The concept of sovereignty was closely related to the growth of the modern nation-state, and today the term is used almost exclusively to describe the attributes of a state rather than a person. A sovereign state is often described as one that is free and independent. In its internal affairs it has undivided jurisdiction over all persons and property within its territory. It claims the right to regulate its economic life without regard for its neighbors and to increase armaments without limit. No other nation may rightfully interfere in its domestic affairs. In its external relations it claims the right to enforce its own conception of rights and to declare war.
This description of a sovereign state is denied, however, by those who assert that international law is binding. Because states are limited by treaties and international obligations and are not legally permitted by the United Nations Charter to commit aggression at will, they argue that the absolute freedom of a sovereign state is, and should be, a thing of the past. In current international practice this view is generally accepted. The United Nations is today considered the principal organ for restraining the exercise of sovereignty.
In the United States, the nation (i.e. the federal government) and each state are considered sovereign. Among conflicts in which the concept comes into play are those between the federal and state governments (see
) and those between citizens and either the federal or a state government. Governments are generally held to be immune from suit for consequences of their sovereign acts (those acts the government was constituted or empowered to perform). This
must be waived to permit suit against the government. It is also encountered in claims that government officials, in pursuance of their duties, be immune from having to give
before a tribunal or inquiry.
See C. E. Merriam, History of the Theory of Sovereignty since Rousseau (1900, repr. 1968) H. J. Laski, Studies in the Problem of Sovereignty (1917, repr. 1968) B. de Jouvenel, Sovereignty (tr. 1957) J. L. Brierly, The Law of Nations (6th ed. 1963) F. H. Hinsley, Sovereignty (1966) A. James, Sovereign Statehood (1986).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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