Assertions of Sovereignty: Dimensions of Domestic and Foreign Policy

Photograph Source: Yovany Camacho – CC BY 2.0

The relationship between domestic politics and foreign policy is often discussed in international relations. Diplomats and foreign policy experts may demur, saying that the formulation of foreign policy, with all its complexities, cannot be left to those who have not spent a lifetime studying and practicing the art of diplomacy, especially politicians – “some of whom are hacks or ideologues and all of whom are hostage, especially these days, to party’s base.”[1] But American scholar Lisel Hintz sees foreign policy as a “domestic identity contestation domain.”[2] In her study, Hintz focuses on Turkey, but her theory is widely applicable in the age of populism. Her key argument is that national identity debates in domestic politics can spill into foreign policy.

Hintz’s theory suggests that various societal groups compete in defining their “visions of inclusive and exclusive boundaries” for the nation to control society, each seeking “identity hegemony.” This control is not about “just the governing power,” but also about realizing identity-based interests (p. 18). When a group achieves hegemony, its vision of national identity becomes widespread. Once the alternatives have been rejected, the domestic identity contest moves into the arena of foreign policy, with elites who are blocked domestically competing outside. Hintz argues that when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was up against the military and the judiciary in Turkey, his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was able to circumvent those domestic institutions by moving the contest into the foreign policy arena to engage with an international institution that played by different rules.

So, during the AKP’s first term in office, Turkey began by initially embracing the European Union (EU) accession process, and selectively applying its democratization criteria (chapter 6). Gradually, Turkey came under the domination of Erdogan’s populism, and the question of EU membership was no longer prominent on the agenda. Erdogan became increasingly assertive in domestic and foreign affairs. He expanded Turkey’s military and diplomatic footprint that included military interventions in Azerbaijan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria; built Islamic schools abroad; and began developing relations with China and Russia outside the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the alliance of which Turkey is a long-time member.[3]

The case of Turkey goes some way to illustrating a relationship between domestic hegemony and sovereignty. Fundamentally, sovereignty involves “supreme authority over all others within its field of operation, and the absence of any other authority in that same field.”[4] This is more so after the Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan’s capture and imprisonment, and Ocalan’s declaration to his forces in southwestern Turkey in 2013 to lay down their weapons.[5]Turkey’s increasing assertiveness in the twenty-first century tempts some commentators to describe the country as “neo-Ottoman” and its leader as “Sultan Erdogan.”[6] Such labels are not without controversy, because the Erdogan years have seen an “Ottoman cultural revival” that reminds of the old Ottoman Empire which controlled much of Southeast Europe, West Asia, and North Africa for six hundred years before collapsing in the wake of WWI. These labels also serve to emphasize in the eyes of critics that “the Europe-facing, Western-dressing, cocktail-toasting modern nation-state established in 1923 by founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk is being replaced by a religiously conservative one, headscarf by headscarf.”

As we are deliberating a link between hegemony and sovereignty, it would be useful to examine what sovereignty means. The assertion of sovereignty, or creating its perception, is a political tool which demonstrates a leader’s strength and astuteness. In politics and law, sovereignty is a foundational concept “that can only be properly understood as, at one and the same time, both an idea of supreme authority in the state, and an idea of political and legal independence of geographically separated states.”[7] As the case of Turkey suggests, these are two ideas of sovereignty, but they are not separate. According to Robert Jackson, the first is constitutional that is about “the rights and duties of citizens or subjects of particular states.” The other is international involving multiple states in relation to each other, “each one occupying its own territory and having foreign relations and dealings with each other, including peaceful and cooperative relations as well as discordant relations and periodical wars.”[8]

In its modern conception, sovereignty dates back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) and brought peace to the Holy Roman Empire. It was then that “the principle of territorial delimitation of State authority and the principle of non-intervention were established.”[9] Westphalian sovereignty was important in two respects. First, “secular authority over a given territory came to be regarded as ultimate and independent from religious power.” Second, “no more external intervention in the realm of sovereign jurisdiction was authorized whether religious or secular.” Although the essence of Westphalia remains significant as a general principle in the United Nations Charter and treaties governing international relations to date, it has not brought peace as the history of conflicts shows.

