In international politics, sovereignty still rules. Recent crises in Kosovo, Georgia, and Gaza are reminders that recognition as a sovereign state is the golden ring that political leaders hope to grasp. Recognition offers even small and weak communities a wealth of benefits, including international status, diplomatic protection, possible control over natural resources, seignorage (the right to print money and sell other assets such as flags of convenience and Internet domain names), and access to foreign aid from richer states and international financial institutions.
International recognition is not contingent on such physical attributes as geographic size or population. Nor does it depend on effective governance or even complete political autonomy. Andorra, for example, is a full member of the United Nations, yet the country—which is sandwiched between Spain and France—covers little more than 300 square miles and has a population of only 83,000. Its joint heads of state are the president of France and the bishop of Urgell in Spain. Two of the four members of its constitutional court are appointed by France and Spain.
Andorra is hardly the smallest state to enjoy international recognition. That distinction belongs to Nauru, an island in the South Pacific with just over 10,000 citizens and a land area of thirteen square miles. Thirteen UN member states have populations under 100,000, and thirty have populations under 500,000. Somalia has a seat at the United Nations and a substantial population of around six million but lacks an effective government. Taiwan, meanwhile, a well-governed and prosperous political entity with a population of more than twenty million, is recognized by only about twenty states (out of more than 190).
Although political leaders want international recognition, they may not want full independence. The member states of the European Union are all internationally recognized as sovereign but have voluntarily entered into treaties that compromise their own national autonomy. For the major European powers in the 1950s, especially Germany and France, integration was a path to peace as well as prosperity; for the new member states from Central and Eastern Europe, the Union offered material benefits and an anchor to the West. The results to date are that most EU members have committed themselves to a common currency and that the rulings of the European Court of Justice have direct effect and supremacy in the national court systems of those states. In forty different issue areas, EU members have agreed to qualified majority voting, which means that member states are obligated to follow even those policies with which they disagree.
The many different arrangements that prevail regarding recognition, autonomy, and effectiveness of governance show that sovereignty does not mean just one thing. Sovereignty has not been displaced by other ways of ordering political life—such as trusteeships, tributary states, regional or world government—precisely because it has been so malleable, not because it provides a fixed, universal template. No legislature sets authoritative rules for how sovereignty should be enacted; no court or umpire settles competing claims. Any kind of deal is possible, and the reason particular arrangements succeed or fail is not whether they conform to a conventional pattern but whether they align with the interests of important domestic and international players. Sovereignty, in other words, is whatever the relevant actors say it is.
Kosovo, which declared its independence in February 2008, is an example of how the international community can choose to grant sovereignty to a small, badly governed community surrounded by potentially hostile neighbors. By early 2009, Kosovo had been formally recognized by fifty-four countries, including most members of the European Union, the United States, Canada, Turkey, and all its immediate neighbors with the exception of Serbia. Russia rejected Kosovo’s declaration outright, as did some countries that are concerned about potential breakaway regions within their own borders (such as Spain and Sri Lanka). China expressed “grave concern.” Others, including most members of the Organization of Islamic States, sat on the sidelines.
South Ossetia has not fared as well in the recognition sweepstakes. So far, only Russia and Nicaragua have recognized its sovereignty. Although South Ossetia is smaller, poorer, and at least as problematically governed as Kosovo, the real difference between the two is not their underlying structural characteristics but rather the interests of other states. By recognizing South Ossetia, Russia wants to discipline Georgia and maintain its authority in a region that it considers to be within its sphere of influence. The United States and others in the West, however, would rather keep Georgia intact than allow it to fragment de jure as well as de facto.
Palestine faces an even bigger challenge to achieving sovereignty. Once again, however, the problems preventing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict relate not to population size or geography but to the political interests of key actors. One crucial issue is security. Regardless of the demarcation of borders, Israel will reject any agreement that does not allow for Israeli or third-party authority over security operations inside Palestine. A recognized Palestinian state would thus not enjoy complete autonomy.
Several precedents exist for such nested security arrangements. France has responsibility for Monaco’s defense, and France and Spain share responsibility for Andorra’s. The Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands, led by Australia, oversees the judiciary and police there, and the United States has full authority over the defense and security arrangements of the Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In the nineteenth century, political entities whose security was controlled by outside actors would have been called protectorates; in the twenty-first century, they can be accepted as fully recognized sovereign states.
The international environment is too complex for any set of rules, including those regarding sovereignty, to be applied rigidly across all cases. The political spectrum today is extremely broad and encompasses political entities that are not generally recognized, despite having de facto independence and effective domestic control; well-governed, recognized states that have negotiated away their domestic autonomy; and states that are fully recognized but whose governments have only limited control over activities within their territories. The impediments to resolving what appear to be conflicts over sovereignty—such as those involving Kosovo, South Ossetia, and Palestine—are not physical, intellectual, or legal but political, relating to the interests of those actors whose consent must be obtained to make an agreement stick.