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Review of International Studies (1986), 12, 79-89 Printed in Great Britain

Sovereignty as a source of vitality for the state

J. D. B. Miller

The title of this paper contains three terms which require definition?sovereignty,

vitality and the state. I shall begin by defining these, and shall then discuss various reasons why the state acquires vitality from its possession of sovereignty. Finally I

shall ask whether sovereignty is likely to become less significant as a source of

vitality, and, if so, what is likely to take its place.


For a political entity to possess sovereignty, it must appear to be independent in the

sense of not being subject to another state's control. The evidence for this will lie in

the operation of its governmental machinery, in its written constitution (if it has one),

and in any declarations that may have been made by the state which at some stage

acted as sovereign over it. Such declarations have been more precise in recent times

than they once were; there is, for example, no Act of the British Parliament which

declares Australia to be independent in the way that India was declared to be so. However, the main requirement for a candidate for sovereignty is to look inde

pendent in terms of the power to make its own decisions.

The quality of apparent independence is not sufficient in itself to constitute

sovereignty. Sovereignty means the quality of being a sovereign state, accepted as

such by others. While this definition may look somewhat circular, it is the only one

which will conform to international political realities. We may have ideas about just

how far sovereignty extends in providing legitimization of the actions of individual

governments, to what extent it is divided in federal polities, and whether it comes

from God, from custom, from the will of the people, or from the historical process;

these are things to argue about endlessly. In political terms, however, the basic

question is whether a state is accepted as sovereign by other states. How many other

questions are needed is a matter of the political situation at the time, and of the

relative importance of those states which support and oppose it. In a very real sense,

sovereignty is something created or at any rate bestowed by the international

community. If other states do not accept a particular entity?as, in recent years, the

great majority of them have refused to accept Biafra, Taiwan and Rhodesia?then

the status of a sovereign state has not been bestowed, any more than upon the 'home

lands' in South Africa.

From this standpoint, and for the purposes of definition, it does not matter that

Taiwan could show some justification for sovereignty in terms of the formal

continuation of the republican government of China; or that Biafra had established

a government of its own; or that Rhodesia could claim that it had acquired inde

0260-2105/86/02/0079-11/S03.00 ? 1986 Review of International Studies

Review of International Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (Apr., 1986), pp. 79-89.

  • 80 Sovereignty as a source of vitality for the state

pendence by similar means to those used by the United States. Nor does it matter that

in each of these three cases there was a government which exercised full domestic

control of a particular territory (in the Biafran case, not for very long). These aspects

of so-called 'internal' sovereignty are unimportant in comparison with the refusal of

large numbers of sovereign states, and through them of the United Nations, to

acknowledge that a sovereign state exists. Without this acknowledgment, a govern

ment of a particular area is in the position of a rebel province or a stultified inde pendence movement: it exists and may seem to possess the loyalty of groups of

people, but its opportunities for intercourse with other communities are restricted,

and the likelihood that it will retain its position is remote, unless influential states give

it support.

Obviously, sovereignty does not provide absolute independence, in either political

or economic terms. Only the biggest and smallest states can be fully self-sufficient, and neither chooses to be so. It is a very long time since anyone could say that major

states were able to operate on their own terms without regard for the welfare of others or without recognizing that they depended on the welfare of others. Norman Angell's thesis, in The Great Illusion,1 that war between major industrial powers leads to their

impoverishment and not to increased prosperity, has been amply proved. Even if there is no intention on the part of one state to coerce another, states are inter dependent. When that intention is present?as it often is in great powers whose

strategic demands require that smaller states conform to their will?the smaller states

may have little opportunity to preserve their sovereignty (although the case of North

Vietnam vs the United States indicates that there may be resources which some small

states can call into play). When we say that a state is sovereign, this is a separate

statement from saying that it is politically or economically viable. It is merely to say

that this state, however poor and ineffective, is accepted as a state by others, and

consequently can claim the privileges, opportunities, and the diplomatic equality which those others have.

Sovereignty involves a Platonic form of equality which the international

community has adopted because of its convenience. Nobody believes that the

Maldive Islands is equal to the Soviet Union, but it is convenient for diplomatic

purposes to treat both as if they were the same. To do so provides a more effective

framework for diplomatic intercourse than the alternative, which would be to ask, at

every point of operation of the diplomatic system or of international governmental

organizations, whether this or that state was more important than this or that other.

