Defining the Nation-State

If you pull out a recent world map, you will likely see large swaths of land that are separated by very distinct black lines. While geopolitical reality is definitely not as conclusive as the lines would suggest, the vast majority of national borders today are largely uncontested. Part of the cause of the rigidness of national borders is the rise of nation-states on the world stage. To examine what a “nation-state”, it is best to begin by breaking it down into its constituent parts, “nation” and “state”.

A common misinterpretation of a “state” is equating it with a specific government or a “sovereign”. This is perpetuated by the definition put forth by Max Weber in Politics as a Vocation, in which he defines a “state” as a community that has a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”.[1] However, this seems to be a flawed interpretation, because it can be seen throughout history, that while governments can be toppled and replaced over time (whether peacefully or violently), the state often remains. When the Roman emperor died, the Roman state still lived. If we look at the word “state” itself, it seems to evoke a sort of permanence, not something as transient as the “current sovereign”. A more proper revision of Weber’s definition would be “a territory in which a community has a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force”. This is more in line with the definition of a state proposed at the Montevideo Convention of Rights and the Duties of the States in 1933. There, a state was defined as a space with a permanent population, defined territory, and a government capable of maintaining effective control and conducting international relations with other states.[2] The “state” is not defined by its government, simply that it has a government. The state, rather, is the space itself.

Then, we must address the other half of the term “nation-state”; what is a nation? The Global Policy Forum defines it as a large group of people with a common bond of identity.[3] This common identity comes from a set of political antecedents, which John Stuart Mill describes as “the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation, pleasure and regret, connected with the same incidents in the past”.[4] The nation, thus, is independent of borders as it is not defined by a government or ability to control an area; it is the community of the people. Often, people correlate common language or common culture to being the basis of nationality, when the the causation is not as direct as that. Simply, people with a common language or culture often come to have a shared history, which binds them together as a nation. However, this distinction leads to some interesting situations. For example, the concept of Switzerland, originally started as a confederation for economic purposes to protect trade routes in the mountainous Alps. Yet over time, despite sharing no common language or culture, the confederacy developed a sense of nationality from their common history of centuries of shared struggles against ambitious neighbors.[5]

Reconciling the concepts of “nation” and “state” into “nation-state” is surprisingly intuitive. Quite simply, a nation-state exists when the borders of a state align with geographical area in which the people of a certain nation live. To understand how this came about, we must look into the past, into the era before the rise of nation-states. One of the most common form of states was the empire. Empires represent a classic example of misaligned borders, a single state with many nations, often achieved through the conquest of the originating nation. This form of state is kept intact solely due to an imbalance of power in which the conquered are tied to the state often either economically or through threat of force.

While the state is not the government, it is important to remember that the state has to have a government. For a government to govern the state, to practice its sovereignty, it must gain its legitimacy to rule from somewhere. In another common type of state, the feudal state, which prevailed in Europe for the majority of the Middle Ages, the ruling sovereign, the king, maintained his legitimacy to rule the state by calling upon his “divine right to rule”. However, in the late 18th century, a combination of several movements including the enlightenment led to an interesting shift in ideas of legitimacy from being derived from the man above to being derived from the many men below. With the rejection of the divine right to rule, the people in the feudal states, rejected their sovereigns.[6] Because the sovereign now had to have the consent of the people, it was difficult to get people of many different nationalities to agree upon a government. Thus, borders were redrawn. Since new sovereigns got legitimacy from the consent of the people, the states that they had sovereignty over largely matched the areas that people of a certain nation lived in, because it is far easier for people of a single nation to come together and consent to a sovereign due to their shared historical experiences.

The benefit of nation-states on the world stage is clear. When the people in a state feel a sense of unity as a nation, they will be less likely to engage in civil war and discord. The dangers of this are seen very clearly in the Middle East, where the misalignment of states and the geography of nations left by European colonialism has led to decades of wars, civil fighting, and ethnic cleansing. What makes nation-states so powerful, is their common identity. But is this necessary? The thing to realize is that “nation-statism” isn’t necessarily a binary, but is rather a scale. While many states today, are nation-states, it is interesting to note that some of the most successful states today, began as confederations. Both the United States and Switzerland started off as confederations allied for militaristic or economic reasons but as their alliance was tested, they grew closer as a nation as they began to build a national history. Relative to many other states, these ex-confederations are much more diverse culturally. The culture of California is sufficiently different from that of Texas which is different from that of New York. And this is even not to consider the effect that immigrants have on the United States, bringing their own national histories to the new country and merging their old world experiences with that of the United States. Today, we see the rise of a new confederation, the European Union, which while today seems like an unlikely and troubled alliance, over time may become closer as their shared history grows. In the modern world, perhaps the ideal system for success is a form of superposition of confederation and nation-state, giving a state both the unity in identity yet diversity in thought.


[1] Max Weber, “Politics as a Vocation,” in The Vocation Lectures (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2004), 32.

[2] Seventh International Conference of American States. “ Montevideo Convention of Rights and the Duties of the States,” 22 December 1933. LNTS no. 3802. United States Treaties and Other International Agreements.

[3] “What Is a “Nation?,” Global Policy Forum, accessed September 05, 2016,

[4] John S. Mills, Considerations on Representative Government (London: Parker Son and Bourn West Strand, 1861).

[5] Ulrich Im Hof and Beatrix Mesmer, Geschichte Der Schweiz Und Der Schweizer (Basel: Schwabe, 2006).

[6] “Divine Right of Kings,” New World Encyclopedia, accessed September 06, 2016,