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The Sociology of the State: The State as a Conceptual Variable

Summary and Keywords

In terms of a political entity, a “state” is any politically organized community living under a single system of government. In international relations (IR), states are assumed to be persons by virtue of their capacity to act intentionally, if not always rationally. In international law, states are assumed to be persons by virtue of being bearers of rights and obligations. “Levels of analysis” is a way of looking at the international system, which includes the individual level, the domestic state as a unit, the international level of transnational and intergovernmental affairs, and the global level. The dominant image of the state in the discipline of IR is the state as an actor and indeed as the pre-eminent actor upon the international stage. Notwithstanding the comparative neglect, in recent years at least, of the general characteristics that constitute this particular actor, the notion that the state is to be understood as an actor is more or less automatic. The history of international relations based on sovereign states is often traced back to the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, a stepping stone in the development of the modern state system. The contemporary international system was then established through decolonization during the Cold War. As a result, several states have moved beyond insistence on full sovereignty, and can be considered “post-modern.”

Keywords: state, international relations, international law, sovereign states, modern state system, Peace of Westphalia, Cold War


The “state” is the theoretical and empirical bedrock of IR but is a concept about which few agree and is routinely defined to suit the normative and/or empirical ends of scholars and practitioners. As Held (1983:1) observes: “There is nothing more central to political and social theory than the nature of the state,” but there is also “nothing more contested.” IR has frequently assumed the existence of a territorially based state as a universal feature outside of time and place. “Social science,” as Taylor (1996:99) argues, “has been endemically state-centric. Conceived in a world academy dominated by states, the various social sciences have obediently followed agendas in which the ‘society’ they aspire to understand is defined politically by state boundaries.”

This essay examines some of the many meanings of “state,” especially the model territorial state central to mainstream IR theory – including ostensibly “timeless” realist and neorealist versions – and briefly traces state evolution and how the model type always differed from actual historical states. It then compares contemporary states with the ideal type that continues to dominate IR scholarship.

The elements of the model state are well known. It is a polity with fixed boundaries and exclusive sovereign authority over a well-defined territory, the juridical equal of other states, enjoying a domestic monopoly of the means of coercion and the loyalties of subjects/citizens. Sovereignty, afforded by mutual recognition, in its conventional version, has two faces – domestic and international – and implies legal independence, empirical autonomy, and freedom from external interference. This is Walker’s (1993) “inside/outside.” “For the past two centuries or so,” Axtmann (2004:259) contends, “the territorially consolidated, centralized, sovereign state has been the dominant paradigm in western political thought and western mainstream political science. It constituted the ideal of the well-ordered, western, modern political community. It was considered to be the model which any political community that strove toward modernity was expected to embrace.” And currently, “we are well placed to review this model and identify some of the significant transformations that it is undergoing as the new century gathers pace.”

Realists and neorealists black-box the territorial polity that was putatively forged from the Westphalian settlement. Waltz’s (1979:93) three “ordering principles” of the international system are distribution of power, anarchy, and functional similarity of its units. The last of these flows from the second – anarchy – which “entails relations of coordination among a system’s units, and that implies their sameness.” For Waltz, the imperative of survival under anarchy forces states to behave the same way or else disappear, and there is thus no reason to look inside the state or its relations with society. Structure trumps agency and precludes significant change in global “realities,” a fact leading Walker (1993:118) to declare: “Structuralism becomes a philosophy of eternity, and eternity becomes history as a form of forgetting.”

Many theorists do not accept this version of the state. Neorealism, argues Teschke (2003:274), “is a science of domination” whose “grotesque craggy melody parades as the siren song for all undergraduates” and “compresses the rich history of human development into a repetitive calculus of power.” “From American political science via British IR to German social philosophy,” he declares (2003:2), “the shared conviction is that the Westphalian settlement organized the European order on the basis of sovereign states adhering to distinctly modern principles of conflict and cooperation.” Arguing from a Marxist perspective that emphasizes social property relations, Teschke denies that Westphalia was “a decisive turning point in the history of international relations” and contends that this is a “conventional account, shared by Realists, members of the English school, and Constructivists alike.” Given his perspective, it is unsurprising that Teschke (2003:265) claims that the key actors in global politics have not been states as IR understands them but “ruling classes organized in territorially centralizing communities struggling over their relative international share of territory and other sources of income” and that the division of these classes into separate states “was neither theoretically necessary nor historically contingent.”

In his work on sovereignty, Krasner (1999:220), though a realist, admits that the model state in IR was always an aspiration that was never realized. “Most observers and analysts of international relations,” he declares, “have treated sovereign states as an analytic assumption or a well-institutionalized if not taken-for-granted structure.” “The bundle of properties associated with sovereignty – territory, recognition, autonomy, and control – have been understood, often implicitly, to characterize states in the international system,” but few states have enjoyed all these features. The historical state-as-actor is hardly the same as the model IR state.

In fact, the Westphalian state is neither a universal feature of political life nor a “given” in global politics. Rather, it is a contextual and contingent community that gradually emerged from Europe’s feudal epoch and varies through time and space. Hence, the subtitle of this essay, borrowed from J.P. Nettl’s 1968 World Politics article in which he was looking at the relative “stateness” of real-world states. “History,” declares Hendrik Spruyt (1994:3) aptly, “has covered its tracks well. We often take the present system of sovereign states for granted and believe that its development was inevitable.” Spruyt (1994:155) argues that states triumphed over competitors because their hierarchical and centralized organization made them “more effective and more efficient in curtailing freeriding and defection,” and they were, therefore, “better at mobilizing the resources of their societies.” Spruyt (1994:179) then adds: “Moreover, with another dramatic transformation, the contemporary ‘winner’ of this process of selection and empowerment – that is, sovereign, territorial authority – might prove to be susceptible to change itself.”

Our analysis insists that contemporary political space – like all of the spaces of concern to the social sciences – is incongruent with the territorial space defined by an interstate system, and that that fact has a profound impact on the ways a wide range of actual real states try to exercise traditional tasks. Some such tasks, like waging war, seem less central to states than they once did. In trying to make sense of these changes, scholars have had to find new ways of characterizing the state. Thus, the “welfare state” is giving way to a “competition state,” a “market state,” a “virtual state,” “residual state,” and – now perhaps with the recent worldwide financial collapse – perhaps something like a “pump-priming re-regulatory state.”

