State: Definition, History, Figures & Facts

“A community of families and villages having for its end a perfect and self sufficing life by which we mean a happy and honorable life” Aristotle

State: Definition, History, Figures & Facts


At the heart of societal organization lies the state, a concept Aristotle deemed the most universal and potent of all social institutions. This innate structure, rooted in the idea that humans are inherently political beings, forms the backbone of societal existence. This article delves into the intricate dynamics of the state, its historical evolution, and the evolving landscape of global politics with the emergence of non-state actors.

Defining the State:

Woodrow Wilson’s definition of the state as “a people organized for law within a definite territory” and Harold J. Laski’s depiction of it as a “territorial society divided into government and subjects” both underscore the significance of the state’s territoriality and its role as a governing body.

Key Elements of the State:

  • Permanent Population, encompassing individuals with diverse cultural backgrounds, where differences may exist in terms of language, religion, and historical identity.
  • Clearly outlined land or territory.
  • Acknowledged sovereignty.
  • Operational government and economy.

The Nation-State System:

According to the Palmer, “the nation state system is the pattern of political life in which people are separately organized into sovereign states that interact with one another in varying degrees and in varying ways”

The roots of this system trace back to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Even preceding this pivotal agreement, states existed and engaged in relations, albeit lacking sovereignty due to constraints imposed by the Roman Church and the Roman Empire.

The Treaty of Westphalia marked a turning point by acknowledging the sovereign nature of states, establishing that supreme authority resides within the state itself. This recognition granted states autonomy, liberating them from both internal and external control.

As time progressed, the nation-state underwent significant development spurred by the emergence of representative governments, the industrial revolution, demographic shifts, advancements in international law, diplomatic evolution, the growing interdependence of states, and the expansion of the nation-state system to non-western regions. These factors collectively shaped the evolution of the nation-state system, influencing its structure and interactions on the global stage.

Non-State Actors:

Non-state actors, characterized as entities lacking sovereignty, wield substantial economic, political, or social influence both nationally and, in certain instances, internationally. This category lacks consensus among its members, highlighting the diverse nature of these entities.

The existence of non-state actors poses a challenge to the traditional concept of state sovereignty, as they operate beyond the confines of a single nation’s boundaries. These actors become integral parts of civil society, impacting various facets of governance and societal functions.

Holsti categorizes non-state actors into three types:

  • Territorial Non-state Actors: These entities operate within a specific territory, exemplified by organizations like the United Nations (UN) and the European Union (EU).
  • Non-Territorial Non-state Actors: This category includes entities without fixed territories of governance, such as Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Multi-National Corporations (MNCs).
  • Intergovernmental Actors: Holsti introduces the concept of intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), which are entities established by treaties involving two or more nations. IGOs, like the G8, engage in economic and political summits. Those formed by treaties hold a legal advantage, being subject to international law and having the ability to enter into enforceable agreements among themselves or with states. Examples include BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and G20.

These examples illustrate the diverse landscape of non-state actors, showcasing their involvement in various global forums and their impact on international affairs.

Non state actors include: 

  • MNCs 
  • NGOs 
  • Terrorist Groups – Violent Non-State Actors


MNCs, as analyzed by Joseph Nye in his article titled ‘MNCs – the Game and Rule’ published in Foreign Affairs journal, play a significant role in international politics.

Joseph Nye identifies three key roles that MNCs have played:

  • Direct Role: In certain countries, MNCs actively seek to influence government policies through tactics such as bribery or other strategies.
  • Unintended Direct Role: Governments utilize MNCs to influence local politics and gather information, leveraging their presence for geopolitical advantages.
  • Indirect Role: MNCs impact international politics by setting agendas and lobbying their home governments to exert pressure on other countries.

Nye notes a transformation in the nature of MNCs, highlighting a shift from dominance by developed countries’ MNCs to a more prominent role played by those from developing countries, particularly India and China. In the contemporary landscape, a significant portion of oil and gas explorations is under the control of MNCs from third-world countries.

Despite their controversial roles, MNCs also contribute positively to global affairs. They bring capital to various regions, generate employment opportunities, facilitate the transfer of technology, and engage in charitable activities. This dual role underscores the complexity of MNCs’ impact on international relations, requiring a nuanced understanding of their multifaceted contributions and implications.


NGOs, or Non-Governmental Organizations, constitute private, self-governing, voluntary, non-profit entities with a specific task or interest-oriented advocacy focus. P.J. Simmons, in his article ‘Learning to Live with NGOs,’ illustrates the profound impact these organizations have on both domestic and foreign policies of governments and multilateral institutions. NGOs influence policies by setting agendas, negotiating outcomes, conferring legitimacy, and implementing solutions.

Terrorist Groups

On the other end of the spectrum are terrorist groups, which, according to the complex interdependence model, play a role as asymmetrical actors. In the 21st century, transnational terrorist networks have emerged as the most significant security threat to nation-states. The post-Cold War era has witnessed a shift from traditional power dynamics to an asymmetrical balancing act between nation-states and non-state actors.

The transition from the Cold War to a global war on terrorism has reshaped both the theory and practice of international politics. Terrorist actors have introduced new concepts such as asymmetrical balancing, preemptive wars, and the identification of rogue states, all tied to the phenomenon of terrorism.

Asymmetric balancing refers to the efforts by nation-states to balance and contain indirect threats posed by sub-national actors like terrorist groups. These entities lack the conventional military capabilities or strategies to directly challenge key states, prompting the need for alternative methods of containment.

A preemptive war, in this context, is initiated with the aim of repelling or defeating a perceived imminent offensive or invasion, or gaining a strategic advantage in anticipation of an unavoidable war. Such wars break the peace preemptively and are a response to the changing dynamics brought about by terrorist threats, challenging traditional notions of conflict and warfare.


Navigating the complexities of global politics necessitates a nuanced understanding of the intricate interplay between the state and non-state actors. As these dynamics continue to evolve, policymakers and analysts must adapt to the multifaceted roles played by entities beyond traditional state structures. The contemporary geopolitical landscape is shaped not only by the actions of states but also by the influence of diverse non-state actors.

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