The Nature and Functioning of the Sovereign State System

Nature and Functioning of the Sovereign State System: States are the main actors of international relations and basic international system units. Traditionally, the emphasis. Was on the study of the politics and relations among these states. But after the innovation of behavioral approaches in the post-Second World War period, the emphasis was given to other non-state actors and their role in international relations. Despite the emergence of non-state actors and performers, states still retained a leading and dominant, although not exclusive or uniform, role.

Reasons for their prominent role are:

  • First, non-state actors lack the basic characteristics of states-their sovereignty and territoriality.
  • Second, they are behaviorally less important.
  • Third, their analysis has not been developed as adequately as that of states. Nonetheless, both state and non-state actors are significant for studying contemporary international relations, although the former needs considerable attention owing to its dominant role.

Nature and Functioning of the Sovereign State System:

The sovereign state system is also known as the Western state system, the nation-state system, and the nation-state system. In Palmer and Perkins’s words, the State system is the pattern of political life in which people are separately organized into sovereign states that interact with one another in varying degrees and varying ways.1

The nation-state system constitutes the very basis of international relations.

The present state system is the continuation and development of the nation-state system that was born in Europe. The driving forces of contemporary international relations nationalism, sovereignty, and other chief characteristics like foreign policy, diplomacy, national power, the balance of power, collective security, war, international law, and international organization resulted from the nation-state system.

They became progressively pronounced with every advance in the progress of the system. Coulombs and Wolfe rightly observe Since the study of international relations focuses primarily on the relations between nation-states, it is necessary to analyze in some depth the social and ethnic composition of these relatively persistent units of political action. Even if we were to assume that nation-states are transitory phenomena gradually being replaced by non-state actors, contemporary reality is such that most individuals look to their nation-states for protection, identity, and direction.2 

State and Nation:

The terms state and nation have different meanings, yet they are often used interchangeably. A state comes into existence when a person resides in a definite territory under its own sovereign government. According to this definition, a state comprises four elements a people, a territory, a government, and the attribute of sovereignty. 

Since the French Revolution, nationalism became the spiritual and emotional force strengthening together all statehood elements in nation-states. Whenever the nation-state was a reality, nationalism supported and reinforced the state where it remained an aspiration; nationalism endangered the existing multinational unit. Thus, the relation between the state and the nation became a subject of careful analysis.

The close historical links between the two terms are a century and a half years old, and one cannot justify treating them as permanent. Their linguistic usage creates confusion. Explains Frankel, “As the noun, ‘state’ in English is rigid and precludes the formation of derivatives, we use substitutes formed from the more familiar word  nation, Thus international law, and international relations are the accepted terms for the law and relations among states.”3 Though these two terms are generally used loosely and interchangeably to avoid the excessive use of one Word yet both connote different meanings.

A nation can be defined either through the objective characteristics of its individual members or through the subjective sentiments of those members, or a combination of both. A nation is a conglomeration? People have similar institutions, religions, languages, customs, and a sense of social homogeneity and mutual interest. The term nation is essentially an ethnic one based upon a common history, culture, and a sense of identity among people who make a nation. The different nations may be existing in one state, or a nation may go beyond the territory of a single state. In other words, both state and nation do not have the same cultural and territorial boundaries.

The nation signifies a common ethnic and cultural identity shared by a single person. A state is a political unit defined in terms of territory, population, and a government that effectively controls its territory and people regardless of their ethnic homogeneity or heterogeneity. The state enjoys political and legal jurisdiction in the form of citizenship, whereas the nation encourages an emotional relationship through which the individual attains a cultural identity. Nations and states do not always share the same cultural and territorial boundaries.

Therefore, the term nation-state has been employed by social scientists to indicate the steady synthesis that may come between cultural and political boundaries after perpetual maintenance of political control by a central authority over a given territory and its population.

The nation-states of the world are the operating units in the international system, and something like three centuries of experience has brought certain factors concerning their nature, which are explained as under:

The state as Monopoly:

The sovereign nation-state has the organization’s monopoly at its highest level, and the Monopoly of force is also largely enjoyed by the state. It determines the degree of freedom or constraint applicable to its population. It has the monopoly of deciding the ultimate issues of international peace and war. A monopoly in these spheres is due to the state’s exclusive possession of sovereignty, which no other association or actor possesses.

The state as a Functional Unit:

Considering itself as a functional unit within the international system, each nation-state is a solitary, self-contained, and self-justifying entity. It draws its motivations for action from within itself, feels obligated to no other state, is prepared to devote its own resources to the satisfaction of its needs, and is ready to enjoy the rewards or suffer the consequences of its own action. It makes friends or enemies and works cooperatively or controversially in response to its internal evaluation of the external political situation.