Far from being a universal feature, the territorial state was a European invention that has dominated IR for only a few centuries. Until recently, most human beings were aggregated and governed by expansive empires, extended families and clans, and nomadic tribes. Empires “held sway for millennia” (Talbott 2008:7). From ancient Sumer to the USSR, multiethnic imperial polities dominated global politics. For the most part, these entities lacked fixed or “hard” political frontiers, tended to be expansive, and in many cases put forward claims to universal rule. “Alexander the Great,” writes Talbott (2008:7–8), “conceived of an ecumenical realm embracing what, for him, was the known world. The expansion of his domain and those of other conquerors […] established the basis for governance on a vast scale.” Some, like Genghis Khan’s Mongols were largely nomadic, with little use for exclusive territorial control. To the extent they had a concept of “sovereignty,” it referred to rule over people not territory. Centralization and localization of authority existed side by side, and governance was shared by imperial and local authorities.

The Many Meanings of the State

“State” remains an ill-defined concept and, as a result, impedes theory-building in IR. Particular variants of the concept are routinely infused with normative content whether employed by Aristotle, Aquinas, Machiavelli, Bodin, Hobbes, apologists for Europe’s “absolutist” monarchies, utilitarians like Bentham, idealists like Hegel, or realists like Morgenthau (Ferguson and Mansbach 1989:3–15). As an inherently prescriptive concept, it defies the empiricism of many social scientists.

One determined effort to define the universal or “true” state was that of Badie and Birnbaum (1983:60). They maintained “the true state (as distinguished from what is merely the center of a centralized political system) is one that has achieved a certain level of differentiation, autonomy, universality, and institutionalization.” Badie and Birnbaum (1983:103–4) pointed to absolutist France as the model state and argued that that there are “political systems in which there is both a center and a state (France), a state but no center (Italy), a center but no true state (Great Britain and the United States), and neither a center nor a true state (Switzerland).” They (1983:103) contend it is important to differentiate between “state” and “society” and noted that “civil society has at times been able to make do without a state.”

State can also refer to an ethno-cultural entity, a definition that conflates the usual idea of “state” and “nation” and identifies the one with the other. In this case, the state stands for a society and its “people” and their unique characteristics (Ferguson and Mansbach 1989:42–60). This perspective was hard to credit in postcolonial regions as well as failed multinational creations like the former Yugoslavia. Institutionalizing a territorial state proved elusive where there were violent inter-ethnic conflicts. Moreover, continued legal and illegal migration of peoples so mixes populations in contemporary states that it is harder than ever to establish who is within and without the bounds of their respective nations.

The state is also defined as a functional unit, notably by followers of Durkheim. Its evolution is said to reflect a growing division of labor and societal specialization. In this way, state-building, as Badie and Birnbaum argue (1983:27), “plays a part in what functionalists regard as the four central processes of modernization: differentiation, autonomization, universalization, and institutionalization.” They contend, however, that such evolution cannot take place in the postcolonial world because conditions there are so unlike those in Europe.

A fourth version, associated with Weber (Badie and Birnbaum 1983:17–24), views the state as a monopoly of legitimate violence within society. For Tilly (1992:14), following Weber, European “state structure appeared chiefly as a by-product of rulers’ efforts to acquire the means of war.” “Banditry, piracy, gangland rivalry, policing, and war making all belong on the same continuum” (Tilly 1985:170). “War made the state, and the state made war” (Tilly 1975:42v, also 1992:67–87).

Weber’s definition, dating back to Hobbes, is an ideal type. As Thomson (1994:143, 67–8) shows, “little more than a century ago the state did not monopolize the exercise of coercion beyond its borders.” The process of centralizing the means of coercion was slow. States were “reluctant to exert authority and control over nonstate violence” and only did so when they decided to confront “fundamental issues of authority” that arose in the course of Europe’s outward colonial expansion. Sheehan (2008:52) observes that “the continued presence of groups like the Mafia underscored the state’s inability to maintain a monopoly of legitimate violence.” Even now, the process of centralizing coercion in many states is incomplete, and drug lords, ethnic separatists, and pirate bands make a mockery of state control of violence and are regarded by followers as more legitimate than governments.

Weber’s concept of the state is, of course, more complex than its being no more than a concentration of raw power. Although for Weber the state is autonomous from society, society does play a role as indicated by his insistence that state coercion be “legitimate.” Weber’s idea of state autonomy leads Mann (1988:3) to claim that the state is merely an arena. Although force, Weber believed, was the way in which states achieved their ends, its use is instrumental for attaining other ends. Thus, authority and legitimacy matter (Hobson 2002a:27), and Weber “had much in common with the English School” (Hobson 2002b:64).

Defining the state as a set of autonomous bureaucracies apart from the society that it governs is closer to a view of the state as a unitary entity and reflects one neo-Weberian adaptation. Skocpol (1985:9), influenced by Nettl (1968:562), was especially influential in this regard, arguing that the state and its institutions are autonomous and distinct from societies – “states conceived as organizations claiming control over territories and people may formulate and pursue goals that are not simply reflective of the demands or interests of social groups, classes, or society.” The state, in Skocpol’s view (1979:29), is a “set of administrative, policing, and military organizations headed, and more or less well coordinated by, an executive authority.”

Krasner (1984:224–5), a realist, has much in common with Skocpol, arguing that “the dominant conceptualization in the non-Marxist literature” is the state as “a bureaucratic apparatus and institutionalized legal order in its totality.” For Krasner, the “final phrase is critical, for it distinguishes statist orientations from the bureaucratic politics approaches which have parceled the state into little pieces, pieces that be individually analyzed (where you stand depends on where you sit) and that float in a permissive environment (policies are a product of bargaining and compromise among bureaus).” Thus, he sees the state as “an actor in its own right as either an exogenous or an intervening variable” that “cannot be understood as a reflection of societal characteristics of preferences.” Krasner’s unitary-state perspective comports well with the model territorial and sovereign Westphalian state – partly myth, partly aspiration, and certainly an ideal type. Interestingly, neo-Marxist Poulantzas (2001:54) also sees the “the bourgeois State,” as “a specialized and centralized apparatus of a peculiarly political nature” and “an assemblage of impersonal, anonymous functions whose form is distinct from that of economic power.”

