Although sovereignty may figure as an abstract concept with definable meaning in legal and political scholarship, in the real world of states and peoples it is a symbol and slogan no less powerful for its having indistinct and highly variable meaning. "Sovereigntyism" as a subjective phenomenon is a more important factor in international relations than sovereignty as an objective fact. Concern about sovereignty has pervaded America's policy with respect to international institutions from the earliest days to the present. While it has rarely prevented the joining of organizations, it has always affected American contributions to their design and the style of participation in their functioning. The fear that organizational involvements might cut more deeply into national autonomy than originally intended or agreed has never been far beneath the surface of American politics.
American "sovereigntyism" was originally linked with isolationism, which was based upon the fact that the new state was substantially isolated from the European cockpit of world affairs; it was distant, separate, and different. Moreover, it was weak and vulnerable to exploitation in any intimate association with European powers. Fixation on sovereignty reflected the conviction that prudence required the fledgling state to go its own way, capitalizing upon its peculiar situation to maintain political distance between itself and the leading states of the day. Isolationist doctrine related to political and military embroilments, not to economic and commercial ties, and for that reason it did not significantly inhibit American participation in the public international unions that began to emerge in the nineteenth century.
It was when international organization turned political, with the formation of the League of Nations, that jealous regard for sovereignty, nurtured in the era of isolationism, came to the fore as an impediment to American involvement. President Wilson's leading contribution to the formulation of the covenant made the league largely an American enterprise, but it was nevertheless profoundly un-American in certain fundamental respects. The league promised or threatened to involve the United States deeply and systematically in the political and security problems of a world that was still fundamentally Europe-centered. The covenant prescribed commitments that seemed to restrict America's freedom to keep its distance, to stand aside. By this time the United States had lost its isolation and the cogency of much of the rationale for isolationism had faded. However, Americans continued to value the freedom to decide, unilaterally and ad hoc, whether, when, and how to become involved in the quarrels of other states. The right to be unpredictable constituted a major part of the substance of the American idea of sovereignty, and membership in the league was regarded as involving the drastic curtailment of that right.
Wilson lost his battle for American affiliation with the league not to nineteenth-century isolationists who believed that their country was safely encapsulated by the huge continent it had ruthlessly conquered and now inhabited without challenge but to proponents of the idea that the United States should continue its recently espoused auxiliary role in world affairs, the central feature of which was untrammeled discretion concerning engagement and disengagement. Wilson's successor, Warren G. Harding, expressed this idea succinctly: "If our people are ever to decide upon war they will choose to decide according to our own national conscience at the time and in the constitutional manner without advance commitment, or the advice and consent of any other power." When the league actually dealt with political and military crises, the United States was sometimes willing and eager to take an active role, but it was never willing to accept an obligation to do so.
Sovereignty, interpreted as the retention of a free hand, continues to have a major impact upon American policy regarding international organization. World War II convinced most Americans that the advance and well-understood commitment of the United States to throw its weight onto the scales was essential to the preservation of world peace, and the United States made the shift from the policy of the free hand to the policy of commitment that it had rejected when Wilson proposed it. Nevertheless the urge to keep options open has not been displaced by recognition of the value of clear and credible commitments. The strength of that urge was demonstrated in American insistence upon having the power to veto substantive decisions in the UN Security Council. It could also be observed in the careful hedging of obligations under the various bilateral and multilateral security treaties concluded during the Cold War. The United States has wanted to put the world on notice as to its future strategy while retaining the possibility of deciding its policy ad hoc. It has wanted to enjoy the benefits of being committed without paying the price of losing the national freedom to choose its course of action.