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9.1 The Challenges of the State System

PLEASE NOTE: This book is currently in draft form; material is not final.

Learning Objectives

In this section you will learn:

  1. How the concept of sovereignty affects international relations.
  2. The formal difference between a nation and a state.

In the world in which we live, the globe is divided up into sovereign nations. Remember that a sovereign stateThe concept that a state has defined borders and is the ultimate political authority within those borders. is one in which the state in the form of the government is the highest earthly power—there’s no place to appeal a decision of the state except the state itself. So a sovereign state has defined borders that are respected by its neighbors, and control over its own territory. In this part of the discussion, when we use the term “the state,” we really mean a sovereign nation, not a political subdivision such as a U.S. or Mexican state. States in federal systems such as the U.S. and Mexico are formally referred to as sovereign states, but they are still ultimately dominated by national governments.

And this is where the challenges of international relations begin. In much of our discussion of politics, it is presumed that the state holds power and uses it as the people who control the state see fit. The power may be divided into different branches and levels of government, or not divided; through mechanisms such as elections different people may assume power and state policies may change as a result of those elections. This presumption of a kind of state and a kind of allocation of power casts the study and practice of politics in a certain light. There is a way to resolve disputes; ultimately, somebody has the power to say yes or no and, absent violent revolution, everybody has to go along. But in a world of truly sovereign states, which recognize no higher authority than themselves, the system is best described as anarchyA situation where nobody is in charge, and actors such as states are in fact free to do what they want.: Ultimately, nobody is really in charge. And that is a different ballgame.

So first, let’s be clear once again on the term sovereign: A sovereign state is said to be the ultimate authority within its own boundaries, borders that are respected by its neighbors. The government is legitimate in the eyes of the citizens, who generally obey the law. The United States is a sovereign nation; so are France and Indonesia. Most of the 192 recognized nations on earth are in fact sovereign nations.

Somalia, on the east coast of Africa, isn’t quite. The nation is currently divided into three parts. First is the erstwhile legitimate government of Somalia, which controls very little of the country, mostly in the south, and is beset by various warlords and religious factions. In the middle is a functioning state calling itself Puntland, which does not seek independence from Somalia but, at this point, might as well be. In the north is a state calling itself Somaliland, which is largely functioning as a sovereign nation although few other countries currently recognize it as such.

This world of sovereign states came together in a treaty called the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. That treaty ended the 30 Years War, literally a three-decade-long conflict between Catholic and Protestant rulers and their subjects that tore apart what is now Germany and caused widespread suffering across Europe. Throughout history, people have found creative and largely pointless reasons for killing each other. But the upshot of the treaty was that states had a right to order their affairs, in this case the largely northern, Protestant principalities of Germany and what was then called the Holy Roman Empire. The treaty, in effect, created the notion of sovereignty as an acknowledged fact of international law and diplomacy, and the Europeans exported the idea from there to the rest of the world.

European colonialism, as when the European nation states carved up Africa at the end of the 1800s, forced sovereignty onto sometimes disparate groups of people that had previously been more or less sovereign nations in their own parts of the continent. Only two African states—Liberia, which had been carved out earlier in the century by freed American slaves, and Ethiopia, which had been successfully fending off invaders for a thousand years—survived the onslaught. Although Africa had long been home to a number of substantial kingdoms and empires, the Europeans by the late 1800s had taken a technological leap forward that allowed them to conquer the continent in a few decades. The redrawing of the African map lumped together groups of people who had previously been part of different states, creating political challenges when the Europeans were forced out after World War II.

A world comprising sovereign states means that there is no overarching world power that can tell them what to do. Why not, then, a world government to sort everything out? First, most if not all the sovereign states would have to agree, and both political leaders and ordinary citizens tend to dislike having someone else tell them what to do. The farther away that someone is, the less they like it. Visions of black helicopters and invading U.N. troops were the stuff of many Americans’ paranoid nightmares in the 1970s and 1980s, despite the lack of any reality to this fear. Even if such a government could be established, the variety and diversity of the world would make it very difficult to rule, even in a highly democratic state. A world government would have to keep control and settle local and regional disputes, becoming, in the process, as despotic as the states it replaces, if not more so.