The similarity among Skocpol, Krasner, and Poulantzas is ironic inasmuch, as Hobson suggests (2000:30, emphasis in original), that, contra neorealists, neo-Weberians claim that “for all the talk of states, state power, and state autonomy, the state is under-theorised and rendered all but irrelevant to the determination of IP [international politics] – ‘it is merely a passive victim of systemic anarchy’.” Hobson (2002b:70), a professed neo-Weberian, contends that Skocpol brings “the state back in” by “‘kicking society back out’, because she reduces it to the international political structure.” Skocpol’s state is a form of “sociological realism” (Hobson 2002b:66) that is rooted in the neorealism of Waltz (1979) and Gilpin (1981) because it lacks “any degree of international agential power.” This contrasts to a second wave of “structurationist” Weberian historical sociology (cf. Mann 1986) in which “states and state-society complexes have agency to shape, and are simultaneously shaped by the international system” (Hobson 2002b:66). In sum, Skocpol, like Waltz, has no theory of the state (Hobson 2002b:68).

The Marxist definition of the state as a ruling class that in time will “wither away,” is, unlike Weberian analysis, firmly embedded in society. Poulantzas (2001:49, 51, 52) expresses Marxist orthodoxy when he argues that “the institutional materiality of the State […] must, first of all, be sought in the relations of the State to the relations of production and to the social division of labour they entail”; the state forms “a dictatorship over the proletariat”; and “[e]conomic functions favouring the accumulation of capital affect the structuring of the State in a number of important ways […] that are essential to an explanation of the current form of State: authoritarian statism.” Unlike Weber and Weberians like Tilly who emphasized the centrality of war, Marxists argue, as Halliday (1994:61) observes, that “the modern inter-state system emerged in the context of the spread of capitalism across the globe, and the subjugation of pre-capitalist societies.” For Rosenberg (1994), a key question is how economic and political forces are linked in the state and how the state has been used to extract wealth. For some neo-Marxists, this has produced a rejection of Marx’s distinction between the economic base and the dependent superstructure, including the state, and to a merging of the two by invoking a Gramscian approach to power (Cutler 2002).

Critical theories of the state as a source of harm evolved from Marxist analysis but eschew historical materialism and seek to identify and counteract the baneful consequences of state action. Writes Halliday (2002:261): “Beginning as a form of Marxist reflection upon the emancipatory subject in twentieth-century Europe, it has, at various stages, encompassed radical students, Third World Revolutionaries, the social movements of the 1970s and 1980s and an international civil society: in other words, agency.” Among the pioneers of critical theory are Cox (1996) and Linklater (1998). “States,” argues Linklater (2002:165, 166), “remain the principal rule-makers in international society.” Hence: “Conceptions of the moral rights against and duties to the rest of humanity are at the centre of this approach to political communities,” and “the central concern is what separate societies regard as permissible in their dealings with outsiders.” Such propositions lead Halliday (2002:261) to remark acerbically of critical theory that “the argument on agency is vague: a mystical invocation of the working class, or colonial liberation movements, by a hypo-statisation of social movements, or by gestural invocations of selected, distant examples – indigenous peoples in India, recycling collectives in Cologne, Comandante Marcos in Chiapas.”

The near opposite of the Marxist conception is the state as a pluralist community in which the democratic state is viewed as an arena of interest group competition. Krasner (1978:27) argues that interest group analyses are most fruitful “when economic issues are at stake” because “it is not difficult to establish a relationship between official policy and the preferences of particular groups.” Somewhere between Marxist and pluralist views are neo-pluralist and corporatist models that recognize that some interests are underrepresented or lack political clout while others enjoy disproportionate influence in the political process (Lindblom 1977). A related definition is that of the state as composed of ruling elites (Dye 2002).

The state defined as bureaucratic/governmental and organizational politics is of special importance in IR because these perspectives emphatically do not regard the state as a unitary entity or what Wolfers (1962:19–20) termed a “billiard ball.” Krasner (1978:27) views the bureaucratic politics model as “the logic of pluralism” applied “to policy-making within government.” States are torn by political factions and are subject to bureaucratic and interest group infighting and bargaining, sometimes transnational in nature, in which bureaucratic actors compete to promote particular norms and policies (Alderson 2001:420). Agencies compete for larger staffs and budgets and recommend policies to justify their requests. Each has its own policy preferences and defines problems in ways that give it more responsibility and political clout. As a result, by the time policies are adopted and implemented, they may no longer reflect what any single agency intended (Allison and Zelikow 1999:235–324).

Conflict and cooperation among bureaucrats can also be transnational. Sassen (2006:298) writes of “transnational networks of government officials,” examples of which include “judges having to negotiate a growing array of international rules and prohibitions that require some measure of cross-border standardization,” “immigration officials needing to coordinate border controls,” and “police officials in charge of discovering financial flows that support terrorism.” Such networks illustrate how political space is being transformed and how globalized issues and international and transnational governance – linking governments and societies – are facts of global life (Goldmann 2001).

Cerny (1996:123–4) captures how globalization has intensified bureaucratic and intergroup competition when he argues that “the ability of firms, market actors and competing parts of the national state apparatus itself to defend and expand their economic and political turf through activities such as transnational policy networking and ‘regulatory arbitrage’ – the capacity of industrial and financial sectors to ‘whipsaw’ the state apparatus by pushing state agencies into a process of competitive deregulation – has both undermined the control span of the state from without and fragmented it from within.”

The organizational-process model gainsays the unitary state by describing foreign policy as a product of the coordinated effort of large agencies. No single agency is fully responsible for making policy. Instead, each, with its own procedures for gathering and processing information and defining problems, is responsible for some part of it. Each has its own standard operating procedures that are designed to manage and respond to routine problems quickly and efficiently (Allison and Zelikow 1999:143–96).

The Ever-Changing State

Much of IR theory treats the state as unchanging or at most evolving from dynastic to popular sovereignty as a product of liberal nationalism. In fact, the model state enshrined by IR theorists existed for only a very brief time, if ever, in complete form. Historians and political scientists who have studied the state’s evolution are aware of and have written at length about the largely fictive character of the model type (Ferguson and Mansbach 1989:17–40). The state was a European invention that was exported to the rest of the world as European institutions and practices became paramount globally in the course of Europe’s imperial ventures. Among the preconditions for constituting Europe’s states were conceptions of a difference between “domestic” and “international” and “public” and “private” life, yet no such conceptions existed in medieval Europe or could have in a world steeped in religious conviction and based on a feudal system of mutual obligation and shared and overlapping ownership of territory. Europe’s feudal system was premised on “rule over people rather than land” (Spruyt 1994:40).

