Nation-State System



  • A nation-state is a territorially bounded sovereign polity—i.e., a state—that is ruled in the name of a community of citizens who identify themselves as a nation
  • Further, a nation-state is a type of state that conjoins the political entity of a state to the cultural entity of a nation, from which it aims to derive its political legitimacy to rule and potentially its status as a sovereign state if one accepts the declarative theory of statehood as opposed to the constitutive theory



  • Early scholars have advanced the hypothesis that the nation-state was an inadvertent by-product of 15th century intellectual discoveries in political economy, capitalism, mercantilism, political geography, and geography combined together with cartography and advances in map-making technologies
  • For others, the nation existed first, then nationalist movements arose for sovereignty, and the nation-state was created to meet that demand
  • Some “modernization theories” of nationalism see it as a product of government policies to unify and modernize an already existing state. Most theories see the nation-state as a modern European phenomenon, facilitated by developments such as state-mandated education, mass literacy, and mass media



  • They have a different attitude to their territory when compared with dynastic monarchies: it is semi sacred and non-transferable
    • Elaborately, no nation would swap territory with other states simply, for example, because the king’s daughter married
  • They have a different type of border, in principle defined only by the area of settlement of the national group, although many nation states also sought natural borders (rivers, mountain ranges)
  • They are constantly changing in population size and power because of the limited restrictions of their borders
  • The most noticeable characteristic is the degree to which nation states use the state as an instrument of national unity, in economic, social and cultural life
    • Example: The creation of the Zollverein in Germany, by abolishing customs and tolls, preceded National Unity
  • The nation states typically had a more centralised and uniform public administration than its imperial predecessors: they were smaller, and the population less diverse
  • Nation-state resulted in creation of a uniform national culture, through state policy
    • The model of the nation state implies that its population constitutes a nation, united by a common descent, a common language and many forms of shared culture
    • When the implied unity was absent, the nation state often tried to create it.
    • Ex: Evidently, Germanisation, Anglicisation, Russification resulted in unity of their nations


Nation States in Practice

  • Nation states where a single ethnic group makes up more than 85% of the population include the following:
    • Bangladesh: About 98% of the population are Bengali, with the remainder consisting of mostly Bihari migrants and indigenous tribal groups
    • China: 92% of China’s population is Han, geographically distributed on the eastern side of China. The government also recognizes 55 ethnic minorities, including Turks, Tibetans, Mongols and others
    • Japan: Japan is also traditionally seen as an example of a nation state and also the largest of the nation states, with population in excess of 120 million
    • Portugal: The Portuguese nation has occupied the same territory since the romanization or latinization of the native population during the Roman era


Challenges to nation-states

  • Most current challenges to nation-states are not new, and some of them are as old as the nation-state itself. However, for several decades, accelerating processes of globalization have challenged nation-states’ capacity to contain, control, and harness flows of people, economic capital, and cultural materials and to confine politics to public spheres and institutions and to relationships with other nation-states
  • Among the pressures imposed in varying degrees on all nation-states are the following:
    • Immigration
      • The influx of migrant workers and refugees to nation-states has tended to increase cultural and ideological fragmentation and tension, especially in cases where the immigrants’ religion and culture are very different from those of the host society, where immigrants are concentrated in urban ethnic enclaves, and where immigrants do not assimilate
      • Under such conditions, tensions between the majority and minority groups emerge and intergroup violence becomes more prevalent
      • Among majority groups, the presence of non-assimilating minorities amplifies internal struggles over the meaning of the national collective identity, the nation’s core ideology, and the definition of national interests
      • Example: The Rohingya Refugee crisis in Myanmar, and condition of Uyghurs in China can be well related to here
    • Global capitalism and neoliberalism
      • The globalization of production, consumption, and finance in the late 20th century and the concurrent growth of rich and powerful multinational corporations has reduced the capacity of states to impose national protectionist policies and limited their ability to restrict the movement of people across their borders.
      • The global spread of neoliberalism (an ideology and policy model advocating free markets and minimal state intervention in economic and social affairs) and the development of international institutions that reinforce this ideology (e.g., the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund) have undermined the capacity of countries to engage in long-term macroeconomic planning and regulation and to maintain collectivist social welfare regimes.
      • Example relating to this dimension can be that of Brexit, which was caused by immigration, the economy and anti-establishment politics
    • Minorities’ challenge to nation-based citizenship
      • In some nation-states, ethnic minorities have challenged the traditional model of nation-based citizenship because they claim rights based on principles alternative to citizenship: that is, they rely on international conventions that recognize individual human rights or the collective rights of minorities and indigenous peoples
    • National disintegration
      • Increasing economic inequality between regions within nation-states and the rise of identity politics since the late 20th century have increased the likelihood of national disintegration in some countries through the development of secessionist aspirations among some ethnic groups, a phenomenon sometimes called Balkanization.
      • Evidence of Balkanization can be observed both in relatively young nation-states in the postcolonial developing world and in established Western nation-states with long traditions of republicanism (e.g., the United Kingdom and Spain)
    • Global civil society
      • New social movements and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that highlight issues such as the rights of indigenous peoples, the rights of sexual (LGBTQ) minorities (see gay pride), animal rights, and environmentalism present two complementary challenges to nation-states.
      • First, they demand that political conversations within the nation-state be expanded beyond the core issues of national politics (i.e., national security and resource distribution or the allocation of public goods) to include issues related to the identities and ways of life of nonnational communities—such as preserving the cultural traditions and languages of ethnic or racial groups and protecting the rights of sexual minorities—as well as issues related to cosmopolitan ideals
      • Second, such movements and organizations tend to form transnational coalitions and to use advanced media technologies to expand their struggles to the public spheres of other states and to the diffused virtual space in which a global civil society has emerged
    • Religious extremism
      • The contemporary reinvigoration of religious extremism (which some scholars believe to be a counterreaction to globalization) poses two types of challenges to nation-states.
      • First, within nation-states, religious extremists threaten interfaith coexistence, and they challenge the institutions that help to maintain ethnic, religious, and gender diversity through integration, inclusion, and power sharing.
      • Second, as a force external to nation-states, religious extremism (e.g., the variant of Islamic fundamentalism represented by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant [ISIL]) seeks to replace nation-states with theocracies.

Presently, no other supranational initiative seems to threaten the supremacy of the nation-state—not even the European Union, which operates mainly as a strategic alliance and has not developed a collective identity that could displace the national identities of member states.

  • Accordingly, many experts believe that, despite notable challenges, the nation-state will remain, for the foreseeable future, the primary model of political-territorial organization and the locus of political power and authority in the world