The theoretical ideal type of the concept aside, sovereignty in practical terms mirrors realpolitik. No two nation states are the same in size, military and economic strength, or geographical location. The United Nations has more than 190 member states, five permanent members of the Security Council with veto power. They reflect great diversity, from the United States and Russia, China, Japan and India, the United Kingdom, France and Germany to countries in Africa like Burundi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia and South Sudan. All of them cannot enjoy the same sovereignty. A single permanent member can block an attempt in the UN Security Council to deal with a major crisis. China is the second most powerful economy and military power after the United States, and catching up with the US. India is the world’s most populous country and a nearly developed economy. Germany is Europe’s industrial powerhouse. Petroleum exporting countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia can influence policies of countries that depend on energy supplies from them. Small and poor countries are sometimes disparagingly called “begging bowls.”[10] Internal conflict, or full-scale civil war, makes a country susceptible to external intervention, turning it into a subservient territorial entity. A country riven by internal conflict which means the state authority does not have effective control over its territory has incomplete sovereignty.[11]

The top league of sovereign nations includes the United States, China, Russia, France and the United Kingdom roughly in that order. Regarded as the leading economic and military powers, they are also permanent members of the Security Council, with a crucial role in global governance. The United States may still be the sole unchallenged sovereign power, capable of prevailing over an adversary when it chooses to engage. Nonetheless, experiences of geopolitics since WWII have demonstrated limits of America’s military power in Afghanistan, Vietnam and elsewhere. Even after the Cold War with the Soviet Union ended in the late twentieth century, the United States has to reckon with the growing economic-military strength of China and a rising India. In NATO, the Western defense alliance which, in effect, America dominates but where decisions are taken by consensus, Washington has to deal with inconvenient allies like Turkey for instance. All this signifies that the theoretical concept of sovereignty, even for the most powerful military-economic nation state, does not mean absolute or total sovereignty. The most powerful, too, have to adjust according to conditions around them in the policy-making process. This takes us to the notions of shared sovereignty and pooled sovereignty.

Conventional sovereignty “assumes a world of autonomous, internationally recognized, and well-governed states.”[12]Stephen Krasner points out that conventional sovereignty is frequently violated in practice, but the fundamental rules have rarely been challenged in principle. Krasner further notes that “these rules no longer work,” and their inadequacies have had “deleterious consequences for the strong and the weak.” Powerful, well-governed states have policy tools to “fix” badly governed or collapsed states in the form of assistance and transitional administration. Such assistance can be approved by the United Nations, for example, or by a “coalition of the willing led by the United States.” The best that can be hoped for is a marginal improvement for a period such as in Afghanistan and Iraq in the early twenty-first century. At worst, the intervenors who intended to “fix” things face widespread violent opposition and disorder, corrupt and exploitative political leaders, even state-sponsored genocide.

It is important to point out that sovereignty can also be shared voluntarily with allies and friends, even rivals, for mutual benefit. Arms control treaties, and trade and cooperation agreements, are concluded either to reduce the risk of war and destruction, or trade with the aim of benefiting signatories. Each party agrees to cede a degree of sovereignty to follow common rules in return for the movement of goods, services, capital and people with specified skills. Among countries willing to cooperate in areas like trade, defense and migration, sometimes the arrangement is described as pooled sovereignty, at other times shared sovereignty.[13] The European Union is an obvious example of shared or pooled sovereignty, but it is a highly controversial idea, as we shall see later. Nonetheless, it should be said here that while Krasner’s interpretation of shared sovereignty emphasizes the relationship between a strong and a weak entity that is in need of assistance, for Mamudu and Studlar shared sovereignty derives from an association of equals where sovereignty is pooled for common purpose.

The European Union’s principles are described in the following text –

The European Union’s mission is to ensure the free mobility of people, goods, services and capital within the Union (the ‘four freedoms’). At the same time, all discrimination is strictly forbidden.

The Union respects the national identity, political system and constitution of the member states. They work together in good faith.[14]

Member states working together to ensure the ‘four freedoms’ is a model which requires negotiations and hard bargaining. Disagreements are frequent, and opt-out provisions exist on certain matters if a country cannot agree. But the overall aim of the European Union is to take joint decisions on internal as well as external relations and implement those decisions. The EU’s single market based on interdependence is not unique, for all trade relations involve reciprocal concessions. No single country can have all it needs, so it must trade with others to meet the internal demand for what it does not have enough. On the contrary, a country may have some goods in greater quantities than it needs. In that case, it would like to export to others. In the highly globalized system of today, interdependence in inescapable.

