States, Countries and Nations

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In many discussions, we appear to treat the terms 'state', 'country' and 'nation' as being interchangeable.  On reading around the subject, there seems to be a large degree of agreement about the precise meanings, but a great deal of disagreement about when these definitions apply.


State and Country

The terms 'state' and 'country' are synonyms: you can use them interchangeably.  They both refer to a geographic area which is subject to a common political entity.  Definitions sometimes say that this political entity must be 'sovereign', but sovereignty is a difficult and ambiguous concept; it is probably fair to say that the geographic area must be subject to a political entity which has some degree of sovereignty.

So the United Kingdom is a state, ruled over by the parliament at Westminster.  But Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also states, ruled over by their own governments, which have been granted a degree of sovereignty by Westminster.

Similarly, the USA is a state, with various federal institutions, but is is comprised of 50 states plus various other entities with varying levels of sovereignty.

However, the terminology is ambiguous: how autonomous or sovereign does a geographical territory need to be to qualify as a state?  Various countries have provinces, each with their own governmental institutions.  In the UK, counties and unitary authorities have their own governmental institutions (collectively known as 'local government').  The difference between a county, province and state seems to be largely one of accepted terminology, in the absence of any objective distinction.


On the other hand, a 'nation' is a group of people with a shared culture, and generally also have a shared language and ethnic background.  They may not have a common geographic area, but usually can point to a common geographic area at some point in their past.  Some nations are also states.

So France, for example, is a nation state, while the Dakota in the USA, the Rohingya in China and the Catalonians in Spain are all considered to be nations - the Dakota are one of the 'First Nation' American Indian tribes - but are not states.

Again, the distinction between a nation and a cultural group seems to be largely a question of accepted terminology: Yorkshire has a distinct cultural identity, but is not generally regarded as a nation.


This raises the obvious question: what makes something a state?  And there are two incompatible answers to this question: one of them considers the situation on the ground, and the other considers international politics.

The first answer is called the 'declarative theory of statehood'.  This was expressed in the 1933 Montevideo Convention, and defines a territory as a state ('a person in international law') if it satisfies four criteria - it must have:

  • territory;
  • people;
  • government; and
  • capacity.

There are, of course, more detailed conditions  which must be satisfied - the territory must be clearly defined and natural (a moored ship is not territory); the population must be reasonably permanent (the people climbing Everest is not a permanent population); the government must be legitimate, which means it did not gain power through military force; and it must have the capacity to enter into relations with other states.  According to this theory, its status as a state does not depend on recognition by other states.

The second answer is called the 'constitutive theory of statehood'.  It defines a territory as a state ('a person in international law') if - and only if - it is recognized as a state by at least one other state.  This pragmatic approach has been in use for a very long time, but in modern times it has been expressed in (for example) the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

There are serious problems with both answers, which means that there is no international agreement about the status of various territories, and no clear way to resolve these disputes - and that is before you start to address the complexities created by disputed claims of sovereignty by some states over other states / territories.


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