The state as Free Agent:

The state is theoretically a free agent and endeavors to attain as close an approximation to this freedom as possible. Non-identification of the political unit with the larger community and the greater operational freedom from restraint enjoyed by the state marks the difference of international politics from other types of social action.

The state as Controller of Its International Role:

The state fully controls its own international role and is thus an arbiter of its own moral code. All that fulfills its national interest and aspirations are good and moral. Failure to achieve national ends is considered as bad and immoral and thus reprehensible.

The state as Determinant of World Politics:

The general atmosphere of world politics is “neither a cosmic force nor an accident of history, but stems from the prevailing patterns of assumptions and actions accepted by the system’s dominant states. Any basic change in the system will find its initial expression in modifications in the ways states conceive of their international roles.”5

The state as Divergent Entities:

One state is different from others on various grounds such as territory population, economic development, government, power, nationalism, etc. Based on territory and population, states are big, moderate, and small. From the viewpoint of economic and industrial development, three types of states developed, developing, and under-developed. Based on government, states are democratic, dictatorial monarchical, totalitarian, republican, presidential, parliamentary, etc.

Modern states are also classified based on power as superpowers, great powers, middle powers, and small powers. States may be different for following different types of nationalism: liberal nationalism, aggressive nationalism, totalitarian nationalism, and integral nationalism. Ethnically, nation-states can be either homogeneous or heterogeneous. Most nation-states fall into the latter category. Heterogeneous nation-states consist of various ethnic groups that possess either an actualized or an incipient sense of nationhood.

Frankel developed four basic dimensions in the analysis of states which are equally applicable to other actors.6

These are :


Orientation towards participation in the international system varies from state to state. There can be the extremes of full participation in the international affairs, characterizing the United States, and the relative isolationism of contemporary Burma or Nepal. A similar spectrum could be developed for multinational corporations or terrorist groups.


It can be understood as a geographical dimension, with actors dividing into those with mainly global, regional, sub-regional, and more local scope, and functional, according to the fields of international inter-action in which they participate. While non-state actors usually have a limited functional scope, states have a potentially comprehensive multi-functional scope. However, certain individual states do not prefer to exercise it.


Power is defined both in functional and relative terms specifying what the power intends to achieve and about whom. In international politics, power is both an end as well as a means for the states.

Domestic Structure:

The domestic structure of the nation-state is very pertinent for international interaction. The most relevant part of the domestic structure is decision-making institutions. Other significant elements of the domestic structure are stability and capacity to adapt to change, legitimacy-exhibiting itself as citizens’ loyalty at home and of friends and allies abroad, etc.

Origin And Development Of The Modern State System:

The sovereign and territorial state is definitely not a permanent feature of history. It has developed as an outcome of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of European history. Out of the medieval struggle between the religious and secular power and between the feudal barons and dynastic royalty, it gradually developed the sovereign, secular, and nation-state institutions.

The rise of the modern sovereign state simultaneously marked the end of feudalism and medieval unity, based on the Roman Catholic Church’s supremacy and the Holy Roman Empire. It initiated a new type of identity and consciousness of a sovereign political community.

The Renaissance  ( 14th-l6th centuries) and the Reformation (16th century) provided the historical background for this reincarnation. And the Peace of Westphalia (1648), concluded at the end of the Thirty Years Religious War, completed the sovereign state’s simultaneous victory. The state provided the alternative to feudal, religious, and medieval anarchy. It became a symbol of order and security, power, and sovereignty.

The rulers of several countries such as England, France, Spain, Germany, etc., repudiated the Pope’s authority in the political sphere and relegated it to religious affairs. After Westphalia (1648), the supreme authority came to be identified with the sovereign and territorial state.

This implies that each state had the right to utilize the people’s strength and its resources as it liked without any restraint from within or from outside. Since then, the all-inclusive, territorial, and sovereign state became a general example and a pattern of humanity’s political organization. This institution began to spread from one region of the world to the other.

The modern sovereign state, it is generally contended by scholars, owes its beginning to the Treaty of Westphalia. But this does not mean that states were not existing before. One can Find important instances of Greek city-states and oriental occidental dynastic empires during and after the ancient world. The idea of a nation-state with sovereignty and an interstate system, resting upon some mutual higher ideas and values, was not prevalent before the seventeenth century.