One ambitious analysis of state evolution is that of Philip Bobbitt. “The State exists,” Bobbitt writes (2002:6), “by virtue of its purposes” among which “are a drive for survival and freedom of action, which is strategy; for authority and legitimacy, which is law; for identity, which is history.” He (2002:81) sees the first of Europe’s states – “princely states” – emerging from medieval Europe in the city-states of Italy at the end of the fifteenth century. These polities, unlike the scattered dynastic territories of medieval rulers, were geographically compact. They featured a common culture and a monetized economy that financed hiring mercenaries and the reconstruction of walled fortresses to reduce the impact of cannon fire. They saw themselves as “juridical entities separate from […] the civil society” at a time when “human traits” were “transposed to the State itself.” Princes needed professional bureaucrats to deal with military threats, and they were legitimated by Machiavelli’s idea of ragione di stato that held that a prince does not serve his personal interests but rather serves the interests of his state. The features of these personalized “princely states,” when imported to the larger territories of Spain, England, and France took the form of “kingly states” with the addition of dynastic legitimacy.

For Sassen (2006:80–1) the transition to kingly states, notably the provision of legitimacy and accompanying shift in norms and identities, comes earlier, with France’s Capetian monarchs. “The Capetian project,” she argues, “and its claim to divinity as a source of authority autonomous from the papacy was such an innovative epistemic shift and, thus a critical development of capabilities for the national state […]. In addition, sovereign territorial authority entailed recognizing a mutually agreed upon spatial demarcation of political authority. It demanded a principle of juridical equivalence.” Sassen (2006:43–4) explains: “The economic transformations between 1000 and 1300 brought with them political innovations. Monetization, trade, and the growing wealth and numbers of towns altered the political organization of the times in that they weakened the system of in-kind transfers crucial to earlier feudal organization,” and “[i]t is also the period when territorial state sovereignty is invented.”

Bobbitt locates Europe’s transition from “kingly” to “territorial” states between the early sixteenth and the late seventeenth centuries, an era of religious wars and the Habsburgs’ effort to establish imperial dominion over the continent. During this time the kingly state – “a domain of absolute authority that made the king the personification of the State” (Sassen 2006:95) – was the dominant polity. Small firearms organized into rotating rows of highly disciplined musketeers and fortified cities that could withstand lengthy sieges changed warfare and made standing armies necessary. Such states were “machines built for the battlefield” (Jordan 1985:152), and they reflected a union of economic and military capabilities. The logic of kingly states was extension of the sovereign’s authority to personify the state and enhance dynastic interests. This logic was reflected in the efforts of Louis XIII and XIV to end religious strife within France and secularize political life, overthrow Habsburg power, place Bourbons on the thrones of France’s neighbors, and impose French hegemony on Europe. France emerged from the Thirty Years’ War as an archetypal kingly state, legitimated by divine right and dynastic continuity, and featuring “the transformation of the princely Valois state into the Bourbon kingly state, a centralization, secularization, and nationalization of state authority along absolutist lines famously identified with the principle of raison d’état” (Bobbitt 2002:109).

Teschke (2003:3, 10) agrees up to a point, arguing that 1648 “was the culmination of the epoch of absolutist state formation.” He contends that “the bellicose nature of absolutist states was the external expression of political strategies of accumulation rooted in a social property regime characterized by a tax/office state taking coerced rents from a peasantry in possession of its means of subsistence.” Instead of focusing on Westphalia and French absolutism, though, Teschke (2003:248) emphasizes England’s Glorious Revolution that began state modernization by the “formation of capitalism.”

Unlike kingly states, “the territorial state was identified by its contiguity.” “For the territorial state, its borders were everything – its legitimacy, its defense perimeter, its tax base”; it was “a state of definite limits” that “was characterized by a shift from the monarch-as-embodiment of sovereignty to the monarch as minister of sovereignty” (Bobbitt 2002:120, 139, 143). Its armies “were made up of the unskilled, the unwilling, and the unlucky, who were turned into soldiers by endless drill, brutal discipline, and the threat of draconian punishment” (Sheehan 2008:15). The territorial state was characterized by Staatsraison, which Bobbitt (2002:135–6) contrasts with ragione di stato and raison d’état. Staatsraison he describes as “an imperative that compels [the state’s] strategic designs” and “identifies the state with the country, the land.” Of the various “states” that Bobbitt describes, the territorial state comes closest to the model IR polity. He argues (2002:129) that the territorial state was enshrined, not by the Westphalian settlement which he views as legitimating kingly states, but by the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), “the first European treaty that explicitly establishes a balance of power as the objective of the treaty regime” and, in doing so, recognized the existence of rules, practices, and norms within an interstate society. The system of territorial states promoted limited (though often bloody) warfare featuring professional armies seeking modest territorial adjustments that did not threaten ruling houses or the independence of great powers.

Bobbitt (2002:146, 196, 178) argues that the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars ushered in another variant, the “state-nation,” “a state that mobilizes a nation – a national ethnocultural group – to act on behalf of the State” that “can thus call on the revenues of all society and on the human talent of all persons” but “does not exist to serve or take direction from the nation, as does the nation-state,” which “creates a state in order to benefit the nation which it governs.” The state-nation was energized by mass conscription, citizen soldiers, and standing armies. And, as Sheehan (2008:14) contends, “the more universal military service became […] the more tightly the strands of identity and obligation, welfare and duty, were knitted in a single category of citizenship.” One consequence was the emergence of enormous armies driven by aggressive expansionism in the nation’s name. The nineteenth century British, Russian, and French Empires were, Bobbitt contends, state-nations.

Bobbitt’s differentiation of “kingly” from “territorial” states and “state-nations” from “nation-states” is unusual, and theorists usually conflate these. Typical is Hall’s (1999:4) twofold typology of “territorial-sovereign state actors whose regimes relied upon dynastic legitimating principles” and “national-sovereign actors whose regimes have relied upon the ‘imagined community’ of the nation as a legitimating principle.” Unlike Bobbitt, Hall (1999:214–47) sees colonial expansion as characteristic of nation-states, which he interprets as the “global transmission of bourgeois-national identity and culture.”

