Global Policy Forum

What Is a "State"?



Some see a "state" as an ancient institution, going back to Rome, Greece and before, and theorized by Plato, Aristotle and other classical philosophers. Others insist on the unique features of the modern state, with its extensive rule of law, citizenship rights, and broad economic and social responsibilities. A state is more than a government; that is clear. Governments change, but states endure. A state is the means of rule over a defined or "sovereign" territory. It is comprised of an executive, a bureaucracy, courts and other institutions. But, above all, a state levies taxes and operates a military and police force. States distribute and re-distribute resources and wealth, so lobbyists, politicians and revolutionaries seek in their own way to influence or even to get hold of the levers of state power. States exist in a variety of sizes, ranging from enormous China to tiny Andorra. Some claim a long lineage, while others are of modern construction. In all but the short term, states are in flux. They expand and contract as military and political fortunes change. Some, like Poland, even disappear and re-appear later. Or they may be divided up (sometimes peacefully) by communities that prefer to go their separate ways (Czechoslovakia). Others, such as Iraq, may be occupied or run as a colony or protectorate. States can also "fail" - their governing institutions collapse due to civil war and internal strife (as in Somalia) or because the state has little authority outside the capital city (Afghanistan). While globalization and regional integration (like the European Union) challenge the state's powers, the state is still the dominant arena of domestic politics as well as the primary actor in international relations.

Some states occupy a unique status in the international community of states, due to a very small population or very small land area, but usually both. Microstates, or small states and territories (SSTs) are sovereign state and enjoy a disproportionately large influence in the United Nations General Assembly thanks to the one state, one vote rule. Experimental States, such as Sealand, Freedom Ship, Cyber Yugoslavia are among the hundreds of experimental states that people have founded in order to avoid taxation, feel independent, or to create a tourist attraction.

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General Analysis | Academic Articles | Classic Writings

General Analysis

Nations & States

GPF's Executive Director James Paul looks at the changing nature of nation states, including the effects of collapsing states, deregulation and the downsizing of social services.


The Myth of the Nation-State (September 2, 2008)

Transnational challenges such as pollution, terrorism and climate change undermine nation-states' status as principal actors in international relations. But, argues this article, many university professors still base their curricula on the "myth of the nation-state." By focusing on the nation-state, they not only overlook global solutions, they further assume that the nation-state is a coherent and homogenous entity. The author calls for a stronger role for non-state actors, human rights, and ethics in the study of international relations. (Policy Innovations)


Academic Articles


The Perversion of Sovereignty (March 4, 2009)

James Traub, a pro-Responsibility to Protect (R2P) scholar, examines the debate surrounding humanitarian intervention and points out that war atrocities have put an end to the principle of "absolute sovereignty." Developed and developing nations remain divided over R2P, as many developing countries question the motives behind Western interference. The "Global South" sees sovereignty as a barrier against "American hegemony" and deems humanitarian intervention "an instrument of neo-colonial control." However, Traub believes in the "conditional sovereignty" of states, which implies that nations have the responsibility to prevent atrocities through intervention. (World Affairs Journal)

Sovereignty and Plurinational Democracy. Problems in Political Science (2003)

Political scientists often argue that globalization and multilateral institutions are undermining the importance of national sovereignty. But in this chapter from Sovereignty in Transition, author Michael Keating argues that these analysts fail to recognize that the sovereignty concept is changing and taking on new meanings. For example, many minority groups reaffirm the sovereignty concept to gain more autonomy - rather than full independence. Keating advocates a "plurinational democracy" to accommodate the increasingly integrated world. (Hart Publishing)

The New Nature of Nation-State Failure (Summer 2002)

Robert Rotberg of Harvard University claims that "nation-states fail because they can no longer deliver positive political goods to their people." He argues that states fail when they lose their monopoly on violence to non-state actors. (Washington Quarterly)

The Nation and the State of Pakistan (Summer 2002)

Stephen Cohen of the Brookings Institution argues that the Pakistani state has been failing for years to provide security, human services, justice, and basic necessities. More importantly, ethnic minorities have challenged the very idea of a Pakistani nation. The tension between nation and state makes Pakistan an especially important case. (Washington Quarterly)

Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (2002)

In this book anthropologist Richard Robbins conceptualizes the "culture of capitalism" as sets of interdependent and conflicting relations between capitalists, laborers and consumers. He argues that the nation-state mediates these relationships, and controls "the creation and flow of money and setting and enforcing the rules of interaction."

"Nations" or "States" an Attempt at Definition (July 20, 2001)

Although some thinkers argue that a nation is "immutable and original," this article points out that nations constantly change. The author argues that a nation rarely consists of ancestral blood ties. Instead, nations build on a shared culture, language and identity. Further, this Scholiast article rejects the idea of a one state for each nation, because of the complex and evolving nature of national identity.

Identity Beyond the State (June 2000)

Peter van Ham of the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute argues that EU Member States have built only a Gesellschaft. He adds that "the EU still does not have the life-and-blood characteristics of an internal, living and organic entity" - a Gemeinschaft.

Reading Bourdieu's «Capital» (1997)

In this forward to Pierre Bourdieu The State Nobility, Loí¯c Wacquant explains that Bourdieu argues that making educational titles a prerequisite for heading private corporations and state bureaucracies represents "a new mode of domination" and a strategy through which the ruling class maintains and masks itself through continual self-metamorphosis. (The State Nobility, Cambridge, Polity Press, 1997)


Classic Writings and Documents


The Idolatry of the State (1927)

Franz Oppenheimer argues that the state is a "vehicle of capitalism" and "the bastard offspring of slavery and freedom. He states that "the great task before us is to get rid of the remaining traces of slavery and bring full freedom into being." (Franz Oppenheimer Information Page)

The State (1908)

Franz Oppenheimer argues that "the State may be defined as an organisation of one class dominating over the other classes. Such a class organisation can come about in one way only, namely, through conquest and the subjection of ethnic groups by the dominating group." (Franz Oppenheimer Information Page)

The Treaty of Westphalia (October 24, 1648)

The basic principles of the Treaty of Westphalia shaped the relations between nation-states. The treaty formulated the doctrine of sovereignty, which declared a state's domestic conduct and institutions to be beyond the reach of other states.

Politics (350 BC)

In Book One of "Politics", Aristotle states that several villages together could form a state. With such minimalist definition, he easily concluded that if "earlier forms of society are natural, so is the state, for it is the end of them, and the nature of a thing is its end." Today to many people the "nation-state" seems just as natural. But is it? (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)




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