The major landmarks of and factors contributing towards the development of the sovereign state system are briefly touched upon as under:

1. The development of the nation-state system was characterized by four historic events running from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. These are:

  1. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia (Germany),
  2. The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht (Holland),
  3. 1815 the Congress of Vienna (Austria), and
  4. The 191 8 Treaty of Versailles (France),

2. The disintegration of the religious and political empires and the institution of feudalism.

3. The birth of nation-states based on territory, population, sovereignty, and law besides common heritage, culture, aspirations, language, literature, etc.

4. The state system, though a worldwide phenomenon, was essentially a European development with all Western characteristics.

5. The increase in the number of the nations joining the system, and the gradual widening of the system to embrace-besides Europe where the system originated the continents of America, Australia, Asia, and Africa.

6. The theoretical or intellectual contributions of thinkers like Machiavelli, Bodin, Grotius, Hobbes, Althusius, Luther, Calvin, and others laid the foundations of an independent, secular, nation-state.

7. The progressive assumption and practice by the nation-states of the features like territoriality, sovereignty, nationalism, national power, diplomacy, the balance of power, collective security, etc.

8. The invention of new military techniques was also responsible for the rise of the modern state. Besides, the development of modern administration techniques has given governments the ability to have greater control over their people.

9. Development of the means of transport and communication has given states a greater unity and facilitated the consolidation of central power. Economic progress has provided more national wealth and resources at the disposal of governments.

10. Finally, nationalism has helped the state get more loyalty and devotion from its people, thus making it more strong and powerful. With the rise of nationalism, citizens became more deeply involved in the affairs of their state. It was no more feasible for the statesmen to trade territories based on ancient titles or strategic considerations. Now the ethnic or linguistic affinity or common aspirations were regarded as the legitimate basis for the state’s organization.

Further Growth of and change in the State System:

The state system further developed, and its nature changed in the twentieth century, especially in the post World War ll period. Notable changes that took place as the state system and that developed it further from classical to modern lines are:

Global Nature:

After the Second World War, the nation-state system has so internationalized that it has become global. It includes nations-big and small, powerful and less powerful of all the continents such as Europe, America, Africa, Asia, and Australia. The extension of Asia and Africa’s system has been Spectacular and has brought about far-reaching changes in the system.

Owing to the rapid decolonization process after the Second World War, many free and sovereign states have emerged in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The number of states has greatly multiplied, and now there are more than 180 nation-states. These countries present phenomenal proportions both in terms of area and population.

Role of New Nations:

Newly independent nations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America are too numerous, populous, and, as seen in recent years, too influential to be ignored. They have carved out an important role for themselves in international relations. These new nations have considerably enlarged the membership of the U.N.O. They have already made their presence felt inside and outside this world body.

They have reacted sharply and positively not only to a sensitive question of colonialism, racialism, and new economic world order but also to the more basic issues of world peace and disarmament; what is more, the new nations have figured significantly in the foreign policy calculations of the traditional members of the state system.

For example, Afghanistan and India were factors in the USSR’s foreign policy, whereas Israel, Kuwait, Pakistan are in the foreign policy of the USA. The center of international relations has shifted from the old world to the new world, from the US-European state system to the Afro Asian state system.

Non-Western Traditions:

As a corollary of the above two developments, the European state system’s universality is also under doubt. The Asian tradition and other non-Western traditions of the statecraft have come to light and left a significant impact on state and nation-building in the post-war scenario.

China and Japan are two essentially non-Western state systems. India, too, has a distinct tradition (e.g., Kautilya’s and Gandhi’s) of state-building. New states have also put forward a new third world perspective in international relations and contributed to bi-polarization, multi-polarization, non-alignment, north~south dialogue, etc.

Techniques of Warfare:

The development of total warfare in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, which involves extensive civilian mobilization, has also altered the classical state system’s nature. The character of war has been continuously changing ever since.

It is becoming more and more effective, sophisticated, and far-reaching. The new factors that have changed the nature of war and the international system are economic warfare, ideological-political penetration, air warfare, missile warfare, atomic warfare, and warfare like Star-war programmer.

These developments have significantly altered the territorial power and sovereignty of the states. Now no state of the globe can be regarded as absolutely impermeable. When the state’s impenetrability is challenged, the principle of territoriality and sovereignty is undergoing a great transition.


The advent of ideologies has also transformed the character of the classical state system. In the preceding centuries, the states were mainly motivated by territorial objectives. In the twentieth century, many wars were fought in support of or against a particular ideology, such as Nazism, Communism, and Liberal Democracy. For the sake of ideology, several states sacrificed the principle of territory and sovereignty. Changed Balance of Power.

With the nation-state system’s internationalization, the balance of power and collective security has undergone significant changes. Before the First World War, the balance of power was mainly a European phenomenon. Later on, came an international or global balance of power.

