Hedwig Lieback | The Specter of Sovereignty

By Hedwig Lieback

The question of borders is always also a question of sovereignty. Even if not explicitly mentioned, this concept lurks in the background of debates attempting to either assert a state’s right to control ‘its’ borders or in counterproposals which suggest that a state has a moral obligation to take the concerns of those who are affected by its decisions into account.[1] According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the concept of sovereignty denotes “the ultimate overseer, or authority, in the decision-making process of the state and in the maintenance of order” and is thus “closely related to the difficult concepts of state and government and of independence and democracy.”[2] While the editors allude to the controversial nature of the concept and its various uses in political theory, they also point to its etymological origins that seem – at first hand – more straightforward: “Derived from the Latin superanus through the French souveraineté, the term was originally understood to mean the equivalent of supreme power.”[3] Based on the readings for our Open Borders session and the etymological meaning of sovereignty, I will attempt to discuss the contention that taking into account who is affected by political decisions, even if the people affected are not considered citizens within a neatly delineated political territory, leads down a slippery slope towards the eventual impossibility of democratic decision-making.

Joseph Caren’s argument asserts that we consider freedom of movement within a politically delineated territory to be a significant democratic right.[4] Based on this, he argues, there is no morally acceptable reason for why we should protect people’s right to move within a country but not across countries. Similarly, a state that would unilaterally decide to imprison its citizens – as Eastern Germany did and as North Korea still does – would draw international condemnation. The freedom to leave the country to see relatives, to travel, to settle elsewhere, or to seek economic and educational opportunities or freedom from repression were (and in North Korea still are) considered anathema to the project of creating a state supposed to serve as a ‘bulwark’ against the Western Cold War rival, the United States and affiliates. The irony following from the rightful condemnation of those imprisonment practices is that the view insistent on democratic sovereignty and thus on unilateral border control[5] might not imprison people directly but effectively does so by barring their opportunity to go anywhere. In a world of closed doors, the freedom of movement for some means decidedly less than the freedom of movement for others. A quick google search for ‘the most powerful passports in the worlds’ supplies ample evidence of who is considered to be a non-threatening guest beneficial for local economies and likely to return home and who will need to undergo arduous visa application processes just to go on vacation or visit relatives.[6] A cynic would point out that it is remarkable that the same people who were imprisoned by their own state not even 35 years ago are now in possession of “the most powerful passport in the world.”[7] By force of circumstance, Eastern Germans were upgraded and now hold what Carens calls “feudal birthright privileges”[8] with regard to freedom of movement. This is only one example of the political shifting of border regimes, their effects of in- and exclusion, and it points to the absurdity of complaining about states imprisoning their citizenry while simultaneously not only shutting the door but multiplying the barricades. In a scenario alluded to in Hannah Arendt’s short text “We Refugees,” the condemnation of Hitler Germany’s practices of stripping Jewish people and groups deemed undesirable by the Nazi regime of their rights without at the same time offering those people entry rights leaves the stateless in a limbo and questions other countries’ allegiance to the very rights they claim to hold dear.[9]

The debate on the feudal privileges bestowed on people by birth and the granting of a more or less ‘prestigious’ citizenship leads me back to the etymological origins of sovereignty. If sovereignty refers to supreme power, this seems to neatly align with notions of a feudal order. The rights of wealthy countries to control and police their borders to the detriment of thousands of people looking for refuge, a better life, their family members who came before them, or simply the possibility to be in a different place functions only if justified inwardly, that is towards ‘their’ citizens. This, then, assumes that those citizens’ interests override all the interests by moving people just enumerated. Seyla Benhabib proposes to move away from an understanding of sovereignty that is virtually blind to the needs and rights of and the duties towards those who happen to not be included into the upper echelons of ‘desirable citizenship.’[10] For her, the solution lies in the recognition of interdependence and a reckoning with wealthy countries’ contribution to crises elsewhere.[11]

This argument seems to speak to a criticism that is often evoked when people criticize border regimes and point to the interdependence of those moving and those shutting doors. When we recognize that domestic political decisions often have ripple effects – whether intentional or unintentional is not of primary importance here – the argument goes, then no decision could ever be made inclusively because the communicative and logistical demands as well as the conflicting interests at hand render such a process impossible. Therefore, we have a right to assert some people’s preference primacy. Otherwise, this slippery slope would lead to the downfall of democracy altogether because democracy – allegedly – requires boundaries. In Ochoa Espejo’s and Walia’s books, however, the focus on interdependence might not be a threat but precisely embodies the promise in thinking about border politics. Recognizing the devastation wrought onto people caged in Texas and on entire regions via border militarization and the deliberate decision to let people drown[12] emphasizes the lethal consequences of the decision to exclude at all costs. Claiming, then, that it is not clear whether people will be affected by legislative decisions made in Brussels or Washington, D.C., is not defensible.

