Modern Nation-state System: Challenges & Prospects

Shahid H. Raja
12 min readDec 7, 2021



Peace of Westphalia (1648) not only created the modern nation-state system in Europe but also stipulated the basic rules of statecraft. Despite all the criticisms about its Western origins, the concept of state and nation took firm roots in most parts of the world, thanks to colonialism. However, it is now facing an existential challenge from four different sources

This article discusses these four sources namely globalisation, decentralisation, sub-nationalism, and regional groupings. It then discusses the likely future global governance structure.


The concept of a nation-state is notoriously difficult to define. According to the Declarative Theory of Statehood, a nation-state is a type of state that conjoins the political entity of a state to the cultural entity of a nation, from which it aims to derive its political legitimacy to rule and potentially its status as a sovereign state.

A state is specifically a political and geopolitical entity, while a nation is a cultural and ethnic one. The term “nation-state” implies that the two coincide, in that a state has chosen to adopt and endorse a specific cultural group as associated with it. The concept of a nation-state can be compared and contrasted with that of the multinational state, city-state, empire, confederation, and other state formations with which it may overlap. The key distinction is the identification of people with a polity in the nation-state.

Origins of the Nation-State

The origins and early history of nation-states are disputed. There are two major theoretical questions about the genesis and progress of the nation-state as an idea and practice.

l First, “Which came first, the nation or the nation-state?”

l Second, “Is the nation-state a modern or an ancient idea?”

Some scholars have advanced the hypothesis that the nation-state was an inadvertent by-product of 15th-century intellectual discoveries in political economy, capitalism, mercantilism, political geography, and geography combined with cartography and advances in map-making technologies.

For others, the nation existed first, then nationalist movements arose for sovereignty, and the nation-state was created to meet that demand. Some “modernization theories” of nationalism see it as a product of government policies to unify and modernize an already existing state. Most theories see the nation-state as a modern European phenomenon, facilitated by developments such as state-mandated education, mass literacy, and mass media (including print). However, others look for the roots of nation-states in ancient times.

However, renowned American political scientist Charles Tilly, in his book Coercion, Capital, and the European States, AD 990–1990 maintains that “the origins of the modern European state lay in war and preparations for war” during the 2nd Millenium i.e 1000 AD TO 2000 AD. According to Tilly,

“military innovation in pre-modern Europe, especially the use of gunpowder and mass armies, made war considerably more expensive. To continue to fund warfare, conquest, and security, only states with sufficient capital and a large population could afford to pay for their security and ultimately survive in a hostile environment. Those in power were forced to develop a means of extraction by, for example, introducing taxation and conscription. Subsequently, these means of extraction resulted in the creation of state bureaucracies and a centralized state.”

The type of state that develops is dependent on class composition and the relative power structure. Thus, where merchants and capital were the predominant class, city-states arose, such as Venice. In areas where independent landlords were the predominant class, centralized absolutism arose, such as in Russia. If an area would have both classes more or less equal, a combination of state forms would develop, for example as happened in France and England. Eventually, all states will develop into the type of state form that Tilly calls the nation-state.

War is seen by Tilly as the “prime mover of early modern European state-making because its requisites led to processes of extraction, protection, production, and distribution.

Most commonly, the idea of a nation-state was and is associated with the rise of the modern system of states, often called the “Westphalian system” after the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The balance of power that characterized that system depended on its effectiveness upon clearly defined, centrally controlled, independent entities, whether empires or nation-states, that recognized each other’s sovereignty and territory.

Whether it was the 1648 Peace of Westphalia that created the modern nation-state system or it just endorsed a trend already in vogue, it was the European colonial powers who introduced it all over the world. The nation-state got identified with its four essential elements: Territorial integrity, Sovereignty, Nationalism, and Equality.

  1. Territorial integrity: Territorial integrity conceptualized the nation-state as a geographical entity whereby the protection of the people living within its boundaries became its chief responsibility.
  2. Sovereignty: At the same time, sovereignty, internal and external, came to be regarded as the hallmark of the nation-state. Internally, the state had the right to order the behaviour of all its citizens, and externally, sovereignty implied the right of the state to choose any element to protect its national interest.
  3. Nationalism: Thirdly, the rise of the nation-state was accompanied by the rise of nationalism which advocates the identification of the individual with the state in return for obedience to its laws.
  4. Equality: Finally, international law recognized all states as equal sovereign entities with equal legal status and rights.

