Nations and States
The terms nation, state, nation-state and country are commonly used interchangeably, although in the social sciences a distinction is often made between these terms.
A state or country is an area organized into a political unit with a government that has control over internal and foreign affairs.
A state occupies a specific territory (region) on the earth's surface that contains a population of citizens.
The modern international concept of state sovereignty is commonly referred to as the Westphalia System, which is named after a series of treaties signed in the Westphalia area of Germany in 1648 that ended the Thirty-Years War. The older, fragmented, fluid collection of small kingdoms, city-states, principalities and empires was gradually replaced by the more-stable collection of sovereign states that we know today. This system is based around three fundamental concepts:
- States have sovereignty, or exclusive control over the territory of the state
- States are equal in international relations and have the power to conduct diplomacy with other sovereign states
- States have the right to be free of interference from other states. In practice, the power relationships between states can often be complex, with larger, wealthier country (notably former colonial rulers) retaining great influence on the governance of a smaller, less affluent country.
While Westphalia is commonly considered to be the beginning of what we now think of as soveriegn states, states controlled by kings and dynasties persisted in Europe for another two centuries until they began to be supplanted by nation-states after the French Revolution of the early 19th century. The contemporary global system of nation-states remained incomplete until the wave of decolonization after the Second World War.
Nations and Nation-States
In contrast to the concept of the state, a nation is a community of people with a common identity.
Identity is psychological orientation of the self in regard to something (as a person or group) with a resulting feeling of close emotional association. People often define who they are (their identity) by places, such as where they were born, where they go to school, where their ancestors were from, etc. Group identity affects loyalty and alliances in interpersonal, economic and political activities.
National identity unifies the citizens of a state into a nation of citizens loyal to a central government rather than to factions competing for power.
When the people within a territory have a common identity as citizens of a sovereign state, that is referred to as a nation-state.
The government of a nation-state strives for legitimacy where the citizens regard the government as the rightful (legitimate) rulers of the nation-state and accept the authority of that government.
Contemporary nation-states are almost always formed with violence as a new national identity is formed, and old rulers and networks of power fight to avoid being replaced by new networks of power. Without broad-based legitimacy, a government must either maintain power through the threat of violence, or pass through the turmoil of a power struggle between competing factions.
- The United States had a Revolutionary war to separate itself from England, and fought it's bloodiest war (The Civil War) between its own citizens over whether to remain a single country
- Both Germany and Italy were violently cobbled together in the 19th century from a patchwork of smaller states
- The contemporary boundaries of the German nation-state were determined by the two world wars in the 20th century.
One source of identity that commonly unifies a nation is ethnicity: social bonds formed by a common history, religion, and/or set of customs and traditions.
Ethnic identities are commonly formed over extended periods of time by generations of people who live in specific, contiguous regions, although the exact borders of those regions can be fluid, ambiguous and contested.
However, ethnic regions are often not completely monolithic and people with different ethnic identities often live peacefully side-by-side in mixed communities. But ethnic identity and loyalty can turn into a catalyst for conflict, especially in times of scarcity and or when state governments lose their legitimacy and people retreat into ethnic alliances for survival.
In addition, the boundaries of ethnic regions may or may not align cleanly with the boundaries of states. For example:
- A country like Denmark has a unified identity because the state boundaries contains most (but not all) people that identify as having a Danish ethnicity
- In contrast, the Kurdish Nation is spread across multiple states, including Turkey, Iraq and Syria. This has been a source of significant conflict as many Kurds aspire to separate from their states and form an ethnically-unified Kurdish nation-state
- The Korean Nation is divided across two states (South Korea and North Korea) for geopolitical reasons
People from an ethnic group that live outside the region associated with their ethnic group are called a diaspora.
Governments will occasionally engage in irredentism, using the presence of a minority of people that identify with that state but live in another state as a pretext for annexing that state. This occurred with German annexation of Austria and Poland during the World War II, and is more recently with Russian attempts to restore control over Ukraine in the 2010s.
The map below shows approximate boundaries for a variety of ethnic groups around the world. Regions are rarely ethnically homogenous and often overlap. Minority ethnic groups within larger states often aspire to have their own state, and the areas where these groups are concentrated become contested spaces. The map is the GeoEPR data set from the Center for Comparative and International Studies, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, Zürich.
