Sovereignty – what is it? Ruthless Criticism

Translated from MSZ 5-1990

Sovereignty – what is it?


Sovereignty is considered the highest good that nations strive after, the highest principle that the political powers of this earth have inscribed on their flags; securing it and, if need be, restoring it are the most honorable endeavors of foreign policy. No reproach is therefore more dishonorable for a politician than to have sinned against it; no praise is greater than to have rendered meritorious service to it. It wins such high honors because it is the – only – common characteristic with which states face each other. Sovereignty is what makes a populated area a political subject with its own political will and the means of enforcing this will. As a subject, a state proves itself internally to the inhabitants of the piece of land it defines as its territory and externally to its peers in other territories. Internal sovereignty is based on the state power, which enforces its recognition as exclusively and universally valid, that is, as law, domestically, in relation to the individuals subjected to it. External sovereignty is the result of other sovereigns recognizing such an internally established state authority as a sovereign subject under international law. Internal and external sovereignty are therefore two sides of the same formally very absolute thing which will not tolerate any relativization: a state is sovereign or it is not. On the other hand, however, these two sides of the sovereign state refer to an ineradicable contradiction concerning the substance of its sovereignty, the exercise of its will and interests: the internal monopoly on violence is equivalent to the confrontation with a lot of foreign state powers representing different political wills in the outside world. What ultimately counts here is the constant comparison of the means of violence which has been decided internally once and for all. It is the solid basis for “civilized” diplomatic dealings between states which respect the power of the other sovereign in order to secure it for the pursuit of their own interests by placing themselves in relation to it.

Whether this comparison is carried out in practice or is left to theoretical calculations, i.e. war and peace, is a question of each state measuring the will and ability of the others. If it comes to a practical comparison of the means of violence, to war, then the intention is always to violate sovereignty, whereas annihilating it is intended only in exceptional cases.

Because what disturbs states among themselves about foreign sovereignty, the monopoly over a territory and its inhabitants, is nothing more and nothing less than political will, insofar as it obstructs the foreign use of land and people over which it rules or imposes restrictive conditions on it.


Sovereignty as an object of politics has thus by no means become obsolete with the development of the last terrae incognitae and its stateless indigenous tribes, or at the latest with their final incorporation into the world community of sovereign states, and thus its enforcement as a global principle. On the contrary:

– Two sovereign states, East German and Kuwait, vanish from the map, incorporated by two other states; one of the two reaps approval for its annexation from the entire family of nations, while the other, Iraq, finds itself confronted by the most powerful military in the world, which has set out to restore the sovereignty of the small state it has annexed.
– All the former provinces and territories of recognized sovereign states, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, declare their sovereignty and deny their state a more or less practical monopoly on the use of force.
– One of the leading powers of this earth, whose means of violence has been surpassed by few other states and which successfully asserts its interests around the globe against other sovereigns, the Federal Republic of Germany, gains “full” sovereignty through a treaty with the old victorious powers who today can no longer buy anything for their victory of 45 years ago; this is something it is said to have lacked until now.
– The Prime Minister of Great Britain, a country with undisputed “full” sovereignty, has dismissed her most important minister because he has given overly drastic public expression to his concern that the country will lose its sovereignty to the European Community, a concern that Germany, which has only just regained full sovereignty, does not seem to share.

So many worries about this highest good of states! The formal elimination of sovereigns, a la Kuwait and East Germany, remains a rare exception in modern world history, and in the former case will probably be reversed. The norm, however, is that it is precisely the sovereignty a state has acquired as such that gives rise to a great deal of dissatisfaction with it and to constant efforts to maintain it. Internal sovereignty is usually not the reason for dissatisfaction – if it is lacking, then the very existence of the state is already in jeopardy. This is clearly illustrated by the common translation of the foreign word sovereignty as independence. This emphasis clearly only applies to external sovereignty, not to internal sovereignty. Who wants to say that their state is independent of its citizens? Firstly, everyone knows that this goes without saying in a functioning polity, which is why, secondly, it is not worth mentioning, but thirdly, it underlies the universal praise about how the state does so much for its citizens, day in and day out: when it doesn’t have to. The opposite – dependence – will not be heard either, except as an appeal on election day, which gives away the lie in the same breath when it states what dependence is supposed to consist of. It is possible to examine what constitutes the independence of the state, on the one hand, and the dependence of the state on its citizens, on the other. But such an undertaking, if carried out correctly, inevitably leads to the determination of the reason and purpose of the sovereign state and will therefore at the very least incur the judgment of irrelevance, if not hostility to the state. This is because it is not compatible with the principle of sovereignty’s absolute and self-serving nature, which is practically valid internally thanks to the state’s monopoly on violence.

