On Nation States

You may think you know what a nation state is, but you probably haven’t given it much thought. Poke on the abstraction a bit, and fun ensues. You start realizing how different the nation is from the state, how tricky it is to determine who qualifies as a “nation,” how confusing our modern terminology around this topic is, and how many other modes of human organization represent potential competitors to the nation state. That exploration opens the door to the network state.

In the process, you’ll encounter all those philosophers people vaguely recall from school. You know, Locke and Rousseau, Plato and Aristotle, the subjects of countless boring book reports — many of them make a showing in this chapter. But their presence here is different from the typical dryasdust college lecture, because the network state makes political science an applied science, more like political technology. You are listening with intent to repeat. That is, just like cryptocurrencies gave people other than the Fed Chair a reason to learn about everything from seignorage to demurrage, cryptocountries give people other than the Founding Fathers the ability to put political theory into political practice.

But only if you understand that theory, so let’s dive in.

What is a Nation State? 

The most obvious definition is that a nation state is a geographic region of the world ruled by a group of humans we call a government. It’s what we talk about when we refer to “countries” like the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. It’s a flag-labeled region on a political map of the globe.

Britannica provides a more precise definition, namely that a nation state is a “territorially bounded sovereign polity” that is “ruled in the name of a community of citizens that identify themselves as a nation.” And that latter bit is key, because a nation state is not just a government that controls a territory. It’s supposed to be a government that represents a distinct people, a nation.

What is the Nation State System? 

There’s an excellent passage from Joshua Keating in his book Invisible Countries on the peculiarity of the nation state system. He analogizes the system to a selective club with the following eight rules:

  • Rule 1: A country is a territory defined by borders mutually agreed upon by all countries.
  • Rule 2: A country must have a state that controls (or at least seeks to control) the legitimate use of force within its territory, and a population of citizens.
  • Rule 3: Every spot on the earth’s landmass must be occupied by a country.
  • Rule 4: Every person on the planet must be a citizen of at least one country.
  • Rule 5: On paper, all countries have the same legal standing—Tuvalu has just as much right to its countryhood as China, Somalia just as much as Switzerland—even if they are politically and economically highly unequal.
  • Rule 6: Consent of the people within each country is preferred, but not required. Tyranny or de facto anarchy within a country is not grounds for loss of club membership.
  • Rule 7: Under some circumstances, one or more countries may invade or occupy another country, but not eliminate its countryhood or redraw its borders.
  • Rule 8: The currently existing set of countries and the borders between them should be left in place whenever possible—that is, the club prefers not to admit new members.

Keating goes on to note that the rules of this club are backed by the institutions of the UN and the military force of the US, and that the agreement of billions of people through their governments on the current world order is what preserves “cartographic stasis.”

Note that even if one thinks of the UN as ineffectual, it’s a Schelling Point for the system. Nothing else has as much legitimacy, as many backlinks.

Assumptions of the Nation State System 

We can describe the assumptions of the nation state system in a different lens, one that makes it easier to understand the differences between this system and the network state system we will introduce in the following pages:

These cover the six essential parts of the state: borders, population, central government, international sovereignty, diplomatic recognition, and the domestic monopoly on violence.

The Nation State as a Term 

Understanding the term “nation state” requires us to distinguish the nation (a group of people with common descent, history, culture, or language) from the state (their government). They are not the same.

Even though “nation” is often conflated with “state,” the term “nation state” has two words for a reason. The first word (nation) has the same etymological root as “natality.” It once denoted a group of people with shared ancestry. The second word (state) refers to the entity that governs these people, that commands the police and the military, and that holds the monopoly of violence over the geographic area that the nation inhabits. In a sense, the nation and the state are as different as labor and management in a factory. The former are the masses and the latter are the elite.

The textbook nation state is something like Japan, in which a single group with shared ancestry and culture (the Japanese) occupies a clearly delineated territory (the islands of Japan) and is ruled by a clear sovereign (the Japanese government) which is representative of the people in some sense (originally via the divine, contemporaneously via the Diet).