The Soviet Union and the Maldive Islands are plainly limiting cases at the ends of the

spectrum of power and importance; there are scores of other states between them

whose relative power is often indeterminate, and which it is easier to treat as equally sovereign than as unequal in strength. To decide in what measure they were unequal would be extremely difficult and would need frequent revision. This sort of revision

occurs in practice through circumstance, especially through war, which is the great

decider of relative status; in between major wars, the diplomatic practice of regarding

each state as conforming to the Platonic model of equality is an efficient way of

conducting international relations in a relatively civilized manner.

Vitality is a more contentious term, because it derives from living creatures, a

category in which the state can be included only because it includes large numbers of

human beings. However, its meaning is clear enough. Vitality in this context means

the quality of active life, implying a capacity for vigorous movement and for adapta

J. D. B. Miller


tion. It is no more absolute or equal in practice than the independence of sovereign

states. Vitality is not the same in all living creatures of the same species; this is also

true of states. Some are more obviously alive and active than others. Some,

historically, have been on the wane at particular periods; others have increased in

power, confidence and resources, but may have later receded in international signifi

cance. Vitality is seen here very much in terms of the opportunities which political

units need in order to sustain their position. It is distinguished from viability, which is

much more a matter of economic resources and the uses to which they can be put.

Definition of the state should by now be fairly clear. As seen in terms of inter

national politics, the state is neither the Platonic nor the Hegelian form, but is any

sovereign state accepted as such by others. No province, colony or protectorate will

qualify. The context will normally indicate which state is meant, and how important

it is. There is great variety amongst states in terms of extent, population, wealth, military power, and prestige. There are, however, certain characteristics common to states at large, whatever their size or significance. One is that each pursues its own interests, these interests being seen in terms of the preservation of its territorial

integrity and the prosperity of its people; the latter interest may be viewed in terms of

either the people at large or the regime at the time, or both. Another is that these

interests are sought sometimes in cooperation with other states and sometimes in

competition with them. A third is that each state normally aims at approximating its

diplomatic performance to that of the more established states; this is not so in the

case of professedly revolutionary regimes, though it is remarkable how soon a revolu

tionary mode may become conformist in terms of international standards. A fourth

characteristic of states is that they tend to observe international conventions in such

matters as travel, trade, shipping, airline movements and the like, thus recognizing

the interdependence of the contemporary world. A fifth is that, in similar vein,

they join international governmental organizations and behave as if these were

significant bodies. A sixth, subsuming most of the others, is that they tend to keep

their promises to one another, to international organizations and to transnational

bodies such as banks, because of the disadvantages likely to accrue if they do not. The

relative and absolute significance of these characteristics varies from state to state;

but they will be present unless the state is in a highly abnormal situation.

Putting the three definitions together, in this paper the state is viewed primarily as an entity within the international system. Its sovereignty derives from its acceptance

by other states which have already attained that quality. There is, of course, also an internal dimension of great importance to sovereignty: the observance of domestic

laws depends on it, and the orderly government of any society demands some form of legitimate rule-making authority if order is to be sustained. But much domestic order

and the machinery of government required for it have historically depended, not

upon there being a local sovereign state to enforce it, but upon there being some form

of sovereignty present, whether local or not. For example, the courts and police in

India functioned in much the same way under the British Raj as they have functioned

since India became a sovereign state, just as the courts and police of Soviet Central

Asia function in spite of an absence of local sovereignty. What the British Raj could

not do was to justify India's being regarded as a sovereign state, in spite of its

membership of the League of Nations and later of the UN before it became

independent. The sovereign state is an international actor in a way that no formal dependency can be; moreover, the domestic consequences of being a sovereign state

  • 82 Sovereignty as a source of vitality for the state

go well beyond the observance of law and order. Sovereignty provides opportunities

and incentives which its absence makes impossible.

The next section of this paper considers why and how sovereignty confers vitality

upon a state.

Sovereignty and the vitality of the state

The first and most important way in which sovereignty does this is by guarding the formal independence of the state and enabling it to stand firm?if the circumstances

are propitious?in the face of even the greatest power. I hasten to add that there is

nothing automatic about this process. History is full of small states which have been unable to withstand the pressure of greater powers and which have been forced into

obscurity or oblivion. In modern times, these cases range from the Baltic states in

relation to the Soviet Union in 1940, to the weak states of Central America and the

Caribbean in relation to the United States at various times in this century. Yet we

should not regard such cases as typical. Given the fact that there are now more than

150 sovereign states, they are exceptional. Moreover, they have become fewer. The

19th century assumption that a great power could do what it liked with small states

and territories unless some other great power prevented it, has given way to the

assumption that great powers must find good reason for interfering in other states'

affairs. The change of assumption has not prevented interference, as the contempo rary cases of Nicaragua and Afghanistan show; but interference has become harder to justify, because there is a larger audience of states looking on, and because there

are more international institutions which provide a venue for opposition. The key to

the current situation is that there are many more small and medium-sized states than ever before in history, and that these can make common cause in stigmatizing a great

power for its approach to another small state.

