The state is defined by its territory, population, and government, as well as recognition by its equals, a model of political organization that originated in Europe in the late Middle Ages. Its universalization, owing notably to decolonization, has not led to a stabilization of the international system founded on the illusion of sovereignty. With globalization, the increased power of transnational actors is further weakening the ability of states to regulate.

Four elements are required for a state to exist: a territory, that is to say a space bounded by borders within which, theoretically, full and exclusive state jurisdiction is exercised (principle of sovereignty); a population that is legally linked to it (nationality, and the feeling of belonging to the same body of people); the existence of a government that has been granted administrative powers enabling it to control its territory and ensure it has a monopoly of lawful duress; and recognition of its existence by other states, usually expressed through its membership of international organizations such as the United Nations (UN). A certain number of entities which more or less fulfill the first three criteria defining a state are not in fact states, because there is no consensus on recognizing them internationally, and this prevents them operating in global space (being party to treaties, members of organizations, etc.).

Universalization of the European model

The birth of the modern state is conventionally dated to the treaties of Westphalia (1648). These treaties put an end to the wars of religion ravaging seventeenth-century Europe and restructured the European space, establishing the principle of sovereignty as the cornerstone for regulating relationships between powers. Any intervention by a state in the domestic affairs of a neighbor – on the pretext of confessional solidarity, for example – was therefore forbidden. Since each state was considered sovereign within its borders, there was a clear distinction between the policed internal sphere, where the state exerted its monopoly of lawful duress, and the external sphere, where there was no supranational authority capable of imposing limits on the action of a state (which was, by definition, sovereign). Within its borders, the state guaranteed public safety on the basis of a social contract and protected its citizens against the aggression of foreign powers. Externally, it interacted with other states, not only on the basis of a principle of equality, through its diplomacy and by freely signing international treaties, but also in the context of armed conflicts.

Europe after the Westphalia Treaties, 1648 

Sources: compilation of various German at lases and from G. Duby, Grand Atlas historique, Paris, Larousse, 1997. 

Comment: The map shows the shape of the territory after the peace treaties putting an end to the Thirty Years War: in addition to the well-established kingdoms to the west and north and the empires to the east, new states were recognized (the Netherlands and Switzerland). Present-day Germany and Italy, where the conflict was the deadliest, remained broken up into multiple small states which were partly linked within the Holy Roman Empire. The Treaties of Westphalia established the principle of state sovereignty – invisible on a map –, elevating them to the status of sole legitimate actors in international relations.

While other models of political organization (empires, nomadic peoples, societies based on tribal or clan allegiances, organized as theocracies, and so on) preexisted in many parts of the world, the European state model spread worldwide, particularly during the process of decolonization, without, however, guaranteeing the stability of the international system. Despite there being legal equality between states (which, in practice, was non-existent), and equal recognition of them by international organizations, the world continued to be made up of very heterogeneous state entities, many of which were not functional or struggled to ensure that the basic functions of state were executed (internal security, territorial control, etc.).

Globalization and transnational relationships

Paradoxically, while states continue to proliferate, the model of the state rooted in a particular circumscribed territory is tending to fade in a world where interdependency is intensifying. The state is increasingly powerless in the face of transnational actors that are becoming ever more numerous in economic, religious, social, and other spheres. The development of international relations is causing the state to lose its ability to regulate, since these relations take place outside of state control and mediation, at least partially. The illusion that increased autonomy (or even independence) for a region within a state would restore its capacity to govern is cleverly maintained by identity entrepreneurs.

The processes of deregulation (commercial, financial, etc.) to which states have contributed since the end of World War II have deprived them of some of their ability to act; they have either delegated certain prerogatives to supranational entities (such as the IMF [International Monetary Fund] which, when it comes to the aid of a failing state, usually forces it to reorient its economic and social policies), or they have let private actors define the rules to which governments have to submit. In the financial domain in particular, the room for maneuver for states to choose their economic and budgetary policies is increasingly limited by norms and rules imposed by private financial actors (banks, credit rating agencies, etc.), and even NGOs. The widespread recourse to private arbitration tribunals to settle disputes between governments and multinational corporations is part of the same basic tendency. This supervision of the state, which has seen a substantial part of its regulatory functions effectively withdrawn, raises the question as to whether the new modes of regulation dominated by international actors have democratic legitimacy, especially as they are often accompanied by the dismantling of the welfare state and of public services.

Major private and sovereign investment funds, 2018

Sources: Sovereign Wealth Fund Rankings , ; Top Asset Management Firms,

Comment: The largest investment funds are all private and North-American or European. These financial actors (bank, investments, asset management, insurance, etc.) “weigh” several thousand billion dollars in assets. When these are in the hands of states, they are sovereign wealth funds, usually supported by high trade surpluses (China) or linked to oil (Norway, UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia).

The growing influence of international actors and the weakening of states’ capacity to regulate are also expressed in the development of transnational identities rivalling those which have a territorial basis. Whether they are religious, community -dependent, or social (including virtual ones), they are sometimes directly opposed to national identities, which result from a sense of community (i.e. to be part of a social contract of which the state is guarantor, and even the initiator) based on sharing the same territory and on geographical proximity.

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