“Sovereignty, though its meanings have varied across history, has a core meaning: supreme authority within a territory. It is a modern notion of political authority” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
It was only after the Peace of Westphalia, in 1648, that -in Europe- sovereign states appeared as we know them.
As we know them?
I am not really persuaded that I really know (or have known) “sovereign states”.
When I was a child, in the bipolar world, maybe just the United States and the Soviet Union were sovereign states. Maybe China too, in a different way.
The theory of limited sovereignty was spelled in clear words in the Eastern bloc, a bit less clearly (but it wasn’t less true), in the western one.
Since WWII, another kind of limitation of sovereignty came from international law, especially by International humanitarian law and human rights law. States were not completely sovereign anymore since they had obligations towards their enemies and towards their own citizens. The notion of domestic jurisdiction was gradually eroded.
In this sense, compressing national sovereignty was not necessarily bad, even if it came with lights and shadows: how many states signed human rights declarations only as a tool of propaganda? How many of them were willing to guarantee human rights and repress gross violations in other countries -using military force- even if standards at home were not so high?
The United Nations cannot really enforce what is officially declared or check the good faith of the states showing good will.
Eventually, the world became more and more interconnected and economically integrated: the so-called globalization. And new constraints on sovereignty were accepted – as WTO regulations – as a price to pay for the access to new markets.
Now, it is clear to me that sovereignty is nothing more than a fictional concept. The state is not anymore a supreme authority, a superiorem non recognoscens (if there ever was one).
It is a loss of sovereignty if we look at it from the state perspective. But we could try to see it from a different perspective.
From the global perspective – or the global public goods perspective – the loss of many fragmented sovereignties could be positive as far as they are replaced by some authority in charge for tackling the issues at stake and equipped to do it.
It is a shift from many not-really-sovereign entities to common authorities where sovereignty is fairly shared among the members.
Climate change offers a great example, but it isn’t the only one. The issue of nuclear nonproliferation is another one. What about financial instability?
From the global citizens’ perspective, the answer is not an allocation of power in whatever authority, but in the kind of authority they can interact with, and control. An authority provided with legitimacy and accountability, whose policies are inclusive.
The United Nations are not yet this kind of authority, nor the Bretton Woods institutions, but single projects and processes are leading the way. See, for instance, the World We Want platform.
Some regional organizations, as the European Union, paved the way (to some extent), but they can still improve.
Some atypical new international organizations opened innovative paths of supranational interaction among stakeholders: the Kimberley Process, the Internet Governance Forum, the Global Environmental Facility. They are an example of what I call democratic experimentalism.
The way from limited sovereignty to shared sovereignty is not a short or easy one, but what really matters is that it is not a loss, but a gain in sovereignty.