Sovereign Inequality and the Politics of Membership in the International System


Subject Matter

This study is motivated by two observations about political membership in the international system. First, membership is selective since only some actors are recognized as sovereign members of the international club. The UN, for example, does not represent all political groups which wish to have an independent voice. Second, the benefits of membership are not distributed equally. Despite the idea of "sovereign equality" examples such as the special powers of the UN Security Council illustrate that the international system does institutionalize sovereign inequalities. These two observations have thus far received scant attention, but they raise questions fundamental to any political community. Who belongs? Who decides who belongs? What are the consequences of these decisions for the excluded and the included?

In this study I make three general arguments about international membership. First, members monopolize goods for themselves by excluding non-members, and this selective exclusion produces an inequality between insiders and outsiders. Second, because the distribution of membership produces inequalities, strategic control over membership is a valuable tool of international governance. Great powers control entry into the club of sovereigns and can use this leverage as a carrot-and-stick device to extract concessions from prospective members. Third, membership decisions affect the design of the system's institutions. There is a fundamental tension between the pressure for membership clubs to be inclusive and their goal of being exclusive. Paradoxically, as the international system becomes more inclusive, pressure to create new exclusive institutions within the system increases and leads to the proliferation of clubs within the club of sovereigns. Throughout the study I use an examination of the development of modern diplomatic practices to shed light on the dynamics of membership. Diplomacy provides the practices through which the abstract idea of membership takes empirical form.

Relationship to the Research Unit’s Program

The TKI research program identifies the selective implementation of sovereign rights and privileges as an important consequence of the growth of global governance institutions. My project complements this insight by tracing the historic roots of sovereign inequality and by developing a theoretical explanation for why systemic and institutional membership rights become more unevenly distributed over time.

Main content

Selected Publications

Viola, Lora A. (2008). System Membership and the Institutionalization of Sovereign Inequality. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the ISA's 49th Annual Convention, "Bridging Mulitple Divides," 26 03 2008,San Francisco, CA.