What is sovereignty? Discuss the difference between internal and external sovereignty

What is sovereignty? Discuss the difference between internal and external sovereignty


Sovereignty is an important element of the state which distinguishes the state from other political associations within a society and similar entities in the international society. The origin and history of the idea of sovereignty is intimately connected with the origin and development of the territorial states in modern times. It is for this reason that the meaning of sovereignty has undergone change across history. Despite the many meanings of the concept, sovereignty has a core meaning. Hinsley, an eminent Political Scientists, captures the core meaning of sovereignty when he says that it is “the idea that there is a final and absolute political authority in the political community…and that no final and absolute authority exists elsewhere”.

Internal Sovereignty

The preceding discussion on the concept of sovereignty has been largely in terms of internal sovereignty. As we saw, much of modern political theory has been an attempt to decide precisely where sovereignty should be located. Early political thinkers such as Machiavelli, Bodin and Hobbes were inclined to the belief that sovereignty should be vested in the hands of a single person, a monarch. The overriding merit of vesting sovereignty in a single individual was that sovereignty would then be indivisible; it would be expressed in a single voice that could claim final authority. Locke, Rousseau and the subsequent thinkers departed from this absolutist notion of sovereignty. 

They rejected monarchical rule in favour of the notion of popular sovereignty, the belief that ultimate authority is vested in the people themselves. This doctrine of popular sovereignty is generally regarded as the basis of modern democratic theory. While these thinkers disagreed about who or what the ultimate authority should be, they were united in their belief that sovereignty could be and should be located in a determinant body. This is the traditional doctrine of sovereignty which is also called as the monistic theory of sovereignty. Even Rousseau, who espoused popular sovereignty, acknowledged that the ‘general will’ was indivisible whole which could only be articulated by a single individual, who he called ‘the legislator’. This traditional doctrine of sovereignty has come under growing criticism in an age of pluralistic and democratic government.

John Friggs, Harold J Laski and other pluralists have argued that the monistic theory is intrinsically linked to its absolutist past and so is frankly undesirable. They emphasise that political power in any given society does not rest only in the state apparatus, but is shared by a number of groups and institutions other than the state in that society. Moreover, they point out that it is no longer applicable to modern systems of government, which operate according to a network of checks and balances. For a pluralist, liberal-democratic principles are the very antithesis of sovereignty.

External Sovereignty

Sovereignty, as seen from inside a state, is supreme authority and as seen from outside, is self-governing authority. In other words, external sovereignty refers to the state’s place in the international order and therefore to its sovereign independence in relation to other states. In international relations, sovereignty has become synonymous with state power. It is useful to conceive of external sovereignty as constitutional independence. The state possesses a constitution, written or unwritten, democratic or otherwise, which makes it independent from other states. State sovereignty, in the sense of constitutional independence, consists of being apart from other similar entities. The moment a state establishes a constitutional link with another state, it loses its sovereignty, for it is contained within a wider scheme. 

External sovereignty, in other words, implies that there is no higher political authority over the state. 

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