What is Suzerainty?

The territory of Moldavia, once a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, is now split between Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.
The territory of Moldavia, once a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, is now split between Romania, Moldova, and Ukraine.

Suzerainty means ‘an upper sovereign’. The difference between suzerainty and sovereignty is that the tributary state or person has all the benefits of independence and self-rule albeit limited to some extent. One nation or state has an upper sovereignty (suzerain) over the other (tributary state). In numerous historical empires, suzerainty existed whereby one empire was more influential and powerful than the weaker one while the latter enjoyed self-rule. However, today’s international laws do not explicitly reconcile with the idea of suzerainty since a state can only be sovereign or not sovereign.

How Does a Suzerainty Function?

A suzerainty is a situation in which one powerful state, region, or people are in control of the foreign policy of a tributary vassal state. This extends to matters to do with international relations. The subservient state or nation enjoys self-rule and independence only limited to some degree. The suzerain state enjoys special benefits from the subservient nation such as freedom from tariffs, payment of taxes to the suzerain, and the stationing of military troops in the other country’s land. In return, the more powerful state protects the tributary state militarily.

Historical Examples of Suzerainty

Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman empire comprised of several vassal states over which there was no direct control. Such states included Wallachia, Moldavia, Upper Hungary, Republic of Ragusa, and Serbian Despotate.

Imperial China

During the Manchu Qing dynasty, the emperor considered himself the ruler of the world and the head of all diplomatic relations in East Asia. Political power was distributed uniformly across all entities with centralized authority from the Emperor of China. The empire would trade with tributary states based on the theory of tributary relations. The emperor acquired commodities from the tributary states with the idea that he would reward the states with gifts or another form of kindness of equal value.

Ancient Israel and Near East

During the monarchical periods of Ancient Israel, covenants and treaties were made between Israel and Near East nations. Egyptians, Hittites, and Assyrians formed the tributary states of Israel’s tribal kingdoms between 1200–600 BCE.

Modern Suzerains

Today, suzerainty is de facto as opposed to de jure. De facto means that it is the practical situation on the ground, the reality of the moment. De jure is what should be according to law and or perceived rights. Examples of suzerains today include:

• The US over Puerto Rico, Micronesia, and Tonga

• Denmark over Greenland

• Tanzania over Zanzibar

• Greece over the Holy Mount

• North Korea and South Korea

• Argentina over the Falklands

• Russia over Kalmykia

• Britain over Gibraltar, the Channel Islands, and Mann

• The US over Hawaii

• France over Alsace-Lorraine

Suzerains and their subservient states are created by different forces, political or otherwise. However, sovereign and suzerain are not exclusive. A Suzerain state can belong exclusively to the subservient state but not the other way. For example, the city of St. Petersburg in Russia belongs to Russia as much as Kalmykia. While in the Denmark case, Greenland is only loosely associated with Denmark and is not considered as properly a part of Denmark.


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