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What Are Inherent Powers?

By Michael Swartz
Updated May 23, 2024
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Inherent powers are those powers and rights that a nation holds unto itself according to its sovereignty. These powers are directly related to a nation’s independence, and speak both to the country’s power to act against other nations as well as to act against its own core of citizens. Most of the time, these powers are set out — often with a great deal of specificity — in the formative documents of a country as it is being created. This was the case, for instance, with the United States when it declared is independence from Great Britain, as well as in the separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. In other instances the powers go more or less unspoken, as is often true of military or governmental dictatorships to include nations like North Korea. How a nation uses its rights and whether the broader citizenry can question and challenge the powers’ application tends to vary a lot from place to place.

Basic Concept and How the Power Arises

Almost all countries that identify as independent political actors, which is to say that they aren’t subject to governmental actions of some other country, as is the case with a colony, have a certain number of powers it can execute in both the international and domestic arenas. These powers are normally referred to as “inherent” because they are instated in the nation itself, and they can be thought of as deriving from the very formation of the country. Governments can act simply because they can, because they have certain powers; sometimes these powers involve activating the military, or levying taxes, or possessing land. Sometimes they’re only accessible through certain means, like presidential order or vote or parliament. In all cases, though, they tend to arise from the simple fact of the state’s independence as a world actor.

Limitations and Parameters

In almost all cases the powers are limited, however. Countries usually institute certain checks on their own powers, or may delegate certain issues or provisions to individual states or territories. Sometimes the terms of these limitations are fixed, as is the case with most nations that have foundational documents or constitutions. Using the Constitution of the United States as an example, the government that was created was given inherent rights in some matters but other rights were limited to the states or the people as express rights. The men who wrote it believed that once the nation became sovereign and was recognized as such by other nations, the United States would have the same rights as other peer nations. This included commerce and warfare.

Determining the Scope

Not all powers are so transparently conveyed, however, or so precisely defined, and in some places definitions and parameters are more fluid and prone to shifting. For instance, a totalitarian state, such as North Korea, may claim the right to muzzle free speech as one of its inherent powers. Likewise, nations with a state religion, such as Saudi Arabia, claim inherent power derived through their belief in a higher spiritual authority. In most Western nations, a compact with the people defines limits to inherent government power but those limits can be tested in times of emergency.

Blurred Lines of Invocation

Even in circumstances when the powers and rights inherent to a nation seem fixed and clear, how those powers are actually applied can raise a number of important questions can expose certain “gray areas.”

In the United States, for example, Constitutional scholars argue over whether US President Abraham Lincoln misused and extended inherent powers in conducting the American Civil War. Among other things, Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus for a time during the hostilities. Eventually, Congress retroactively caught up with him and codified his actions as emergency measures. In more modern times, US President George W. Bush was questioned on whether he had overstepped the boundaries of the executive branch by holding US citizens as enemy combatants without trial. His argument was that Congress gave him broad powers on how to prosecute the War on Terror in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on American soil.

Application to Intergovernmental Compacts

The definition can also become imprecise in the context of intergovernmental compacts. While the United Nations (UN) is one example of an entity that is comprised through the grace of its sovereign and independent member states, the organization conducts some of its affairs without seeking the permission of all members. This normally occurs either through the Security Council or UN-created agencies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO).

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