Contemporary nation-states have been formed through a variety of processes.
- Historical Succession: The territorial roots of many contemporary nation-states are ancient and associated with governance that long precedes the era of the nation-state. Examples include China and India
- Conquest and Colonization: The contemporary borders of many countries were often drawn by colonial powers and persist even after those countries attain independence from their former colonial rulers. These borders often reflected the needs of the colonial rulers rather than social divisions of the residents, and that misfit is at the root of many contemporary territorial conflicts and power struggles. Examples include many of the countries in Africa and Latin America
- Integration and Unification: Many countries were formed by the unification of smaller kingdoms and city-states. This was especially common in Europe, notably Germany and Italy
- Annexation: Nation-states can annex adjacent territories by mutual consent or by force, although these annexations are often not recognized as legitimate by the broader international community. Contemporary examples include the annexation of the West Bank by Israel (1948), Tibet by China (1951), Western Sahara by Morocco (1975), and Crimea by Russia (2014)
- Disintegration and Failed States: New countries are formed when existing governments dissolve in conflict and civil war. Israel was formed as part of a longstanding Zionist movement as the British Mandate over Palestine disintegrated in the wake of the Second World War. Slovakia and the Czech Republic was formed from the dissolution of Czechoslovakia after the demise of the Soviet Union
- Decolonization and Revolution: Colonies can expel colonial rulers and become independent, sovreign nations. The United States is a notable example, although much of the territory of the USA was also acquired through annexation (the Lousiana Purchase) and conquest (lands occupied by aboriginal inhabitants)
Who Determines What is a Legitimate Nation-State?
There is no world governing body that can make a universally accepted declaration of whether a nation-state is legitimate. While large, established countries like the United States or Russia are almost universally recognized as nation-states, contested regions like Palestine or Taiwan are not recognized by some countries.
One common definition of a country is based on a treaty signed by 16 states at the International Conference of American States in Montevideo, Uruguay on December 26, 1933. The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States specifies that, "The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications:
- A permanent population
- A defined territory
- A government, and
- The capacity to enter into relations with the other states"
The institution that comes closest to being a world governing body is the United Nations, which was formed in 1945 in the wake of the Second World War. Membership in the United Nations is granted if an applying country can get a 2/3 vote in the General Assembly. As of this writing, the UN has 193 Member States.
Rise of Nationalism
Nationalism is an intense national identity that exalts the nation above all others and places primary emphasis on promotion of its own interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.
Nationalism has been on the rise in many areas of the world since the economic turmoil of the 2008 global financial crisis. While election of Donald Trump is an especially prominent example in the USA, the rise of right-wing nationalists like Marine Le Pen in France, the Brexit of the UK from the EU, calls for the separation of Scotland from the UK, and the growing strenth of Vladimir Putin in Russia are other notable examples. Economist Nouriel Roubini (2014) echoes many commentators in attributing this nationalist trend to economic factors:
- Lackluster economic conditions in the US and Europe leave an opening for populist politicians to blame those ills on foreign trade and foreign workers
- The unequal distribution of the benefits of globalization to the benefit of the wealthy and the detriment of the majority
- The failure of the fall of communism to usher in democracy and economic growth in Russia and the former Soviet Block
- The framing by Asian politicians of territorial disputes and long-held historical grievances in terms of national pride and sovreignty
- Division in the Middle East along ethnic and religious lines in response to high youth unemployment and general economic desperation
Roubini draws parallels to a similar period of global economic difficulty and associated political upheaval during the 1930s that erupted into the Second World War.
Political boundaries are the lines that mark the physical extent of a state's territory. While these boundaries are determined by political (and sometimes military) conflicts and negotiations, they often fall along physical or social features:
- Deserts make strong boundaries because they usually have few inhabitants and are physically difficult to cross. The Sahara Desert separates North African countries like Algeria, Libya and Egypt from countries like Mali, Niger and Sudan on the south side of the desert.