The active or tacit support of other states was one of the reasons why North

Vietnam was able to outface the United States, and why Afghanistan has not yet been

fully pacified by the Soviet Union. In both cases the intervening power apparently

considered that, if it were to remain in good standing with other states (including its

allies and associates as well as those of the Third World) it would need to moderate its

excesses and not use its full strength. In neither case was this a recipe for success. A

simple-minded 'power politics' view of events would assume without question that, if

a great power wished to subdue a small one, it could and would do so; but these two

cases indicate that the situation is more complex, and that some at least of its

complexity arises because two sovereign states are involved, and because other

sovereign states wish to see the principle of sovereignty respected.

Thus, although sovereignty cannot guarantee that a state will remain in being, it

can guard against the possibility of the state's extinction: it can create problems for

greater states when they try to impose their will on smaller ones. The gradual and then

headlong application of sovereignty in the second half of this century to the former

colonial areas of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Pacific has

given many weak and backward countries the opportunity to function as sovereign states, and to avail themselves of the protection which sovereign status bestows.

The domestic counterpart of this situation provides the second reason why

sovereignty confers vitality upon states. The government of a sovereign state?an

indigenous government which, whether it holds elections or not, has roots in the local

J. D. B. Miller


community?is given by means of sovereignty the legal capacity to use coercion,

persuasion and provision upon the population. There is a whole variety of ways in

which this provides the state with vitality. In raising armies, for example, it can

appeal to local patriotism to an extent that imperial authorities could not. Problems

may be inherent in this, as the Biafran example shows, but they have not always

proved so difficult as those which colonial powers have experienced when their levies

mutinied and drifted away.

It can be argued in opposition to sovereign status that indigenous governments

may be less prepared to raise necessary taxation and impose stringent economies than

colonial governments, in spite of the power to do so, and that much of the economic difficulty of Third World states in the 1970s and 1980s has been due to reluctance to

be unpopular. As against this, the examples of the green revolution in India and the

improvement in rural production in China suggest that governments with local

support can get better economic results than those which depend on external

electorates. This is a chancy matter, like the military service question. What one can say with some assurance is that, while colonial government may provide the orderly

management necessary for economic advance (as in Ghana, the Sudan and Zambia

before independence, or Hong Kong in the past three decades), this process is

unlikely to continue for long, partly because of internal pressures and partly because

of the impact of the world economy with its price changes and variations of invest

ment. Just as there may be a limit to the taxation which a local government is

prepared to raise, so there are certainly limits to the subsidies which colonial govern

ment will provide, and to the investments which they are prepared to encourage in

their colonies rather than in domestic industries and in other developed countries.

Sovereignty also gives an indigenous government the opportunity to exploit

national symbols and national sentiment in ways which an empire cannot match. The

power of persuasion, coupled with the provision of goods and services, makes a

national government something which citizens can regard as indispensable because of

the benefits which it confers or seems to confer. There is nothing new about this

situation: for centuries the governments of European states have told their peoples

that they were better off than those in other countries, and that they should cling to

their own institutions and customs in preference to those of foreigners. Local institutions, centred upon the governmental practices of the state?in military matters, economic policy, education, religion, justice, etc.?have constantly been

extolled as the best available. Moreover, economic policies have usually been

consciously directed towards some form of protectionism in order to stimulate local

industries, increase employment, and provide a stake in the country for as many

people as possible.

These opportunities to persuade and provide are not to be seen as simply exercises

of state power in the interests of particular regimes. They do have that quality, but

they also involve advantages for the people, and a means of canalizing loyalty and

affection. Here is to be found a further reason why sovereignty produces added

vitality for a state. In empires, loyalty can be given to a distant monarch, sometimes to a very great degree, but this is less easy to encourage and retain than loyalty to local people and institutions which, while they may not be fully autochthonous, can be the

objects of local pride because they belong to the local scene. They involve a sense of

community as well as the obligation to obey. A state and its machinery cannot be

ignored or avoided: its claims upon loyalty are largely exclusive, and can be

  • 84 Sovereignty as a source of vitality for the state

accentuated by the efforts of governments to build national sentiment. 'Nation building' has not been a success in some new states, often because of intractable

differences between local ethnic communities; but it is sufficiently evident to show

that national sentiment is easier to inculcate than imperial sentiment.

