Territory that forms its own domestic and foreign policy, acting through laws that are typically decided by a government and carried out, by force if necessary, by agents of that government. It can be argued that the growth of regional international bodies such as the European Union (formerly the European Community) means that states no longer enjoy absolute sovereignty.
Although most states are members of the United Nations, this is not a completely reliable criterion: some are not members by choice, like Switzerland; some have been deliberately excluded, like Taiwan; and some are members but do not enjoy complete national sovereignty. The classic definition of a state is given by R M MacIver (The Modern State 1926): ‘An association which, acting through law as promulgated by a government endowed to this end with coercive power, maintains within a community territorially demarcated the universal external conditions of social order.’ There are four essential elements in this definition: that people have formed an association to create and preserve social order; that the community comprising the state is clearly defined in territorial terms; that the government representing the people acts according to promulgated laws; and that it has power to enforce these laws.
Today, the state is seen as the nation state so that any community that has absolute sovereignty over a specific area is a state. Thus the so-called states of the USA, which are to some degree subject to the will of the federal government, are not states in international terms, nor are colonial or similar possessions, which, too, are subject to an overriding authority. In 1995 there were 192 sovereign nation states in the world, 40 of which were less than 20 years old.
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