As part of the globalized system, which the United States has come to dominate, China and Russia have their own international ambitions. Both have developed hybrid systems of national capitalism and authoritarianism. In foreign policy, both want to “manage and, if possible, decrease the impact of US influence upon international affairs.”[15] But their domestic and socioeconomic challenges differ. Russia, “seeing its current international standing in decline and being reduced to a mere energy supplier to the world market, is seeking to replay the end of the Cold War and to revive its great power ambitions.” China has moved to “working within numerous multilateral frameworks. Though this development has been welcomed in the international community, China’s more assertive behaviour in the maritime sphere has raised concerns about the implications for regional stability of China’s growing power.” Beijing has not given up on “its insistence on respect for sovereignty.” Assertions of conventional sovereignty persist in the current age of globalization and decentralized sovereignty.

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty says –

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.[16]

Article 5 of NATO is a complex, explicit and wide-ranging assertion of sovereignty, and deserves a deeper examination. Since its formation in 1949, the alliance has expanded. Its member states are diverse in size and military-economic capacity. The United States and Canada in North America; France, the United Kingdom and Germany in Western Europe; Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia and Lithuania in Northern Europe; Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Poland and Romania in Eastern Europe; and Greece, Italy and Turkey in the south. Each country is sovereign in its own right. Decisions are taken by consensus in meetings chaired by the NATO secretary general. All members have equal voice, though they are ever conscious of the power of the United States. Deliberations can be complex and, at times, time-consuming, as Turkey’s initial opposition to Sweden’s membership showed.[17]

The opening sentence of Article 5 enshrines collective defense in the declaration that an attack against one or more members of the alliance shall be considered an attack against them all. It is at the very heart of the treaty. It implies that, as well as each member being sovereign in its territory, NATO as a whole has sovereignty throughout the alliance’s territory. The only time NATO invoked Article 5 was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States.[18] On other occasions, though, the alliance has taken collective measures, including in response to the situation in Syria and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Complementing Article 5 is Article 6, which stipulates that an armed attack under the treaty is deemed to include an armed attack on “the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France, on the territory of Turkey or on the islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer; on the forces, vessels or aircraft, when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force.” Hence NATO acts as an international defense mechanism based on shared sovereignty of all its members.

In November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg address during the American Civil War (1861–1865). In the concluding sentence, Lincoln said that “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”[19] His remarks in that speech can be seen as an early example in the modern era of popular sovereignty, though “the idea dates back to the social contracts school (mid-17th to mid-18th   centuries) represented by Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), John Locke (1632–1704), and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778).”[20] Rousseau was the author of the Social Contract, a literary work that “highlighted the ideals of general will” and further matured the idea of popular sovereignty.” It is about the belief that the state is created by the will of the people, who are the source of all political power. However, the concept of popular sovereignty does not depict a political or social reality. It should be seen in contrast with parliamentary sovereignty and individual sovereignty.

The idea of popular sovereignty has received particular significance in the United States. Alexis de Tocqueville, French historian and political scientist, in his classic Democracy in America, devoted a chapter on the principle of the sovereignty of the people (chapter 3).[21] Tocqueville wrote in the opening sentence of the chapter: “Whenever the political laws of the United States are to be discussed, it is with the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people that we must begin.” He further observed: “In America the principle of the sovereignty of the people is neither barren nor concealed, as it is with some other nations; it is recognized by the customs and proclaimed by the laws; it spreads freely, and spreads without impediment at its most remote consequences.” From the American Revolution onward, the doctrine of the sovereignty of the people came out of the townships, spreading to the state, and thus became “the law of laws.” The exercise of the people power can be witnessed at every level, from the city, county and state levels to federal legislators and president. Local officials are directly elected in many instances and referendums held on local issues of concern. So much so that it is difficult for the authorities to forget the popular origin of their power. The doctrine establishes that all people have a right to participate in government at almost all times.

Since the late nineteenth century, popular sovereignty has undergone a radical transformation toward what is known as populism involving a much more aggressive assertion of the power of the people. In America, populist movements claiming to represent “the people” have shown remarkable growth, culminating in Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election. The Trump presidency (2017–2021) was the most dramatic manifestation of the populist trend in American politics through wave after wave over more than a century.[22] Trump’s support in the Republican Party did not weaken even after his heavy defeat by Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. In 2024 again, populism will likely be a significant force whatever the final outcome of the general election.

Popular sovereignty is a formidable concept. However, populism goes beyond in assuming the sovereignty over not only its base, but professing to speak for “the people” or “the ordinary people” against the enemy, who can be “elites,” “immigrants,” people of a different ideology or faith who must be excluded. It is a distortion of reality that divides a society and excludes parts of it while claiming to represent “the people.” After the United States, populism spread to Latin America, where it discovered fertile ground in the early twentieth century.[23] Latin America is one of the world’s poorest regions with a history of corrupt authoritarian regimes. From Juan and Eva Peron in the 1930s and 1940s to Hugo Chavez in Argentina and Evo Morales in Bolivia in the early twenty-first century, Latin American leaders have led popular revolts, often succeeding to win through elections, only to manipulate constitutional arrangements to remain in power until removed by another popular or military rebellion. Their tactics have included invoking the sovereignty of “the people” and ruling in the name of ordinary masses. Their stated aim has been to help the poor, underprivileged and oppressed people – something they did to a degree before their luck ran out.