The transition from state-nations to nation-states accelerated during the midnineteenth century and featured the 1848 revolutions, the Crimean War, and broader suffrage in much of Europe, climaxing in the unification of Italy and Germany. Nation-states were legitimized by the principle of national self-determination under which the “nation” was the repository of sovereignty, and “nation” linked “state” to “society” in unprecedented ways. The doctrine of self-determination, spread globally by Europe’s colonizers, in turn, would ultimately bring an end to Europe’s overseas empires. Their colonial wars were brutal affairs, and wars between each other became total, identity-based conflicts made possible by industrialization and advancing military technology. It was during the transition from state-nations to nation-states that subjects became genuine citizens and assumed exclusive allegiance to “their” states. The connection between citizen and state became even closer with the emergence of the modern welfare state in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The Gap between State Ideal and Reality

The state’s eventual demise has often been predicted. However, what has transpired to date has been dramatic changes in the state’s functions, and authority. We have seen how Europe’s territorial states emerged from the nonterritorial polities of medieval Europe and will shortly discuss how territoriality has become problematic in a globalizing world. Political space is constantly in flux owing to processes that entail the formation of extensive networks of interaction and interdependence, along with the disintegration of polities into smaller more localized political entities. Currently, these dynamics pull states in different directions, eroding state autonomy and forcing them to share functions with transnational and international institutions. “Under the impact of global processes that make the world a single unit, on the one hand, and of a global trend toward decentralization and fragmentation, on the other, great transformations are taking place in the patterns of interaction between states and nations” (Reis 2004). As Rosenau argues (1984:257), “centripetal forces […] are making groups and nations more and more interdependent even as centrifugal forces are increasingly fragmenting them into subgroups and subnations.” These processes are at once altering state sovereignty, the significance of territory, and meaning of political and economic space. These changes are transforming states into radically different polities than those envisioned by most IR theorists, past and present.

Sovereignty, Deterritorialization, and Political Space

Sovereignty in its various usages was a legitimating doctrine that constituted states. States’ “claims to sovereignty construct a social environment in which they can interact as an international society of states, while at the same time the mutual recognition of claims to sovereignty is an important element in the construction of states themselves” (Biersteker and Weber 1996:1–2). Sovereignty is yet another highly contested concept. For example, James (1986:25) defines sovereignty as constitutional independence, and Morgenthau (2006:319–21) equates it with independence, equality, and the right to decide.

Krasner’s (1999:3, 4) approach to sovereignty is more sophisticated. Arguing that sovereignty has changed little over time, he contends that the concept has four different connotations – “international legal sovereignty, Westphalian sovereignty, domestic sovereignty, and interdependence sovereignty.” The first refers to mutual recognition; the second, to the “exclusion of external actors from authority structures within a given territory”; the third, to “effective control” of its territory by a government; and the fourth, a government’s ability to control its borders.

Krasner is probably correct. NATO’s violation of Serbia’s Westphalian, domestic, and interdependence sovereignty in invading Kosovo and fostering its independence is analogous to the eighteenth century partitions of Poland. The Security Council’s claim that it must approve America’s invasion of Iraq regardless of a state’s sovereign right to wage war unilaterally echoes the pretensions of Europe’s Holy Alliance and the League of Nations. But the question is one of degree. No states enjoy all of the dimensions of Krasner’s version of sovereignty. Even countries like the United States and China lack interdependence sovereignty, while few of the circa 200 countries in the world can be said to enjoy more than one or two of these dimensions.

Indeed, the meaning of sovereignty has been negotiated continuously since Europe’s Middle Ages. “The new element introduced by the late medieval state,” declares Spruyt (1994:3), “was the notion of sovereignty,” and “it was the concept of sovereignty that altered the structure of the international system by basing political authority on the principle of territorial exclusivity.” “The idea of sovereignty,” as Krasner (1993:238) observes, “was used to legitimate the right of the sovereign to collect taxes, and thereby strengthen the position of the state, and to deny such rights to the church, and thereby weaken the position of the papacy.”

The practice of state sovereignty is built on territoriality, and conceptualizing space as exclusively territorial reflects what Boyarin (1994:4) calls “close genealogical links between the ‘Cartesian coordinates’ of space and time and the discrete, sovereign state, both associated with European society since the Renaissance. These links include relations of mapping, boundary setting, inclusion, and exclusion.” Both the Holy Roman Empire and papacy evolved theories of authority that approximated sovereignty, but these theories were not anchored in territory. Western Christendom was not divided into separate states, with princes exclusively sovereign in their territory, but was organized into nobility, peasants, clergy, and townsmen. This world, as described by Sassen (2006:32, 40), was one “of complex interactions among particular forms of territorial fixity, the absence of exclusive territorial authority, the existence of multiple crisscrossing jurisdictions, and the embedding of rights in classes of people rather than in territorially exclusive units.” Such crisscrossing jurisdictions prevented “territorial fixity from becoming exclusive territorial rule.” “There was a kind of central authority during feudalism arising out of the church and the empire. But it was not based on territoriality – exclusive territorial authority” (Sassen 2006:33). “Sovereignty,” as Strayer (1970:58–9) suggests, “requires independence from any outside power and final authority over men who live within certain boundaries. But in 1300 it was not clear who was independent and who was not, and it was difficult to draw definite boundaries in a Europe which had known only overlapping spheres of influence and fluctuating frontier zones.” The subsequent growth in state capabilities was linked to its ability to exert exclusive control over territory and enjoy exclusive access to the resources and people located there.

An epistemic shift took place, argues Ruggie (1993:168), so that “[t]he most distinct feature of modernity in international politics came to be: a particular form of territoriality – disjointed, fixed, and mutually exclusive – as the basis for organizing political life.” Similarly, Sassen (2006:80) declares: “The transition from feudal lordship to territorial state required a change in the meaning of authority, as did the later move from a state dominated by the interests of the prince to those of the traders and manufacturers. The sovereign state needed to be imagined and personified before it could exist.” Its symbols and myths can be seen in history books, songs, statues, and paintings. As for contemporary states, in Sheehan’s (2008:6) words: “Every modern state is an imagined community, since a state is too large and complex to be experienced directly.”

Sovereignty and exclusive control of a limited territorial space are bound up with each other. The former legitimates the latter, and the latter is the rationale for the former.

