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Rethinking Sovereignty

For 350 years, sovereignty – the notion that states are the central actors on the world stage and that governments are essentially free to do what they want within their own territory but not within the territory of other states – has provided the organizing principle of international relations. The time has come to rethink this notion.

The world’s 190-plus states now co-exist with a larger number of powerful non-sovereign and at least partly (and often largely) independent actors, ranging from corporations to non-government organizations (NGO’s), from terrorist groups to drug cartels, from regional and global institutions to banks and private equity funds. The sovereign state is influenced by them (for better and for worse) as much as it is able to influence them. The near monopoly of power once enjoyed by sovereign entities is being eroded.

As a result, new mechanisms are needed for regional and global governance that include actors other than states. This is not to argue that Microsoft, Amnesty International, or Goldman Sachs be given seats in the United Nations General Assembly, but it does mean including representatives of such organizations in regional and global deliberations when they have the capacity to affect whether and how regional and global challenges are met.

Moreover, states must be prepared to cede some sovereignty to world bodies if the international system is to function. This is already taking place in the trade realm. Governments agree to accept the rulings of the World Trade Organization because on balance they benefit from an international trading order even if a particular decision requires that they alter a practice that is their sovereign right to carry out.