The success of populists lies in the way they conceptualize democracy in terms of popular sovereignty. Populists succeed because of their “shared understandings of democracy as mass action on behalf of a leader constructed as the incarnation of democratic ideals, more than in the institutionalization of democracy through the rule of law.”[24] Their support may not be universal, but their vision is absolutist and polarizing. They entertain the fantasy that they speak for all the people. Their aggressive assertions of sovereignty in domestic politics also give them the capacity to shape independent foreign policy, as anti-imperialist policies of Juan Peron and lately of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales demonstrated.

Samuel Issacharoff has written about frailties of new democracies as they emerge from conflict or an autocratic past.[25]Issacharoff says: “One of the defining characteristics is that the complete package of democratic institutions rarely mature together, or quickly.”[26] He describes democracy as a “complicated interaction between popular sovereignty, political competition, stable institutions of state, vibrant organs of civil society, meaningful political intermediaries, and a commitment to the idea that the losers of today have a credible chance to reorganize and perhaps emerge as the winners of tomorrow.” But he makes the point in his critique that “few if any of these criteria are likely to be satisfied amid the birth pangs of a new democratic order.” These frailties have been shown time and again not only in Latin America, but in other regions where new democracies have emerged, for example in the erstwhile Soviet bloc in Central and Eastern Europe and Africa.[27] Corruption in elections undermines democratic accountability while the power of incumbency is used to frustrate the system of separation of power and checks and balances, preventing any one institution or individual from exercising total control. In short, the corruption of popular sovereignty makes way to corruption of politics and the wider society.

Scholarly literature is available on both leftwing and rightwing populist waves focusing on the sovereignty of “the people” in Latin America, lately the “Pink Tide” (turn to the left) with which Chavez (Argentina), Morales (Bolivia) and Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) are associated.[28] But in Europe most studies concerned with the populist conception of democracy focus on rightwing populism.[29] It dominates populism in many Western European countries. For populists, “the will of the people is benign and should consequently be leading in determining the outcome of political decisions.” Since democracy must represent the popular will, it can be argued that all democracies are populist. But this line disregards other components of democratic systems ensuring the rule of law, namely legislators, bureaucrats and judges. Moreover, the populist conceptualization of “the people” that in reality is “majority rule” in their imagination excludes those whom populists see as their enemies.

In Western Europe, according to Corduwener, many countries have proportional representation in their electoral systems. Coalition governments are formed through negotiations and hard bargaining. Populist politicians see Western European democracies in deep crisis. The Austrian Freedom Party (FPO) and the Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands both see a major cause of this crisis as “the alleged bias of state institutions within liberal democracies,” while impartiality of the state is seen as an important aspect of liberal democracy.[30] Liberal democratic theory says that “state, or state funded, institutions such as the education system, state media and judiciary are not supposed to reflect politically biased messages.” The theory of state neutrality is cherished by liberal democracy, but populists insist on their assertion that “current liberal democracies no longer live up to their promises” and accuse them of creating politically colored state institutions. One of the objectives of populism is to reclaim the state and neutralize it. Aggressive attempts are made to push the concept of popular sovereignty toward this goal. Nowhere in Europe have such attempts been more successful than in the United Kingdom in 2016 when a cross-party coalition succeeded in winning the Brexit referendum by a narrow margin of 52-48 percent. The referendum was advisory, not binding. But the governing Conservative Party, deeply split between Leavers and Remainers and struggling to maintain its hold on power, claimed that the narrow result was an instruction from the British people to leave the European Union. And so, the United Kingdom became the first member state to leave the Union.[31] In the 2019 general election under the leadership of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Conservative Party won a parliamentary majority of some 80 seats on the campaign promise to “Get Brexit Done.” Consequently, Britain officially left the European Union on December 31, 2020, this time asserting both parliamentary and popular sovereignty.


[1] Miller, Aaron David, “No Leader Makes Foreign Policy Decisions Without Considering Domestic Politics,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 18, 2023.