Territoriality always was problematic and has become increasingly so. Political space, that is, the ways in which identities and loyalties among adherents to various polities are distributed and related, need not be territorial. Psychological distance is not a function of physical distance, nor does psychological proximity require physical proximity. Why, as Inayatullah and Blaney (2004:189, 191) ask, should we accept “the assumption that property/sovereignty should be governed by the logic of straight lines”? Instead, “territorial spaces are historically constructed, entailing a set of social relationships and processes, and not a universal and fixed category within a Euclidean geometry or Newtonian cosmology.” Indeed, the proliferation of subnational, transnational, international, and supranational actors in global politics, sharing adherents with states, have returned global politics in some respects to the overlapping and crosscutting political life of medieval Europe and away from the exclusive territorial boxes characteristic of state-centric maps (Ferguson and Mansbach 2004). Thus, “alternative constructions of space – as overlapping, heterogeneous, and relative – may compete with modern visions that subscribe to the magic of straight lines,” and “the separate and overlapping character of group relations and ambitions might be recognized and negotiated where relative notions of space […] are also put into play” (Inayatullah and Blaney 2004:191, 210).

There is more to political space than territory, and exclusive territoriality and the clear demarcation between “inside” and “outside” have been undermined by economic, social, and cultural factors. As one observer puts what has become a common observation, “the primacy given to territoriality and the importance of the internal/external distinction are undermined by the process of globalization” (Williams 1996:120).

In the economic sphere, for instance, although transnational corporations typically have a home base (important not least for taxation purposes), their strategies, production chains, networks, and many of their customers are abroad. Capital market transactions begin and end in physical locations, but happen via cyberspace. Trade and a host of other economic activities are substantially transborder in nature. “A fundamental dynamic in this regard,” as Sassen (2006:283) observes, “is the growing articulation of globalization with national economies and the associated withdrawal of the state from various spheres of citizenship entitlements, with the possibility of a corresponding dilution of loyalty to the state.”

Today’s states have little in common with one another except international legal sovereignty, and many are what Jackson (1990:21) calls “quasi-states” – states that are “primarily juridical” in which “empirical statehood in large measure still remains to be built” and with governments that are “often deficient in the political will, institutional power, and organized authority to protect human rights or provide socioeconomic welfare.” Declining territoriality, the eroded barrier between domestic and external politics, and the blurred distinctions between public and private arenas and public and private goods have combined to alter the state in basic ways. In Sassen’s (2006:20, 403) words, “the distinctive features of the new, mostly but not exclusively private institutional order in formation are its capacity to privatize what was heretofore public and to denationalize what were once national authorities and policy agendas.” Thus, “the process of denationalization is in full swing.” The degree to which that process continues after the 2008 financial collapse remains to be seen.

The State and Public Goods

The essence of state authority has been provision of collective goods for subjects/citizens within a limited geographic area. Initially, the most important of these was security from foreign military attack and the conduct of foreign affairs. Specialized bureaucracies to collect taxes and organize military defense were established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries throughout Europe. “Though the details varied,” writes Van Creveld (1999:141–2), “in all countries the century and a half after 1648 was characterized by the growth in the power of state bureaucracy, both that part whose function was internal administration and the division responsible for external affairs.”

The twentieth century witnessed the birth of new bureaucracies to administer the host of tasks associated with providing collective social and economic goods. The welfare state, in effect, became part of the mission of the nation-state. With the Depression and world wars, “embedded liberalism” – “a framework which would safeguard and even aid the quest for domestic stability without, at the same time, triggering the mutually destructive external consequences that had plagued the interwar period” (Ruggie 1982:393) – became the overriding approach of Western states.

Globalizing tendencies, notably in the economic sphere, seemed to reverse what had been the growth of states’ obligations to provide collective goods, and this role (at least until recently) has been reduced, though at different rates, in many states. This has implications for citizens’ identities and loyalties. As Cerny (1996:135, emphasis in original; also 1995) argues, “by altering the basic structural conditions for the provision of public (as well as private) goods, globalization profoundly challenges our understanding of such central concerns as security, collective choice, political obligation, citizenship, legality, democracy and justice,” and “a critical threshold may be crossed when the cumulative effect of globalization in strategically decisive issue-areas undermines the general capacity of the state to pursue the ‘most sovereign of all goods’, i.e. the ‘common good’, or the capacity of the state to be a true ‘civil association’.” Sassen (2006:242–3) adds: “A critical and growing component of the broader field of forces within which states operate today is the proliferation of specialized types of private authority […]. [T]his is […] an alternation in the ‘exclusivity and scope’ of the competence of governments.” Examples of such privatization are evident in international commercial arbitration, bond ratings, and cross-border construction projects (Sassen 2006:243–7). Three related areas – security, economics, and culture/identity – reflect the growing divergence of contemporary states from the model type in IR.


The state has been historically associated with providing military security, and we have seen how Weber, Tilly, Bobbitt and others put war-making at the center of their account of state evolution. “Had it not been for the need to wage war,” argues Van Creveld (1999:336), “then the development of bureaucracy, taxation, even welfare services such as education, health, etc. would probably have been much slower.” Mann (1988:124–89) argues that virtually all of states’ finances between 1130 and 1815 involved armaments and armies and that state development was closely tied to the prevalence of war. Lasswell wrote of an emerging “garrison state” in which democratic forms would exist side by side with a growing concentration of power in the hands of military officers. “In the garrison state, the specialist in violence is at the helm, and organized economic and social theory is systematically subordinated to the fighting forces. This means that the predominating influence is in the hands of men who specialize in violence.”

However, the role of states in affording military security has changed, in some cases dramatically. Following World War II, the development of nuclear weapons, along with ICBMs and the fact that they were targeted at cities, suggested that territorial states could not protect citizens from apocalyptic attack. In addition, irregular war emphasized the political and ideological aspects of warfare rather than controlling territory. Irregular fighters stressed the need to coerce and persuade civilians, while behaving like “fish” in a peasant sea. Together, the nuclear standoff between rival superpowers and guerrilla movements eroded the traditional role of territory in providing security.