For this reason, the modern sovereign is also extremely sensitive to those who have made it their political goal to practically call into question its internal monopoly on violence through their own violent actions against persons and institutions that represent the state and the interests it promotes. On the one hand, it is immediately declared that the attacks in question are a “mere crime like any other,” i.e. that the damage caused by them has left the monopoly on violence completely untouched; on the other hand, however, it is made clear by their special practical treatment that their goal, which is different from that of “criminal organizations,” is by no means ignored. In contrast to the fight against crime, where the investigation, prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators restores the law that has been broken but never challenged as such, here, in the fight against terrorism, the sovereign state takes the radical standpoint of eradication and prevention in principle, in keeping with the unconditional nature of its claim to sovereignty. Only incorrigible legal idealists who do not want to be dissuaded from the first statement – “crime like any other” – will therefore wonder why, for example, the Italian state demonstrated a speed and efficiency in eliminating the “Brigate Rosse” that was devoid of squeamishness and dawdling, but at the same time couldn’t make any progress in the “fight against the Mafia.”

Outwardly, on the other hand, the very word “independence,” with the relationship contained in it (independent from what?), by which it makes sense only in dependence on other subjects, reveals the contradiction inherent in the concept: the independence, the external sovereignty of states, is dependent on their mutual recognition.

This contradiction provides the world of political scientists, international law experts and related intellectual giants with inexhaustible material for celebrating and problematizing sovereignty. On the one hand, it is a rather outmoded concept in the “age of global interdependence” and the “ascendancy of supranational structures,” but on the other hand somehow incredibly important when presenting itself, for example, in the irresistible conceptual guise of the “right of nations to self-determination.” Above all, however, this contradiction is the source of the liveliest domestic political disputes. Because the fact that the sovereignty of one state is limited by that of the other, and that one’s own foreign interests can only be satisfied by accommodating the interests of the other sovereign, means that every politician is on the verge of high treason since he sometimes can’t avoid promoting the business of a foreign power in order to serve those of his own nation. The accusation that Adenauer was the “Chancellor of the Allies” will never be forgotten, but neither will the peace movement’s scathing criticism of the West German government during the recent missile buildup for not having safeguarded German sovereignty over the means of war stationed on German soil.

It is the way in which the bourgeois mind takes account of the fact that the form and content of sovereignty never really fit together, that the absoluteness of the former is always relativized by the imperfections of the latter, which gives intellectuals no rest in trying to do in theory what their states strive do in practice: reconcile the two.


What this practical endeavor of states looks like, of course, differs enormously. It is true that every state derives from its formal sovereignty the claim in principle that any act that affects its territory or in which its citizens are involved must be measured by whether it is in its own national interest; otherwise it must be stopped. This claim is sometimes more, sometimes less disgraced by the means available to it to assert its interests.

As is well known, US sovereignty has proven its worth “protecting American lives and property” for over 100 years in the American hemisphere and for 50 years worldwide. This is not to be taken literally: even an American wallet is no better protected by its nationality against pickpockets at Oktoberfest than any other. And the American pimp in Manila who is killed by his local rival does not trigger a military intervention. So the lives and property of every American worldwide are not guaranteed by the powers of American sovereignty. But every American life and property, if its damage is seen as representative of the impairment of American interests, is a title for the USA to regard it not as an individual life or property, but as the embodiment of the nation, i.e. to see in every injured American anywhere in the world its own violated sovereignty, which must be restored. And wherever and whenever this does not succeed as desired, the result is a self-critical debate in the USA about whether its own means still correspond to this highest purpose. This is because the standard by which the USA measures sovereignty is that of “global domestic politics,” of global control through its worldwide monopoly on the use of violence. Violations of this monopoly are therefore consistently identified and combated as “international terrorism.”


There is a state that measures itself against the USA and no other power, whose predecessor completely lost its sovereignty 45 years ago due to a lack of military success in the contest of strength with the USA and other powers: the Federal Republic of Germany. Its history, as reflected in the newspaper headlines, reads like a textbook example of how a state deals with the divergence between the claims and means of its sovereignty. “Germany is finally sovereign” has graced the front pages at least five times since 1945. If the public was allowed to discover that this was not yet “full sovereignty,” this was always the preliminary stage for its expansion.

