History of the Nation State

Since the seventeenth century, the state has increasingly become the main player in global relations, providing the foundation for domestic peace and international relations. According to Hugo Grotius, the state is ‘a complete association of free men, joined together for the enjoyment of rights and for their common interest’, while both Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes argued that adherence to the authority of the sovereign state provided the most effective way of protecting society from mankind’s potential for anarchy. Bodin lived through the St Bartholemew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when vengeful Catholics murdered French Protestants in their thousands as royal governance broke down. Hobbes had first-hand experience of the destruction wrought by the English Civil War. Both appreciated that a powerful sovereign state, with the ability to control its subjects, provided the best way of ensuring peace and stability.

The Westphalian state system

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years’ War, is particularly important in the development of the principle of state sovereignty. It finally ended the Holy Roman Emperor’s claim to possess sovereign authority over virtually independent German states. This meant that each individual state would be sovereign over its own internal affairs and no other state or, supposedly, superior body could intervene within its borders. By establishing the principle of the territorial integrity of sovereign states, Westphalia also defined the theory of the sovereign equality of states as follows:

■ No state has the legal right to intervene in the sovereign affairs of another state.

■ All states, whatever their size, possess the same legal right to independence.

The Congress of Vienna, 1814–15

The state, as the absolute provider of security both from internal rebellion and outward aggression, would provide the foundations for both domestic and global politics. The expansion of French power during the revolutionary and Napoleonic period (1793–1815) challenged this principle. However, the Congress of Vienna reasserted the primacy of sovereign states in determining European affairs, establishing a balance of power that would last for almost 100 years.

The nation-state in the twentieth century

During the twentieth century, Westphalian principles dominated across the globe. In his Fourteen Points (1918), US president Woodrow Wilson established the principle that nation-state sovereignty should be founded upon the right of self-determination based on a shared ethnic heritage. This led to the creation of new states such as Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland after the First World War. The Montevideo Convention (1933) determined that a sovereign state must possess:

■ a defined territory

■ a permanent population

■ a viable government

■ the capacity to enter into diplomatic relations with other states

A state would possess a monopoly of law-making powers within its borders, while outside interference could not legally change a state’s borders.

Post-Second World War decolonisation

Following the end of the Second World War there was yet more nation building, as former colonies of the great powers (the Allied victors) gained independence. In 1947, the independent states of India and Pakistan were established, while the British prime minister Harold Macmillan referred to a ‘wind of change’ blowing through Africa as old empires crumbled in the face of nationalist movements. In the middle east after the Second World War, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria all achieved independence. In the far east, China (in 1949) and Vietnam (in 1975) were unified under Communist rule. Finally, from 1989 to 1991, as communism collapsed throughout eastern Europe, new nation-states, including the 15 constituent parts of the Soviet Union, were established based upon Wilsonian principles of self-determination. By 2017, of the 193 members of the United Nations (UN), only 15 had existed as independent nation-states in 1910.

The UN and state sovereignty

The nation-state as a political community bound together by citizenship, nationality and culture therefore became an increasingly powerful force in global politics. It provided states, old and new, with a common identity and determined the main structures by which international relations are still conducted to this day.

Article 2 of Chapter 1 of the UN Charter recognises this fact by noting that ‘The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members’. No state, however powerful, has the right to intervene in the affairs of another state, since all states can claim the same right to determine policy within their own borders without fear of outside interference. All states can claim equal territorial integrity. Loyalty to the state and the use of its economic, political and military power to achieve its objectives underpin the realist interpretation of global affairs. States act out of self-interest in order to achieve the best possible outcome for themselves. The legitimacy of a nation-state also derives from its acceptance as a nation- state by other nation-states. Palestine, for example, claims nation-statehood. However, since the UN does not accept these claims it remains unrecognised.