Peace of Westphalia not only created the institution of the nation-state but also stipulated the basic rules of the statecraft namely the rule of law, respect for human rights, and democratic governance. These are now universal standards acknowledged in most of the constitutions — the fact that they may be misapplied in practice or under threat in many countries does not change the fact that they remain valid and relevant standards.

Peace of Westphalia also separated the state from religion in statecraft and made religion the private affair of the people. Secularism is now the cornerstone of modern statecraft

The nation-states with all these four characteristics came to be key actors in international relations. Despite all the criticisms about its Western origins, the concept of state and nation has taken firm roots in most parts of the world — not without conflicts and bloodshed. Similarly, it has withstood the challenges posed by greater regionalisation and even by the rapidly globalising world. Not only the nation-state as an identity of its own still survive but will also stay with us for the foreseeable future

Role of State in International Relations

The role of the state in international relations is multifaceted, encompassing a range of functions and responsibilities that states undertake as actors on the global stage. The roles of the state in international relations can be broadly categorized into several key areas:

  1. Guardian of National Interest: The most important role a state plays is to act as the guardian of its national interest defined by the decision-making elite of the country. States are responsible for safeguarding their sovereignty, ensuring that their internal affairs are not subject to external interference. This involves protecting territorial integrity and maintaining control over borders. States are responsible for ensuring the security of their citizens and protecting national interests. This involves maintaining military forces, establishing defence policies, and engaging in collective security efforts.
  2. Global Diplomat: To safeguard their national interest, every state formulates a set of national policies. One of them is the foreign policy. Acting as the representative the nation, every state recruits its diplomatic corps, who engage in diplomatic activities to represent their interests and communicate with other states. Embassies and ambassadors play a crucial role in fostering international relations and negotiations. States develop and implement foreign policies to pursue their national interests. These policies guide a state’s interactions with other states and international organizations. States engage in cultural diplomacy to foster understanding and goodwill between nations. This includes initiatives such as educational exchanges, cultural events, and promoting their cultural heritage abroad
  3. International Cooperation Agent: States collaborate through international organizations, such as the United Nations, to address global challenges, promote peace, and coordinate efforts on issues like human rights, health, and the environment. States engage in multilateral forums to address common concerns, negotiate agreements, and coordinate actions on a wide range of global issues. States engage in economic diplomacy to promote trade, investment, and economic cooperation with other states. They negotiate trade agreements, establish economic partnerships, and address economic challenges at the international level.
  4. Human Rights Advocate: States play a role in promoting and protecting human rights both domestically and internationally. They may engage in human rights diplomacy and contribute to international efforts to address human rights violations.
  5. Foreign Aid Donors: Some states provide foreign aid and development assistance to less developed countries, contributing to global development goals.
  6. Environmental Steward: States participate in international efforts to address environmental challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution. They negotiate and implement agreements to promote sustainable practices.
  • Crisis Manager: States may contribute to peacekeeping operations and engage in conflict resolution efforts. They work to prevent and mitigate conflicts, often in collaboration with international organizations.

These roles highlight the diverse ways in which states participate in the international system, reflecting the complex and interconnected nature of global affairs. The roles of states in international relations are shaped by geopolitical, economic, cultural, and historical factors, and they evolve in response to changing global dynamics.

Challenges to Modern Nation-State

Peace of Westphalia created the modern nation-state system in Europe and the colonial powers introduced it all over the world. Despite all the criticisms about its Western origins, the concept of state and nation took firm roots in most parts of the world — not without conflicts and bloodshed. However, it is now facing an existential challenge from four different trends namely globalisation, decentralisation, sub-nationalism, and regional groupings.

1. Globalisation

The Peace of Westphalia not only abolished the feudal system in vogue in Europe but also divided it into sovereign secular states with thick borderlines within which each respective government was the absolute authority. It not only redrew the borders in Europe but also gave sanctity to them howsoever arbitrary they may be. The nation-state has witnessed the rise and fall of empires, wars, economic turmoil, and political chaos, yet through it all, it has remained relatively stable.

However, this cardinal principle of international relations, respected all over the world is now under attack by rapid globalisation. Nothing has challenged the core foundations of the nation-state other than the emergence of globalization which has superseded the governmental ability of the nation-state in many ways. Integration of commerce, finance, trade, and technology is gradually making the nation-state almost a redundant player. No longer is the nation-state the conduit by which MNCs, Diplomats, NGOs, and Supranational organizations must filter through to operate in and around its geographical sphere.

