4.7 Challenges to the Nation-State

In the world in which we live, the globe is divided up into sovereign nations. Remember that a sovereign state is one in which the state in the form of the government is the highest earthly power – there is 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 territory. In this part of the discussion, when we use the term “the state,” we 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.

Moreover, 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 particular 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. However, in a world of genuinely sovereign states, which recognize no higher authority than themselves, the system is best described as anarchy.

A sovereign state is said to be the ultimate authority within its 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, is not quite. The nation is currently divided into three parts. First is the former 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 mainly 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. However, the upshot of the treaty was that states had a right to order their affairs, in this case, the most 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 parts of the continent. Only two African states – Liberia, which 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 several 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 with 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 from 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. Moreover, as there is no referee or overarching power, one state can erase another, as when Prussia and Russia effectively erased Poland, once the most significant 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 nation 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 state. Kurdish separatists have fought for independence in Turkey, and all but carved out a sovereign state in the north of Iraq. However, 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 ideology rather than an ethnicity. Still, the U.S. is sometimes given to nationalism, 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 exceptionalism, or the belief that the United States is unlike other states and in fact, has a unique destiny in the world. All states are unique in their ways. Whether the U.S. has a unique 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. Hegemony 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. However, a hegemon is not all-powerful, and the price of maintaining hegemony can be very high. Consequently, states are either striving for hegemony, or 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 anyone 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 was not completely a warmonger, so his famous quote probably should not 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 self-interest.

Collective Military Force

A collective military force is what arises when countries decide that it is in their best interest to pool their militaries in order to achieve a common goal. The use of collective military force in the global environment involves two primary concepts: collective security and collective defense. These concepts are similar but not identical.

Collective Security

Collective security can be understood as a security arrangement, regional or global, in which each state in the system accepts that the security of one is the concern of all, and agrees to join in a collective response to threats to, and breaches of, the peace. Collective security is more ambitious than collective defense in that it seeks to encompass the totality of states within a region or indeed globally, and to address a wide range of possible threats.

Collective security is achieved by setting up an international cooperative organization, under the auspices of international law. This gives rise to a form of international collective governance, albeit limited in scope and effectiveness. The collective security organization then becomes an arena for diplomacy.

The UN and Collective Security

The UN is often provided as the primary example of collective security. By employing a system of collective security, the UN hopes to dissuade any member state from acting in a manner likely to threaten peace, thereby avoiding any conflict.

Collective Defense

Collective defense is an arrangement, usually formalized by a treaty and an organization, among participant states that commit support in defense of a member state if it is attacked by another state outside the organization.

NATO and Collective Defense

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is the best known collective defense organization. Its now famous Article V calls on (but does not fully commit) member states to assist another member under attack. This article was invoked after the September 11 attacks on the United States, after which other NATO members assisted in the US War on Terror in Afghanistan. As a global military and economic superpower, the US has taken charge of leading many of NATO’s initiatives and interventions.

Benefits and Drawbacks to Collective Defense

Collective defense entails benefits as well as risks. On the one hand, by combining and pooling resources, it can reduce any single state’s cost of providing adequately for its security. Smaller members of NATO, for example, have leeway to invest a more significant proportion of their budget on non-military priorities, such as education or health, since they can count on other members to come to their defense, if needed.

On the other hand, collective defense also involves risky commitments. Member states can become embroiled in costly wars in which neither the direct victim nor the aggressor benefit. In the First World War, countries in the collective defense arrangement known as the Triple Entente (France, Britain, Russia) were pulled into war quickly when Russia started full mobilization against Austria-Hungary, whose ally Germany subsequently declared war on Russia.


The term terrorist (Latin for “to frighten”) has become a mainstream term since the attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Terrorism is the systematic use of violence by a group in order to intimidate ordinary citizens as a way to coerce a government into granting the group’s demands. Violence is considered necessary by terrorists to bring widespread publicity to goals and grievances that they believe cannot be addressed through peaceful means.  Belief in the cause is so strong that terrorists do not hesitate to strike despite knowing they will probably die in the act. State-sponsored terrorism exists when a state provides sanctuary for terrorists that are wanted by other countries; provides weapons, money, and intelligence to terrorist groups; or helps in planning a terrorist attack.

Geospatial technology is used heavily in geopolitical conflicts within the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, and the Department of Homeland Security, to name a few. The video on the right is a section of the Geospatial Revolution, Episode 3 that focuses on war and conflict.

Click here to read an interesting article from WIRED Magazine titled How Geospatial Analytics is Helping Hunt the LRA and al-Shabaab.

Geospatial technology can also be used for humanitarian efforts as a way to end conflict or monitor situations before they escalate. One organization, called the Satellite Sentinal Project, was created by The Enough Project and the largest private satellite imagery corporation called Digital Globe. The organization was first used satellite imagery from Digital Globe and Google Earth to monitor potential humanitarian conflicts along the border of Sudan and the newly created South Sudan. Now it is using satellite imagery to track poachers who use the money from the black market to fund civil wars like the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).


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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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