Against those who regard sovereignty as inherently problematic and unstable—hence, useless as a heuristic device2—and others who reject its normative significance,3 I take a position of pragmatic constructivism,4 arguing that sovereignty is an evolving institution whose constraining power depends on the action of great powers. The structure of sovereignty established in the early modern era allows great powers to enforce a framework of legitimacy by sanctioning specific behavior and elaborating norms to justify intervention and the use of force. This structure informs the scope of international law and the procedures for collective action. Rather than cover a fixed domain, these norms vary in relation to the tendency of great powers to enforce their will directly and the propensity of smaller state actors, within a general framework of legitimacy, to coordinate and harmonize state activities in line with the norms that the leading power(s) espouse. Great powers calculate the utility of diplomatic reciprocity in preference to deploying force, whereas secondary powers consider the enforcement prospect of reciprocal concessions. This calculus involves weighing the relative capacity of state institutions, the permeability of institutions in the states with whom one engages in reciprocal claims and the significance of transborder claims.
KeywordsMoral Obligation Qing Dynasty Legal Order Sovereign State Moral Order
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