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.
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.
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.
- Surface area occupied by a human group. This term has different meanings in different social science disciplines. For geographers it is a socialized, constructed space in which distance is continuous, with more or less defined borders, such as, but not confined to, states. For sociologists and political scientists, a territory is a socially constructed space confined by borders which provide the structuring principle for a political community and enable a state to impose its authority and control on the population. It is linked to the context, history and actors of its construction. For Max Weber, the modern, rational and legal state is closely linked to territoriality.
- A term with multiple meanings and uses and a category given far less consideration by philosophers than the concept of time. Space as a concept has long been a theoretical difficulty (lack of consensus) for geographers – for whom it should be the primary object of study. Contrary to the common representation of space as a natural expanse filled by societies, space is a social product that is constantly reconstructed by social interactions. It constitutes one of the dimensions of our social life, at once material and cultural. To speak of social space does not in itself tell us what form this space takes – whether it is territorial, or networked, or both at once.
- The line that marks the limit of state sovereignty, as distinct from the hazy boundary zones or limits of empires. In no way natural, these long-term historic constructs, which can be more or less endogenous and more or less subject to dispute and violence, are being profoundly altered by contemporary globalization processes. Regional integration processes are transforming and diminishing them – even erasing them, and pushing them back; transnational actors are crossing them or bypassing them; at the same time, they are being closed to migration, while new borders (social, cultural) are being constructed.
- This political idea was formed in the Middle Ages in order to legitimate the independence of emerging states (France, England) from the Pope and Emperor, and taken up by many thinkers (Bodin, Grotius, Schmitt). It refers to a state’s claim to recognize no authority above itself on its own territory and serves more to justify political and legal representations than to describe existing power relations. As a fundamental notion of the international system and the principles of equality between states and non-intervention in internal affairs, it is the opposite of interference. In democratic states, it is attributed to the “sovereign” people, whose votes give legitimacy to institutions and governments. Processes of regional integration involve delegating elements of state sovereignty.
- In legal terms, nationality expresses an individual’s legal status of belonging to a state in accordance with the rules issued by that state. Nationality derives from parentage (jus sanguinis – right of blood), or from birthplace (jus soli – right of the soil), or is acquired by naturalization. The concept of nationality is linked with the development of the nation-state and the concept of citizenship, even though the status of a national and of a citizen do not necessarily overlap (non-democratic regimes, discrimination against some population categories based on ethnic, religious, linguistic or social criteria).
- The validation by an individual, group or institution of a practice, situation or identity that has been claimed. Intrinsically relational and a factor in socialization, recognition can be formal or informal, reciprocal or unilateral. Theories of recognition have an important place in philosophy (Hegel in particular) and have been more recently developed in the social sciences around the “struggle for recognition” (Axel Honneth) and the denial of recognition. International recognition is a discretionary act through which a subject in international law (usually a state or international organization) grants legal status to a situation or an act (a government’s accession to power by non-constitutional means, unilateral declaration of independence, military intervention, etc.).
- international organizations
- In the words of Clive Archer, an IO is “a formal, continuous structure established by agreement between members (governmental and/or non-governmental) from two or more sovereign states with the aim of pursuing the common interest of the membership.” Marie-Claude Smouts identifies three characteristics of IOs: they arise out of a “founding act” (treaty, charter, statute), have a material existence (headquarters, finance, staff), and form a “coordination mechanism.
- Modernity, characterized by the increasing importance of the economy, of technical innovation, of Western-type democratic regimes, and of rational-legal bureaucracy, is defined from an evolutionist perspective according to the model prevalent in the most industrialized countries, and is a trend toward which all the so-called less advanced societies are seen as converging. This viewpoint, widely denounced for its naïve evolutionism, remains nonetheless implicitly present in much political discourse and within a good deal of research. “Postmodern” is used of artistic and philosophical currents of the second half of the 20th century that critique and deconstruct the concept of modernity.