1949: The Western occupying powers established a domestic state authority on the territory under their control which was initially endowed only with internal sovereignty, with a monopoly of violence over its citizens, including the responsibility for promoting their business life, and only to the extent required by the course of state business under normal conditions. In its own interest, the new polity was to allowed to consolidate the western sphere of influence in Europe and help strengthen the front against the enemy in the east. In the next few years, it used the internal sovereignty it was conceded to consistently organize its society by enacting and applying laws (Works Constitution Act, strike jurisdiction, Communist Party ban, to name just a few highlights). Thanks to this, it soon enjoyed stable democratic conditions and an exemplary social peace, i.e. the smoothest possible functionalization of the people for national success, which was then called the “economic miracle.” As an additional gift, the young state was even allowed to extend its claim to sovereignty to a considerable area outside its borders with the blessing, i.e. formal recognition, of its creators. This made it fully realize where his future lay.

1952: The business success of its citizens soon pushed beyond its borders, demanding a strictly national approach to its interests which was not conceded by its competitors. The provided right to its own foreign relations, recognition by foreign sovereigns, the conclusion of international trade and other agreements, etc., satisfied this demand and became the basis for its rapid rise to a leading export nation.

1955: Thanks to its internal and external successes, the newly founded republic soon became not only a respected but, above all, needed member of the Western community of values. This made it painfully aware that it lacked an essential means for the task it had been assigned and had joyfully accepted, in view of its expanded claim to territorial sovereignty. Its wish was granted: the Federal Republic was allowed to rearm itself. And since its means were within its rights, it not only became the strongest military power on the continent. With the development of an arms industry, of course, it soon discovered that arms exports are not only a good business, but also a means of increasing its foreign policy weight and influence.

1968: In the meantime, it had become an unbearable anachronism for all state-supporting parties that the German state which, thanks to the means of power it had now acquired and the success of its economy, had long since regained not only formal recognition of its sovereignty worldwide, but also substantial influence, still had to leave it to its three founders in order to secure a public authority capable of acting in the event of a crisis or war. The passing of the emergency laws was therefore above all an important gain in sovereignty.

1989/90: The success of decades of being armed as a front-line state, coupled with “change-through-trade” disintegration of the East, came to fruition; the neighboring eastern state, the GDR, learned first-hand that it was not a mere formal omission that its own sovereignty had never been recognized under international law by its powerful neighbor in the West: the redemption of the Federal Republic’s old extended claim to sovereignty over the land and people of the GDR was due. Only the “four power reservations” stood in the way. Germany’s western rivals for supremacy in Europe, France and Great Britain, had long since realized that their “allied reservation rights” were no longer of any use for restricting German sovereignty, that they no longer had any basis in their own means of sovereignty compared to those of the new German superpower. And the two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union, for whom this comparison was still positive, had long since made other calculations about Germany and their benefits from it. America welcomed the extension of German sovereignty to the east because it meant an extension of western jurisdiction; the Soviet Union expected more from Germany as a fully sovereign guarantor of a European peace order than from its ultimate reservations.

Germany’s post-war history as a path to “full” sovereignty is the history of foreign legal titles to interfere in the protection of German interests adapting to the rapidly dwindling material foundations of such interference.

But, as is well known, this story has a sequel: the “transfer” of “full” sovereignty to the supranational institutions of the European Community. In view of this perspective, the end of the allies’ reservation rights, as soon as it had been accomplished, became incidental. For the success of the nation in, with, and through Europe is also too modest for the sovereignty extended to the East. An EC that functions in such a way that it is guaranteed to serve this success deserves to be expanded. A European currency, whose name at best distracts from the fact that it extends the nation’s credit to the entire continent, does not undermine the basis of its own sovereignty, but strengthens it. And pooling the potential for military force to form a “European Security Union” also brings the last pledge of sovereignty in line with its expanded economic means, and allows the comparison of forces with the remaining competitor, the USA, to enter a new stage.


The majority of the more than twelve dozen states that make up the earth’s land surface have somewhat different problems with their sovereignty. They are equipped from the outset with all the formal insignia of “full” sovereigns, and their formal equality as political subjects with all other states can be extensively celebrated in diplomatic dealings. However, the material guarantee of their sovereignty – both internally and externally – is not their own means of power, but the violence and business of the states to which they owe their existence. This means that the sovereignty of those states is itself the means of those who guarantee and endow it, and is only valid as far and as long as it is suitable for this purpose.

This situation gives rise to a number of special features.

