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:

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.


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:

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.

Nation-State Formation

Contemporary nation-states have been formed through a variety of processes.

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:

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:

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

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:

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):

Below are some examples of different combinations of these characteristics from The CIA World Factbook:

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:

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.