Micronations and Multinations 

This gives us a new perspective on why micronations like Sealand don’t work: they start backwards, from the territory and the government, rather than working forwards from a people and their culture. The latter process is how nation states historically emerged: a state was set up by a nation to govern it, not vice versa…though then that self-same state often began the process of assimilating others into its founding nation, so it was a bidirectional process.

Bidirectionality notwithstanding, the egg of the nation precedes the chicken of the state. From this perspective, a better term than micronation is really microstate, because it’s not a micro-nation unless it represents a small group of aligned people. A single person self-proclaiming a government is just a tiny state. As the saying goes, you and what army? Without a nation, there is no army - and no legitimacy.152

On the other side of the spectrum is an empire, or multination. The Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the Soviet Empire contained many nations and ethnic groups.

This vantage point allows us to rectify more vocabulary. The concept of a multinational corporation, for example, is something of a misnomer; the right term is a multi-state corporation (which operates across polities), as opposed to a multi-national state (which manages the affairs of many different ethnic groups within its boundaries).

0-nation, 1-nation, N-nations 

In between 0-nation microstates and N-nation empires are 1-nation states, governments that are set up to manage the affairs of a single ethnic group in a defined territory. However, while this kind of terminology is not exactly deprecated, it’s a bit old-fashioned. It’s not how we tend to talk about nation states in the current year.

First, today we often discuss multiethnic states — multinations, like the USA — which are really more like the empires of yore than a classical monoethnic nation state. Second, many contend that physical borders don’t matter in the age of the internet. Third, modern discourse focuses to a much greater extent on proposition nations, where shared ideas are the organizing principle rather than shared inheritance. Fourth, and most importantly, conflict between ethnic groups within states can result in civil war, mass deportation, totalitarian brainwashing, ethnic cleansing, forced conversion, and cultural destruction, the kind of process that recently resulted in the formations of East Timor and South Sudan.

Later, we’ll talk about how network states address these issues, but these are the (understandable!) reasons why the distinction between the nation and the state has fallen out of favor. Scholars don’t want to inadvertently encourage separatism or irredentism or worse, lest people think it’s not a real nation state unless the political entity (the state) represents all the members of a single ethnicity (the nation) in all the lands around the world where they preponderate.

Or at least, they don’t want to do so domestically. Because the average American is a bit schizophrenic when it comes to terminology like this. He can easily understand the desire of, say, the Ukrainian people to break free of the Russian empire, or for the Tibetan nation to have their own government separate from the Chinese state, or for the Persian people to distinguish themselves from the theocracy of Iran. But the same person is typically more skeptical that Britain should have exited the European Union, let alone that the “Texan nation” should have its own sovereign state.

The cynical might say that national aspirations get airtime in proportion to the national interest; the more cynical might say that even the term “national interest” is yet another misnomer, because it’s more like the “state’s interest” given that the American state rules more than one nation. This, however, leads us to the key question of what exactly constitutes a nation.

What is a Nation? 

This question was once all-important: what groups are significant enough to be called nations, candidates for a state of their own? It will soon be all-important again, as important as “what is a currency,” and for similar reasons: because Bitcoin, web3, the metaverse, remote work, mobile, and the internet allow people to exit legacy arrangements and form new groups more easily than at any time in the recent past. But which of these groups should be considered a “nation”?

A Definitional Approach 

Let’s start with Oxford’s definition by way of their free service Lexico:

A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory.

From that definition, we can extract the following properties:

Each of these pieces can be poked at. How large is “large”? How do we measure whether a group of people is united? How localized to a particular territory does a nation have to be, or can it be nomadic? And why do we have a complex “OR” statement buried in the middle, where common descent, history, culture, or language all figure in? Our first instinct is that the definition of a nation is a little fuzzy, and our instinct is right.

An Empirical Approach 

To ground our discussion, let’s go through specific examples of groups that have been called nations:

And for many Middle Eastern and African countries, the states don’t really reflect the underlying nations at all. A clue here is the presence of horizontal or vertical lines on a map, lines that don’t reflect the organic physical (deserts, mountains, rivers) and cultural (languages, marriages, religions) barriers that help define nations. Many of these “imposed states” are a parting gift from colonial empires.

