Global Policy Forum

"Nations" or "States" an Attempt at Definition


By Peter Ravn Rasmussen

July 20, 2001


What is a nation? The concept seems an ill-defined one. Indeed, to the layman's mind, the concept certainly implies a number of attributes that, to a more stringent definition, were better applied to that other, slightly less nebulous (but still far from exact) term, the state. These two terms are clearly related, yet they must with equal clarity be seen to be separate.

To be sure, the two are often used interchangeably, in an indiscriminate fashion (such as the "United Nations", which is actually an association of states, not of nations). In laymen's minds, the difference between the two concepts is vague - to such an extent that the slightly old-fashioned term nation-state is sometimes used.

And in the very concept of nation-state, in fact, we have the root cause of the definitional blurriness between the component terms. The proliferation of nationalist movements in the 19th century (the epitome of which may be said to be the Iron Chancellor, Bismarck, and his exhortations to the German people to "think with their blood") led to a general feeling that states must of necessity be established on the basis of national identity, of complete correspondence between the territory of the state and the dwelling-places of a single nation - this despite the fact that there were plenty of successful examples to the contrary (Switzerland, for one). The idea of the nation-state, wherein this one-to-one relationship was formalised, became so much a part of the common understanding of these concepts that it almost replaced the component terms, and caused them to meld into one.

Thus, when we attempt to identify the meanings of the terms, and to understand them as what they are - two entirely separate, if mutually interacting, concepts - we are handicapped by more than a century of sloppy thinking, that has blurred the distinction that it is so vital to define.

Because the world of late modernity (or, if you prefer, postmodernity/postindustrialism) is a world where the concept of "nation" has revived and taken on a new validity as a motivator of human events, we must make the effort to understand it. By no means is nationalism an entirely negative trait in human nature - as a source of motivation, it can produce some of the noblest and most selfless behaviour. Yet, in the 20th century, we have also seen, with absolutely horrifying clarity, that it can as easily motivate to the most despicable of acts.

In the following, I shall attempt to describe and define the terms nation and state, and to elaborate on their significance in today's political landscape.

Defining the idea of nation

Humans are tribal animals, with a tendency to arrange themselves in small groups around dominant males and females - much like a group of monkeys in the trees. The fundamental element of human organisation is a local and tribal group, which, in more advanced societies, forms the basis for a more elaborate structure of civilised society on top of the tribal base.

The idea of a nation (from the Latin word natio which derives from natus "(of) birth") implies a common blood relationship. In fact, this relationship is rarely actual - more often, it derives from a postulated common ancestor. This common ancestor may be an actual historical figure, but most of the time, he or she is a mythical being.

Tribalism aside, the bonds that bind a group of people into a nation are more complex than mere blood relationships (real or imagined). This relationship really only holds true at the lowest levels of society (and even then, local hierarchies related by blood have become rare in the modern world). As civilised society grows ever more complex, it is often the case that nationality is a function of more complex factors - a shared heritage or blood relationship being only one of them.

Language is a factor, definitely - yet there are nations that exist quite happily with multiple languages (of course, for every success story, there is a counterexample of national disintegration along linguistic lines). Nevertheless, nations with a single dominant language often use this language to define who they are. This is particularly the case in those situations where the language is very difficult for outsiders to learn (e.g. Danish, Finnish, Japanese).

Culture, and the artifacts of culture, play a part in defining a nation - ask the Greeks about the importance of the Elgin marbles, or a Dane about the Golden Horns. Often, cultural artifacts that have changed hands between national groups become sources of deepfelt national outrage (such as the Elgin marbles, or the Isted Lion), icons of lasting disaffection between the nations involved.

The proponents of nationalist ideology often lay forth the postulate that their nation is an immutable and "original" one - that the basic tenets and attributes of their nation are fixed, and have been a part of the national makeup since before recorded history. For instance, German nationalists hark back to the defeat of the Roman legions in Teutoburger Forest by the Germanic tribal leader Arminius ("Hermann").

Yet, evidence is incontrovertible that no nations are immutable entities. Paradoxically, if there is a constant of human society, it is change, and this ensures that a nation of today is different from the nation of the same name that existed a generation ago. Nations are evolving and changing all the time.

Summing up, some of the attributes of nationhood are:

. A common postulated interrelationship - a "blood" bond between members. This blood relationship may be actual, but more often, it derives from myth.
. A shared cultural heritage. This heritage, and particularly the cultural artifacts (and sometimes also, institutional structures) that it has created, represents the "patrimony" of the nation, and is often invested with considerable sentimental value, to the extent that attacks on it are responded to with violent emotion.
. Linguistic coherence, in the form of one or more languages identified with the national identity. The more unique or difficult these languages are, the stronger the emotional attachment to them, as something that must be defended. In the world of mass telecommunications and the omnipresence of English as a lingua franca, bitter struggles are taking place all over the world to protect the national languages (most notably, in Iceland and France).
. A sense of identification by members with the nation. The idea of national affiliation is a deep-rooted one in the human psyche, and members of a nation suffer a very visceral response to any threat against it, real or perceived.

Looking at the list above, the astute reader will see that it is by no means an exhaustive one - nor are all the attributes required for nationhood. In particular, one thing is missing that is inextricably intertwined with the nationalist ideology: territory.

