Sovereignty is the bedrock of international relations. The concept lays out basic rules for how countries are allowed to interact with one another. In principle, it means countries get to control what happens inside their borders and can’t interfere in what happens elsewhere. This protects countries from being invaded over internal matters.

But the concept of sovereignty doesn’t play out perfectly in reality. There are limits to the control a country can exercise over what happens inside its borders. In the case of grievous human rights abuses like genocide, many countries argue breaches of sovereignty should be allowed on humanitarian grounds. Meanwhile, dozens of countries around the globe choose to give up a degree of sovereignty to join organizations like the European Union and the World Trade Organization. 

Today, as the world grows increasingly interconnected, what constitutes a violation of sovereignty is up for interpretation—and world leaders have to decide how to tackle problems like climate change and terrorism that know no borders. 

In this module, we will

  • explore how nationalism can unite people—but also divide them, to destructive ends; 
  • see how countries that respect one another’s independence are the building blocks of our modern international system and learn what it takes for groups of people to form a new country; 
  • evaluate why countries as different as Poland and Germany would give up some sovereignty to join the European Union;
  • look at whether breaching a country’s sovereignty is justifiable to protect human rights, focusing on the NATO-led intervention in Libya in 2011;
  • explore reasons why some countries breach each other’s sovereignty for non-humanitarian reasons and the policy options governments have to respond to such actions; and
  • learn more about the fires raging in the Amazon and the resulting debate over whether the traditional understanding of sovereignty requires an update in an era when local challenges carry global implications.
Referenced Module