The Modern State and International Relations

Q2. What is the most significant feature of the modern state and how has it shaped international relations?

The core of the early modern period to vast histories of sovereignty and state formation is a topic mentioned in some of the work done by the most influential political theorists of the past century. However an attempt of understanding the nature of political consciousness requires a historical understanding of the theoretical evolution of the modern state itself. This, in turn, requires an understanding of earlier state formations and ideologies that has influenced the evolution (Nelson, 2006). In this essay, I will discuss the topic of the modern state, its significant feature and how modern state has shaped international relations. In discussing the features, this essay also aims to identify and define the term state, its components and how modern state transformed, followed by the main significant feature and its impact towards the new era of international relations.

The modern state is believed to have risen between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe, and later spread to the rest of the world through conquest and colonialism. This ideal of modern state comprises of four defining characteristics that is bureaucracy, legitimacy, territory, and sovereignty (external and internal). States uses these four characteristics to provide their citizens goods such as security, a legal system, and infrastructure (Drogus & Orvis, 2014). A failed state or “weak state” is a state-like entity that cannot coerce and is unable to successfully control the inhabitants of a given territory (Clark & Golder, 2012). They are incapable of providing these goods, and once a state has become weak, it loses effective sovereignty over part of its territory.

The most definitive terms of state comes from the German political sociologist and economic historian Max Weber (1864–1920). Max Weber claims that “the state is human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory”. He argued that “the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends and ultimately, one can define the modern state only in terms of the specific means peculiar to it, as to every political association, namely, the use of physical force” (Weber, 1958) .

There are two recent definitions of a state, the first by a sociologist named Charles Tilly and the second is by the Nobel-laureate economist, Douglass North. According to Tilly, states are “relatively centralized, differentiated organizations, the officials of which, more or less, successfully claim control over the chief concentrated means of violence within a population inhabiting a large contiguous territory” (Tilly, 1985). On the other hand, Douglas North says that “a state is an organization with a comparative advantage in violence, extending over a geographic area whose boundaries are determined by its power to tax constituents” (North, 1981). There are three components to the modern state comprises of territory, people and central government. Territory comprises of the element on which its other elements exist. People are every territorial unit that participates in international relations supports human life. Central government is the members of the state designated as its official representatives.

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Some of the significant features of modern state may be the dominant form of political authority and imagination today but it has taken many and specific forms across the world without completely removing or overruling older languages of power and public authority. According to Weber, the modern statemonopolizesthe means of legitimate physical violenceover awell-defined territory.

  • Monopoly on force– has the right and ability to use violence, in legally defined instances, against members of society, or against other states.
  • Legitimacy/authority– its power is recognized by members of society and by other states as based on law and some form of justice.
  • Territoriality– the state exists in a defined territory (which includes land, water and air) and exercises authority over the population of that territory.
  • Sovereignty – the idea that there is a final and absolute authority in the political community’, with the proviso that ‘no final and absolute authority exists elsewhere.
  • Constitutionality
  • Impersonal power
  • The public bureaucracy
  • Citizenship

(Pierson, 1996)

The most significant feature of modern state is undoubtedly the monopoly on force. All states will at least use the threat of force to organize public life. The fact that dictatorships might use force should not hide the fact that state rule in democracies is based on the threat of force (Mandisodza, 2012). This explains why North and Tilly only claim that states must have a “comparative advantage in violence” or have control “over the chief concentrated means of violence”. More important than the actual monopolization of violence may be the inauguration of a unitary order of violence. Violence and the threat of violence continued to be a chronic feature of the daily life (Pierson, 1996).

A state is more than a government. A state is the medium of rule over a defined or “sovereign” territory. It is comprised of an executive, a bureaucracy, courts and other institutions. In a broad sense, any polity, any politically organised society, can be viewed as a state and various criteria can be used to distinguish between different kinds of state. However, according to Phillip Bobbit, state loses its legitimacy when it can no longer fulfil the function of maintaining, nurturing and improving the condition of its citizen (Axtmann, 2004). Some of the highlighted developments that was identified as essentially undermining the legitimizing premise of the nation-state to improve the wellbeing of the people were; first, the recognition of human rights as norms that require adherence within all states regardless of their internal laws; second, the development of weapons of mass destruction that render the defence of state borders ineffectual; third, the proliferation of global and transnational threats that no nation-state alone can control or evade; fourth, the growth of global capitalism, which curtails the capacity of states for economic management; and, fifth, the creation of a global communications network that penetrates borders and threatens national languages, customs, and cultures (Bobbitt, 2002). These developments and the loss of legitimacy of nation-state, has led to a new constitutional order, which is the modern state.

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Changinginterpretations of the modern statewould certainly provoke conflicting views of sovereignty in the context of international relations. Modernization has brought a series of benefits to people such as equal treatment of people with different backgrounds and incomes, lower infant mortality rate, lower starvation-caused death, lower cases of fatal diseases, and so on. However, there are also the negative sides of modernity pointed out by sociologists and others. Technological development and environmental problems such as pollution are another negative impact of modernity. Additionally, the declining definitions of human nature, human dignity, and the lack of value in human life have all been indicated as the impact of a social process/civilization that reaps the fruits of growing privatization, as well as a loss of traditional values and worldviews. Because states needed to acquire greater wealth to finance military and political endeavours, a competitive state system based on the support of wealthy aristocrats emerged. This also contributed to the rise of mercantilism, and, ultimately, a modern capitalist economy (Farr, 2005).

In conclusion, while many of these features of modern state have been rendered, histories seem to suggest those aspects may not be simple exceptions to the essential characteristics of modernization, but mandatory parts of it. As we approach the end of an era of a politically sovereign nation-state, we are also beginning to recognize that state’s self-sufficiency is hard to achieve. As a result, modern wars were categorised into two, either imperialistic wars designed to allow powerful states to become more self-sufficient by taking control of populations, territories and resources to be used for that purpose, or nationalist wars designed to reunite parts of the nation with the national state (Elazar). What is needed is a new kind of imperialism that is adequate to a world of human rights and cosmopolitanism value. Yet the weak still need the strong, and the strong still need an orderly world, in which an efficient and well-governed export stability and liberty, and openness for investment and growth seem eminently desirable. But it leaves many question unanswered, and above all we are still left wondering how different states will be in the future.

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Chapter 3: The Modern State,

Conflict Resolution and Sustainable Peace Building – The Post Modern State,

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The Problem with Sovereignty: The Modern State’s Collision with the International Law Movement,

The Rise and Fall of the Modern State System,


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