From these examples, we can already see quite a bit of variation:

Just by touring this topic, we also see that the issue of “what is a nation” is still the hot button, the third rail, the pulse raiser, the argument starter. Because a nation granted legitimacy can claim territory and erect a polity, while a nation denied recognition remains landless and stateless, the stakes couldn’t be higher for this seemingly abstract question.

A Philosophical Approach 

We just did some specific examples. Can we enunciate general principles that define which groups should be considered bona fide nations? Many scholars from the past to the recent present have taken a crack at this question.

Here’s a necessarily incomplete précis of their views, taken in part from Benner’s chapter here and Kaufmann’s review here. First, the thinkers of the late 1700s and 1800s, writing during the American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, or the Revolutions of 1848:

These definitions both overlap and conflict. Some tensions include:

These divergences mean there isn’t yet a single test for whether a group is a nation, though one can make a more or less persuasive case in any given instance by appealing to different standards. However, with modern tools, we might be able to tidy up that fuzziness. Later in this chapter, we’ll introduce a computational approach to defining a nation that complements the empirical and philosophical approaches. And we’ll talk about how these theories of national origin influence a startup society founder’s strategy for “customer acquisition,” or in this case citizen acquisition.

But for now, what is a nation? Perhaps it’s just a group that can convince enough other people that it’s a nation.

What is a State? 

It’s also worth spending time on the other half of the nation state definition: what exactly is a state?

The Definitional Approach 

This helpful video enumerates six properties of a state:

  1. Border: a clearly defined territory
  2. Population: one or more nations that live within that territory
  3. Central government: the ability to create laws
  4. Interstate sovereignty: in theory, control over domestic affairs without interference by other states
  5. Recognition: diplomatic recognition by other states
  6. Domestic monopoly on violence: the ability to maintain order inside the territory

A failed state in the midst of civil war wouldn’t fit, for example, because it wouldn’t be able to prevent foreign powers from interfering (item 4), nor would it be able to control violence domestically (item 6). A micronation doesn’t count because it lacks territory (item 1) and population (item 2). And an administrative subdivision of the US like Arkansas also wouldn’t count, because it lacks recognition by foreign states (item 5) and control relative to Washington, D.C. (item 3). However, a subdivision can sometimes become an independent state.

The Comparative Approach 

How about a comparison? Precisely because they’re so often conflated, it’s worth addressing in detail just how a state differs from a nation.

Nations may not always have a single state. The Kurds lack a state, while the Koreans are split into two states. Conversely, states may govern one or more nations. The British state governs the English, Welsh, Scottish, and Irish nations, while the Soviet state governed more than 100 different nationalities.

While some contend that the distinction between nation and state is an intrinsically European idea, there are actually different words for these concepts across languages.

The Pragmatic Approach 

Perhaps the simplest test for whether something is a bona fide state is whether it’s a member of the United Nations General Assembly. Does it have sufficient diplomatic recognition? Is it considered a state by other entities we’d consider states? In a word, is it recognized? This is important because even the very largest groups of people, like the Chinese and the Indians, are outnumbered by the rest of the world; social viability is necessary for state viability.

A couple of excellent books on this topic are Invisible Countries and Not on the Map, which review edge cases like Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Northern Cyprus, Somaliland, South Ossetia, and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Kosovo, and Taiwan. Each of these entities has a greater or lesser degree of internal state-like-ness, with Taiwan being the most legit, but all of them lack some degree of full interstate recognition — often due to a powerful regional or global opponent.

While we’re discussing the UN, a better name than the “United Nations” might be the “Selected States.” After all, many stateless nations don’t have a seat in the United Nations General Assembly, like the Kurds, the Catalonians, or the Tibetans. And many countries that do have seats are more akin to multinational empires than single-nation states.

The Philosophical Approach 

Keynes said “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Meaning, if you don’t know what intellectual software you’re running, you’re probably running it unconsciously. So, it’s hard to survey the many thinkers that led to the modern state, because we don’t always understand the full scope of their impact.

We’ll try anyway. Here’s another necessarily imprecise set of summaries of what different political theorists thought about the state.

Statecraft Strategies and Programming Paradigms 

Again, this isn’t just desiccated theory. It’s important to understand these ideas because they are used implicitly or explicitly by the founders and leaders of actually existing states.