- Signed in 1648 by the countries of Europe (except for England and Russia), the treaties of Westphalia brought an end to the Thirty Years War (Sweden, France, Spain and the Germanic Holy Roman Empire). In addition to reshaping the geopolitical map of central Europe, they enshrined new political principles: 1/ a gradual secularization of politics, 2/ the collapse of the hegemonic, imperial and Catholic policies of the Hapsburgs, which were succeeded by a concept of political and religious balance to ensure peace in Europe, 3/ the strengthening of the identity and independence of states with the establishment of precise borders recognized by all, and within which the prince or monarch was sovereign, 4/ the establishment of standing armies. The terms Westphalian “order” or “model” are used in the context of these treaties.
- There is no universal understanding of the notion of religion, nor is there any clear distinction between a religion and a sect. Generally speaking, a religion is a system of beliefs that makes a distinction between the sacred and the profane, manifested in a set of ritual actions that give reality to this distinction. Individuals may be described as religious if they practice or claim to belong to a religion, or if they have made religion their profession and devoted their lives to it.
- The term regulation refers to all the processes and mechanisms that enable a system to function in a normal, regular fashion. At the international level, it refers to the set of processes, mechanisms and institutions that act to correct imbalances that might threaten the global order and to ensure that actors behave predictably, thereby ensuring stability. It is closely linked to the notions of governance and global public goods.
- Ability of political actors to impose their will on others. Comparable to the notion of authority within a nation, power is never absolute but has its existence in a relationship, since power relations are a matter of each actor’s perception of the other. Power is key to the realist approach to international relations, where it is understood in geostrategic terms (hard power is based on force and coercion, especially of a military nature). The transnationalist approach offers a more diversified vision including factors of influence (Joseph Nye’s soft power exerted in economic, cultural and other terms) and emphasizing the importance of controlling different orders of power, from hard to soft (Susan Strange’s “structural power”).
- social contract
- The social contract was an idea invented in the West during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It describes the agreement by which humans decide to abandon their supposedly original state of nature to form a political community. The contract marks a break with the theological concept of power and its legitimacy which had held sway since the Early Middle Ages. Henceforth it was the people, and no longer divine power, who were the source of civil power, and the power of rulers depended on the consent of those being ruled (Grotius, Pufendorf, Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes). In the eighteenth century, the theory of the social contract galvanized liberal and democratic ambitions to limit power in the name of the general will. In the twentieth century, it inspired philosophers’ thinking about justice (John Rawls) and deliberative democracy.
- Violent confrontation between armed groups over values, status, power or scarce resources, in which the aim of each party is to neutralize, weaken or eliminate their adversaries. This organized, collective, armed violence can be undertaken by states (via their national armies) or by non-state groups; it can bring several states into opposition (interstate war) or occur within a single state (civil war). The former, progressively codified within a legal framework, have become rare, while the latter, today primarily caused by state institutional failure, are tending to become more international in scope, to last over time (sometimes decades) and to be extremely devastating, especially for civilian populations.
- An empire, a political system based on the dissemination of a political structure with universalist pretensions, is controlled by a central power that subjugates the populations located at its periphery following military conquests. It often comprises several different national, ethnic or religious entities (examples: the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Napoleonic, Russian, Austro-Hungarian empires, etc.). Empires generally persist over time by means of economic exploitation, especially in the case of colonial empires. Empires can be distinguished from states in that they are bounded by hazy frontier areas (such as the marches, or the limes of the Roman Empire) rather than borders clearly framing a specific territory over which the political authority exclusively operates.
- Nomadic pastoralism, a way of life in which “territory” is a journey from place to place, is declining in the face of state-imposed restrictions (border controls, social controls, allocation of territories and water points, route closures), political crises and conflicts, inappropriate development policies and climate and ecological crises. Sedentarization in precarious urban environments is leading to the disappearance of nomadic groups – or their rebellion (the Tuareg). Nomadism is also used to describe worldwide contemporary mobility (physical and virtual). Metropolization, residential mobility, international tourism, company relocations, migrations, and the development of information technologies are modifying our behaviors and the ways we relate to place.
