Contributing Lawyers


Cyndee Todgham Cherniak

United States

Susan Kohn Ross


Andrew Hudson

What is "Enlightened Sovereignty"?

In Davos on January 28, 2010, Canada's Prime Minister Harper used the term "enlightened sovereignty" in a speech. He stated:

“But ladies and gentlemen, in that brief parting of the veil, I saw world leadership at its best, a glimpse of a hopeful future — one where we act together for the good of all. The world we have been trying to build since 1945. The world we want for our children and grandchildren. It can be done if we act together. This is ‘enlightened sovereignty.’

“I believe our understanding in Washington allowed us to avoid the cataclysm that otherwise really would have come to pass. But an agreement to act is just a start. It is acting on the agreement that matters.

“So, when the G-20 resumes in Toronto, the discussion should be less about new agreements than accountability for existing ones. Less about lofty promises than real results. Less about narrow self-interest in sovereignty’s name, than an expanded view of mutual-interest in which there is room for all to grow and prosper. Enlightened sovereignty, then, the natural extension of enlightened self-interest."

He went on to state:

“We should know from the terrible experience with trade in the 1930s that strategies that make it more difficult for somebody to do business inevitably make it more difficult for everybody to do business. So I say, notions rooted in a narrow view of sovereignty and national self-interest must be reconsidered.

We cannot do business as though for one to have more, another must have less. It is not true. It is not just. And therefore it cannot be the path we take.

Our ambition — the necessary condition for success as the G-20 moves forward —must be a shared belief that the rising tide of recovery must lift all boats, not just some.

This is the exercise of sovereignty at its most enlightened. And I don’t believe, by the way, that this is all about the structure of global institutions. It is more a matter of attitude." [Emphasis added]

Is "enlightened sovereignty" a new term coined by Mr. Harper? I cannot find it in a regular dictionary or a dictionary of international law or foreign policy.

It appears to be a passive/assertive term. The term "sovereignty" is a noun meaning "supremacy of authority or rule as exercised by a sovereign, a nation or state" and "the exclusive right to have complete control over an area of governance, people, or oneself". Some synonyms include "power", "authority" "divine".

According to, there are seven types of sovereignty:

1) popular;

2) political;

3) legal;

4) dejure;

5) defacto;

6) titular; and

7) real.

In addition, there is "external sovereignty", which:

"describes the rights of the state to define its interests. A state is responsible for setting its objectives and goals and then the means or methods for achievement of these goals. None of the other nations have the right to interfere in these goals and the means to achieve them."

Matching the passive verb "enlightened" is interesting. The term "enlightened" is associated with intellectual, civilized and spiritual pursuits. The choice by Mr. Harper of this word may stem from an influential essay by Immanuel Kant "Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?". A view of that essay is that "enlightenment" is a set of values".

It is possible that "enlightened sovereignty" requires a willingness to cede some power that one has in order to join together to meet common recognized values. For example, PM Harper may have been talking to provincial premiers in the context of the Canada-EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement and suggested that while the Canadian Constitution may grant provinces certain legal and political sovereignty relating to certain issues (e.g. the environment), they must recognize Canadian values and not assert their powers individually in order to present a harmonized to which solution that all can agree. This may be a phrase that he then, a week later, raised on the international stage.

In Davos at the World Economic Forum, PM Harper said "It can be done if we act together", "It is acting on the agreement that matters", "Less about narrow self-interest in sovereignty’s name", "must be a shared belief that the rising tide of recovery must lift all boats, not just some". The most significant statement is:

We cannot do business as though for one to have more, another must have less. It is not true. It is not just. And therefore it cannot be the path we take.

It appears that "enlightened sovereignty" may require governments to tune out the voices of lobbying groups, domestic industries and Gos. If elected leaders are being asked to consider the needs of foreign populations over the needs of the electorate, the concept in not likely to gain traction in the most powerful nations.

"Enlightened sovereignty" is wishful thinking. We all wish that all the peoples of the world could join hands in friendship, cooperation and harmony for common goals.  But, unfortunately, we should not expect a New Age of Enlightened Soverignty anytime soon.  But, still a nice & new Canadian phrase.

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