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About the Impossibility of Absolute State Sovereignty

The Early Years


State sovereignty is often thought to be absolute, unlimited. This paper argues that there is no such a thing as absolute State sovereignty. Indeed, absolute sovereignty is impossible because all sovereignty is necessarily underpinned by its conditions of possibility—i.e. limited sovereignty is the norm, though the nature of the limitations varies. The article consists of two main sections: (a) the concept of sovereignty: this section is focused on some of the limitations the concept of sovereignty itself presents; and (b) a historical account of the notion of sovereignty as it was used in the Ancient Times. The particular focus on early notions of a modern concept such as sovereignty has to do with the fact that this early notion has been anthropomorphised with societal evolution. Therein, the current concept of State sovereignty embraces the same limitations it had in its ancient form as a non-fully developed conceptual idea. The implications of understanding State sovereignty as limited rather than absolute are several, both directly and indirectly. A main immediate consequence is that sovereign States can cooperate together, limit their sovereignty and still be considered sovereign.

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  1. I follow here the concepts developed by Carrio [1].

  2. See Martin [2].

  3. There are many scholars who share roughly the definition of sovereignty used here. For a detailed account of this, see Jackson [3, 148, fn. 10].

  4. See Hart [4, 124–154].

  5. For a further analysis about the distinction between supreme and absolute see Hart [4, 105–106]. Hart uses the word ‘unlimited’ whereas I use the term ‘absolute’.

  6. Ibid.

  7. See Jackson [3].

  8. See Philpott’s view in Jackson [3, 144 ff]. In what is important here, Philpott understands that authority at international level appears in three faces that answer three different questions respectively: “The first face answers: Who are the polities in a given international society? The second face answers: Who may belong to the society: And, who may become one of these legitimate polities? The third face answers: What are the essential prerogatives of these polities?”.

  9. See Scarfo v Sovereign Order of Malta (1957) 24 ILR 1, Tribunal of Rome, Italy. In what matters here: “The limitations on the sovereignty of the Order of Malta which undoubtedly exist result mainly from the absence of State territory and citizens […]. These limitations, however, are not such as to be able to negative its sovereignty. Its sovereignty exists in law and is determined by its own legal order […]”.

  10. Refer to The Canterbury Tales (The Tale of the Wife of Bath) by Geoffrey Chaucer and The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche.

  11. Hinsley [5, 1].

  12. Ibid., 158.

  13. Refer to The Six Books of the Republic by Jean Bodin and Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.

  14. See Kostakopoulou [6, 135].

  15. See Stroud [7, xvi].

  16. Several examples may be found in Greenwood Onuf [8, 425–446], Núñez [9], Rommen [10, Chap. XVII], Van Creveld [11], Hinsley [5], Kantorowicz [12], Munn [13]; and many others.

  17. Horne [14].

  18. Morgan [15].

  19. Van Creveld [11, Chap. 1].

  20. Ibid., 54.

  21. See Genesis 18:25 when Abraham asks the Lord “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” See also Genesis 47:22 and Genesis 47:26 when during the famine in Egypt the land of the priests is the only one that did not become Pharaoh’s property. See as well Hebrews 6:13–20 God’s promise to Abraham. In the latter example, God gave his promise and his oath (Hebrews 6:18). The oath is binding (Hebrews 6:16). So, God is bound and this will never change (Hebrews 6:17). Therefore, God limits himself his absolute sovereignty.

  22. Although neither of them specifically wrote about the concept of sovereignty, as we know it in the Modern Era, they discussed and developed the notion with proficiency. In Herodotus’ The Histories there are accounts of societies with many of the features of what is regarded nowadays as a sovereign State. In the case of Plato, I would recommend focusing on the triad composed by The Republic, the Politicus (or The Statesman) and the Laws; with Aristotle, the Nicomachean Ethics, the Politics and the Constitution of Athens. For a more detailed account see Núñez [9].

  23. The Republic, Book VIII.

  24. Ibid., 557b-c.

  25. Ibid., 558c.

  26. Ibid., 557e.

  27. Mulgan [16, 15].

  28. Aristotle’s Politics, 1.2.1252b.

  29. Chamberlain [17, 147–157].

  30. Nicomachean Ethics, 2.4.1105a26-33.

  31. Nicomachean Ethics, Books II and III, in partic. Book III, Ch. 2, 1111b–1113a.

  32. Johnson [18, 117].

  33. Hinsley [5, 28 ff].

  34. Hansen [19, 8].

  35. Aristotle’s Politics, Book 3, Part XIV offers a view of different ‘royalties’ as ‘true forms of government’ including examples of several limitations to sovereign power.

  36. In Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle differentiates between sophia—theoretical wisdom—and phronesis—practical wisdom, the latter also related to political activity.

  37. Lee [20, 119].

  38. Barker [21, 13].

  39. Johnson [18, 125].

  40. Ibid., 128.

  41. Ibid., 133.

  42. Herodotus [22, 45–46].

  43. Ibid., 269.

  44. Ibid., 354.

  45. Lister [23, 14].

  46. Examples of this may be found in Herodotus [22, 11, 31, 33–34, 35], and many others.

  47. I prefer here to use the term international and not inter-States since, as I mentioned in this paper, States stricto sensu were non-existent at that point in time. However, we can observe the presence of nations understanding the latter as a large aggregate of people with a common descent, culture, etc. that inhabit a particular territory.

  48. Herodotus [22, 101].

  49. How [24, 399].

  50. Herodotus [22, 95].

  51. Ibid., 154.

  52. Ibid., 371.

  53. Merriam [25, 5–6].

  54. Waterfield [26, 440]. For further details see Núñez [9], Munn [13, 16 ff].

  55. Bodin [27, Book I, Chapter Eight], Maritain [28, 343 ff], Greenwood Onuf [8].

  56. Opello and Roscow [29].

  57. Millar [30, Chap. III].

  58. Ibid., 88.

  59. Ibid., 91.

  60. Ibid., 111 ff.

  61. Ibid., 269.

  62. Van Creveld [11, Chap. 1].

  63. Hinsley [5, p. 42].

  64. Van Creveld [11].

  65. Sheehan [31, 1 ff].

  66. Birks [32, 1 ff].

  67. Hinsley [5, 43–44].

  68. Ibid., 43.


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Núñez, J.E. About the Impossibility of Absolute State Sovereignty. Int J Semiot Law 27, 645–664 (2014).

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  • State sovereignty
  • Absolute sovereignty
  • Limited sovereignty
  • Unlimited sovereignty