POLSC221 Study Guide

Unit 2: The Nation-State

2a. Identify the origins of the modern nation-state system

  • Who were the primary antagonists in the Thirty Years War?
  • How did the Treaty of Westphalia offer Europe a guiding structure in 1648?
  • How did this treaty represent a response to the universalist claims to the Holy Roman Empire?
  • What did the acceptance of this treaty do for religious preference in each nation-state?
  • How did religious influence lead to the establishment of the modern state system?

Certain codified elements have contributed to the creation of new international structures. In the case of the modern state system, political scientists identify contributions originating back in 1648, with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia which called for an end to the Thirty Years War and provided a guiding structure for Europe from that point forward. Each state typically has its own religious preference.

To review, see International Law and the New World Order: Redefining Sovereignty and The Sovereign State: Hobbes' Leviathan, Part I.


2b. Define the chief characteristics of a nation-state

  • What are a nation and a nation-state?
  • What are two characteristics required of a state to be a nation-state?
  • Can states be separate from nations?

While states can comprise a geographical area that includes multiple nations, not every nation is a state. For example, we consider the Kurds who live in parts of Turkey, northern Iraq, and northern Syria to be the largest nation without a formal state. Consequently, several nations may exist within a political state, whose borders may have been drawn for political reasons, such as, by an outside colonial power in the case of Iraq and so many other countries. The allegiance inhabitants have to the political state can vary widely and play a dramatic role in the country's internal politics.

To review, see Characteristics and Functions of the State. Review examples of how nations were divided for political reasons after World War I in The Breakup of the Ottoman Empire.


2c. Differentiate between nations and nation-states

  • What is the difference between a nation and a nation-state?
  • Can a nation exist that is not a state?
  • What are some examples of nations that exist in the modern era?

While many people use the terms nation and nation-state interchangeably, the differences between these two concepts can have important political consequences. For example, many nations can exist inside, outside, and across the political borders that outline different nation-states. The people who feel an allegiance to the different nations within can significantly impact internal politics as they vie for political power, especially if the borders include several competing nations that have strong ties that bind the individual members of their population together.

To review, see Characteristics and Functions of the State. Review examples of how nations were divided for political reasons after World War I in The Breakup of the Ottoman Empire.


2d. Define sovereignty and identify and explain trends in sovereignty

  • How would sovereignty be defined in its original context?
  • How does sovereignty apply to a modern context?
  • What does sovereignty mean to individual political entities?
  • How have international organizations changed the way we view sovereignty in the modern state system?

The idea of sovereignty is one of the most important components of the modern state system. It refers to the reciprocal deference governments give to other states to manage their own respective internal affairs: most of us believe every state should have this right. Before this general understanding, governments flagrantly ignored these political boundaries. Our formal recognition of state sovereignty is critical to the modern state system.

To review, see Characteristics and Functions of the State and International Law and the New World Order: Redefining Sovereignty.


2e. Identify characteristics of a strong and weak state

  • What is political power?
  • What do the following terms mean?
    • democracy, oligarchy, monarchy, theocracy, dictatorship, authoritarian, totalitarian
  • How do institutions in different forms of governments demonstrate their political power? For example, how do governments use their political power to affect how citizens perform their day-to-day activities to make their lives easier or more difficult?
  • What are some countries that exhibit these seven forms of government in the modern era?

When we consider the strength or weakness of a state, we usually think about its relative military power. However, in comparative politics, we focus on the state's internal political makeup. Rather than concentrate on military strength or the size of the economy, we examine how the government exercises power over its citizens.

To review, see:


2f. Explain how Hobbes and Weber conceptualize the state

  • What is Thomas Hobbes' concept of the state of nature?
  • How do Hobbes' views about individuality, free will, and the state of nature influence the role of the state?
  • What are Max Weber's three types of legitimate state domination: rational-legal authority, traditional authority, and charismatic authority?
  • How do Weber's views about different types of authority relate to the three fundamental functions the state offers its citizens?

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), the English philosopher, focused on the individual, who will act with fear and violence to protect their self-interests in the face of conflict and insecurity. Hobbes believed we are wise to fear and distrust the human state of nature, which is unleashed whenever authority is not enforced.

Consequently, citizens agree to enter into a social contract with their government: they agree to submit to sovereign authority in exchange for protection against this human state of nature, which they know others will unleash against them if given the opportunity. We protect peace and life (the most precious good) by creating a sovereign authority to enforce the moral order.

Max Weber (1864–1920), the German sociologist, identified three types of legitimate state domination: rational-legal authority, traditional authority, and charismatic authority. Weber believed the state has three fundamental roles: to create an administrative and legal order, impart binding authority over its citizens, and establish a monopoly of legitimate physical force over its citizens.

To review, see The Sovereign State: Hobbes' Leviathan, Part IIAuthority and Legitimate Violence, and Politics as a Vocation.


2g. Differentiate between authoritarian and totalitarian states

  • What is the difference between an authoritarian and totalitarian state?
  • How do state institutions function in each system? Is state control partial or absolute?
  • What freedoms might citizens enjoy in these two forms of government?
  • Why do the citizens who live in authoritarian or totalitarian states follow the rules their leaders impose?
  • What are some examples of authoritarian and totalitarian states in the modern era?

Authoritarian and totalitarian governments present a continuum or sliding scale, whereby government leaders exert varying levels of control over their citizens, businesses, organizations, and state institutions. In an authoritarian state, some freedoms still exist, but in a totalitarian state, government leaders dominate every aspect of society and civil discourse.

To review, see:


Unit 2 Vocabulary

  • 30 Years War
  • Authoritarian state
  • Charismatic authority
  • Democracy
  • Dictatorship
  • Max Weber
  • Modern state system
  • Monarchy
  • Monopoly
  • Nation
  • Nation-state
  • Oligarchy
  • Political power
  • Rational legal authority
  • Religion
  • Social policy
  • Sovereignty
  • State
  • Theocracy
  • Thomas Hobbes
  • Totalitarian state
  • Traditional authority
  • Treaty
  • Treaty of Westphalia
  • Universalist