From a computer science standpoint, these schools of thought are statecraft strategies that are analogous to programming paradigms. That is, you can often solve the same problem from (say) an object-oriented, functional, or imperative standpoint. But certain problems are easier to tackle with a particular paradigm, while others become much harder.

So too for these varying theories of the state. Moreover, rather than being used in isolation, these statecraft strategies are often fused within a single legal codebase, much as different programming paradigms can complement each other within a company’s codebase.

For example, Karl Marx’s zero-sum worldview made it easy to justify a Soviet state with a massive Red Army to destroy the capitalist oppressors. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s writing by contrast didn’t give much justification for the use of force itself, but furnished a vision of consensual communistic utopia that sat just on the other side of the Red Army’s liberating violence. Carl Schmitt and Thomas Carlyle are a roughly equivalent pairing on the right, with Schmitt advocating that a hero use state force against the enemy and Carlyle talking up the bounteous order that would arise as a result.

Marx and Rousseau’s failure mode was their departure from economic reality, as they didn’t take into account self-interest. Schmitt and Carlyle’s failure mode was their departure from political reality, as they didn’t take into account the interests of the other guy. But their statecraft strategies were once influential enough to drive some of the most powerful states in world history, so we need to understand them, even if we must also discard them. Think about how PHP is a programming language that “sucks” according to many engineers, yet somehow led to many of the most popular apps of all time (Facebook, WordPress, Slack, etc), and you’ll get the point.

It is also possible to run completely in another direction, and have a purely contractual state run on an implicitly Hayekian/Lockean paradigm, maximizing some measure of wealth without any of the meaning that the Marxist or Schmittian state narratives provide. That also has its vulnerabilities, as a vacuum of meaning can be filled by a rival whose statecraft strategy involves constant evangelism; this is why the Platonic/Aristotlean state narratives have a good point when they prioritize purpose.

The strengths and weaknesses of various statecraft strategies can be discussed at length, and we’ll return to this topic. But for now: before you design your ideal state, you should have some idea of what others thought their ideal state to be, and how that worked out.

What does a Nation State look like on a Map? 

The simple answer is that a nation state is a colored blob on a map. But we can think of that map as a superposition of various underlying maps showing where members of the nation are located — for example, where the speakers of the language, those with shared alleles, and those with similar culture reside, overlaid on the legal boundaries of the state).

Again, Japan is our canonical example. The underlying maps all line up. Most speakers of the Japanese language, most people with Japanese ancestry, most holders of the Japanese yen, most practitioners of Shintoism, and most people who are culturally Japanese live in the islands of Japan administered by the Japanese government.

Other nations are much messier than that.

In general, the idealized nation state is one where the members of a given group — the nation — are physically centralized within a single bounded set on the surface of the globe. That may seem trivial, but later in this chapter we’ll explore physically decentralized polities in the context of network states.

How were Modern Nation States Founded? 

There are a few different angles on the question of how nation states get founded.

The Historical Angle 

The first angle is to think about when many states were founded on roughly the same principles at the same time. We can define a few critical moments in history.

Importantly, the whole world didn’t get modern nation states at the same time. For example, Westphalian sovereignty was initially established within Western Europe, but not outside it. European nation states were supposed to honor each others’ borders, in principle at least, so they went abroad to conquer other places.

But these junction points in history are still useful ways to think about the founding of nation states, with one or the other looming larger depending on whether one is more focused on the “nation,” the “state,” or the “nation state” combination.

From a practical standpoint, clearly you can’t found a civilization state like China or India without thousands of years of history. But you might be able to distill a new “nation” like the Mormons (est: 1830) from the mass of Americans, or alternatively architect an impressive new nation state like “E”-stonia (est: 1991) from the same nation oppressed by the dreary Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic.

The Patronage Angle 

An alternative approach is to look at the details of how specific nation states were founded. One thing that pops out to us when studying enough of these histories is that national independence is not solely a matter of self-determination, because the fate of many nations is not determined wholly by their own efforts.

