Sovereignty in World Politics

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  • 0:01 Sovereignty Defined
  • 2:12 Failed States
  • 3:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley
The primary players in international politics are sovereign states. In this lesson, you'll learn about the concept of state sovereignty in the international system and related concepts. You'll also have an opportunity to take a short quiz.

Sovereignty Defined

Imagine that while on a sailing trip in the Pacific Ocean you discovered an uncharted island in international waters that has not been claimed by anyone. You discover that the island has fresh water, wild game and adequate soil for agriculture. It's also uninhabited by human life. You decide to strike while the iron is hot and claim the land and establish your own state. Miracles never cease and a few days after the discovery and your claim of statehood hits cable news, you start receiving ambassadors from the local region that inform you that they acknowledge your infant country's sovereignty.

Sovereignty is a status enjoyed by states and means that the state's government has the right to act independently and without outside interference within its territorial boundaries (the term 'state' refers to a country, not a political subdivision like the state of Florida). States are equal in this status - no one state is any more sovereign than any other. In principle, since you're the government of your newly discovered state, you can do what you want on the island and nobody from the outside can stop you. Of course, life is not so simple and neither is sovereignty.

You soon realize that maintaining absolute sovereignty is not as easy as it sounds. A sovereign state that is not abiding by generally-accepted conduct may face pressure from its brethren states and other international actors. For example, the international community generally frowns upon violations of basic human rights. Thus, a modern state may suffer severe repercussions if it decides to engage in genocide within its borders.

Likewise, the more a sovereign state integrates itself into the global economy, the more interdependent it becomes on other states. And this interdependence gives other states leverage over you. For example, if you decide to develop your own nuclear program, you may face stiff economic sanctions and trade embargoes that could destroy your country's economy, or you may even suffer a military attack.

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