Already, realist Herz (1959) was arguing that developments in military technology (as well as economic interdependence and ideological competition) had diminished the relevance of territory and made states obsolete because those developments enabled penetration of the state’s “hard shell” of “impenetrability.” More recently, Sheehan (2008:xx, xvi) has contended that the Cold War division of Europe and the nuclear stalemate “provided the incubator within which the states of western Europe were gradually transformed” into “civilian states” (a term used earlier by Lasswell). Civilian states “retained the capacity to make war with one another but lost all interest in doing so.” As a result of its unique history, the ability and willingness to wage war, though “traditionally the essence of sovereign statehood,” is disappearing in Europe. Europeans now resort to “soft” rather than “hard” power. In Sheehan’s (2008:xvi) words: “The power that European states do project internationally is economic, cultural, and legal, the outward expression of the values and institutions that matter most in their relations with one another and with their own citizens.” Yet, as Bobbitt (2002:216) reminds us: “The State exists to master violence […]. If the State is unable to deliver on these promises, it will be changed […]. A State that could neither protect its citizens from crime nor protect its homeland from attack by other states would have ceased to fulfill its most basic reason for being.”

Today’s “failed” and “failing” states” can neither protect citizens from crime nor protect their homeland from attack. A toxic combination of predatory leaders, rampant corruption, poverty, economic inequality, demographic pressures, fractured elites, refugee flows, vengeance-seeking groups, the emigration of educated citizens, and environmental stress have caused state institutions to collapse. Where Europeans imposed borders that inhabitants never accepted and that separated ethnic polities in different states or caged conflicting groups within a single state, postcolonial governments unsuccessfully sought to foster national loyalties and build cohesive nations on the European model. As of 2008 there were 20 failed or failing states, including significant regional powers Nigeria and Pakistan (Foreign Policy 2008:67).

In such states, military and security forces have become fractured “states within the state” on behalf of specific leaders or political factions. Governments are dominated by subgroups, are deemed illegitimate by citizens, and are unable to exercise authority over the state’s territory. Rather than affording citizens with security, the military-security institutions constitute a key threat to citizens’ security. Thus, “war-making” can be either “state-making” or “state-destroying” (Taylor and Botea 2008).


Economic globalization has significantly eroded all states’ capacity to determine their economic destiny and see to the needs of citizens. To account for this transformation, Cerny (1996:124–5) writes of the “competition state.” “The key to the new role of the state,” he argues, “lies in the way that economic competition is changing in the world.”

The main task […] of the contemporary state is the promotion of economic activities, whether at home or abroad, which make firms or sectors located within the territory of the state competitive in international markets – what I have called the ‘competition state’. […] [S]tate structures today are being transformed into more and more market-oriented and even market-based organizations themselves, fundamentally altering the way that public and private goods are provided […]. [W]e may be witnessing the transmutation of the state from a civil association into a more limited form of enterprise association […] operating within a wider market and institutional environment. This is not merely a change in degree, but a change in kind.

“The functions of the state,” Cerny (2003:65) maintains, “although central in structural terms, are becoming increasingly fragmented, privatized and devolved.” Thus, the “ongoing division of labor (‘globalization’)” places states “under ever-increasing pressure, and with it sovereignty-based IR theory” (Osiander 2001:283). Cerny’s competition state is echoed by Bobbitt’s (2002:283–91) “market-state” with its three variants – the “mercantile state,” “entrepreneurial state” (closest to Cerny’s competition state), and “managerial state.” “Whereas the nation-state, with its mass free public education, universal franchise, and social security policies promised to guarantee the welfare of the nation, the market-state promises instead to maximize the opportunity of the people and thus tends to privatize many state activities and to make voting and representative government less influential and more responsive to the market”(Bobbitt 2002:211).

From a neo-Marxist perspective, Jessop (2003:95, 96) describes a “competition state” much like Cerny’s. The “Schumpeterian Competition State,” he writes, is a “distinctive form of state concerned to promote economic and extra-economic conditions deemed appropriate to the emerging post-Fordist accumulation regime.” Jessop’s “competition state” tries to achieve economic growth at home and abroad “by promoting the economic and extra-economic conditions that are currently deemed vital for success in competition with economic actors and spaces located in other states.” Its strategies “are always mediated through the operation of the world market as a whole – especially as efforts are made to widen and deepen the latter through strategies of neoliberal globalization. As such the competition state prioritizes the pursuit of strategies intended to create, restructure or reinforce […] the competitive advantages of its territory, population, built environment, social institutions and economic agents.” It is “Schumpeterian” “because of its concern with technological change, innovation and enterprise and its attempt to develop new techniques of government and governance to these ends.”

Cerny (1996:133–4) captures how the changing nature of the global economy contains elements of both state fission and fusion, declaring: “The shift in decision-making power in a globalizing world is differentiating along several dimensions – not merely downward to domestic firms and markets or into different corners of the splintered state, but also upward to international markets and firms and to a range of more or less functionally specialized international bodies.” Though adaptive to a globalizing world economy, such states have “inherent weaknesses” (Bobbitt 2002:290), including a “lack of community,” “extreme meritocracy,” “essential materialism,” and “indifference to heroism, spirituality, and tradition.” These features are antithetical to the values of “rational desire and rational recognition” that Fukuyama (1992:337) believes to be the key “pillars” of liberal democracy, but they are the features of other polities – based in religion, ethnicity, and other cultural attributes – that compete with states for citizens’ identities and loyalties.

Markets are increasingly transnational and ever less congruent with national frontiers. The global capital market, for example, involves the movement of funds across, over, and under the boundaries of states. “That the global capital market is partly located in these specific terrains,” declares Sassen (2006:259) “needs to be distinguished from the notion that it is encased in national territories: the institutional arrangements and professional practices involved in the operations of these markets may well have the effect of denationalizing the financial centers and hence constitute a spatiality that is distinct from that of national territoriality,” and the capital market “erodes government control of national economy” because “derivatives diminish the impact of interest rates; foreign exchange and bond markets reduce governments’ power to influence interest and foreign exchange rates; electronic cash reduces power of central banks to control the money supply.” Whether capital markets should constrain state policies ranging from safety regulations to job security, regardless of public preference, has become a key normative issue, especially since the 2008 crisis.

States’ commitment to providing for citizens’ welfare – the core of “embedded liberalism” – is unraveling. From the late nineteenth century and especially after the Depression, states assumed ever greater responsibility for assuring citizens’ welfare, creating entitlements, and regulating (even planning) national economic, environmental, legal, and social activities. Whether dubbed the “competitive” or “market” state, structural forces have seemed to compel states to reduce or abandon welfare functions, altering what it means to be a citizen. This has increased the relative attraction of other identities, especially to polities that can compensate for the shrinking state. And, where states have failed, radical groups like Hamas or even drug lords and criminal networks have become popular by assuming welfare tasks formerly performed by governments.