Moreover, the balance of power can no longer be maintained by one nation as Britain held from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century. The present balance of power is held by the US and Russia primarily and by China and non-aligned countries secondarily.

Now the balance of power is multi-centric and not uni-centric as it was before. But by the early nineties, it has been argued by many scholars that after the decline of Soviet power and successful US operation of vacating Kuwait from Iraq, it appears that the world is again heading towards a uni-centric balance of power.

Anyhow, the concept of collective security also has assumed global character as against its purely European character until World War II. In the post-War period, the collective security system claims to function under the worldwide organization-the UN.

Democratization and Mass Participation:

The states and their foreign policy, diplomacy, war, disarmament, etc., and international law and international organizations have undergone increasing democratization because the masses are being increasingly associated or involved with the institutions’ working and results. Owing to the spread of education, the citizen’s interest in national affairs, and the development of transport and communication, the making and conduct of foreign policy are increasingly sought to be controlled by people at large.

There has been a great endeavor to make diplomacy honest and open. Mass participation is often used by the governments for military and diplomatic bargaining and states mobilized the popular support in favor of their diplomacy or wars.

People the world over influence and urge politicians, politicians, and diplomats towards the goals of peacekeeping, disarmament, avoidance of war, pacific settlement of international disputes, observance of international law, and promotion of international organizations like the UN.

This participation or involvement of the common people also imposed restrictions on state actions. As a result, even the most autocratic regimes could not ignore public opinion while making foreign policy.


In an age of transition, technology and the speed of change have helped consolidate human organization and loyalty behind one familiar institution, i.e., the nation-state. Technology both simplifies and complicates the formulation and resolution of nation-states’ problems and international politics.

In classical form, the continuous evolution of the nation-state is challenged by the preponderant influence of the new technology. The dangerous effect of a nuclear war would endanger the sovereign state’s longevity and bring in a period of uncertain balance of terror.

The present nation-state system is afflicted with the fact that all major nations which industrialized during this century had a long span of totalitarian dictatorship. The scientific-technological process has created adverse conditions in less developed states for liberal politics and democracy.

The evolution of totalitarianism in the nation-state system has chauvinistic overtones, which could be harmful to multiculturalism growth. Modern political power and modern technology are highly intermingled, and the capacity of a state to fulfill its national interests relies on the extent to which it mastered contemporary techniques.

Non-state Performers:

The coming of non-state actors on the international scene has broken the monopoly of the state system. Multinationals and transnational organizations have greatly affected the world economy, to which nation-states cannot remain indifferent. In the political fi, the nonstatplaying a significant role, e.g., the P.L.O, the Kurdish, the Basques, the Tamils, and the Welsh non-state performers. To some extent, these none state actors have eroded the state system as well as national sovereignty.

Simultaneously, they have facilitated global concerns that are equally shared by both state and non-state performers. The phenomenon of nonstate performers has reduced the state system to such an extent that it is no longer an exclusive factor in international relations. It can, at best, be regarded as one of the factors. However, it remains an outstanding factor.

Feature Of The Functioning Of The State System

The modern nation-state system functions with the help of the following concepts and doctrines.


The modern state functions based on territoriality. It is essential for statehood. Every state has a definite territory over which its sole authority prevails. During the Middle Ages, exclusive control was neither possible nor necessary. From the seventeenth century, the state has become a territory or frontier conscious unit due to the inventions of new long-range armaments and the development of the means of transport and communication. After that defending its territorial integrity became a matter of prestige for the state.

As long as territoriality remained an essential element of statehood, war consisted of the defense of territory acquisition. Most of the wars in history, including the last two World Wars, were territorial wars. The territory was considered for its own sake and as a source of military power. At that time, people of different ethnic and cultural affinities lived under one ruler as the population’s cultural homogeneity was not essential.

Frankel considers the rise of the modern territorial state as a triumph of particularism over medieval unity or as a partial victory of unity over the Middle Ages’ anarchy and disorder. On either interpretation, the modern territorial state is based on the two implements of internal pacification and external defensibly.7

He also describes the essential element as impenetrability or impermeability in its strategic aspects, independence in its political aspects, and sovereignty in its legal aspects.8


Territorial awareness implies the exclusiveness of jurisdiction of a state within defined boundaries. Here the state exercises a complete and unrestrained authority, and this supreme authority is known as sovereignty. The doctrine of sovereignty emerged along with the nation-state system. 

T was evolved as a part of the supremacy won after a difficult and long struggle of the political power over the papal power. Thinkers like Bodin, Grotius, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Hegel, Austin, Laski also contributed towards the doctrine of sovereignty from the seventeenth to the twentieth century.

