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In most parts of the world, a state is an organization that has a monopoly on the "legitimate means of coercion" within a defined boundary. These were considered the only important actors in international affairs, but globalization has shaken up the field a little bit. Classic examples of states include Iran, Finland, and (for historical reasons) the United States.

If a state becomes too weak, and loses legitimacy (or other actors gain legitimacy), then it is often called a failed state. The most classic example of this is Somalia.

State and nation[edit]

A state should not be confused with a nation. A nation is a group of people bound by a common culture, history, religion, language, and/or ethnicity, bound by borders. Many nations, such as the Germans or the French, have their own states as well. However, others do not, such as the Basque and the Kurds. Moreover, it is possible to have a state without a foundation in a single nation, as was the case with many of the African states upon independence. One could also argue that Switzerland, with its four languages and geographical location, could be considered a "multi-national state". Another example of a multi-national state would be the UK with its four nations of England, Wales,Scotland and Northern Ireland and the various cultures contained within them.

A state that is founded upon a single nationality is called a "nation-state". Forming a nation-state became the primary means of legitimacy for states after 1918, and many of the most stable states still rely on this theory, homogenizing pesky national minorities when necessary.

Within some federations such as the United States, the term "state" also refers to the semi-sovereign constituent subdivisions of the federation.[note 1] Examples of this usage include Kentucky, Tennessee, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and New York. This, more than anything else, has led to the confusion about the terms "nation" and "state" within the US.

State and government[edit]

In the United States, the terms state (as defined here) and government are used interchangeably. However, in parliamentary systems (e.g., Canada) the government refers to the executive — what in the U.S. is called the "administration." This also leads to confusion, as there is no terminological distinction to be made between the apolitical machinery of the state and the political leaders in the government or administration.

Monopoly of force[edit]

Having the monopoly of force, a State can do many things that, when done by normal people, are generally condemned as unjust, illegitimate, or immoral. For example:

However, before giving in to libertarian lamentations, it must be kept in mind that all those things are done for a greater good, have been legitimated by the majority of people (who were allowed to vote) a long time ago, or are legitimated by the State itself. Therefore, one can not apply to the State the same judgment parameters applied to every other situation.

See also[edit]


  1. They are merely administrative divisions within the US, but when they have attempted to independently derive their own legitimacy they have been properly bitchslapped.
  2. does not apply to all States.
  3. applies to all States.