Sovereignty and Inequality

Posted: 29 Feb 2008


Inequality within and between societies has been a neglected issue in the contemporary theory of international law. The concept of sovereignty makes this neglect possible in traditional international law, as analysis of Oppenheim's 1905 textbook demonstrates. Globalization and democratization are placing state sovereignty under strain, as international rules and institutions appear to become more intrusive, transnational civil society more active, and unitary state control less pronounced. State sovereignty as a normative concept is increasingly challenged, especially by a functional view in which the state loses its normative priority and competes with supranational, private, and local actors in the optimal allocation of regulatory authority. But discarding sovereignty in favour of a functional approach will intensify inequality, weakening restraints on coercive intervention, diminishing critical roles of the state as a locus of identity and an autonomous zone of politics, and redividing the world into zones. The traditional normative concept of sovereignty is strained and flawed, but in the absence of better means to manage inequality it remains preferable to any of the alternatives on offer.

Suggested Citation

Kingsbury, Benedict, Sovereignty and Inequality. European Journal of International Law, Vol. 9, pp. 599-625, 1998. Available at SSRN:

Benedict Kingsbury (Contact Author)

New York University School of Law ( email )

40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
212-998-6278 (Phone)

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