Globalization has completely altered the way nations govern, communicate, negotiate, and interact with each other. Globalization has improved and expanded global commerce, brought more Foreign Direct Investment to developing countries, built infrastructure, and advanced literacy inspired democratic movements via social networks, and created emerging middle classes all over the world without much assistance from the nation-state. At the same time, globalization has been disrupting the social and moral fabrics of a nation-state which in turn causes unrest, financial meltdown, poverty, hunger, dissension, and interstate wars between ethnic, tribal, and religious groups. The nation-state seems helpless due to the inability of the current structure of the nation-state to effectively harness its destructive elements.

2. De-centralisation/Devolution

While the nation-state is facing the above-mentioned challenge of a rapidly globalising world coming from abroad, shaking its very foundations, it is under attack from another source. This is the rise of the demand for greater decentralisation by its federating units and even by the mega-cities under its jurisdiction. After the 19th-century triumph of the nation-state in Europe, regional identity was usually subordinate to national identity. In many cases, the regional administration was also subordinated to the central (national) government. This process has been partially reversed from the 1970s onward, with the introduction of various forms of regional autonomy in formerly centralized states. It is now common for provinces, states, and cities to deal directly with the other nation-states, corporations, and other big cities

3. Sub-Nationalism and Self-determination

Most modern nation-states are artificial creations, the results of the dissolution of empires or the end of colonialism. The most obvious impact of the nation-state is the creation of a uniform national culture through state policy. The model of the nation-state implies that its population constitutes a nation, united by common descent, a common language, and many forms of shared culture. When implied unity was absent, the nation-state often tried to create it. The creation of national systems of compulsory primary education is usually linked with the popularization of nationalist narratives.

However, that is being challenged. Being multi-ethnic entities, nation-states are under pressure from emerging sub-nationalism in their areas of jurisdiction. With the gradual withdrawal of religion as a source of cohesion in a society, there is emerging a wide legitimacy gap for keeping the people together; to create a solid foundation of unity that religion used to do in the old times.

4. Regional Groupings

Increased business activities due to expansion in areas and peaceful conditions within the jurisdiction of a nation-state, led to the emergence of the capitalist-industrialist class as an extremely powerful stakeholder. They need bigger areas of operation which was only possible within bigger units of administration. Hence the formation of the European Union. Helped by the emergence of capitalism as the dominant mode of production at the global level with outsourcing as a universally accepted form of business organisation, technological developments, particularly information technology are accelerating this process of the regional grouping.

What is the future of the Nation-state?

No doubt the institution of the nation-state, despite being a Western European construct, imposed on their colonies has weathered many storms and survived. However, keeping in view the inexorable march of history, it is but one more stage toward the world government. It all started with the establishment of the tribal settlements when human beings came out of cave dwellings and started living together in the form of tribal settlements. There was peace within the limits of these respective settlements, but every tribal settlement was invariably at daggers drawn with neighbouring units for control of resources. There was practically no state apparatus and minimal trade activity, mostly through barter.

Over centuries, these tribal settlements started merging due to population pressures and became villages accommodating multiple tribes within their respective jurisdiction. Now there was not only a rudimentary state but also a specialized class structure including a specialist trading class. Although there was peace within these villages, these multi-tribe villages were constantly fighting with one another for the same reason-control of resources. It adversely affected the business of the newly emerging commercial classes, resulting in fewer resources for the state through taxes

Hence, these villages first became towns and then converted into city-states. An increased area of operation, more population, and greater specialization resulted in improved trade and commerce, resulting in peace treaties among these city-states for the protection of trade. This immensely benefitted the commercial classes who started gaining greater influence in the statecraft. Consequently, their desire to increase the area of their commercial activities was one of the main reasons, not the only one of course, for the Peace of Westphalia and the emergence of the nation-states.

Increased business activities due to expansion in areas and peaceful conditions within the jurisdiction of a nation-state, led to the emergence of the capitalist-industrialist class which wanted colonies to obtain resources as well as markets for selling their products. It led to the scramble for colonies which inevitably resulted in greater warfare. Commercial classes who had now become extremely powerful stakeholders, started clamouring for peace which was only possible within bigger units of administration. Hence the formation of the European Union

Emboldened by the success of this administrative re-engineering, other nation-states started experimenting with similar models which are continuing. These regional groupings are just another milestone in our slow but steady journey toward the formation of World Government-the endpoint of the march of history.

Within the next two centuries, all the current state borders will be abolished, and nation-states will be replaced by continent-sized units of governance, with maximum devolution/ decentralisation for the provision of basic services to the people. While UNO will act as the world Parliament to formulate global policies, its constituent units such as UNICEF, WHO, etc will be acting like global ministries with the World Bank as the central bank English will be recognised as the universal language with inputs from different languages towards its vocabulary.


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