For them, internal sovereignty does not mean enforcing the functionality of society by virtue of their monopoly on the use of force, as the condition for the success of the state, in the production of which it proves its own functionality for society. In these countries, the state is not functional for society in the first place; of course, its functionality is also anything but a condition for the success of the state. The people can sometimes consider themselves lucky if they are ignored by their state. If they are unlucky, they are declared superfluous or even disruptive in whole or in large parts and eliminated, if necessary.

Outwardly, it is not the cross-border interests of the ruling class that proves the sovereignty conceded to these states in their foreign policy. For them, foreign policy is reduced to reflecting their usefulness for other sovereigns as a measure of their sovereignty.

Of course, this is the end of the matter for only the fewest of them, where ability and willingness as sovereigns coincide without a hitch. It is those states that, because of the small number of their people and the great benefit of their country for others, can cope well with their status as concessionary sovereigns of imperialism. There is no reason to be dissatisfied. Kuwait was such a country.

The norm among these states is not only dissatisfaction with the fruits of their concessionary sovereignty, which results from their usefulness. The relationship on which their sovereignty is based is the basis for their own foreign policy ambitions. They use the resources that flow to them as a contribution to their functionality for foreign sovereigns – insofar as they are sufficient – as a means of their sovereignty in order to reverse this relationship, to make themselves the subject of foreign relations in which they have always found themselves to be the object of foreign claims. Iraq is such a country. The fact that this puts them in contradiction to the objective determination of their means of sovereignty must sometimes be made clear to them through the practical relativization of these means in war.


All of these countries had an advocate in the form of a power that possessed all the means of sovereignty, but still did not seem to have understood what this noble title was for in the world. Since the state and the people had always been united for the Soviet Union, and the “people” the embodiment of human progress par excellence, it also considered national sovereignty to be a worthy goal of human endeavor. For it, every new sovereign which reduced the old colonial empires in size was a victory for humanity; the question of the means and purpose of this sovereignty was frowned upon. It translated the mutual formal recognition of sovereigns into the “principle of non-intervention” and found that no one adhered to this principle, not even in relation to it, that this translation to the world was shared at most by its own allies. Nevertheless, it stuck to its strict equation of “sovereignty = right to non-intervention” even in relation to these allies: when some of them no longer wanted to remain allies, it considered intervention to be necessary; but to ensure that everything was in order, this was justified with the “limited sovereignty” of the members of its camp. Thus the principle of non-intervention was saved, and so was the camp. Later, however, it felt that it had undermined its credibility as a selfless advocate of all sovereigns with this doctrine of limited sovereignty, so it dropped it, along with the intervention, of course. Since then, it no longer has any allies, but lots of fans of its credibility.

In the meantime, this power is in the process of applying its equation of “sovereignty = right to non-intervention” within its own borders. This could give the world many new sovereigns, large and small; of course, the supreme advocate of sovereignty will then no longer exist. Whether this happens depends on the decision of the states which are ultimately responsible for issues of sovereignty because they control the means associated with it. So if the Baltics and other former Soviet republics are currently finding that their declaration of sovereignty has not yet earned them recognition as independent states from the international community, as they have not yet secured their own monopoly on the use of violence, they can console themselves with the fact that those powers responsible have announced their resistance in the event of a practical enforcement of the monopoly on the use of violence to which they have previously been subjected.


The contradiction that drives the sovereigns of this world is the constant relativization of their sovereignty to that of others. Being useful to other states is both a condition of one’s own sovereignty and a limitation on one’s own success as a state; this is its only content. The ideal of sovereignty is therefore: recognition without being dependent on recognition; use without being used; thus: world domination, but over independent subjects who, as sovereigns, see the realization of their interest in the fulfillment of their useful function in the ruling order, whose sovereignty thus has no other content than their service to the creator of this order. It is the ideal of the world order of imperialism. Partisans of state sovereignty, whether they celebrate it as such, as “independence,” “the right of nations to self-determination,” “the right to choose their own path,” or whatever, are partisans of the sovereigns’ service to this order. The reality of imperialism is that its order has several creators, each of whom strives for this ideal, the correspondence of form and content, of the capability and will of their sovereignty. Collisions and mutual damage are not only unavoidable, but are the necessary and intentional content of this pursuit by the founders of the imperialist order, each of whom pursues their efforts to functionalize the sovereigns of this earth not as a contribution to the imperialist world order, but in order to deny their competitors the benefits of this order. Superior military means are therefore not an outmoded, ornamental attribute, but the decisive pledge of sovereignty; because its accomplishment constantly creates the reasons to defend it with force. Partisans of state sovereignty are therefore always also partisans of war – “if it’s really unavoidable.”