When US scholars speak of 'sovereignty', what do they mean?

Adriana Sinclair, Michael Byers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

14 Citations (Scopus)


The term 'sovereignty' figures prominently in international affairs and academic analysis. But does 'sovereignty' mean the same thing in different countries and political cultures? In this article, we examine conceptions of sovereignty as they appear in the writings of US scholars of international law and those international relations scholars who deal with international law, in order to obtain a clearer picture of what 'sovereignty' means in American academic discourse. At first glance, the US literature is dominated by two distinct conceptions of sovereignty: (1) a statist conception that privileges the territorial integrity and political independence of governments regardless of their democratic or undemocratic character; (2) a popular conception that privileges the rights of peoples rather than governments, especially when widespread human rights violations are committed by a totalitarian regime. On closer examination, what seem to be two conceptions are in fact different manifestations of a single, uniquely American conception of sovereignty which elevates the United States above other countries and protects it against outside influences while concurrently maximising its ability to intervene overseas.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)318–340
Number of pages23
JournalPolitical Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2007

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