For example, the Soviets were “anti-imperialist” when that meant getting Western-sympathetic capitalists out, and Soviet-sympathetic communists in. The French supported the fledgling American nation when that meant poking a thumb in the eye of their British rivals. And today’s Americans haven’t been too vocal on the Kurds or Yemenis given their alliances with the Turkish and Saudi states, but are extremely enthusiastic about the Ukrainians, Taiwanese, and Uighurs given their conflicts with the Russian and Chinese states.

As such, to achieve its ambitions a stateless nation may also need a patron, a kind of venture capitalist Great Power. Self-determination is not enough.

The Military Angle 

Many countries were founded within living memory, but because they were often founded by force, some don’t believe it’s possible to found new countries without force.

Or is it? They say you cannot found a Pentagon; they don’t say you can’t found a competitor to the post office, or the taxi medallion system, or to NASA. They instead go right to the thing where we don’t have comparably recent foundings…or do we? After all, the Pentagon itself was built by human beings just like you and me in 1943. India, Israel, and Singapore were likewise founded in 1947, 1948, and 1965 respectively, and have their own defense department equivalents.

Of course, there are other interpretations of this challenge. It could mean “OK, it happened a while ago, but I don’t think the Pentagon-forming process can be repeated,” or perhaps “It would be bad to raise a massive new army, as that would be destabilizing,” or even, “Come on, you can’t found the most powerful military in the world from scratch.” But answering these kinds of questions presents an embedded Catch-22. Either someone thinking about starting new countries must want to create a powerful new military (dangerous!) or else they don’t have any guns and will get crushed by those that do (dangerously naive).

One answer is that you don’t need to get full sovereignty but can instead contract with an existing sovereign for defense. In fact, this is that this is actually what most “real” countries already do — few truly have full sovereignty, as most contract out their defense in a similar manner way to the US or (nowadays) China.

Another answer is that you could write a book just on this (and perhaps we’ll need to add another chapter), but for a fundamentally digital entity with physical decentralization around the world, the primary mode will be nonviolent digital defense through secrecy, pseudonymity, decentralization, and encryption. In different ways, Google and Bitcoin protect many millions of people’s digital footprint without an enormous army.

Why were Nation States Founded? 

Another way of asking this is: what came before the nation state?

The short answer is that people had different identity stacks. In Europe, the populace didn’t think of themselves as all being primarily “French” or “German” till much later on. They instead thought of themselves on the basis of their feudal lord or region (Brittany, Prussia) or religion (e.g., Protestant/Catholic). Transnational entities like the Catholic Church also claimed dominion over all believers, no matter where they might be, so there was a question as to whether Pope or King had ultimate authority in any given jurisdiction. Wars ensued.

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648 resolved these issues and is considered by many to be the origin of the European nation state. The Westphalian peace divided territory by lines on a map. Over each territory thus delineated, there was a government that represented the people in that territory, with the right to exercise force on their behalf. And these “sovereign” states were supposed to leave each other alone.

In theory, the state was meant to be an innovation in violence reduction. You stay in your lane, I stay in mine. Clear sovereigns would keep domestic order, and the principle of national sovereignty would deter aggression from abroad. It didn’t entirely work out like that, of course; both intrastate and interstate conflict still occurred. But the abstraction of nation states may still have been preferable to the preceding era of fuzzy bordered empires and conflicting sovereigns.

How does a Nation State Expand and Contract? 

There are at least four ways a nation state expands:

How did States Influence Nations, and Vice Versa? 

Nation state formation is bidirectional; nations create states which influence nations, and so on. While a nation must come first, many of history’s most successful nation states drew adjacent (and then non-adjacent) people into the founding population by means ranging from cultural appeal to rape and pillage.

Prior to Garibaldi, only about 2.5% of “Italians” spoke what we now know as Italian, but what was then the Florentine dialect of Italian. Similarly, before the French Revolution, less than 50% of France spoke today’s official variety of French. And until Bismarck’s unification of Germany, there was rivalry between Prussia and Austria (“German dualism”) for exactly how and whether a “Germany” should be formed.

A related phenomenon is the feedback loop between political borders and national culture. The 38th parallel didn’t have pre-existing historical significance in Korean culture, but after the Korean War the rate of intermarriage between the new “North Korean” and “South Korean” groups plummeted. This state of affairs has persisted for 70 years; the longer it continues, the larger the cultural gap between the two groups.