Territory (I maintain) is not a necessary adjunct to nationality, yet in the past few centuries, and particularly since the 1860s, it has become deeply embedded in the ideological basis of many nationalist causes. The idea of the "homeland", that quasi-mythical domain which is the inalienable birthright of the nation, and the venue of much of its history, is really a concept as old as the Old Testament (if not older). Not until Bismarck, however, did the land claims of a nation become so important as they are today.

This brings us to that most problematical of concepts, the nation-state. The nationalist movements of the 19th century and after have created (or at least, evolved) this concept, by tying the nation to the land. The perceived-to-be-inseparable tie between "Blut und Boden" (Blood and Soil) has caused numerous bitter wars, where more than one nation laid claim to the same territory - and both regarded their "rights" to the land with almost religious devotion.

The nation-state, then, embodies the nationalist idea that there should be a complete correspondence between nations and the states that govern them. The Czechs should have a Czech homeland, with a sovereign Czech state governing it, and so on.

This might be a laudable principle if it were not contrary to facts - the facts being that there are at least 8000 nationalities (actual or potential) on the face of the Earth, and that their postulated "homelands" overlap with distressing frequency. Accordingly, the nationalist ideal of a world of nation-states is unworkable, and potentially the basis for cruelty, persecution, genocide and ethnic cleansing.

Moreover, the nationalist ideal of the state as the embodiment of a single nation is irrelevant to the nature of the state, as I shall endeavour to show in the following chapter.

The state - an institution without sentiment

Originally, the word state derives from an Italian term, lo stato, coined by Machiavelli to describe the whole of the social hierarchy that governs and rules a country. Over the centuries, the term has come to take on a more sophisticated meaning - yet, in many ways, it is as vague a term as nation.

A state, then, may be defined as an institutional structure charged with exercising authority within a definable jurisdictional purview (which is often territorial in nature).

Often, political theorists have relied on the definition offered by Max Weber: "....ein auf das Mittel der legitimen (das heisst: als legitim angesehenen) Gewaltsamkeit gestütztes Herrschaftsverhältnis von Menschen über Menschen" [ "a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate (i.e. considered to be legitimate) violence" - Max Weber: Politik als Beruf, 1919 ] The state is thus the supreme legitimate authority (whatever "legitimate" may be taken to mean, in the particular context) entrusted with the exercise of violent force over a group of people. Conspicuously absent from this definition is the concept of territorial authority, yet the legitimacy and jurisdictional authority of states is tied so intiamtely to this attribute that it cannot be ignored.

Summing up, the following attributes are then the characteristics of a state:

. Monopoly on exercise of force.
. Legitimacy, as perceived by the governed.
. Institutional structures established to handle governmental tasks, including, but not limited to, the exercise of force.
. Control over a territory - absolute or partial.

It is possible that a state may exist and function quite well without embodying all of these attributes - yet it is certain that the more powerful and established states can put checkmarks next to every item on the list.

Since 1945 (and arguably, since 1920), the world's states have been engaged in active cooperation in international organisations, effectively with a view to reducing the destabilising effects of nationalist extremism. The re-emergence of local nationalisms, seen in recent decades, have caused violent conflicts.

Whither the state, then in the world of re-nascent nationalism? The nationalist ideology would prefer that every nationality have a state of its own - are we then to see the world splitting up into thousands of territorial states? The answer, most likely, is no. Yet, the ties between citizens and their states seem to have lessened somewhat. A personal loyalty to tribal/national/subcultural groups has certainly called into question some of the authority of the modern state (as evidenced, indirectly, in the West by mass political movements advocating civil disobedience, and elsewhere, by tribal insurrections). The destabilising effect of the breakdown of Cold War deadlock may yet produce a world far more fragmented into states than the present one.

Closing remarks

Over the course of the latter half of the 20th century, the world has experienced a hitherto-unprecedented growth in economic wealth, and an expansion of mass communication. In the industrial age, this would have tended to stabilise the national entities - since it would have created a placid and culturally homogenised situation. However, the effect in the postindustrialist world seems to have been the opposite.

This curious contradiction may be caused by the fact that, with more than enough wealth at hand, and with the tools of a new technology giving completely new means for interaction between minorities, the way has been paved for a resurgence of nationalist thinking.

The wealthy West has inculcated ideals of human rights in its members, and now those ideals have reached maturity in the form of nations' rights. All over the Western world (and slowly, in the rest of the world), minority groups are creating a Risorgimento of their own. In North America, the Native American tribal groups are reclaiming their sovereignties, slowly but with increasing confidence. In Europe, minority groups long-forgotten and thought to be wholly assimilated are stating their case for autonomy and/or independence. And, where the situation is not yet mature for peaceful grants of the rights, the nations are taking their cause to the "court of appeals" that is the battlefield - as witness the horrors of the former Yugoslavia.

Nations, far from being immutable and unchanging entities, are constantly evolving and changing - they are "imagined communities", and they are constantly re-imagining themselves. New nations are eternally coming into being and declining. In our time, we have seen numerous "subcultures", really artifacts of modern communications technology, come into being - and every one of these had the potential to evolve into an actual nation.

Two thousand years ago, no one would have imagined that the followers of an obscure religious leader in Judaea could ever evolve into a nation with a state governing most of the territory around the city of Rome, and dominating the intellectual life of the rest of Europe - and when the Papal States were at their highest, no one could have imagined its decline into a small enclave within Rome.

Once again: the constant that governs humanity is change.

More Information on Nations & States
More Information on What Is a "Nation"?
More Information on What Is a "State"?


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