- Mountains are also often difficult to cross and inhabit, and therefore make convenient ways to separate states
- Rivers, Lakes and Oceans have been both difficult to cross and offer useful resources to surrounding countries, and therefore make strong, clear boundaries. For example, the border separating Mexico and the United States is the Rio Grande River
- Geometric Boundaries are surveyed borders that have no clear underlying physical basis. These borders are often drawn relative to the latitude and longitude grid coordinate system that can be used to numerically divide states when no suitable physical boundaries exist. For example, much of the boundary between the United States and Canada was arbitrarily established at 49 degrees North in a 1846 treaty between England and the United States
- Ethnic Boundaries are drawn between populations of people that identify with different ethnic groups. Language and religion are often specific distinguishing characteristics between ethnic groups. Ethnic boundaries are, perhaps, the most problematic of these types of borders because they are easily subject to changes in population over time and violent conflict between ethnic groups. For example, the territory containing Kurdish people is spread across multiple states. Colonial borders in Africa were often intentionally drawn to split ethnic groups in a strategy of divide-and-conquer.
Types of State Governance
There are a wide variety of different types of government in countries around the world. Below is a list of characteristics that are mixed and matched in different states (Melina 2011):
- Communist: The government plans and controls the economy and a single -- often authoritarian -- party holds power; state controls are imposed with the elimination of private ownership of property or capital with the nominal objective of a classless society where all goods are equally shared by the people.
- Dictatorship: A single ruler or small oligarchy wields absolute power and are not restricted by a constitution or laws.
- Constitutional: A government by or operating under an authoritative document (constitution) that sets forth the system of fundamental laws and principles that determines the nature, functions and limits of that government.
- Democratic: Supreme power is retained by the people, but which is usually exercised indirectly through a system of representation and delegated authority periodically renewed.
- Federal: Sovereign power is formally divided -- usually by means of a constitution -- between a central authority and a number of constituent regions (states, colonies or provinces) so that each region retains some management of its internal affairs.
- Monarchical: Supreme power is lodged in the hands of a monarch (king, queen, prince, etc.) who reigns over a state or territory, usually for life and by hereditary right. Most contemporary monarchs are either symbolic (have no power) or have their power strongly limited by a constitution and an elected parliament
- Parliamentary: Members of an executive branch (the cabinet and its leader - a prime minister, premier or chancellor) are nominated to their positions by an elected legislature or parliament, and are directly responsible to it.
- Republican: A democratic system where representatives elected by the people (not the people themselves) control the government.
- Socialist: A government in which the means of planning, producing and distributing goods is controlled by a central government that nominally seeks a more just and equitable distribution of property and labor.
- Theocratic: A religion-based government where a Deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler and the Deity's laws are interpreted by ecclesiastical authorities (bishops, mullahs, etc.).
Below are some examples of different combinations of these characteristics from The CIA World Factbook:
- Communist State: China, Cuba
- Constitutional Monarchy: United Kingdom
- Federal Republic: United States
- Federation: Russia
- Parliamentary Democracy: Israel
- Parliamentary Monarchy: Spain
- Republic: South Korea
- Theocratic Republic: Iran, Afghanistan
Whether a government actually lives up to its name is often a matter of debate. For example, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a dictatorship, and is democratic in name only.
The Polity Project from the think-tank The Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) performs comparative, quantitative analysis of governments around the world. Their Polity Score classifies governments based on three characteristics:
- Selection of Leaders
- Democracy: Procedures exist to permit citizens to express preferences about policies and leaders
- Autocracy: Leaders are selected from and by a political elite
- Citizen Participation
- Democracy: Citizens have the ability to constrain the power of government
- Autocracy: Citizen participation is severely (often violently) restricted
- Checks and Balances
- Democracy: Some guarantee of civil liberties to all citizens in their daily lives and in political participation
- Autocracy: Leaders exercise power with limited accountability to a legislature or judiciary
Based on these characteristics, CSP classifies governments as Democracies, Autocracies, or Anocracies (a mix of Democracy and Autocracy). Based on their analysis, governments in the world have become more democratic over the past two centuries:
Political corruption is the use of "political power by the government leaders to extract and accumulate for private enrichment, and to use politically corrupt means to maintain their hold on power." The distinction is between personal benefit and public good, although the boundary between corruption and legitimate political activity is often contested.
Transparency International is an international, non-governmental organization that works to "stop corruption and promote transparency, accountability and integrity at all levels and across all sectors of society."
TI isues an annual Corruption Perceptions Index ranking countries based on an aggregation of assessments by experts and opinion surveys.