Hard political boundaries of this kind serve much the same purpose as natural physical boundaries in the past like rivers, mountains, and deserts. They impede allelic and cultural diffusion, and thus contribute to nation-forming dynamics. There’s a feedback loop between the political/territorial and the linguistic/genetic/cultural.

What is not a Nation State? 

What is not a nation state? I don’t mean this in the trivial way that a banana is not a nation state. I mean, what is another large-scale way of organizing people in the physical world that is not a nation state?

Put another way, to understand what something is, we need to understand what it is not. We live in a world of nation states, so conceptualizing something different is difficult. The ideal counterexamples are things that are close, but not quite there. Here are a few:

  1. Multiethnic empires like the Soviet Union were not traditional nation states because they had more than one nationality within their boundaries.

  2. Stateless nations like the Kurds are not nation states because they lack a formally recognized territory and government.

  3. Transnational movements like the Catholic Church are not nation states because the set of all believers is not contained within a territorial state that it administers. (The Church does have Vatican City, but that is about as ceremonial as the British Royal Family.)

  4. Terrorist groups like ISIS which operate across borders and have seized territory at times aren’t considered states because they lack diplomatic recognition (due to their heinous crimes!). That said, the Soviet Communists were the ISIS of their day, and they just had to hold out 16 years for FDR to recognize them, so with enough persistence this designation can change.

  5. Nomadic tribes like the Romani and Masai are not nation states, because they migrate between countries. Indeed, most of humanity used to live like this, with farming/soldiering being a relatively recent innovation, and we may return to something like it with the advent of digital nomadism.

  6. Multijurisdictional corporations like Google have more people on their servers than most countries, and do control huge chunks of their users’ lives, such as their messages and balances. However, they are a transitional form towards our concept of the network state, as their users lack the national consciousness of a nation and their governance lacks the qualities we’ve come to expect from a state.

  7. Ethnic diasporas like the Japanese or Armenian diasporas are not nation states. They may have business districts, and some degree of community organization in those regions, but they are just a tendril of a nation rather than a full nation, and certainly lack the properties of a full state.

  8. Local clans like the Pashtun and Hazara of Afghanistan are not nation states. They are different nations within a failed state.

  9. Supranational entities like the European Union, WTO, or IMF are also not nation states, and are more similar to the Catholic Church in terms of their cross-jurisdictional influence.153

What Technological Developments underpin the Modern Nation State System? 

We don’t typically think of mapmaking, printing, and shooting as novel activities, because the underlying technologies were invented so many generations ago. But they were each foundational to our modern concept of states with borders, where men with guns enforce written laws.

  1. Mapmaking. It’s only possible to have a map of the world which we divide into nation states if we have a map of the world. You don’t have to be a cartographic connoisseur to know that such a map did not exist in 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search of an India to trade with. “Ye olde” maps with “here be dragons” had to be painstakingly crafted. Prior to modern GPS, there was an enormous tech stack around mapmaking, including compasses, telescopes, and celestial navigation.

  2. Printing. Not just the printing press, but the entire practice of print capitalism helped give rise to the nation state. Just as Facebook and Google wanted everyone on the internet so they could expand their customer base, the new commercial printers of the 1500s wanted everyone to speak the same language so they could maximize sales for their goods.

  3. Shooting. “God made men, but Sam Colt made them equal.” Feudalism was enforced by horseback-riding knights in shining armor with heavy swords; guns changed that. Others have written about the transition to the gun age, but in short, guns reduced the importance of physical inequality. Any man (or, eventually, woman) with a gun could kill any other man, even if the shooter was old and frail and the shootee was Sir Lancelot himself. The advent of firearms (and crossbows, and cannons) destabilized the feudal hierarchy; a strong right arm was suddenly worth less than a strong left brain, as the technology and supply chain required to produce muskets was suddenly worth more. The gun helped catalyze the transition from feudal hierarchy to nationalist republic and helped promote the “republican” ideals of the American and French Revolutions.

So: a combination of mapmaking, printing, and shooting helped set the stage for the post-Westphalian nation state, where a map delimited borders, a printed document established the law, and a guy with a gun shot you for crossing those borders or breaking the law.