Publication Date

Winter 2019


In his inaugural U.N. General Assembly address, President Donald Trump mentioned the words ‘sovereign’ or ‘sovereignty’ 21 times. This article offers an analysis of the president’s invocation of the concept of sovereignty and the political effects of such an appropriation. While one must take caution to avoid over-analyzing a presidential speech or ascribe meaning where none exists, there may be a greater risk in failing to properly analyze Trump’s remarks or dismissing them as simply a reflection of an inconsistent, contradictory or uninformed understanding of the principle of sovereignty. As a result, Part I of this article offers a brief overview of the principle of sovereignty rooted in the traditional legal definition of sovereignty in international law. In addition, it sets out an expanded interdisciplinary definition of sovereignty that more adequately reflects the relationship between sovereignty, power, and violence. In Part II of this article, Trump’s 21 invocations of the principle of sovereignty are typologized into four categories, namely, (i) the state as sovereign, (ii) the people as sovereign, (iii) the rogue as sovereign, and (iv) the revolution as sovereign. Adopting a broader definition of sovereign power, which recognizes sovereignty as a “tentative and always emergent form of authority grounded in violence,” Trump’s invocation of sovereignty during his UN speech exposes a more complex construction of sovereignty.

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