Performative Diplomacy: Constructing Sovereignty at the Peace of Utrecht

Jonah Stuart Brundage, University of Michigan

Theorists of sovereignty have often stressed its externally conferred dimension: the idea that state sovereignty necessarily entails recognition by other sovereign states. What, then, are the conditions under which such recognition is achieved in the first place? This paper contributes toward an answer by analyzing diplomats as social agents that make performative claims to sovereignty. Juridically, accredited diplomats are the external representatives of already existing sovereigns. Sociologically, however, I argue that diplomats actually help to bring sovereignty into being through their very claim to represent it. In particular, I focus on diplomats’ performative work at an early historical juncture in the development of territorially exclusive sovereignty as such, a moment in which it was still under construction as a legal principle: the Peace of Utrecht of 1713. I compare a series of successful and unsuccessful claims to sovereignty at the Utrecht peace congress, explaining diplomats’ variable success in terms of the varying social and cultural structures in which they were embedded. Embodying the manners and etiquette of a courtier was the critical condition for successful claims to sovereignty at Utrecht, because eighteenth-century European polities were themselves a social preserve of the courtly aristocracy.

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 Presented in Session 139. Power and Normativity, Part 2: Sovereignty, Materiality, Empire