Another aspect of sovereignty which helps to give vitality to states is that it

provides the state with an identity distinguishing it from other states and especially from provinces and colonies. On the international scene, this identity enables a state

to play a role going well beyond that which it might have appeared to play before it

became sovereign. In those times it would have been something of a separate entity so far as trade was concerned, and would have had its own postage stamps and system of taxation; but in these and other respects it would have been in a state of tutelage and

surveillance from its colonial power, with little or no freedom to treat with other

states in matters of common concern. The identity brought by sovereign status

extends further than a distinguishing mark; it is the entree to diplomacy and to the

acceptance of formal equality. The state is distinguished from other states and from

transnational actors, even though it may be small and largely powerless in military

terms. Its capacity to make treaties and to subscribe to multilateral agreements gives

it importance in the eyes of other states, since it can frustrate or advance their

interests in ways which are not open to provinces or colonies.

The identity is linked closely to nationalism and national sentiment, as discussed

above. A province or colony can have a clear identity in the eyes of its inhabitants,

one which arises from historical development, from geographical location and

characteristics, from economic interest and sometimes from ethnic and linguistic

qualities, but it cannot command either the attention of foreigners or the political

loyalty of its citizens to the same extent as a sovereign state. It is sovereignty which

separates one state from another and especially from some conglomeration of

possessions such as the former British and French Empires and the present Soviet

Union. Only through sovereignty can nationalism be finally expressed as a creative factor and not a protest against alien rule.

A further reason why sovereignty provides vitality is that it enables states to choose

the company they will keep. A sovereign state is free to join this or that alliance or

association, whereas a colony or province is tied to the imperial power in the one case

and to association with fellow provinces in the other. Since wholesale de-colonization

began in the 1950s and 1960s, we have seen the emergence of a variety of associations

which new states can join, and which give them extra strength and vitality?ASEAN,

the Arab League, the OAU, the non-aligned movement, the Group of 77, the South

Pacific Forum, and the like. These bodies rarely have the character of alliances:

instead, they concentrate upon achieving common policies and then pressing these

upon major powers by direct diplomacy or, more often, by activity in international

governmental organizations such as the UN. There is a sense in which many small

states would be lost in the crowd if they did not have the opportunity to join such

associations. The island states of the South Pacific are a case in point. One of the

difficulties facing the former British dependencies in the Caribbean is that they have

not been able to agree on a form of association which would maximize their

negotiating strength; only some of them have done so, and then with opposition from the others. This was painfully apparent when the United States intervened in Grenada

in 1983.

In spite of the fact that many new states have not been prepared to join existing

J. D. B. Miller


military alliances or seek new ones, the alliance continues to be a form of group insurance which appeals to sovereign states with longer experience of the inter

national system. NATO, ANZUS, the Warsaw Pact and the American guarantees to

Japan and Thailand are examples. Each of these is in practice an association between

a superpower and others, mostly medium powers. Such a disproportion of power does not attract many new states (except for the former French African depen

dencies, which have special arrangements with France), but is regarded by the states

in NATO as an advantage. This attitude may be shaken from time to time, when

proposals for individual neutrality become attractive because they seem to promise

safety in the event of a clash between the superpowers; but so far the smaller powers

in these alliances have regarded them as safety nets which neutrality could not

provide. It is the sort of safety that involves continued vitality, if not an increase in it.

Sovereignty thus confers vitality, not simply through formal independence, but

through the ability to combine one state's independence with those of others in order to produce a result which none could achieve on its own. Cooperation between states, in a variety of civil as well as military fields, is withheld from colonies, protectorates

and provinces except with the authority of the colonial power or the central govern

ment. Civil aviation is a good example of how rights and opportunities are conferred

by sovereign status: the smallest sovereign state can make lucrative arrangements

which British Columbia, Texas, Queensland and Hong Kong cannot. The sovereign

state may, of course, make mistakes or find that it cannot agree with other small

states about how to run a joint airline, as occurred in both the British Caribbean and

the South Pacific. But this is a case of insufficient viability, not of diminished

sovereignty. Sovereignty, like human maturity, includes the right to make one's own

mistakes; there will be increased vitality if the right choices are made, an increase

which cannot be organized on their own account by non-sovereign political entities.

