The state: nation states and national sovereignty(ed)

From Europe’s Middle Ages to the twentieth century, a reshuffling of identities took place, so that citizenship and nationality, anchored in territory, took precedence over identities arising from religion, class, ethnicity, and locality 

A common definition of a nation state is ‘a political community bound together by citizenship and nationality’.

Key ideas of nationalism 

Citizenship is a legal status granted by a government, typically based on criteria like place of birth, residency, or ancestry. It provides individuals with certain rights and responsibilities, such as voting, working, and obeying the country's laws. In contrast, nationality is a social and cultural concept rooted in shared language, culture, and history. It signifies a sense of belonging to a specific nation or group, independent of government or legal standing. Nationality often relies on shared experiences, values, and traditions, and can be inherited across generations. While groups may share common traits like territory, language, ethnicity, history, traditions, or religion, these are not mandatory for nationhood. Shared characteristics, even if partial, can bind a group together as a nation. For instance, members of a nation may not practice the same religion or speak the same language but still identify with the same national group. Many Jews have a strong national identity without a geographical homeland, not universally recognizing Israel as such. Similarly, the Swiss lack a common language, and the USA has no official state religion.

Nations tend to see themselves as sharing some, part or all of:

Nations can be easily identified in some ways. The French, Germans, and Italians are often thought of as distinct nations because they share common traits such as territory, language, history, and traditions. However, within these countries, there are groups like the Bretons in France, Bavarians in Germany, and South Tyroleans in Italy who also consider themselves separate nations based on similar criteria. The concept of nationhood is relatively new. In the past, loyalties were primarily local, towards cities, churches, or local rulers. But in the last two centuries, the idea of national loyalty and identity has become more widespread and influential, especially in the 20th century. Nationalism, the strong belief in one's own country, has played a significant role in global politics, driving major changes and conflicts throughout recent history. Nationalism can have positive effects, uniting people for freedom, or negative consequences, leading to wars and conflicts.

The nation state is a fairly recent development. For many centuries people’s loyalties were local – to their city, their church, tribe or a local prince – rather than any larger community. However, since the 18th Century, the idea of loyalty to and identification with the nation state has become dominant.

Nationalism – the  belief in one’s own country – is one of the most powerful ideas in modern history. Nationalism has led to the formation of nations, struggles for freedom, but also to tyranny and the persecution of minorities and to war.

The Sovereignty of the State

Sovereignty in nation states refers to the state's absolute power. According to Max Weber, the state is defined as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. This grants the state full authority over its citizens and all individuals within its jurisdiction. The state is authorized to employ force for purposes such as arrest, trial in court, imprisonment, and, in certain cases, execution. To establish legitimacy in wielding this force, the state asserts that it is derived from the people's consent, as seen in the US Constitution's preamble stating 'We the people…', emphasizing popular sovereignty upheld by the Constitution. In a state, internal sovereignty, or sovereignty within a state, is easily discernible. In the UK constitution, sovereignty is clearly located in Parliament, which is the supreme body with no higher authority. Parliament holds the power to pass any law and can only be overridden by itself. This principle is foundational in the UK constitution. However, in a democratic context, it can be argued that the people are also sovereign, known as 'popular sovereignty'. The USA, being a federal country, has multiple autonomous sovereign entities, with 50 individual states sharing sovereignty with the federal government. Additionally, the system of checks and balances within the government branches ensures that no single institution holds absolute sovereignty, unlike in the UK where Parliament reigns supreme.

Absolute and ultimate authority is the  theory, but does it exist  in practice? As each state is affected by the actions of other states and events in the world around them, do states lose the capacity in practice to control events in their own country? Is it sensible to talk about sovereignty as a concept if a state is left with no realistic choices?

The most momentous development of our era, precisely, is the waning of the nation state: its inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance. The demise of the nation state 

Issues with nationhood and statehood in the modern world

Nations without a state 

There are ongoing claims for nations that do not have their own state. Examples of nations without their own state include the Kurds, the Sahrawi, the Tibetans, the Basques, and the Palestinians. These nations have been seeking recognition and autonomy for decades, and many of them have ongoing claims for their own state. In some cases, such as the Kurds and the Palestinians, these claims have been backed by international organizations such as the United Nations. 