On the one hand, sovereignty has been regarded as the supreme political characteristic or the central legal formula of international society. On the other, its allegedly outdated nature has been blamed for the present malaise of international life. Jean Bodin’s definition made in 1576 that sovereignty is the supreme power over citizens and subjects unrestrained by law is still relevant even though Bodin’s sovereign unrestrained absolutist ruler has now been replaced by the restrained nation.

We are not concerned with the controversy around the source and justification of the sovereignty, its relations with the citizens, its location, and the issue of whether it can be divided or not. Sovereignty has both internal and external aspects. But international relations are concerned only with external sovereignty, which means freedom to conduct foreign relations, its impact upon international life in general, and the state system.

External sovereignty strengthens the state in two principal ways: first, the equality of status, and second, freedom in determining foreign relations. Theoretically, this freedom is absolute, but an international system consisting of completely sovereign states is not feasible as an anarchist society consisting of fully free individuals.

A compromise has been gradually reached between state sovereignty and a modicum of international order on reconciliation between individual freedom and authority within the state. The absolute sovereignty or the power monism of the Austinian type has become obsolete in modern international life.

The state system’s historical experience clearly shows that the nation-states have, from time to time, shared sovereignty for accomplishing national interests.

With time, nation-states are no longer fastidious about external sovereignty. The doctrine of sovereignty has suffered a setback. It has been receded owing to various factors such as the advancement of science and technology resulting in the decline of the territorial state rise of class interests instead of national interests the proliferation of sovereign states that led to a feeling of coexistence among them common political, economic, and environmental problems of the states economic interdependence emergence of international organizations and non-state performers fear of total war, etc.

In such a situation, nation-states prefer giving up absolute sovereignty to denial of their own existence. Thus sovereignty is not absolute and does not obstruct the interaction among states and their integration into larger units. Undoubtedly, sovereignty has witnessed a decline and recession in the present times, yet it has neither been abandoned completely nor considered invalid.

Equal Status of States:

The sovereign state system works around the myth of the legal equality of all states. Sovereignty in international relations implies the absolute and perfect legal equality of all states. No state can dictate to others; each is declared the equal of all others in status, dignity, and honor. All the protocols and procedures of formal international intercourse give recognition to the concept of sovereign equality even the Charter of the United Nations states that the Organization is based on the principle of all its members’ sovereign equality.

This legal equality of states involves the right of equal representation and voice in international conferences and proceedings. The legal and theoretical equality of states exists alongside a complete inequality in political competence. States are completely equal in their right to develop ego-images, select goals, and adopt action strategies, but in reality, they are unequal in their competence to achieve their objectives.

No two states are ever equal in capability and must adapt their behavior to comparative potency dictates. This political inequality, which is a peculiar feature of the state system, is evident in states’ stratification into great powers, medium powers, and small powers.

The gap between the myth of state equality and the reality of political inequality is not bridging; rather, it widens faster. Lerche and Said rightly observe: In political terms, there is an infinity of gradations and discrimination of rank, power, and status. One of the most trying tasks of politicians is to conduct relationships to preserve the useful fiction of legal equality while making certain that the political solutions accurately reflect the controlling inequality. We already know that the favored device for accomplishing this purpose is the technique of consent 10


If sovereignty offers the legal foundation, nationalism offers the essential soda-psychological base for the state. Through nationalism, a state transforms itself into a nation-state; the latter is thus the political organization that exhibits people considering themselves a nation.

50 great indeed is the significance of nationalism that references it is inescapable in discussing the contemporary state system. Nationalism is an inclusive and multidimensional term that defies a satisfactory definition. Nation, nationality, national self-determination, patriotism, and chauvinism are related terms that are often used as broadly synonymous in different contexts.

“Nationalism can be defined” in Couloumbis and Wolfe’s words as a perceived identity of oneself with territoriality organized political collective such as the United States, the USSR, and other countries. The psychological need to define oneself in terms of membership in a given community is at the root of nationalist sentiment. 

The components of nationalism are a feeling of territoriality expressed in a love of one’s homeland, a common language, a tradition of achievement in the arts and literature, narrative history, and, usually, the fear of the enemy whose enmity threatens the security of the nation-state.

According to Haye’s statement, nationalism consists of a modem emotional fusion and exaggeration of two very old phenomena-nationality and patriotism12.

