- This article discusses states as sovereign political entities. For other meanings, see state (disambiguation).
In international law and international relations, a state is a geographic political entity possessing politicial sovereignty, i.e. not being subject to any higher political authority.
In casual language, the idea of a "state" and a "country" are usually regarded as synonymous, although some speakers, notably in the United States, make efforts to only use the terms "country" or "nation" to refer to sovereign entities.
Others would primarily understand "the State" as a synonym for "the Government", or be careful to distinguish between a territorial "country" and a "nation" of people. Confusingly, the terms "national" and "international" are both used as technical terms applying to states, see country.
The "state" can thus also be defined in terms of domestic conditions, specifically the role of the monopolization of the legitimate use of force within a country. Of course, different political philosophies differ in their interpretation of the actual and ideal roles of the state.
The definition of "state" in the meaning of political subdivisions of some countries, is related as it emphasizes the intention of a confederation where these state governments are seen as possessing some powers independently of the federal government. Often these states existed before their creation of a federal régime.
The international point of view
The legal criteria for statehood are not obvious. A document that is often quoted on the matter is the Montevideo Convention from 1933, whose article 1 states:
- The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.
Also, in article 3 it very clearly states that statehood is independent of recognition by other states. This is the declarative theory of statehood. While the Montevideo is a regional American convention and has no legal effect outside the Americas, some have nonetheless seen it as an accurate statement of customary international law.
On the other hand, article 3 of the convention is attacked by the advocates of the constitutive theory of statehood, where a state exists only insofar as it is recognized by other states. Which theory is correct is a controversial issue in international law. An example in practice was the collapse of central government in Somalia in the early 1990s: the Montevideo convention would imply that the state of Somalia no longer existed, and the subsequently declared republic of Somaliland (comprising part of the so-called "former" Somalia) may meet the criteria for statehood. However the self-declared republic has not achieved recognition by other states.
The domestic point of view
Looked at from the point of view of an individual nation, the state is a centralized organization of the whole country. Those studying this dimension emphasize the relationship between the state and its people. The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that in order to avoid a multi-sided civil war, in which life was "nasty, brutish, and short," individuals must necessarily surrender many of their rights -- including that of attacking each other -- to the "Leviathan", a unified and centralized state. In this tradition, Max Weber and Norbert Elias defined the state as an organization of people that has a monopoly on legitimate violence in a particular geographic area. Also in this tradition, the state differs from the "government": the latter refers to the group of people who make decisions for the state.
For Weber, this was an "ideal type" or model or pure case of the state. Many institutions that have been called "states" do not live up to this definition. For example, a country such as Iraq (in June-July 2004) would not be seen as truly having a state since the ability to use violence was shared between the U.S. occupiers and various militias and terrorist groups, while order and security were not maintained. The official Iraqi government had very limited military or police power of its own. (This situation has been called that of a "failed state.") The official Iraqi government also lacked sovereignty because of the important role of U.S. domination.
One of the most basic characteristics of a state is regulation of property rights, investment, trade and the commodity markets (in food, fuel, etc.) typically using its own currency. Although many states (by their own decision) increasingly cede these powers to trade bloc entities, e.g. North American Free Trade Agreement, European Union, it is always controversial to do so, and opens the question of whether these blocs are in fact simply larger states. The study of political economy, which evolved into the modern study of economics, deals with these specific questions in more detail.
However, although states are often influenced in this way, they are nonetheless much stronger in relation to international organizations or to other states than lower (substate) political subdivisions normally are. But the trend at the moment is for the power of superstate levels of governance to increase, and there is no sign of this increase abating. Many (especially those who favour constitutional theories of international law) therefore reject as outdated the idea of sovereignty, and view the state as just the chief political subdivision of the planet.
Philosophies of the state
Different political philosophies have distinct opinions concerning the state as a domestic organization monopolizing force. In the modern era, these philosophies emerged with the rise of capitalism, which coincided with the (re)emergence of the state as a separate and centralized sector of society. Philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau pondered issues concerning the ideal and actual roles of the state. Nowadays, there are four major philosophies of the state: liberalism, conservatism, Marxism, and anarchism.
Several of these philosophies use one form or another of the social contract theory, which affirms that the role of the state is (or should be) to follow the will of the people and serve their interests, as they define them.
In broadly-defined liberal thinking, the state should express the public interest, the interests of the whole society, and to reconcile that with those of individuals. (This job seems best performed by a democratically-controlled state, but different types of liberalism put different meanings on the word "democracy.") The state provides public goods and other kinds of collective consumption, while preventing individuals from free-riding (taking advantage of collective consumption without paying) by forcing them to pay taxes.
Within this school, there is a wide variety of differences of opinion, varying from free-market libertarianism to modern, New Deal, or social liberalism. The main debate along this line concerns the ideal size and role of the state. While libertarians argue for a small or "minimal" state, which simply protects property rights and enforces individual contracts, the New Deal or social liberals argue that the state has a greater positive role to play, given the problems of market failure and gross inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth inside a capitalist system. In general, almost no liberals see the state as currently living up to the philosophical ideal, and therefore argue for change in one direction or another.
The views of social liberals regarding the state are also broadly shared by the social democrats and democratic socialists.
In the Marxist school of thought, the main role of the state in practice is to use force to defend the existing system of class domination and exploitation. Under such systems as feudalism, the lords used their own military force to exploit their vassals. Under capitalism, on the other hand, the use of force is centralized in a specialized organization which protects the capitalists' class monopoly of ownership of the means of production, allowing the exploitation of those without such ownership. In modern Marxian theory, such class domination can coincide with other forms of domination (such as patriarchy and ethnic hierarchies).
Further, in Marxist theory, classes and other forms of exploitation should be abolished by establishing a socialist system, which must involve a democratic state. This state will then slowly "wither away" as the people take more and more power in their own hands and representative democracy slowly transforms into direct democracy. Once the process is complete, the communist social order has been achieved and the state no longer exists as an entity separate from the people. Thus, the ideal condition of the state in Marxist theory is the same as in anarchist theory: ideally, the state would not exist at all.
In some conservative thinking, the existing structure of tradition and hierarchies (of class, patriarchy, ethnic dominance, etc.) are seen as benefiting society overall. Thus, in a way, these conservatives accept some ideas from both the Marxist and the liberal schools of thought, but view them in a different light: the state forces people to accept class and other kinds of domination, but this is seen as being good for them. (They are like free-riders if they rebel.) Further, as with the liberals, the state is seen as always existing and/or "natural." "Withering away" will never happen.
In anarchist thinking, the state is nothing but an unnecessary and exploitative segment of society. Totally rejecting Hobbesian ideas, anarchists argue that if the state and its restrictions on individual freedom were abolished, people could figure out how to work together peacefully - while individual creativity would be unleashed. Also rejecting the Marxist perspective, the anarchists hope that the withering away of the state can and will precede - or coincide with - the abolition of non-state forms of domination. One of the most extreme forms of the anti-state anarchist and libertarian perspectives is anarcho-capitalism, in which individuals enter into voluntary contracts for the provision of all social services.