The point can be seen in higher relief when we recognize that sovereign states

become part of 'the international community', usually symbolized by their member

ship of the UN. There are ambiguities in the term, arising from the extent to which one considers states to form a community, and from the obvious disparities in power between them. But it would be impossible to deny that most new states have benefited considerably from the aid which they have received from international organizations.

They also gain from the opportunity of participation in debate and negotiation,

which is involved in membership of the UN and its specialized agencies. These

bodies are all organs of interdependence, in the sense that they enable member-states to cooperate on a wider front and to exploit the opportunities inherent in the system

of international aid for development, opportunities for trade, and access to


None of this should be regarded as unadulterated advantage. The point is simply one of opportunity. A state's vitality is increased if it is able to capitalize upon its

position as an independent entity with resources (e.g., minerals, access to its fishing

zone, tourist potential because of climate, etc.) which can be developed to its

advantage. These resources enable it to obtain investment, technical assistance, infra

structure, etc., on a privileged basis through one or other of the international

agencies, provided its diplomacy is effective. Colonies are not debarred from this sort

of opportunity, and neither are provinces; but the opportunity can come only if a

superior authority seeks it, usually after consideration of whether one of its other

colonies or provinces is more worthy.

  • 86 Sovereignty as a source of vitality for the state

This sort of vitality for the sovereign state is not confined to the new states of the

post-colonial era. Britain has benefited from access to the IMF, as have a number of

other developed countries. Every state uses the services of ICAO, WHO and the

international telecommunications and meteorological organizations. More

prominence is given to aid for under-developed countries because these now have

formal majorities in the assemblies of the UN and the specialized agencies, except in

the case of the IMF and the World Bank; but there are advantages also for the

developed countries.

The international governmental organizations are, in fact, 'networks of inter dependence',2 even when they do not result in interpretations of interdependence

favourable to the interests of the United States and the other western countries. Inter

dependence does not, of course, depend solely (or even, in many cases, mainly) upon

the operation of these bodies. Much of what is important in the interdependent

activities of states is essentially bilateral in character, depending upon good relations

with this or that neighbour or this or that major power, and resulting in favourable

arrangements for concessions and opportunities in a variety of fields. But the

essential point is that these too are arrangements between states: it is the sovereignty

which both parties enjoy and which each recognizes in the other that constitutes the

basis for agreement. Even when it is a matter of arrangement between a superpower

and a lesser power, the Platonic fiction of equality is usually preserved. In war, of course, naked power is what counts: traditionally, sovereignty has been

adjusted, blotted out or enhanced in the interests of the victors. There are limits,

however, to this process in all except major wars involving the greatest powers. The

Vietnam war, for example, resulted in some change of sovereignty (most notably in

the recognition by the western powers of the extension of what was formerly North

Vietnamese sovereignty over the whole of Vietnam), but its results also included an

international debate about the status of Kampuchea, and, in particular, the

legitimacy of the contending regimes there. Vietnamese control in practice of much of Kampuchea and of major decisions in Laos has not been accompanied by any shift

in the sovereignty of those states.

The reasons for regarding sovereignty as a source of vitality for the state which

have been discussed in this section include, in sum, the formal protection of inde pendence, the legal capacity to control and influence a people, the creation of an

object of loyalty and attachment, the identity in international terms which comes

from recognition by other sovereign states, the opportunity to join with other states

in regional and other associations and alliances, and the participation in the inter

national community which provides not only a demonstration of formal equality but

also access to a variety of resources and connections.

No attempt has been made to suggest that peace and prosperity arise automatically

from sovereignty, or that any of the reasons why sovereignty confers vitality is likely

to operate entirely to the benefit of the state concerned. Sovereignty is a concept

greatly affected by the course of world politics. When the international system is at

peace, with an expanding world economy in operation, sovereignty can be accepted

by all the forces at work in the system: it can be turned to the advantage of each, can

expedite and increase interdependence, and can be made the basis for widening

networks of interdependence through the expansion of existing international

organizations and the creation of new ones. In war, however, or in the hectic

conditions of enmity between the major international actors, the concept may be at a

