereign entity, it cannot generally be overruled by a higher authority. Further, it is generally held that another legal element of sovereignty requires not only the legal right to exercise power, but the actual exercise of such power. ("No de jure sovereignty without de facto sovereignty.") In other words, neither claiming/being proclaimed Sovereign, nor merely exercising the power of a Sovereign is sufficient; sovereignty requires both elements.

Territorial sovereignty

Following the Thirty Years' War, a European religious conflict that embroiled much of the continent, the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 established the notion of territorial sovereignty as a doctrine of noninterference in the affairs of other nations. The 1789 French Revolution shifted the possession of sovereignty from the sovereign ruler to the nation and its people.

Sovereignty in international law

While many purists regard the individual or an individual nation state as the sole seat of sovereignty, in international law, sovereignty is defined as the legitimate exercise of power and the interpretation of international law by a state. De jure sovereignty is the legal right to do so; de facto sovereignty is the ability in fact to do so (which becomes of special concern upon the failure of the usual expectation that de jure and de facto sovereignty exist at the place and time of concern, and rest in the same organization). Foreign governments recognize the sovereignty of a state over a territory, or refuse to do so.
For instance, in theory, both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China considered themselves sovereign governments over the whole territory of mainland China and Taiwan. Though some foreign governments recognize the Republic of China as the valid state, most now recognize the People's Republic of China. However, de facto, the People's Republic of China exercises sovereign power over mainland China but not Taiwan, while the Republic of China exercises its effective administration only over Taiwan and some outlying islands but not mainland China. Since ambassadors are only exchanged between sovereign high parties, the countries recognizing the People's Republic often entertain de facto but not de jure diplomatic relationships with Taiwan by maintaining 'offices of representation', such as the American Institute in Taiwan, rather than embassies there.
Sovereignty may be recognized even when the sovereign body possesses no territory or its territory is under partial or total occupation by another power. The Holy See was in this position between the annexation in 1870 of the Papal States by Italy and the signing of the Lateran Treaties in 1929, when it was recognised as sovereign by many (mostly Roman Catholic) states despite possessing no territory – a situation resolved when the Lateran Treaties granted the Holy See sovereignty over the Vatican City. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta is likewise a non-territorial body that claims to be a sovereign entity, though it is not universally recognized as such.
Similarly, the governments-in-exile of many European states (for instance, Norway, Netherlands or Czechoslovakia) during the Second World War were regarded as sovereign despite their territories being under foreign occupation; their governance resumed as soon as the occupation had ended. The government of Kuwait was in a similar situation vis-á-vis the Iraqi occupation of its country during 1990-1991.

Sovereignty and federalism

In federal systems of government, such as that of the United States, sovereignty also refers to powers which a state government possesses independently of the federal government; this is called "clipped sovereignty."
The question whether the individual states, particularly the Confederate States of America, remained sovereign became a matter of debate in the U.S., especially in its first century of existence:
  • According to the theory of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and John C. Calhoun, the states had entered into an agreement from which they might withdraw if other parties broke the terms of agreement, and they remained sovereign. These individuals contributed to the theoretical basis for acts of secession, as occurred just before the American Civil War. However, they propounded this as part of a general theory of "nullification," in which a state had the right to refuse to accept any Federal law that it found to be unconstitutional, regardless of judicial review.
Likewise, according to the theory put forth by James Madison in the Federalist Papers "each State, in ratifying the Constitution, was to be considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act. In this relation, then, the new Constitution [was to be] a federal, and not a national constitution." In the end, Madison likewise compromised with the Anti-federalists to modify the Constitution to protect state sovereignty: At the 1787 constitutional convention a proposal was made to allow the federal government to suppress a seceding state. James Madison rejected it saying, "A Union of the States containing such an ingredient seemed to provide for its own destruction. The use of force against a State would look more like a declaration of war than an infliction of punishment and would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound."History of the Life and Times of James Madison
sovereignty in Asturian: Soberanía
sovereignty in Bosnian: Suverenitet
sovereignty in Bulgarian: Суверенитет
sovereignty in Catalan: Sobirania
sovereignty in Czech: Suverenita
sovereignty in Danish: Suverænitet
sovereignty in German: Souveränität
sovereignty in Estonian: Suveräänsus
sovereignty in Spanish: Soberanía
sovereignty in French: Souveraineté
sovereignty in Galician: Soberanía
sovereignty in Korean: 주권
sovereignty in Hindi: सार्वभौम राष्ट्र
sovereignty in Croatian: Suverenitet
sovereignty in Icelandic: Fullveldi
sovereignty in Italian: Sovranità
sovereignty in Hebrew: ריבונות
sovereignty in Georgian: სუვერენიტეტი
sovereignty in Lithuanian: Suverenitetas
sovereignty in Macedonian: Суверенитет
sovereignty in Malay (macrolanguage): Kedaulatan
sovereignty in Dutch: Soevereiniteit
sovereignty in Japanese: 主権
sovereignty in Norwegian: Suverenitet
sovereignty in Polish: Suwerenność
sovereignty in Portuguese: Soberania
sovereignty in Romanian: Suveranitate
sovereignty in Russian: Суверенитет
sovereignty in Albanian: Sovraniteti
sovereignty in Simple English: Sovereignty
sovereignty in Slovak: Suverenita
sovereignty in Serbian: Suverenost
sovereignty in Serbo-Croatian: Suverenitet
sovereignty in Swedish: Suveränitet
sovereignty in Tagalog: Soberanya
sovereignty in Thai: อำนาจอธิปไตย
sovereignty in Turkish: Egemenlik
sovereignty in Ukrainian: Суверенітет
sovereignty in Urdu: بادشاہی
sovereignty in Yiddish: אויבערשאפט
sovereignty in Chinese: 主權

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

acme, administration, ascendance, ascendancy, ascendant, authority, authorization, balance of power, be-all and end-all, blue ribbon, caliphate, captainship, chairmanship, championship, civil government, claws, clutches, command, control, convenership, custody, czardom, dictatorship, direction, directorate, directorship, discipline, dispensation, disposition, dominance, dominancy, domination, dominion, dominium, effectiveness, eminent domain, emperorship, empery, empire, eternity, first place, first prize, foremanship, form of government, generalship, glory, governance, government, governorship, grip, guardianship, hand, hands, headship, hegemony, height, highest, holiness, immutability, imperialism, imperium, independence, infinite goodness, infinite justice, infinite love, infinite mercy, infinite power, infinite wisdom, infinity, influence, intendancy, internationalism, internationality, iron hand, jurisdiction, kaiserdom, kaisership, kinghood, kingship, land tenure, landholding, landownership, landowning, leadership, light, lordship, majesty, management, managership, masterdom, mastership, mastery, maximum, most, nationalism, nationality, nationhood, ne plus ultra, new high, omnipotence, omnipotency, omnipresence, omniscience, omnisciency, overlordship, overseership, oversight, ownership, palms, paramountcy, peoplehood, political organization, polity, possessorship, power, predominance, predominancy, predomination, preeminence, preponderance, prepotence, prepotency, presidency, primacy, principality, proctorship, proprietary, proprietorship, queenhood, queenship, raj, rajaship, record, regime, regimen, regnancy, regulation, reign, royalty, rule, say, seigniory, self-determination, self-government, sovereign nationhood, statehood, stewardship, sultanate, sultanship, superintendence, superintendency, superiority, supervision, supervisorship, supremacy, suzerainship, suzerainty, sway, system of government, talons, the crown, the throne, top spot, ubiquity, unity, upper hand, whip hand, zenith
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