In the twentieth century, Hans Kohn, nationalism becomes the common form of political life on the earth. Still, everywhere nationalism differs in character according to each country’s specific historical conditions and peculiar social stricter. The stress upon national sovereignty and cultural distinctiveness has become a deeply divisive force. When it spread to Eastern Europe and late Asia, nationalism tended toward the closed society, in which the individual counted for the strength and authority of the national whole.13

Louis L. Snyder also gives a well-meaning definition of nationalism. According to him, “nationalism, a product of political, economic, social, and intellectual factors at a certain stage in history, is a condition of mind, feeling, or sentiment of a group of people living in a well-defined geographical area, speaking a common language, possessing a literature in which the aspirations of the nation have been expressed, attached to common tradition and common customs, venerating its own heroes, and, in some cases, having a common religion.”14

Nationalism holds out the ideal of self-determination as the chief objective of any politically conscious community. “National self-determination is the idealistic belief born of the French Revolution that the cause of peace would be well served if each nation were able to choose its own political destiny.”15

The idea was further developed by Wilson’s Fourteen Points and Pointed Ten after the First World War. Subsequently, different people echoed this demand for their nations. The fulfillment of this demand created a large number of new nation-states. There are over 180 such units in the world today.

Efforts have been made to explain the successive stages and kinds of nationalism. Hayes proposed five principal stages of nationalist-humanitarian Jacobin, traditional, liberal, and integral.16

Quincy Wright has offered a more or less similar classification in medieval, monarchical, revolutionary, liberal, and totalitarian nationalism.17

Its other kinds are integrative nationalism, disruptive nationalism, aggressive nationalism, old and young nationalism, non-W aster nationalism, contemporary nationalism, etc.

Nationalism has also been a subject of criticism because, at times, it becomes hazardous and degenerates into ever more intolerant forms and encourages war. It is condemned as an evil force, an antiquated cult, a curse, and to quote Rabindranath Tagore, an organized self-interest of the whole people, Nationalism is a perilous corruption and devastating maneuvering that has vitiated the political atmosphere of modern western society, and the nation is an ill-fitting mold for many of the peoples who have endeavored to impose themselves into it. It is parochial, limited, self-centered, and acts against universalism and internationalism.

On the other hand, it has been equally praised. It is a blessing as it provides the individual with a feeling of identity and belonging. It promotes unity among the people of a state and encourages cultural and economic creativity. It proved very useful to non-European societies. Nationalism helped these societies in perceiving themselves. It has played an important role in mobilizing national power, attaining statehood, and getting independence from foreign yoke.

Nationalism has every chance to stay for long, notwithstanding its merits and demerits. The latest developments in East Europe and some of the Republics of the Soviet Union are a pointer to this fact. What is required is the greater adjustment ability and understanding between nationalism and internationalism on the concerned states.

Power Politics :

Another chief characteristic of the functioning of the state system is power politics. It implies that states’ relationship is governed almost entirely by force or threat, without any regard for right and justice. Our purpose here is not to explain the meaning, nature, elements, measurement of and limitation on national power as the same will be discussed in detail in the subsequent chapter. We will discuss only how the international political process and the state system really function.

The above discussion of the state system and the respective roles of Equality and Inequality in states’ relations indicated the underpinnings of the doctrines of power politics. Granted, the nation-state’s doctrinal and Operating fundamentals, a political system including all states, can grow through one path. In the opinion of Lerche and Said, power politics rests on a set of assumptions that are consciously accepted and deliberately executed by all governments.

These are: 19

  1. There are no absolutes of right or justice in the relations of states. Each state is the judge of the correctness of its own actions, and international politics goes on in a climate of moral relativism.
  2. The only collective value shared by all participants in the desirability of preservation of the state system.
  3. Self-help is the rule of action. Individual states must therefore enforce their own rights and can count on support from no external source.
  4. Each state has only as many rights as it can enforce itself.
  5. The relations of states are determined not by applying any general principles but by the experiential interaction of their respective capabilities.
  6. Operationally, therefore, factors of power determine questions of right. In this sense, it might actually make right.

Statesmen and leaders do not speak openly about these assumptions, but they practice them in their actual behavior. And interaction. These assumptions’ relevance rests ultimately upon the extent to which the phenomenon of power or capability can be meaningfully quantified.

The question over whom power is exercised can be answered by describing two domains of power. First is the internal domain that coincides with the territory, population, and wealth within a nation-state’s boundaries. The external domain is difficult to explain. It includes those territories and populations outside a nation-state that belong to its sphere of influence.

The international political system has traditionally been stratified because the three “classes” of states-great powers, medium powers, and small powers-have structured the whole political process. Essential to a working-class system is a full appreciation by each class of its relative place in the system and a recognition of all other classes’ particular roles. Throughout history, the relatively small group of great powers has manipulated and regulated all matters within the system in their individual and group interest.