J. D. B. Miller


discount. Major powers and superpowers are likely to decide that the existence of a

particular sovereign state, or the protection which its sovereignty appears to provide

for political forces unfavourable to them, is against their interests. In such circum

stances the lesser power?the Finland, Poland, Estonia, Nicaragua, Egypt or Chad

will be lucky if it emerges with its sovereignty intact. This does not destroy the concept, but it does make it harder to apply to all except

those states which, in a condition of war or near-war, can physically sustain them

selves. Even so, the concept may remain. The case of Poland is historically

instructive, so is that of Korea. If the international system produces a balance of

forces favourable to the restoration of a sovereign state which has been in abeyance,

that restoration may take place?though not necessarily over the whole of the

territorial area which the sovereignty originally covered. Without the concept of

sovereignty and the arguments to which it gives rise, such a restoration would be

more difficult. Sovereignty's role in providing vitality to a state has no parallel. Systems of

federalism, colonialism and trusteeship cannot give the same sort of life nor can they so obviously and in so many ways augment it. The limits of tutelage are soon reached. Sovereignty is open to all sorts of objections?notably those of the free trader and the

opponent of nationalism?but there is no substitute for it. So far, no other form of

social organization has been able to do so much or command such loyalty.


One may ask, in conclusion, whether this source of vitality is likely to become less

significant, and, if so, what is likely to take its place. A convenient point of departure

is Harold Jacobson's formulation, to which reference has already been made.

Jacobson argues that, in an era of interdependence,

. . .

Sovereign states are not being superseded as the principal actors in world politics.

Sovereignty, however, is being rapidly eroded. More and more states are bound in webs

of networks of international organisations, and in more and more functional areas the

freedom of states to make unilateral decisions is restricted. Some of the ties are universal,

but for most states the greater number of ties and the stronger commitments are with limited membership IGOs [international governmental organizations]. Clusters of states

are bound together in organisations, but these groups of states do not seem to be merging

into new territorially defined units, larger states; or if they are, the process appears to be

so slow that it will not reach fruition in the future with which we are concerned

. What we have, then, is a global political system that is already complex and growing even

. .

more complex. Nation-states retain sovereignty and consequently remain the principal

actors in international politics. But all states are enmeshed in complex webs of inter national organisations, both governmental and nongovernmental, and their societies,

rather than being sealed from one another, are linked by growing transnational connec

tions. Although political authority continues to be centred in governments of nation

states, in reality it is widely dispersed. With respect to countless issues, to be effective

governments must act together, but different issues elicit cooperation by different combinations of states. States entangled in webs of international organisations is the proper simile to describe the contemporary global political system, and international

organisations, both IGOs and INGOs, are best seen as sophisticated communication

  • 88 Sovereignty as a source of vitality for the state

devices, instruments for transmitting and relaying messages and coordinating actions.

The global political system continues to consist of multiple sovereign centres of decision

making, but effective power is increasingly being organised in a non-hierarchical


This moderately expressed point of view is fairly widespread amongst those who

emphasize growing interdependence and the significance of international organiza tions in making that interdependence effective, at the expense of complete inde

pendence on the part of the participating states. I find myself only partly in agree ment with it. Here I shall criticize some of the ideas which appear to lie behind the

point of view, and then discuss what it has to say about the future of sovereignty. Like many others of this kind, Jacobson's statement seems to imply that there is

something new, not simply in the degree of interdependence which states now

experience, but in the fact of interdependence itself. Perhaps this is a natural reaction

to come from the United States, with its background of near self-sufficiency, its history of great unused areas of land, and its comparative political isolation. To the

extent that the United States has found itself since World War II in a more inter

dependent position, both politically and economically, the view is understandable. But it does not chime with everyone else's experience. There is nothing new about

interdependence in Western and Central Europe. Every European knows that Europe is something of a unity, that goods and money and people have traditionally crossed

frontiers, and that one country's destitution might spread to another. The essence of

European politics of the past three or four hundred years was not whether inter

dependence suddenly happened at some particular time, but who should be top dog,

i.e. which power or combination of powers would benefit most from the inter

dependence that existed?taking possession of rich agricultural areas, gaining access

to major trade routes, and later getting control of mineral deposits and manufactur

ing resources.

This longstanding discord has now ceased, so far as Western Europe is concerned,

because another concept of how to deal with interdependence?that of sharing the

spoils through a European Community?has taken its place. But interdependence as

a concept or as a shared experience is not new: it is essentially commonplace. It was

markedly present as an influence in much 19th century diplomatic bargaining and

trade arrangements, and found its institutional expression in the Public International Unions created in the latter part of the century. These were not considered inimical to

sovereignty. Rather, they were seen as a use of the member-states' sovereignty to

create organs of cooperation. The situation now is more complex and involves more

functions of states and communities, but it is not essentially different.

