The core, perennial meaning of modern understanding of political sovereignty is “supreme authority within a territory.” Its variants can be understood according to three perspectives(Philpott, 2010):
1) The holder of sovereignty(Philpott, 2010).
2) The absoluteness of sovereignty(Philpott, 2010).
3) The internal and external dimensions of sovereignty(Philpott, 2010).
As for its historical embodiment, “The state is the political institution in which sovereignty is embodied. An assemblage of states forms a sovereign states system”(Philpott, 2010).
The history of the modern notion of sovereignty ought to be understood through the lens of two major historical movements(Philpott, 2010):
1) The creation of a system of sovereign states with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 as its culmination. Analyses of the concept of sovereignty is common in the writings of Machiavelli, Bodin, Luther and Hobbes(Philpott, 2010).
2) The “circumscription of the sovereign state, which began in practice after World War Ii and has since continued through European integration and the growth and strengthening of laws and practices to protect human rights”(Philpott, 2010). Its most common contemporary critics are Bertrand de Jouvenel and Jacques Maritain(Philpott, 2010).
This modern concept of supremacy within a specific geographical region is something which “popes, emperors, kings, bishops, and most nobles and vassals during the Middle Ages, lacked”(Philpott, 2010). The sovereign possesses authority in such a way that he or she does not simply wield coercive power, but is recognized by its subject as having a fundamental right to be obeyed, as well as a corresponding duty on the part of the ruled to obey(Philpott, 2010).
In order to better understand the concept of sovereignty, one must invoke the concept, not merely of authority, but of supremacy, or supreme authority.
But if sovereignty is a matter of authority, it is not a matter of mere authority, but of supreme authority. Supremacy is what makes the constitution of the United States superior to the government of Pennsylvania, or any holder of sovereignty different from a police chief or corporate executive. The holder of sovereignty is superior to all authorities under its purview. Supremacy, too, is endemic to modernity(Philpott, 2010). During the Middle Ages, manifold authorities held some sort of legal warrant for their authority, whether feudal, canonical, or otherwise, but very rarely did such warrant confer supremacy(Philpott, 2010).
Finally, sovereignty within the modern political realm must be understood in terms of the concept of territoriality.
Territoriality is a principle by which members of a community are to be defined. It specifies that their membership derives from their residence within borders. It is a powerful principle, for it defines membership in a way that may not correspond with identity. The borders of a sovereign state may not at all circumscribe a “people” or a “nation,” and may in fact encompass several of these identities, as national self-determination and irrendentist movements make evident. It is rather by simple virtue of their location within geographic borders that people belong to a state and fall under the authority of its ruler. It is within a geographic territory that modern sovereigns are supremely authoritative(Philpott, 2010).
Territoriality as an essential element of political sovereignty is now taken for granted by virtually everyone. While it is true that the concept of territoriality itself is by no means new, other principles, like “family, kinship, religion, tribe, and feudal ties(Philpott, 2010)” have held much greater importance than they currently do. “Most vividly contrasting with territoriality [as an essential defining feature of political sovereignty]is a wandering tribe, whose authority structure is completely disassociated with a particular piece of land”(Philpott, 2010).
In order to more fully understand the modern concept of political sovereignty as supremacy over a specific geographical area, it is important to understand the logic behind claims to such sovereignty(Philpott, 2010):
Over the past half millennium, these claims have taken extraordinarily diverse forms — nations asserting independence from mother states, communists seeking freedom from colonialists, the vox populi contending with ancien regimes, theocracies who reject the authority of secular states, and sundry others(Philpott, 2010).
Here are three trajectories according to which one may understand sovereignty in order to attempt to categorize these multifarious claims to sovereignty(Philpott, 2010):
1) The holders of sovereignty – The French political theorist Jean Bodin believed that sovereignty ought to reside in a single individual. He and Hobbes both believed that the sovereign was above the law(Philpott, 2010).
2) The absolute or non-absolute nature of sovereignty – The Christian understanding of sovereignty arguably involves delegated sovereignty; that is, although God is the supreme and unquestioned sovereign, He delegates sovereignty to a ruling government in order to restrict, minimize and punish external breaking out of certain forms of evil.
But over what forms of evil is the sovereign ruler? God, as the supreme and absolute sovereign, is sovereign over absolutely every aspect of life, without exception. But what about the scope of authority exercised by God’s delegated sovereign, the civil government? Hobbes and Bodin, unfortunately, believed that the scope of the authority of the sovereignty extended over every area of life; a scope belonging solely to God.
Such an extreme degree of the absoluteness of sovereign authority is, of course, relatively uncommon today. Most European countries, for example, while sovereign over the government of their defense, do not govern their trade policies, currencies, and certain social welfare policies, admnistered “in cooperation with EU authorities as set forth in EU law.”
3) The relationship between the internal and external dimensions of sovereignty – According to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, interference in the business of other sovereign states is illegitimate. That is, sovereign states are entitled to autonomy and dependence, seriously restricting foreign intervention. Like other forms of state sovereignty, of course(from a Christian perspective, this is true only of delegated sovereigns) it depends for its legitimacy by recognition by outsiders(according to the modern theory of political sovereignty). For sovereign entities,
this recognition is what a no-trespassing law is to private property – a set of mutual understandings that give property, or the state, immunity from outside interference. It is also external sovereignty that establishes the basic condition of international relations – anarchy, meaning the lack of a higher authority that makes claims on lower authorities. An assemblage of states, both internally and externally sovereign, makes up an international system, where sovereign entities ally, trade, make war, and make peace(Philpott, 2010).
The modern definition of sovereignty as territorial supremacy is best understood according to two broad historical trajectories:
1) An evolution towards the “European continent, then a globe, of sovereign states” – this took place in the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. “Europe consolidated its long transition from the Middle Ages to a world of sovereign states.” By 1300, according to J.R. Strayer, even as early as 1300, France and Britain looked a great deal like sovereign states, as their respective sovereigns possessed supremacy defined according to specific geographical regions(Philpott, 2010).
It was not until the 16th century, however, that Europe take a major swing toward the modern understanding of sovereignty when Charles V of Spain ascended the throne, becoming Holy Emperor, “taking on the role of enforcer of the Catholic Church’s still significant temporal prerogatives inside the Empire, especially its enforcement of ecclesiastical orthodoxy”(Philpott, 2010).
Even at this point, however, Charles’ power was still checked by certain princes and nobles who “retained prerogatives over which he had no control.”
Philpott, Dan, “Sovereignty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2010/entries/sovereignty/>.