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Could the sovereignty of nation-states be eroding due to the growing power of international institutions?

Nation-states are officially sovereign, and that remains true despite the proliferation of international institutions. The reality of the world, however, is that no one nation is entirely independent from others, therefore limits to sovereignty are a natural occurrence. International institutions put some rule-based limitations on sovereignty, but they cannot bind a nation to them forever, meaning that sovereignty is still in the hands of the state.

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Well, first, it is an accepted fact that nations, or nation-states, are the highest sovereign power in the world. In short, this means that there is no governing body or authority above them. The United Nations, for example, is a voluntary organization. It does not have the power to tell states what they can and cannot do.

International regimes and institutions may be voluntary, but in order to join them, a nation does give up some of its sovereignty. If you think of NATO for example, as a bloc of nations with a political and military agenda, belonging to that organization means a nation has committed to keeping up to a standard of military power and updated technology. It may also mean sharing intelligence with allies in the group. Member-nations in the group must then make their own domestic policy follow those agreements. So, for example, one nation in the group is no longer free to decide to change its military budget in a way that would affect that commitment without alienating its allies.

Other organizations, such as the WTO (World Trade Organization), are financial and trade institutions. They are also voluntary, but the organization does have some power of enforcement. For example, a large company can take a foreign government to court within that institution if it violates a contract developed within the organization. This means that one government might sign a contract with a company based elsewhere in the world. If that government changes at the next democratic election, the new government still must follow through with the contract or be sued for the violation. The new government is limited in its freedom to make decisions by such contracts.

Does this impact a nation's sovereignty? In a simple way, yes. However, there are two other issues involved that make the answer a "no" as well, and these arguments are perhaps stronger.

First, as these organizations are voluntary, there is no police force that can stop a nation from changing its mind and violating the rules—or simply leaving—an organization or institution. The United States, for example, violated the rules of the UN in taking military action in Iraq in 2003 without the approval of other key members. This was considered to be "unilateral action." In essence, the US struck out on its own even though there was an agreement after WWII that nations would not unilaterally attack others. However, other than some damage to its reputation, there were no meaningful consequences for the US.

The second factor is the reality of international relations, and the fact that not all countries are of equal power. Powerful nations hold a great deal of sway over the domestic policies of other nations, particularly if they are neighbours. Traditionally, Syria has had a great deal of influence in the politics of Lebanon, its weaker neighbor. Mexico is bound to consult and listen to the Unites States in making many political decisions.

These are not official rules, and they do not take place within an international institution. They happen because of the reality of the situation. If a nation is not powerful, it is unwise for it to make its powerful neighbors unhappy; conversely, it is a good idea to make them happy for the protection they might offer later on. This is a limit on sovereignty.

What does that mean? It means that with or without international institutions, the reality of the world puts limits on a nation's sovereignty already. Sometimes it's because there are more powerful nations around, sometimes it's because the loss of reputation is too great a risk.

Ultimately, nation-states are the highest form of sovereignty in the world. The reality of international relations is that no matter what organizations we form, basic dynamics of power and cooperation put limits on that sovereignty from time to time. International institutions are meant to create cooperation, interdependence, and communication, all of which can make war less likely. They generally do not, however, rob a nation of its sovereignty any more than the realities of international relations already do.

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