Another aspect of recognizing the interdependence of relative wealth on the one hand and poverty on the other, of social democracy on the one hand and the lack of even basic provisions on the other is what Walia emphasizes when she talks about “the crises of forced dispossession, deprivation, and displacement.”[13] For her, it is imperative to divorce our thinking from the notion that Western wealth is somehow unconnected to poverty elsewhere and that the feudalism of rights of movement is just an accident, a random shuffling of cards that ‘happen’ to align most favorably for those in industrialized, wealthy economies. This connection becomes especially obvious when thinking about the future of displacement through climate catastrophes and the fact that a small number of countries causes a vast percentage of carbon dioxide emissions.[14] If interdependence replaces sovereignty as a framework for conceptualizing political decision-making, responsibility and responsiveness, migration can be understood as a complex phenomenon with various causes and consequences demanding not only what Walia criticizes to be empty, humanitarian[15] declarations but transformative responses. For her, borders do not cause crises because “mass migration is the outcome of the actual crises of capitalism, conquest, and climate change.”[16]

Thinking about sovereignty as the ability to preserve something the German president of the European Commission has called “Our European Way of Life”[17] entrenches the structural power of the wealthy (and – often – white) even further. The question whether the protection of such a way of life is desirable or morally defensible for a world facing interconnected catastrophes and from the perspective of countries whose wealth is dependent on the exclusion and exploitation of others cannot be answered affirmatively unless one believes that ‘sovereignty’ in a global context really means superiority: the protection of ‘the way of life’ for some is worth the misery and death of others. I do not share this belief. Democratic rights and freedoms become void and hollow, as Seyla Benhabib pointed out, when they are asserted in defense of abuse.[18] In the interest of preserving democracy, then, we should work towards a view of sovereignty that allows for a reconceptualization of responsibility, emphasizes interdependence, and upholds a commitment to freedom of movement.

Ochoa Espejo’s account challenges us to imagine a democratic politics that is not anchored in a nation but in regions within potentially overlapping jurisdictions. Because it is always complicated to go beyond the framework of national politics and beyond the realm of international organizations, treaties, and inter-state federations such as the European Union, her account helps us to literalize what Arash Abizadeh called “the whole point of democracy: that the very people over whom political power is exercised should be the same people who have a say over how that power is exercised over them.”[19] This entails a commitment to continuously redefine the respective decision-making body or demos. It would also allow for a decision-making process that could hopefully move beyond whether or not to let people enter a country and towards assessing why people are leaving, what they are looking for, what would help them and how they could be part of the new community. Insistence on sovereignty on questions of immigration signals a refusal to engage with a fact of human life – migration – and the various political, economic, and climatic factors necessitating movement. Such an insistence continues to cause massive human suffering justified via a hierarchy of needs: Europeans’ and North Americans’ desire to avoid sharing resources and be confronted with difference ranks higher than migrants’ needs to find safety and opportunity. Endorsing such a ranking perpetuates many of the very phenomena causing people to flee and to migrate.

Works Cited


“Sovereignty”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 18 Nov. 2020, https://www.britannica.com/topic/sovereignty. Accessed 1 April 2021.

“Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 12 Aug. 2020, https://www.ucsusa.org/resources/each-countrys-share-co2-emissions.

Abizadeh, Arash. “Do Prosperous Democracies Have A Right To Keep Out Desperate Foreigners?” The Critique, 6 Jan. 2016, https://www.thecritique.com/articles/do-prosperous-democracies-have-a-right-to-keep-out-desperate-foreigners-2/.

Arendt, Hannah. “We Refugees” In The Jewish Writings. Ed. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman, New York: Schocken Books, 2007.

Benhabib, Seyla. “The End of the 1951 Refugee Convention? Dilemmas of Sovereignty, Territoriality, and Human Rights.” Jus Cogens 2020, https://doi.org/10.1007/s42439-020-00022-1.

Carens, Joseph. The Ethics of Immigration. Oxford UP, 2013.

Espejo, Paulina Ochoa. On Borders: Territories, Legitimacy, and the Rights of Place. Oxford UP, 2020.

Gross, Daniel A. “The U.S. Government Turned Away Thousands of Jewish Refugess, Fearing That They Were Nazi Spies.” Smithsonian Magazine, 18 Nov. 2015, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/us-government-turned-away-thousands-jewish-refugees-fearing-they-were-nazi-spies-180957324/.

Matthews, Lyndsey. “Germany Now Has the Most Powerful Passport in the World.” AFAR, 12 Jan. 2021, https://www.afar.com/magazine/worlds-most-powerful-passports.

Matz-Lück, Nele. “Seenotrettung als völkerrechtliche Pflicht: Aktuelle Herausforderungen der Massmigrationsbewegungen über das Mittelmeer.“ Verfassungsblog, 18 Aug. 2018, https://verfassungsblog.de/seenotrettung-als-voelkerrechtliche-pflicht-aktuelle-herausforderungen-der-massenmigrationsbewegungen-ueber-das-mittelmeer/.

Walia, Harsha. Border and Rule. Haymarket, 2021.


[1] See Abizadeh 2016; Carens 2013; Benhabib 2020.

[2] “Sovereignty“ 2020.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Carens 2013, 239.

[5] I consider the joint European border regime to fall under the category of ‘unilateral’ border policing since the people who are excluded are not part of decision-making procedures.

[6] Matthews 2021.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Carens 2013, 226.

[9] The SS St. Louis, for example, a ship carrying hundreds of Jewish refugees, was denied entry, and forced to return to Europe where many of its passengers died in the Holocaust. Despite the knowledge about the persecution of Jewish people under the Nazis, the US government did not grant people asylum. This and other episodes were reasons for the legal codification of a right to asylum via the UN after war (Gross 2015).

[10] Benhabib 2020, 21.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Maritime law remains ambivalent on some aspects of sea rescue but asserts that all ships which have been alerted to distress at sea and are in the vicinity have a duty to save people from drowning without regard to their origin, see Matz-Lück 2018.

[13] Walia 2021, 2.

[14] “Each Country’s Share of CO2 Emissions” 2020.

[15] While I fully agree with the view that a disconnected logic of human rights is unlikely to reveal anything about the causes of migration and the question of responsibility for rampant inequalities, even just mere attention to human rights and people’s dignity seems to be a significant improvement given the abuse and disregard for human life we witness daily.

[16] Walia 2021, 1.

[17] Ibid., 3.

[18] Benhabib 2020, 22.

[19] Abizadeh 2016.

Fonda Shen