From Empire to Sovereignty—and Back?

| June 12, 2014
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Original frontispiece to Leviathan.

Foundations of Modern International Thought, David Armitage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 300 pp., $85 cloth, $27.99 paper.

A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires 1400–1900, Lauren Benton (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 340 pp., $94 cloth, $28.99 paper.

Globalization and Sovereignty: Rethinking Legality, Legitimacy, and Constitutionalism, Jean L. Cohen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 442 pp., $103 cloth, $37.99 paper.

How do empires and sovereign states relate, conceptually as well as historically? More recent scholarship has started to address this question in greater detail. Given that empires long constituted the default mode of political organization on a planetary scale, when and how did a recognizably modern notion of sovereignty emerge, and how was the transition from a world of empires to a world of states carried out? Furthermore, given the distinctive territorial connotations of modern sovereignty, how could claims to such sovereignty be reconciled with geographically expansive forms of rule and the claims to universal and boundless authority that they implied? Finally, given that, in a globalized world, a fair share of political and legal authority has recently been relocated to actors other than states, does sovereignty still have any analytical and normative purchase?

Although attempts to answer these questions have resulted in little agreement about the origins of sovereignty, about the mechanisms of its subsequent global diffusion, or about its future prospects, there is a growing awareness that the questions—and the answers we provide to them—necessarily hang together. It is no coincidence that many historians of political thought are in the process of rewriting the history of sovereignty in light of its changing status, and that political and legal theorists are revisiting the history of sovereignty in the hope of making better sense of its meaning and function today.

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Category: Issue 28.2, Review Essays

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