- The empires that resulted from the two great waves of colonization were called into question by colonized countries during the inter-war period. They subsequently collapsed after World War II. The United Kingdom relied on the Commonwealth to make a relatively smooth exit from colonialism, whereas France lost two wars, one in Indochina, the other in Algeria. In 1955, the Bandung conference brought together representatives from twenty-nine countries to mark their support for independence struggles. Spain and Portugal were the last European states to cling to their empires, which nevertheless collapsed in 1975. Although the colonial empires have all disappeared, they have left their mark on territories that are claiming their independence. The last half-century has witnessed the ongoing Israeli colonization of Palestine.
- international system
- Key concept of the realist approach to international relations, the international system is a term referring to all the actors that are interconnected in such a way that “the behavior of each is a necessary factor in the calculations of the others” (Hedley Bull). Built by the actors’ perceptions, it consists of subsystems that can be geographic or functional (strategic, commercial, energy-related, etc.) that interact with each other.
- Mode of relationship based on dense, continuous interaction between social and political entities, leading to reduced autonomy for each of them individually as they are partially reconfigured in relation to each other. Used of states primarily in the context of globalization, implying a reduction or modulation of sovereignty as well as a relativization of power: after all, interdependence goes both ways, implying a reliance of the strong on the weak just as much as of the weak on the strong.
- transnational actors
- Transnational actors function across the world space, either alone or in networks, outside the framework of nation-states. They partly escape state control and intervention.
- identity entrepreneurs
- An entrepreneur, as defined by Max Weber, manages an organized group that has an administrative management and pursues a specific goal. An identity or religious entrepreneur, then, is an actor who mobilizes symbols of identity or religion for the benefit of their political, social or economic capital.
- This is a process that consists of relaxing, or even abolishing, the legal framework and norms in force, particularly in the economic and financial spheres. This underlying trend has been at work throughout the world since the 1970s, and has an ideological basis. It is defended by the proponents of economic liberalism, for whom government regulation of economic and financial activities is seen as undesirable because it impedes the proper functioning of markets.
- welfare state
- The welfare state and its practices emerged in Europe in the late 19th century, breaking with the traditional concept of the liberal state. The crisis of the 1930s, followed by the Second World War, made its expansion a matter of necessity. The state became highly redistributive (modifying primary income distribution by redistributing funds levied via tax and social insurance contributions in the form of social benefits), especially during the “Trente Glorieuses” period, i.e. 1945 to 1975. Its role was radically challenged by the processes of globalization and the proponents of neoliberalism, just when economic crisis has made the existence of a social safety net increasingly necessary.
- public services
- An activity in the general interest carried out by a public or private body and overseen by the government. Public services serve a wide range of purposes, from the traditional sovereign functions (police, defense, justice, public finance, diplomacy) to the non-market state sector (education, health, social protection, culture and sport, etc.) and the industrial and commercial sectors (transport, energy, water, telecommunications, etc.). Public services are grounded in fundamental principles: equality of access and treatment for users, continuity, accessibility, neutrality and transparency of services, and their adaptability to evolutions of the general interest. The notions of services in the general interest and universal services, used in European and some international institutions, have – not without controversy – redefined the perimeters of state action in reaction to the liberalization of some of these sectors.
- The concept of identity is ambiguous, multifaceted, subjective, and frequently exploited and manipulated. No identity is foreordained or natural – so it is better to talk of identity construction, or of the processes of constructing self-representations developed by an individual or group. These constructions are neither stable nor permanent, defining the individual or group from multiple perspectives: on its own terms, in relation or opposition to others, and by others. The way individuals and groups use identity varies according to their interests and the constraints inherent in their specific situation: identity, therefore, is a construct based on interaction. This combination of affiliations, allegiances and internal and external recognition is a complex process, involving various degrees of awareness and contradiction, constantly being amalgamated and reconfigured.
- Notions that appeared in the late 1970s on the political science, denoting the development of identity, a sense of belonging, and allegiance on ethnic, linguistic, religious, or sociological grounds, aside from or even against the state and the social contract it is supposed to guarantee. Contemporary globalization is profoundly altering the role of states and individuals, as well as the complex relationships between the universal and the particular, thus opening up spaces for multiple forms of communitarianism to emerge.
- Geography: social science devoted to studying the production and organization of space. This space, which is differentiated and organized, serves social reproduction. Political geography: study of the spatial dimension of political organization, generally within states. Geohistory: geographic study of historical processes (diachronic).