Changing identities have always been a feature of global politics. From medieval Europe to the twentieth century, a reshuffling of identities took place so that citizenship and nationality, anchored in territory, took precedence in much of the world over identities arising from religion, class, ethnicity, or locality. For several centuries the state provided the psychological satisfaction of a broad group identity. Interstate wars, industrialization, welfare reforms, and education reinforced state-based identities. However, identities are today again undergoing significant reshuffling.

One consequence of globalization, especially advances in communications and transportation technologies and the reduced role of states, has been to accelerate the transnational movement of ideas and people, thereby opening up “all societies to a multiplicity of cultural influences [that] enables the individuals in those societies to choose what elements they want. The result is not homogeneity but rather pluralism and cultural diversity, the enrichment of all countries by their being fertilized by the challenges posed by others” (Talalay 2000:211).

Transnational identities have become increasingly common and robust, abetted by transnational business, migration and diasporas. Sassen (2006:299–301) identifies four categories of actual or potential transnational identities: transnational professional and business people, networks of government officials, political and humanitarian activists, and low wage worker and immigrant communities.

Robinson (2004:2, 39, 50) defined the first category as a “transnational capitalist class,” which has given rise to a “transnational state” that he contrasts with “nation-state centrism.” The second includes those described by Cerny (2003:65) as “systematic linkages between state actors and agencies within particular jurisdictions and sectors, cutting across different countries and including a heterogeneous collection of private actors and groups in interlocking policy communities.” They are, as Cerny maintains, a logical consequence of globalization and the efforts of states to make their economies more competitive. Thus, he (2003:65) concludes that contemporary states “are more and more ‘splintered’.” Sassen’s third category consists of individuals committed to “causes” ranging from human rights to preserving the environment who constitute the germ of global civil society. Her final category highlights communities that are the outcome of flows of economic or political migrants from the developing to the developed world.

Traditional IR theory assumed that citizen’s identities and loyalties were anchored in territorial states. However, that assumption is undermined when nation and state become separated, and religions, tribes, ethnicities, professions, gender, and even civilizations become rivals for individuals’ loyalties (Ferguson and Mansbach 2004:143–80).

Conclusion: A “Revitalized” State?

Recently, there have been indications that the 1990s pattern of ever-accelerating economic globalization was slowing, and there were new security concerns and shifts in realist power balances as well. Anti-globalization sentiments – resistance to the liberal “Washington Consensus” – gained momentum, and political discourse in the United States and other relatively wealthy countries reflected rising anger about perceived losses of jobs to emerging market economies. Doha multilateral trade negotiations ground to a halt on key issues including agricultural subsidies. China and India experienced unprecedented growth rates, encouraging their more assertive behavior in regional and global politics even as their booming industrial production added to the global greenhouse gases problem. America’s militant unilateralism and post-9/11 interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq generated debate about an expansive American “empire,” and the Russian invasion of Georgia raised the possibility of further use of force by an increasingly authoritarian government in Moscow. Meanwhile, soaring demand and market speculators resulted in skyrocketing energy prices that for a time gave major producers a massive influx of petrodollars.

Then in late summer 2008, skyrocketing energy costs, combined with a severe downturn in housing sales and a related subprime mortgage crisis, precipitated the worst financial collapse and slowdown in the world economy since the 1930s. To be sure, “casino capitalism” (as Strange famously characterized it) and its “virtual economy” associated with the likes of derivatives and hedge funds have been widely discredited. The crisis also revealed how relatively weak and underfunded multilateral economic institutions like the IMF and World Bank actually are. Hence citizens had little choice but to look to the traditional protector and provider of welfare, their respective states. The result was a scramble by governments and central banks to intervene in markets to stop the deflationary spiral and head off an even graver world recession. They urgently produced a barrage of measures designed to avoid additional bank failures, reassure depositors and shareholders, restore consumer confidence, and stimulate national economies. One result will no doubt be a modicum of new regulations – some with wide support from the affected private sectors themselves.

The ongoing crisis could not have pointed up more dramatically what theorists like Rosenau (1990) have long been saying about global “turbulence,” that is, how interconnected the world is. On the multilateral level there is talk of an overhaul and re-regulation of financial markets, and one of the initial measures was a coordinated lowering of interest rates by the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and the European Central Bank.

“The concept of the state,” as Nettl (1968:591) concluded, “though present in more or less marginal form in nearly all sociopolitical analysis today, has not lent itself readily to adequate conceptualization in accordance with the requirements of modern theory or analysis.” Much has changed, even since 1968. As Talalay (2000:220) observes: “Under technological pressures, the nature, the function and the power of the state are all changing. The international system is a system of states, but it is no longer a system merely of states. In 100 years’ time, it will probably still be a system of what we will call states, but those entities are likely to be so dramatically different from the European nation-states, that all the arguments among realists, neo-realists, liberal-idealists and Marxists will seem pointless.”

Since the 1970s, states have shared the global stage with a growing cast of actors (Keohane and Nye 1972; Mansbach et al. 1976). These include TNCs, NGOs, religious movements, and terrorist and ethnic groups that have structural power and/or one or more of Mann’s (1986:22–32) sources of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political. Nonstate actors frequently enjoy legitimacy, control resources, and have a capacity to allocate values effectively.

States are adapting, in a continued effort to survive and exercise their traditional tasks, and such adaptation is visible in their varied ad hoc responses to the rapid globalization of financial instability. Developing states have formed sovereign wealth funds that allow them a greater voice in the global economy, and grain producing states are placing restrictions on exports. China, Russia, and others are forging ahead with efforts to nationalize the internet and constrain NGOs’ autonomy. Opposition to immigration and belief that the costs of free trade may outweigh benefits have been gaining strength. Protectionist pressures are clearly growing. Steps to “re-harden” borders have been one reaction to fears of terrorism. And so on.

In sum, states are continuing to prove themselves as variable in their nature and practice as they are in IR theory. Globalization is surely in most respects irreversible and likely to proceed apace. How successful states will be in adapting to meet present and future challenges, of course, remains to be seen.


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