The state: nation states and national sovereignty

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

While citizenship is a legal status which confers membership as well as rights and obligations, nationality refers to a group of people who self-identify as belonging to the same group or community.

Citizenship is a legal status that is granted by a government and is typically based on certain criteria such as place of birth, residency, or ancestry. It grants a person certain rights and responsibilities, such as the right to vote, the right to work, and the obligation to obey the laws of the country.

Nationality, on the other hand, is a social and cultural concept that is based on shared language, culture, and history. It is a sense of belonging to a particular nation or group of people and is not necessarily tied to a particular government or legal status. Nationality is often based on shared experiences, values, and traditions, and can be passed down through generations.

The individuals may have certain characteristics in common – such as territory, language, ethnicity, history, traditions or religion – but none of these is absolutely essential. For a group to be a nation, they only need share some of these characteristics. For example, members of a nation may not share the same religion or even the same language but they still might see themselves as belonging to the same nation. Many millions of Jews have/had a strong sense of their national identity with no geographical homeland (Israel is not accepted by all Jews as the Jewish homeland and only came into existence in 1948. The Swiss do not have a a common language and citizens of the USA have no state religion.

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

  • language

  • culture- religion, customs, values.

  • history- a common narrative

  • geography- a homeland

In some respects, nations are easy to identify. You might think of the French, the Germans or the Italians as single nations. They meet some of the criteria: they all identify with a certain territory, have a common language, share a history, have the same traditions, and so on. However, there are Bretons in France, Bavarians in Germany, and South Tyroleans in Italy who all believe that they are a nation in their own right and could convincingly make a claim using the same criteria. The concept of the nation is a fairly recent one. For many centuries people’s loyalties were local – to their city, their church or a local prince – rather than any larger community. However, for the last two centuries, the idea of loyalty to and identification with the nation gained ground, and by the 20th century its real power was being felt. Nationhood is important as it is the idea behind one of the most powerful forces in global politics: nationalism. Nationalism – the strong belief in one’s own country – has been the force behind some of the greatest changes and conflicts in recent world history. Nationalism can be a force for good, uniting people and leading them to freedom from the tyranny of others, or a force for bad, leading countries and peoples to war and conflict.


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 means the absolute power of the state. Max Weber defined the state as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence .Therefore, the state has absolute power over its citizens and everyone who resides within its jurisdiction. The state, can use force to arrest, put people on trial in a court, sentence them to a prison and, in some states, ultimately executed. The state will seek to legitimise this monopoly of force by claiming it comes from the people- ie the citizens of the state have freely consented to such use of force–The preamble to the US Constitution declares ‘We the people…’ indicating that there is popular sovereignty and that this is upheld by the Constitution. At a basic level, sovereignty within a state or internal sovereignty is quite straightforward. It is easy to identify the location of sovereignty in the UK constitution. Parliament is the sovereign body of the UK – there is no higher body than parliament, there is no law that parliament cannot pass and only parliament can overturn an act passed by parliament. This is the most fundamental principle in the UK constitution. However, as a democracy it can also be argued that the people are sovereign; that there is ‘popular sovereignty’. . The USA is also a federal country, meaning that there are two or more autonomous sovereign bodies in the USA. In fact, 50 individual states share sovereignty with the federal government. Furthermore, within the branches of government there is a system of checks and balances meaning that no one institution of government is sovereign (unlike in the UK, where parliament is sovereign).

Absolute and ultimate authority is the theory, but dose 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?

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’s absolute power over citizens and subjects. Sovereignty means absolute power. Within a state, the state has absolute power over its citizens and everyone who resides within its jurisdiction. The law applies to everyone, and there is no opting out. Should anyone break the law of the state, they can be arrested, put on trial in a court, sentenced to a prison sentence and, in some states, ultimately executed. Max Weber defined the state as having a monopoly on the legitimate use of force within a given territory. The state will seek to legitimise this monopoly.

On the face of it, sovereignty could not have a simpler definition: absolute and ultimate authority. But what does that actually mean – absolute and ultimate authority in theory, or in practice? If you give away the smallest amount of sovereignty, does that mean a state no longer has absolute and ultimate authority?

Sovereignty has become a widely debated concept and its use has come more into question due to globalisation. 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 leſt with no realistic choices?

At a basic level, sovereignty within a state or internal sovereignty is quite straightforward. It is easy to identify the location of sovereignty in the UK constitution. Parliament is the sovereign body of the UK – there is no higher body than parliament, there is no law that parliament cannot pass and only parliament can overturn an act passed by parliament. This is the most fundamental principle in the UK constitution. However, as a democracy it can also be argued that the people are sovereign; that there is ‘popular sovereignty’.

In the USA, there are also complications. The preamble to the US Constitution declares ‘We the people…’ indicating that there is popular sovereignty and that this is upheld by the Constitution. However, the USA is also a federal country, meaning that there are two or more autonomous sovereign bodies in the USA. In fact, 50 individual states share sovereignty with the federal government. Furthermore, within the branches of government there is a system of checks and balances meaning that no one institution of government is sovereign (unlike in the UK, where parliament is sovereign).