One reason is that states have never been 'impermeable' or 'impenetrable', to use

the terms often employed to suggest that there was a time when states were 'sealed

from one another'. These terms are inapplicable to real life. States have always been

permeable and penetrable?by traders and financiers, by religious groups, by ideas

and technology, and by other influences sometimes independent in themselves and

sometimes under the control of other states. The United States itself has never been

impervious to the influences represented by immigration. Impenetrability has not

been the experiences of actual sovereign states. Once we grasp this point, there is no

difficulty in recognizing that interdependence is not new, but has merely come under

formal international regulation in such fields as epidemics, civil aviation,

J. D. B. Miller


meteorology, telecommunications and shipping?though not in a great many others

of major importance including investment, technical knowledge, migration, military

alliances and the trade in arms. The significance of these comments for Jacobson's statement is that, while the

statement is broadly true, some of its implications are not. These include such ideas

as that states have only recently experienced permeability and interdependence, and

that their participation in international organizations somehow diminishes their

sovereignty. They also include the suggestion?again, implied and not fully stated?

that the diminution of sovereignty will continue with the enlargement of the responsi

bilities of international governmental organizations. To take this latter position is to

argue that here is a zero-sum element in the activities of states and in the exercise of

their sovereignty. On the contrary, there is ?o necessary diminution of sovereignty

through participation in international bodies. States can withdraw from inter

national agreements, and can simply ignore the demands of international bodies, as

so many states ignore the resolutions of the UN General Assembly or UNESCO. A

major power like the United States can exercise significant control over the agendas

of the ILO and UNESCO through the threat or the fact of withdrawal. Small states

which depend on the bounty of international aid programmes are certainly con

strained to some extent, but deft diplomacy can often find substitutes in the aid

sphere, especially when it is a matter of pitting one superpower against another or of

giving the former colonial power an opportunity of raising its subventions. Middle

range powers are hardly .affected by the regulatory capacity of international

organizations, unless they become subject to IMF discipline after acting as the

financial equivalent of the drunken sailor.

If IGOs are to be regarded as the forerunners of some sort of world government

which will replace the state as the prime element in mankind's political life, then there

is little sign that it will happen soon. The past ten years have seen the almost total

failure of the campaign for a New International Economic Order, which was

generated in IGOs and was expected to operate through them. The last decade has

also seen the failure of the more ambitious and institutional aspects of the proposed

Law of the Sea convention, and the refusal of the superpowers to take effective notice of the General Assembly's schemes for disarmament. There are certainly networks of interdependence, but it is hard to see how states can be said to be enmeshed in them.

States can pick and choose to a remarkable degree. When they fit in with the pro

grammes of IGOs it is because they think that their interests are served. Those pro

grammes are created, partly by the policy preferences of international civil servants, but to a far greater extent by the political impact of debate, finance and voting upon

the members. In this sense the state continues to be the deciding element in what

appear to be international decisions.

References and notes

1. Norman Angel?, The Great Illusion (London: 1909). 2. See Harold Jacobson, Networks of Interdependence (2nd ed, New York: 1979).

3. Ibid., pp. 386-7.

Review of International Studies (1986), 12, 91-93 Printed in Great Britain

Comment on J. D. B. Miller

Alan James

In the opening paragraphs of his article Professor Miller argues that to become

sovereign a political entity must satisfy two requirements. In the first place, it must 'appear to be independent in the sense of not being subject to another state's control.


[It must] look independent in terms of the power to make its own decisions'.

And, secondly, the entity in question must be 'accepted as such by others'. This, 'in

political terms [is] the basic question' inasmuch as the lack of acceptance restricts 'its

opportunities for intercourse with other communities'.

In my view there are two sorts of problems with this analysis. The first is that in its

own terms it is unsatisfactory; the second that it does not accord with state practice.

Professor Miller's argument that a political entity is only in the running for

sovereignty if it is not controlled by another entity immediately comes up against the

familiar difficulty of where the line between independence and its lack should be

drawn. Is Afghanistan or East Germany able to make its own decisions? What about

Bhutan or Kampuchea? Is El Salvador or Botswana subject to another state's

control?and so on. All of which suggests that a concept which rests on the criterion

of independence, as used by Professor Miller, is very shakily based. What one

observer sees?or purports to see?as independence may look to another as virtually

the opposite.

The second part of Professor Miller's criterion?an entity's acceptance as

sovereign by others?also gives rise to difficulties. The touchstone here seems to be the existence of regular and normal international relations. But what if a political

entity has such relationships with some established states but is shunned by others?

