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 produced for 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 aims to identify and define the term state, the components and key concepts of modern state, followed by the main significant feature and its impact towards the new era of international relations.

The modern state is believed to have rises 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 territory, sovereignty (external and internal), legitimacy, and bureaucracy. Legitimacy can come in various forms, from traditional, to charismatic, to rational-legal, the latter of which requires a highly effective bureaucracy and some semblance of the rule of law. States uses the four aspects to provide their populations goods such as security, a legal system, and infrastructure. “Weak states” are those that cannot adequately provide these goods, and once a state has become so weak that it loses effective sovereignty over part of its territory, it may be called a “failed state” (or in extreme instances a “collapsed state”)

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”. A starting-point for Weber, which contrasted with much earlier thinking, was that the state could not be defined in terms of its goals or functions, but had rather to be understood in terms of its distinctive means. Thus, he argued that “the state cannot be defined in terms of its ends. There is scarcely any task that some political association has not taken in hand, and there is no task that one could say has always been exclusive and peculiar to those associations which are designated as political ones. 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”. For Weber, the modern state was a particular form of the state which was itself, a particular form of a more general category of political associations.

There are two more recent definitions of a state. The first is by a sociologist named Charles Tilly and the second is by the Nobel-laureate economist, Douglass North. Chares Tilly claims that 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, 170). 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, 21)

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There are two key concepts of the modern state

  1. The territorial state and the unitary sovereign will whereby the modern state project is aimed at replacing confused political order.
  2. Global spread of the idea of the nation-state
  • Weber ‘the modern state is the result of a century’s long process of disarming non-state/private actors’. According to Charles Tilley, the state proved itself to be a superior. Modern state can also be associated with charter of the UN.

A state is more than a government; that is clear. A state is the means 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. 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. States not only claim ultimate power within their realms (internal sovereignty), they also claim independence of one another (external sovereignty).

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 superseding 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– 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.

Changingconceptions of the modern stateinevitably provoke conflicting views of sovereignty. While some argue that the growing impact of cosmopolitan norms and transnationally-based governance are weakening state sovereignty, others claim that the concept is merely being redefined. Indeed, the latter group even includes proponents of global governance, who argue that state sovereignty can actually be strengthened rather than weakened by the transfer of power to the supranational level. Modernization has brought a series of indisputable benefits to people. Lower infant mortality rate, decreased death from starvation, eradication of some of the fatal diseases, more equal treatment of people with different backgrounds and incomes, and so on. To some, this is an indication of the potential of modernity, perhaps yet to be fully realized. In general, rational, scientific approach to problems and the pursuit of economic wealth seems still too many a reasonable way of understanding good social development.

At the same time, there are a number of dark sides of modernity pointed out by sociologists and others. Technological development occurred not only in the medical and agricultural fields, but also in the military. Environmental problems comprise another category in the dark side of modernity. Pollution is perhaps the least controversial of these, but one may include decreasing biodiversity and climate change as results of development. The development of biotechnology and genetic engineering are creating what some consider sources of unknown risks. Besides these obvious incidents, many critics point out psychological and moral hazards of modern life – alienation, feeling of rootlessness, loss of strong bonds and common values, hedonism, disenchantment of the world, and so on. Likewise, the loss of a generally agreed upon definitions of human dignity, human nature, and the resulting loss of value in human life have all been cited as the impact of a social process/civilization that reaps the fruits of growing privatization, subjectivism, reductionism, as well as a loss of traditional values and worldviews.

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All states use at least the threat of force to organize public life. The fact that dictatorships might more obviously use force should not hide the fact that state rule in democracies is based on the threat of force (and often the use of force). That states rule through the use of force does not mean that they are all powerful. 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”. Nor does the state’s ability to use force necessarily mean that it can always enforce its will. All states tolerate some non-compliance. At some point, the marginal cost of enforcing laws becomes so great for any state that it prefers to allow some degree of non-compliance rather than spend more resources on improving law enforcement.

Idealism is a classical theme of an unchanging and untrustworthy human nature, of anarchy in the international order, of ‘cold war’ as a semi-permanent state, of amorality in international affairs, of the security. The experience of the 1930s – above all, the rise of fascism and the descent into a second world war – dealt a severe blow to this liberal-minded progressivism and made space for what was to become the dominant paradigm in IR: realism and its second-generation progeny, neo-realism. At the heart of the realist approach is the insistence that we study the political world ‘as it actually is and as it ought to be in view of its intrinsic nature, rather than as people would like to see it’ (Morgenthau 1978: 15). For realists, both human nature and the character of international politics to which this gives rise are, in their essentials, timeless and unchanging.

These characteristic claims of realism can be developed in terms of the eight key propositions which follow.

  1. States are the major actors in world affairs
  2. States behave as unitary actors
  3. States act rationally
  4. International anarchy is the principal force shaping the motives and actions of states
  5. States in anarchy are preoccupied with issues of power and security
  6. Morality is a radically qualified principle in international politics
  7. States are predisposed towards conflict and competition, and often fail to cooperate, even in the face of common interests
  8. International organizations have a marginal effect upon these prospects for inter-state cooperation
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However, critics of realism have never gone unchallenged.

  1. States are not the only major actors in world affairs
  2. Anarchy is constrained by forms of international cooperation
  3. Institutional arrangements may allow for much greater international
  4. cooperation than realism supposes
  5. International organizations may have a significant effect upon the prospects for inter-state cooperation
  6. States are not solely preoccupied with issues of military security
  7. Increasingly, international relations are about economic power
  8. Realism’ does not reflect ‘reality’ but one world-view (among many) in the service of particular interests

In conclusion, while various states justify coercion in different ways, (through elections, through birth, through religion etc.), while they may use coercion for different purposes (to improve social welfare or to enrich themselves), and while their use of coercion may have different effects (higher levels of investment), it is also notable that such commonly-observed features of many modern societies as the nuclear family, slavery, gender roles, and nation states do not necessarily fit well with the idea of rational social organization in which components such as people are treated equally. While many of these features have been dissolving, histories seem to suggest those features may not be mere exceptions to the essential characteristics of modernization, but necessary parts of it. However, it is important to recognize that, although the nation-state has become by far the most predominant political entity in the world, there are still “stateless nations” like the Kurds in Iraq and “diasporic nations” without a clearly identified homeland such as the Roma. As a result, nations and states remain distinct concepts even if they increasingly seem to occur together.


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Nelson, B.R, 2006, “State and Ideology” The Making of the Modern State – a Theoretical Evolution, Palgrave Macmillan, pp.1-177

Netzloff, M., 2014, “The State and Early Modernity”, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, University of Pennsylvania Press, Vol. 14, No.1, pp.149-154.

Pierson, C, 1996, “The Modern State: The Second Edition”, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, pp.1-206

Sidaway, J.D., 2013, “The Topology of Sovereignty”, Geopolitics, Department of Geography, National University of Singapore, Vol.18, No.4, pp.961-966

Chapter 3: The Modern State,

Introducing Comparative Politics: The Modern State,

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


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