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Author ORCID Identifier


Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program

Political Science

Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Andrew F. March

Second Advisor

Adam Sitze

Third Advisor

Helen M. Kinsella

Subject Categories

International Relations | Political Theory


I focus on the work of civil society actors, scholars, and diplomats from the Global South, in particular the South Sudanese anthropologist and diplomat Francis Deng, and the ways in which they attempt to remake sovereignty through institutions. Using sovereignty-as-responsibility and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) as problem spaces, I recover an alternate vision of sovereignty and the community of states that emerged in response to defenses of non-intervention by postcolonial state actors. Focusing on sovereignty allows these agents to simultaneously critique and innovate that which is “above” (the international state system) and that which is “below” (the sovereign state). Further, I demonstrate how a deterministic view of structure in postcolonial theory misperceives the work of civil society agents who attempt to remake international structures. In the context of atrocities and mass displacement in the postcolonial world, sovereignty is a particularly fraught concept. State sovereignty – as theory, structure, and law – was developed through its assumed absence outside of Europe and continues to impose colonial frameworks on a (temporally) postcolonial world. While postcolonial theory is (rightly) skeptical of the history of sovereignty, many theorists embrace the sovereign equality of states out of frustration with Western interventionism. My dissertation offers a different perspective on the problem of sovereignty by looking instead at how political agency is conceptualized in these debates. I ask, “How do critiques and reformulations of sovereignty empower agents to challenge structures of domination in the postcolonial world?” I draw on constructivist IR theory and comparative political theory to frame the question of African agency in global politics, rejecting both liberal humanitarian models of how norms spread, as well as postcolonial arguments about neoimperial structural forces in global politics. One of the challenges of working in comparative theory is to center non-Western voices without isolating them into a self-referential dialogue; in essence, to avoid making “Western” and “non-Western” theory (both IR theory and political theory) non-intersecting topics. Thus, in my project I draw on African debates about sovereignty not to define an “African” approach but to frame political interventions by African intellectuals and diplomats. Francis Deng, in particular, is a figure both deeply rooted in Southern Sudanese Dinka culture and global institutions: to render him simply cosmopolitan or sui generis would be to truncate the complex politics and thought which drove his political innovations.


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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.