Professor Miller suggests that the amount of acceptance which is needed depends on

'the political situation at the time', but that is hardly a precise guide to the issue of

whether an entity is or is not to be categorized as sovereign. Was the Soviet Union in

this condition in its early years? What about China between 1949 and the early 1970s?

South Africa today has restricted opportunities for international relations: are we

therefore to say that it is perhaps not sovereign?

There is one further difficulty here. Professor Miller allows that an independent

entity is not sovereign if it is not accepted as such by others. But he does not say what

conclusion is to be drawn about entities which are so accepted but appear not to

satisfy the criterion of independence. On his definition this surely presents a knotty


My understanding of state practice?and it is state practice alone that I am

considering?is rather different from Professor Miller's. It seems to me that states

handle the issue of sovereignty in a manner which avoids the difficulties to which his analysis gives rise. They do so by distinguishing between sovereignty on the one hand

0260-2105/86/02/0091-03/S03.00 ? 1986 Review of International Studies

  • 92 Comment on J. D. B. Miller

and participation in international relations on the other. Moreover, they treat

sovereignty as a legal status, thus making its presence easily identifiable. The question of whether one state has intercourse with another, like the extent of

that intercourse, is essentially a political?and hence a subjective?matter. This is so

with regard to such formal issues as the giving of recognition, the establishment of

diplomatic relations, and the further step of exchanging ambassadors. No state is

obliged to do any of these things in relation to another state, and may, for a variety of reasons, decide to refrain from the last, the last two, or all three. Equally, the extent

to which substantive relations are built up depends on a state's perception of its interests and on its political disposition. I believe that Professor Miller would not

disagree with this contention. But whereas he says that sovereignty is bestowed by a

sufficient number of states acccepting another entity as a proper international

partner, I say that decisions of this nature have nothing to do with sovereignty.

It seems to me that in the practice of states, sovereignty is what makes a territorial entity eligible to participate in international relations. The extent to which it actually

participates will depend on its own wishes and capacities together with those of its

hoped-for partners. But its eligibility to engage in international relations on a full and

regular basis depends upon its possession of sovereignty. Those who do possess it,

however small or weak, have what is required for participation in the international game: tiny Tuvalu, for example, or not much bigger but vastly richer Brunei. They can move about on the international stage because they have the necessary entrance

requirement?sovereignty?and others are happy to do business with them. But

those without sovereignty, however large or powerful?New South Wales, for

example, or Texas?are not eligible for admission.

What is it, therefore, which enables states to treat 9000-strong Tuvalu as sovereign but to deny this accolade to 14 million-strong Texas? The answer is that Tuvalu is, in

terms of its constitutional law, an independent entity, whereas Texas is part of a wider constitutional arrangement. Constitutional independence is thus what states

treat as the content of sovereignty. On a certain day in 1978 Tuvalu did not enjoy this status: it was, as the Ellice Islands, a colony of Britain. But on the next day, as a result

of legal changes instituted by Britain, it was a constitutionally independent entity? and hence a sovereign state. Thus it was eligible to do all the things sovereign states may do, which are outlined by Professor Miller in the second part of his article. In

practice it has not done many of them, because of its size. But it is eligible to do them


Therefore, so far as the study of international relations is concerned, sovereignty consists of constitutional independence. It is only with territorial entities enjoying

this status that other such entities contemplate regular intercourse. The actual development of international relations brings an entity into the life of the inter national society. But the existence of those relations do not bestow sovereignty.

Rather, they can be developed only because the entity in question already exists in a

sovereign condition. It is in this sense that sovereign statehood can be identified as the

basis of international society, in that it denotes those territorial entities which are eligible to participate in the international society. In practice, almost all such entities do participate, in one degree or another. But

this draws attention to one qualification which I must make to my argument.

Occasionally, although a territorial entity satisfies the test for sovereignty which

states customarily use, states may shy away from describing it as a sovereign state.

Alan James


Rhodesia between 1965 and 1979 is a case in point, as are the four constitutionally

independent black homelands in southern Africa, the Turkish Republic of Northern

Cyprus, and Taiwan. The reason for this reluctance is clear: states do not wish to give

the entities in question the sort of political standing which might accrue from

referring to them as sovereign. It is a reminder that states are as willing as individuals

to be inconsistent when it serves their purposes and can be got away with. But this

response is an exception to their usual practice. As I see it, that practice treats

sovereignty as an objective condition and separates it from the issue of the extent to which an entity is welcomed into the life of the international society.

Let me say in conclusion that although I have taken issue with Professor Miller's

opening remarks, I could not agree more fully or strongly with everything else which

he says in his article.