So, what we are left with are a lot of sovereign states, and a world system that is based on that single fact. And as there is no referee or overarching power, one state can erase another, as when Prussia and Russia effectively erased Poland, once the biggest state in Europe, from the map in 1795. The Poles, and their language, culture and traditions remained, but the Polish state did not reappear until 1918. This does not mean that a state can act without consequence. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, states from around the world united in the effort to drive the Iraqis out and re-establish Kuwaiti sovereignty. Later in the same decade, Europeans and Americans joined to end ethnic cleansing in what was then Yugoslavia. So no state operates in a vacuum.

What remained of Poland after its 18th century partition, and what most defines a place such as Somalia today, is a nation. In the precise terminology of international relations, a state has defined borders, but a nation has a cultural, linguistic or ethnic similarity among a group of people. A nationA group of people united by common cultural, linguistic or ethnic similarities. is a sense of community among a group of people; that group of people may want to control themselves politically and become a nation as well. So, for example, the Kurds, of whom around 30 million live in the Middle East, are a nation but not a state. They are divided chiefly between Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran, comprising the largest single ethnic group in the world without its own state. Kurdish separatists have fought for independence in Turkey, and all but carved out a sovereign state in the north of Iraq. But at the moment, the Kurds remain a nation, and not quite a state.

Sometimes, we speak of a nation-state, an entity which combines elements of both these things. The United States, perhaps alone among the states of the world, is a nation based on an ideology rather than an ethnicity. Still, the U.S. is sometimes given to nationalismAn ideology that extols the virtue of one’s nation, creating a sense of specialness and separateness from other groups and states., a sense of how to act and think, a sense of right and wrong, and a sense of separateness from others that includes a sentimental attachment to one’s homeland. Americans are not unique in this regard, but do tend to exhibit it more than others. This is sometimes called American exceptionalismThe idea that the United States is unique among nations, and therefore has a special role to play in world affairs., or the belief that the United States is unlike other states and in fact has a special destiny in the world. In fact, all states are unique in their own ways. Whether the U.S. has a special role to play is for you to decide.

Sometimes the system is dominated by a hegemon—a single state that is powerful enough to exert some influence on world politics. HegemonyLeadership and/or dominance of a group of agents, such as states, by another single agent, said to be the hegemon. means leadership or dominance of one person or state over others. In the case of international relations, Great Britain exercised a degree of global hegemony in the 1800s; the United States has exercised a similar role in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. But a hegemon is not all-powerful, and the price of maintaining hegemony can be very high. Consequently, states are either stiving for hegemony, or for a balance of power, so that no hegemon arises. The anarchic system is world politics is in fact anti-hegemonic, as it resists attempts by any one power to take over the whole world.

States interact through diplomacy, international law and war. The Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) referred to war as “War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” Clausewitz wasn’t completely a warmonger, so his famous quote probably shouldn’t be taken to mean that he thought it was OK to go on the warpath. However, in contemporary international politics, war can be seen as the failure of policy, given the extraordinarily high cost of modern warfare.

To that end, states often prefer to find other ways to solve disputes. For that reason states pay some attention to international law, which seeks to constrain the behavior of states. International law exists through treaties and agreements negotiated by states, and through rule-making mechanisms in multinational agencies and groups. They also attempt, through diplomacy, to try to convince other states to make choices that will be beneficial to the state, the region or the world. Diplomacy works when both sides are rational, in the sense that they each have some understanding of their own self-interest. We will see examples of efforts to achieve change in this way later in this chapter.

Key Takeaways

  • The world is a collection of autonomous, sovereign states, which creates a world system that is effectively anarchic in nature.
  • States interact with each other through international law, diplomacy and, sometimes, war.


  1. What makes a state sovereign? The world has a number of states that want to be sovereign but are not universally recognize by other states. Why not?
  2. Consider the idea of American exceptionalism. Is the United States truly different from other countries, with a special destiny? Why or why not?