[2] Cited in Kesgin, Bans, “Identity, Domestic Politics, and Foreign Policy,” International Studies Review, Volume 23, Issue 2, June 2021, pp. 443-444. Also, Hintz, Lisel, Identity Politics Inside Out: National Identity Contestation and Foreign Policy in Turkey (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[3] Robinson, Kali, “Turkey’s Growing Foreign Policy Ambitions,” Council on Foreign Relations, New York, July 11, 2023.

[4] Watts, Arthur, “Sovereignty,” Encyclopedia Princetoniensis, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey.

[5] “Ocalan calls on PKK to abandon arms,” DW, March 21, 2015.

[6] Kiper, Cinar, “Sultan Erdogan: Turkey’s Rebranding Into the New, Old Ottoman Empire,” Atlantic, April 5, 2013.

[7] Jackson, Robert, Sovereignty: The Evolution of An Idea (UK: Cambridge, Polity Press, 2007), p. x.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Besson, Samantha, “Sovereignty,” Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law (MPEPIL) in Oxford Public International Law, April 2011.

[10] For example, Harvey, Fiona, “Gordon Brown says China must pay into climate fund for poor countries,” Guardian, November 26, 2022.

[11] Lee, Melisa M., “The International Politics of Incomplete Sovereignty: How Hostile Neighbors Weaken the State,” International Organization, Vol. 72 No. 2 (2018), p. 283.

[12] Krasner, Stephen D., “Sharing Sovereignty: New Institutions for Collapsed and Failing States,” International Security Vol. 29 No. 2 (2004), p. 85.

[13] For pooled sovereignty, see Gammage, Clair and Sypris, Philip, “The Sovereignty Illusion: freedom to set one’s own rules has a high price,” LSE Blogs, December 23, 2020. For shared sovereignty in the European Union, see Mamudu, Hadii M. and Studlar, Donley T., “Multilevel Governance and Shared Sovereignty: European Union, Member States and the FCTC,” National Library of Medicine, NIH, January 22, 2009.

[14] European Union Principles.

[15] Medvedev, Sergei and Jakobson, Linda, “Sovereignty or Interdependency?” in Pursiainen, Christer (ed.), At the Crossroads of Post-Communist Modernisation: Russia and China in Comparative Perspective (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 181.

[16] Article 5, North Atlantic Treaty, April 4, 1949.

[17] “Why is Turkey blocking Sweden from joining NATO?,” Economist, July 10, 2023.

[18] “Collective defence and Article 5,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, July 04, 2023.

[19] Lincoln, Abraham, “November 19, 1863: Gettysburg Address,” Miller Center, University of Virginia (Source: National Archives).

[20] “Popular Sovereignty,” Saylor Academy.

[21] De Tocqueville, Alexis, “The Principle of the Sovereignty of the People in America,” in Democracy in America (UK: Ware, Hertfordshire, Wordsworth, 1998), pp. 30–33.

[22] Lowndes, Joseph, “Populism in the United States,” in Kaltwasser, Cristobal Rovira, Taggart, Paul, Espejo, Paulina Ochoa, Ostiguy, Pierre (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Populism (UK: Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017), 232–247.

[23] De La Torre, Carlos, “Populism in Latin America,” The Oxford Handbook of Populism, p. 195–213.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Issacharoff, Samuel, “The corruption of popular sovereignty,” International Journal of Constitutional Law, Volume 18 Issue 4, December 2020, pp. 1109–1135.

[26] Ibid., p. 1112.

[27] Stanley, Ben, “Populism in Central and Eastern Europe,” in Kaltwasser, Taggart et al., The Oxford Handbook of Populism, pp. 140–160; also, Resnick, Danielle E., “Populism in Africa,” pp. 101–120.

[28] Ellner, Steve, “Pink-Tide Governments: Pragmatic and Populist Responses to Challenges from the Right,” Latin American Perspectives, Volume 46, Issue 1, Sage Journal, December 5, 2018.

[29] Corduwener, Pepijn, “The Populist Conception of Democracy beyond Popular Sovereignty,” Journal of Contemporary European Research, Utrecht University, Volume 10, Issue 4, 2014, pp. 424–437.

[30] Ibid., p. 428.

[31] Allen, Nicholas, “‘Brexit means Brexit’: Theresa May and post-referendum British politics,” British Politics 13, Springer, 2018, pp. 105–120.

Deepak Tripathi, PhD, is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. He blogs at Reflections. Among his latest books are Modern Populism: Weaponizing for Power and Influence (Springer Nature, September 2023) and Afghanistan and the Vietnam Syndrome: Comparing US and Soviet Wars (also Springer Nature, March 2023).