For quite a long period, international politics was nothing but a study of relations between four and eight major states. Their influence and collective monopoly over the means of coercion was so complete that they exhibited their capacity to police all international relations.

Although each smaller state tries to act as much as possible as a great power, the two lower status groups played a minimal role. In the words of Lerche and Said, “Contain an infinity of gradations and something like an international pecking order is the norm. So dominant is the role of great powers, however, that these distinctions flow less from analyses and judgments made by lesser powers themselves than from (sometimes almost casual) discriminatory evaluations made by the elite states.”20

Limitations on the State System:

The state can never function, in practice, in an arbitrary manner. Its legally unrestrained authority operates within certain limitations. It has been already discussed above that no state enjoys absolute sovereignty in external affairs. So many factors have conditioned the theory of absolute sovereignty. Similarly, howsoever powerful and great a nation-state may not impose itself on others in all matters.

They have to act discreetly and responsibly. There are certain limitations on the state action as well as on national power. These are international law, international morality, world public Opinion, collective security, the balance of power, international organizations, and fear of disastrous nuclear war. These will be discussed in detail in a subsequent chapter; here, it will suffice to say that the state system Operates under certain limits and checks. And this accounts for its survival.

Future Of The State System:

Regarding the future of the sovereign state system, there are two schools of thought. One believed in its decay and others in its survival. Both are dealt with in detail as follows.


In the late fifties and early sixties of the present century, many scholars warned that the modern sovereign state system is declining. Prof. Herz has gone to the extent of saying the demise of the state system.21

He has pointed out four major reasons that have undermined the basis of the territorially sovereign state. There is economic warfare, psychological warfare, air war, and nuclear weapons. These types of warfare have enabled one state to undermine the foundation of another just from within. With technological developments in warfare and long-range ballistic missiles, the states’ interior, even of the Superpowers, have become vulnerable, as it could be effectively destroyed from the outside.

Under these conditions, no state is any longer able to defend the sanctity of its territorial integrity. The principle of territoriality and its accompanied principle of sovereignty appears to be undergoing a great transition. Impenetrability, impenetrability, or territoriality of the modern state has become irrelevant.

Morgenthau and Boulding have also expressed the same opinion. According to Boulding, the world has come closer due to the improved communication system, and every part of the world can become an easy target of aerial and nuclear warfare. He has suggested the term conditional viability to explain the restriction on the concept of sovereignty. This restriction is the outcome of military power and the communication system.24

The emergence of non-state performers has also challenged the validity of the state system. Their rise is caused by the state system’s failure in combating the economic, security, and ecological challenges of present times. The sovereign states no longer the role actor in international relations. Its exclusive domain and role have been challenged, according to Frankel, by other actors such as inter-governmental organizations (NATO, EEC, CMEA, COMECON, etc.) interstate non-governmental actors.

(Vatican or Holy Sea, MNCs, TNCs, etc.) and International actors (Zionist lobby, PLO, etc.)? Lerche and Said call them multilateral actors and classify them as bloc actors (West and East blocs), the Universal actor (UN and its specialized agencies), and limited or regional actors (OECD, CMEA, SAARC, OAS, Common Wealth of Nations, etc. Then some international individuals rise above their nationality and propagate things in their broader, international context.

Lester Pearson, Raul, Preblsch, Robert McNamara, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Andrew Carnegie, etc., fall in this category. Undoubtedly, most non-state performers have remained busy doing non-political tasks and have not openly confronted the states. Yet, these have greatly affected the state system. These have definitely achieved the distinction of being the basic factors of national and international politics.

Certain domestic forces also threaten sovereign states. in the post-war world, they are required to fulfill a fast-growing variety of sociology economic needs and demands when their capacity to do so had been adversely affected. They have turned into complicated multi-functional forms of the social organization while becoming less capable of performing all these functions.

They faced the problems of minorities, violence, and terrorism. Disenchantment at home required greater pluralism, recognition of the interest groups, decentralization of powers, and, to satisfy national minorities, even the separation and the disintegration of the traditional units. 

Based on all these arguments and external and internal factors, it is contended that the sovereign state system has become obsolete and irrelevant. Marxist scholars also continued to believe in the world revolution and subsequent withering away of states. 

Survival :

 But the above arguments cannot be accepted as the sovereign state system is still alive, and there is no serious threat to its survival. Even the chief propounder of the above school of thought, John Herz, later on, revised his thesis of the demise of the state and admitted that earlier he was wrong.27

Certain developments like the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Vietnam crisis have convinced him that it is absurd to shortly think of an end to the territorial state. He undoubtedly concedes that nuclear weapons’ development has brought about a sea change like war. But this has not resulted in any significant alteration in the territorial defense as the basic function of the state.