 Scotland held an independence referendum in September 2014, where the people of Scotland exercised their right to decide whether they wanted to secede from the United Kingdom and become an independent state in their own right. On that occasion they voted not to leave the UK, but what is clear is that the Scots have a right to determine their own future. Any vote by the Scottish people to leave the UK would be legitimate.

This issue is not so clear for the Basque people and the Catalonians of Spain. Whereas the UK government gave its blessing to a Scottish independence referendum, and therefore would have honoured the alternative outcome, the Spanish government has not recognised the right of the Basque or Catalonian people to determine their own future outside of Spain. The secessionist movements of these parts of Spain play on the nationalist sentiment of their people, drawing on the history, traditions, folklore, language, politics and economics of these areas to try to convince the people to push for an independent and sovereign nation of Catalonia and the Basque country.

These kind of secessionist movements have at times turned to violence, notably with ETA in the Basque country of northern Spain ‘fighting for their freedom’ – a stance which many others might call terrorism.

National claims that cross borders

A further difficulty is that the territorial claims of a nation do not always coincide with the borders of states. Many states are in dispute with their neighbours over the sovereignty or ownership of territory, and this is complicated by the competing historical and traditional claims of the people who live in that territory. One of the ideas behind a nation is attachment to a territory or land, but what happens when two nations claim the same land? These types of conflict are particularly intractable.

The United Kingdom has its own example of this problem in Northern Ireland. Two different communities or nations claim the territory of Northern Ireland as their own. Both have strong historical arguments, both can claim a certain legitimacy, and both, in their own eyes, are right. It is not just the Nationalists and Unionists of Northern Ireland who have competing claims. This type of dispute can also be seen in the Middle East, with Israeli and Palestinian claims to the same territory resulting in decades of conflict. The recent conflict in eastern Ukraine is founded on the same problem. Ethnic Russians who identify with the Russian nation and state are living in the internationally recognised state of Ukraine. The Russians want closer ties with Russia; the Ukrainians believe their state should be sovereign and independent of Russia.

States not recognised by other states

There are several examples of state-like entities that are not recognised by other states, so find it difficult to operate in the international system. Micro-nations are tiny parcels of land that claim they are independent and sovereign states, but are not recognised as such – so, for example, their issuing of passports and currency has no legal or practical value. One such micro-nation is Sealand, off the coast of Essex in England. They claim they are a state, but to all practical purposes, they do not exist. More pressing examples of states not recognised by other states are Kosovo, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transnistria.

Characteristics of national sovereignty

The state holds ultimate authority over its citizens and residents, known as sovereignty. This authority entails complete power over individuals within its jurisdiction, with no exceptions. Those who violate state laws can face arrest, trial, imprisonment, and even capital punishment in certain regions. Max Weber described the state as possessing the exclusive right to use force lawfully within its boundaries, a concept it aims to legitimize. While sovereignty seems straightforward as the highest form of control, its practical implications raise questions. 

Does relinquishing even a fraction of sovereignty diminish a state's absolute authority? Globalization has sparked debates on sovereignty, prompting considerations on states' ability to manage internal affairs amid external influences. If a state's choices are severely limited, can it truly claim sovereignty? Internally, sovereignty is well-defined within states. In the UK, Parliament stands as the supreme authority, possessing the sole power to enact laws and overturn them. This principle underpins the UK constitution, although some argue for "popular sovereignty" where power ultimately lies with the people. In the USA, the situation is more complex. The US Constitution's preamble, starting with "We the people," implies popular sovereignty upheld by the Constitution. However, being a federal nation, the USA features multiple autonomous bodies sharing sovereignty. The system of checks and balances in the government branches further ensures that no single entity holds complete sovereignty, unlike in the UK, where Parliament reigns supreme.