Frankel observes: “By the end of the seventies, when the scattered residual remains of colonial empires were still achieving statehood and adding new, ostensibly even less viable new members to the family of nations, no cases of disintegration or disappearance of legitimate state had been recorded.”28

He also explains various causes for the stability and durability of states.

  • States generally retain their legitimacy, both domestically and internationally.
  • They remain the largest-scale meaningful communities and command the supreme loyalty of the vast majority of their citizens, particularly as political representatives of nations and as guardians of national cultures.
  • They retain the monopoly of territory and the near-monopoly of large-scale legitimate force. 
  • They remain the only truly comprehensive large-scale multi-functional organizations with great built-in powers of inertia due to the variety of the social needs for which they cater and to the built-in bureaucratic and other sectional interests which have a stake in their survival.
  • Negatively, they have not been generally faced with really serious rivals. 
  • Perhaps most importantly, as the discontinuation of any state could undermine the stability of the international system as a whole and threaten others with a possibility of a major war, disastrous to all, everybody has now substantial stake in the continuation of the status quo.29

Thus, instead of declining, states are becoming more and more pervasive than ever before everywhere. Though the functioning of the state system, which is based on territory, sovereignty, and nationalism, is being challenged and influenced by increasing interdependence, developing war technology, pressing domestic issues, emerging non-state actors, etc., yet it is still alive and relevant.

No national alternative to this institution is visible in the foreseeable future. The sovereign state system will continue as the basic unit of the international system. But at the same time, it must be admitted that some certain other non-state actors and performers are also very active in the international system. Their appearance has become an arrested state system, arrested by the growth of new performers and newer realities of disparities, exploitation, and coercive dominance of affluence.

No doubt the state retains its dominant position, but it is now one of the international system actors or units. The state-system is adjusting itself to these new realities, and its survival lies in such an adjustment.


1. Palmer and Perkins, International Relations-The World Community in Transition (Calcutta, 1970, first Indian Reprint of the 3rd Edn. 1969) p.2.

2. Theodore A. Couloumbis and James H. Wolfe, Introduction to International Relations: Power and justice, New Delhi, 1986, 3rd. p. 682.

3. Joseph Frankel, International Relations in a Changing World (Oxford, 1979) p. 22.

4. Charles Lerche, Jr. Sc Abdul A. Said Concepts of International Politics, New Delhi, 1972, 2nd and. p. 103.

5. Ibid., p. 104.

6. Joseph Frankel, n. 3, p. 9.

7. Ibid., p. 17-18.

8. Ibid., p. 17.

9. Quoted in ibid., p. 19.

10. Larche, Jr., and Said, n. 4, p. 108.

11. Couloumbis and Wolfe, n. 2, p. 63. 12. Carlton LH. Hayes, Essays on Nationalism (New York, 1926) p. 6.

13. Hans Kohn, Fraphets and Peoples: Studies in Nineteenth-Century  Nationalism (New York, 1946) p.

14. Louis L. Snyder, The Meaning of Nationalism (New Brunswick. NJ.: 1954), pp. 196~97.

15. Couloumbis 8c Wolfe, n. 2., p. 65. Carlton.

16. JH. Hayes, The Historical Evolution oleodem Nationalism (Peterborough, N. H 1931), p. 289.

17. Quincy Wright, A Study of War, vol. 11, (Chicago, 1942), pp. 1004-09.

18. Rabindranalh Tagore, Nationalism (London, 1917), p. 10.

19. Lerche, Jr &Said, n. 4, p. 109-110.

20. Ibid., p. 112.

21. John H. Herz, “The Rise and Demise of the Territorial State,” in James N. Rosenau, ed., International Politics and Foreign Policy, pp. 80-86. See also his International Politics in the Atomic Age (New York, 1959).

22. Hans J. Morgenthau, The Decline of Democratic Polities (Chicago, 1962), p. 189.

23. Kenneth E. Boulding, Conflict and Defense (New York, 1962)

24. Ibid., p. 272.

25. For a detailed study of these actors, see Joseph Frankel, n. 3, pp. 56-73.

26. For detail, see Charles Lerche, Jr. & Abdul A. Said, n.4, pp. 135-41.

27. John Herz, “The Territorial State Revisited: Reflection on the Future of the Nation-State,” Polity (Amhurst), 1 (1968), pp. 12-34. This article is also included in James N. Rosenau (ed. ) Politics and Foreign Policy (New York, 1969), revised edition, pp 76-89.

28. Joseph Frankel, n. 3, p. 55.

29. Ibid.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

Articles: 14402

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *