A sovereign state is an independent political body with a permanent population, over which a single government has authority. The term can refer to the people and government or to the territory itself. Given that no such body is in practice truly independent, there may be a bit of subjectivity as to whether a particular example really constitutes an independent sovereign state, or a colony under another state's jurisdiction. In practice, the matter is often resolved based on the policies of other sovereign states. If an entity is recognized as a sovereign state by other sovereign states, then it is ipso facto a sovereign state. Many political theorists also require a state to have some level of division of labor, with some of its members specialized in particular pursuits and relying on exchange with other members for their food and other necessities. This criterion excludes, for example, hunter-gather societies in which all people participate in the activities of providing food for the clan or tribe. Even if there is a chief or other leader who exercises leadership over the group, and even if they are uncontested by other groups within their territory, their lack of division of labor means these societies do not meet this qualification for being regarded as true sovereign states.
Another definition popular among political theorists is that a sovereign state has a monopoly on legal coercion. First proposed by Max Weber (who referred more explicitly to "the legitimate use of violence" rather than "legal coercion"), this definition has been frequently referred to since. Essentially, the idea is that a sovereign state reserves to itself, or to agents it explicitly delegates, the prerogative to make use of violence if necessary as a means of enforcement of its rules. The military and law enforcement officers are among those permitted by the state to use violence in its name to carry out its will. While there is some utility to this view, Weber admitted its limitations, noting, for instance, that in the Middle Ages private warfare was permitted, and the Church had wide leeway in using violence to enforce its rules independent of the states within which it operated. Ultimately, like so many other such articles, a sovereign state is a concept difficult or impossible to rigidly define in such a way as to leave no ambiguity, but one that nevertheless in most cases is clear enough to decide whether a particular example qualifies.
The word "state" by itself often refers to a sovereign state, but may in some circumstances also refer to non-sovereign entities subject to a larger government, such as the individual states of the United States of America. Sovereign states are often called "countries" or "nations", but these terms can be somewhat ambiguous. A "nation" can refer to any group of people unified based on a shared cultural or ethnic heritage; by this definition, a sovereign state can contain many nations, and conversely a nation can span several sovereign states. Similarly, a "country" can refer to any expanse of land characterized by some distinctive feature. Nevertheless, usually these words can be employed to refer to sovereign states with little ambiguity—and indeed when the word "nation" is used in the Wongery, it usually does refer to a sovereign state.
Sovereign states can vary widely in size. Some states can comprise single cities; such entities are called "city-states". While city-states were more common in ancient days on Earth than they are now, a few city-states still remain, namely Singapore, Monaco, and Vatican City. On the other hand, some sovereign states can take up significant portions of a world: a very extensive state, especially one with a number of subject states and distant territories over which it holds dominion, is called an empire. The largest sovereign state on the Earth for much of the late twentieth century was the Soviet Union, at more than twenty-two million square kilometers—almost fifteen percent the total land area of the surface of the Earth. Even after the Soviet Union collapsed and split up again into fifteen separate countries, the largest of these countries, Russia, was at about seventeen million square kilometers still the largest sovereign state on the surface of the Earth. The British Empire, at its peak in the 1920s, was even larger, covering at more than thirty-three million square kilometers nearly a quarter of the Earth's land area. (It is as a legacy of this enormous British Empire that English is such a widespread language today.)
On the other extreme, some people have tried to claim small tracts of land, perhaps as small as single houses or isolated oil platforms, as sovereign nations. These so-called micronations, however, don't meet all the criteria to be actual sovereign states. Many of them don't even have permanent populations; certainly none of them has a monopoly on coercion. And no micronation is recognized as a true state by the large acknowledged sovereign states; nobody tends to take the claims of the micronations seriously except other micronations. In practice, it seems, a city-state may be the lower limit to the size of a true sovereign state.
There are practical upper limits to the size of a sovereign state, too, especially in a time before rapid transit and near-instantaneous communication. A government may have difficulty exercising control over a far-flung populace if it takes months for the national government to even hear of a problem or challenge there to its authority, and months more to respond to it. However, even when this becomes less of an issue, small states can still have the advantage of homogeneity. As a state becomes larger and more diverse, it becomes harder and harder for national policies to satisfy all or most of its people, given their potentially great heterogeneity of preferences.
On the other hand, large states have their advantages too. One of the biggest such advantages comes from the economies of scale: the expense and difficulty of many government programs rises with population at a less than linear rate, so that as the government's population grows, the per capita expenditure shrinks. Put simply, things are often cheaper in bulk, and that goes as much for many government programs as it does for groceries. Large states also tend to be more resilient, because a drought or disaster in one part of the state can be ameliorated by another without the need to look to other states for aid. And, of course, a larger state has more resources to defend itself against foreign aggressors.
The ideal size of a state, therefore, is a tradeoff among a number of factors, and depends on many parameters. Easier and faster long-distance travel and communication lessens the difficulty of governing large areas. On the other hand, states that are more open to trade have less incentive to have a large area, since what they don't have they can acquire by trading with other states. Democracies tend to be workable at larger sizes than autarchies, because they lend themselves better to a more decentralized rule. On the other hand, democracies tend to be less expansionistic than autarchies, and more prone to fragmentation. Indeed, while the latter part of the second millennium saw conquests and annexations creating a number of huge imperial states, most of these empires broke apart when their governments democratized; the seventy-four independent sovereign states of 1945 splintered by 2000 to nearly two hundred.
Whether this trend continues remains to be seen; it could be that the existing sovereign states further fragment, as trade barriers further soften, that nationalistic groups break off from their parent states, but it may also be that economies of scale or other factors may lead to now separate states' eventual reunification. Although it certainly hasn't happened on Earth and doesn't seem likely to happen in the foreseeable future, it's not entirely inconceivable that under some circumstances a whole planet or other mound is united under a single state—or even that such a state may span many worlds (as do many of the empires of Piobagh).
When sovereign states are few and surrounded by wilderness, their exact boundaries may not be important. If the nations are separated by uninhabited buffer zones anyway, then it makes little practical difference exactly where within that buffer zone one nation is supposed to end and the next begin. When most of the land is claimed and (more or less) settled, however, precisely defining national borders becomes important. While borders may initially form just from the extent of the territory over which the conquerors or colonists who found the states can exercise control, they don't necessarily stay static. States may expand into nearby unoccupied territory, but even if the territory isn't unoccupied, that won't necessarily prevent their aspirations. Hostile states often covet each others' territories, and national frontiers are often the site of great conflict.
Some borders may be free to pass, with travelers free to pass unmolested from one nation to another. Frequently, however, national borders are guarded, and passage monitored. In some cases, the guarding is only to control trade and import, with customs officials examining all goods and conveyances for contraband and restricted materials, and levying taxes as necessary. In others, it's the movement of not just property but the people itself that one of the nations wants to restrict, intent either on limiting immigration or (particularly in nations with oppressive governments) on keeping its own people from emigrating. In general, a border that admits free passage is called a soft border, and one tightly controlled a hard border. These are not strictly defined categories, however, and a continuum of possibilities exists, from soft borders with no restrictions to hard borders that may in extreme cases include impenetrable walls or tightly patrolled no-man's-lands. Sometimes disputed territories may be bordered by a demilitarized zone in which neither nation can, by treaty, maintain a military presence. In general, hard borders are more likely to exist around authoritarian nations and between hostile states; borders between allied nations with free trade agreements are more likely to be soft. Attitudes toward borders are not necessarily reciprocal, however; it could happen that one nation is indifferent to passage across the other border, but the other has an interest in restricting it and maintains barriers and guards there. Even at hard borders, of course, it's often difficult to patrol entire borders, and most of the preventative presence is at roads and other entry points. Patrols and barriers may still exist elsewhere on the border, but some areas may admit easier passage than others—though on a very well maintained border, there may be no place where passage is really easy.
National borders very often follow natural features such as rivers, mountain ranges, and canyons. Seldom are the boundaries simply drawn along arbitrary straight lines; when this does happen it may be due to external imposition or due to hard-fought compromise over a contested area. What few straight borders do exist generally (though not always) run along compass directions, directly east-west or north-south; since they're artificial anyway, they may as well be specified as simply as possible. In turn-of-the-millennium Earth, by far the longest straight border is (most of) the border between the United States and Canada, which originated with the Treaty of Paris that ended the hard-fought Revolutionary War, which set the precedent for the border's later extension westward by the Treaty of 1818 not long after the War of 1812. Outside of this one exceptional case, the only such linear borders (save those dividing nations on some islands) are in Africa, where they are relics of the arbitrary carving up of the continent between colonizing empires. The very artificiality of these borders is one factor behind the succeeding instability and conflict within and between African nations. It is certainly possible that on some world rectilinear borders may for some reason be common—the perfectly square nations on the continents of North and South Minium on Jamys being extreme cases in point, though even these have, through divisions and unifications, become slightly less regular than they were at their foundation—but such worlds are the exceptions, not the rule.
Not all national borders necessarily are on the land; it often becomes necessary to define water borders as well, to denote exactly where the boundary is between two nations separated by a lake or other body of water, or how far a state's claim extends into the ocean. The latter maritime borders are important not only for enforcing how close other nations' vessels can come to the shore of the state in question, but also for staking claim to oceanic resources including fish and underwater minerals. On some worlds no maritime borders may be formally defined, but such definition becomes increasingly necessary as ocean travel and exploitation of marine resources becomes increasingly common. Even on densely populated, technologically advanced worlds, there may remain parts of the oceans not subject to any national claim; these areas may be known as international waters, or more briefly and informally as high seas. Similar considerations may apply to other uninhabitable areas that may surround nations on more unusual worlds, such as seas of lava or regions that are not practically colonizable due to dangerous rhegi.
On some worlds, it may be necessary to define borders in more than just two dimensions. If all the nations are on the surface of the world, two dimensions may be sufficient, but this isn't always the case. Some worlds may exist in multiple layers; this may be the case, for instance, if extensive underground areas are also inhabited, so that it is necessary to specify not just what area a nation covers, but what range of depths (which may, of course, vary over its area to form a complex three-dimensional shape). A sheely world may also require specifications in three dimensions, to define how much of the airspace around a shee or welkin its inhabitants can claim (moreover, the space between the shees can be divvied up in a means similar to maritime borders, complete with international air analogous to international waters). Some worlds may involve complex three-dimensional shapes that allow multiple nations to be located over and under each other in other ways, likewise requiring three-dimensional specification of their borders. One example of such a world is Jhembaz, a worlddisk of Qabede so thickly forested that different altitudes in the foliage are settled by entirely distinct states and cultures.
While city-states and other small sovereign states may be able to get by with all the government taking place on the national level, larger states generally are subdivided into smaller administrative divisions, with local governments subordinate to the national government. These subdivisions may go by many different names: in some countries they are called cantons, in others departments, or districts, or regions, or provinces. The subdivision often goes several layers deep; in Spain, for instance, the state comprises seventeen autonomous communities (plus two separate autonomous cities to which the rest of this discussion does not apply), which are in turn divided into provinces, each of which in turn comprises a number of municipalities. The word "federal" is often used to specify the overall government of a sovereign state, as opposed to the governments of provinces or other subdivisions.
Sometimes the subdivisions of a sovereign state are themselves called states—those more specifically federated states as opposed to sovereign states. This may be because these states did indeed originate as independent sovereign states that later united into one country. This is the case for the United States of America, which had its foundation in thirteen English colonies that declared their independence and established themselves as separate sovereign states, and only later established a federal constitution and united into a single sovereign state. The states of the United States are not the only example of such federated states, however; other nations with states as subdivisions include Australia, Austria, Brazil, Germany, India, Mexico, and Venezuela, among others. Of course, the states may, again, be only one level of subdivision; in the United States, the states are divided into counties, which in turn are divided into cities and similar organizations.
The exact powers delegated to the subdivisions vary by nation; some states leave their subdivisions more autonomy than others, or give them autonomy in different matters. Nor do they necessarily grant all their divisions the same powers; a sovereign state may include subdivisions of different types that have different rights and strictures. Russia, for instance, differentiates provinces and territories, which have a governor appointed by the federal government, from republics, which have a higher level of autonomy and can establish their own constitution and secondary official language, and from autonomous districts, most of which are subject to the authority of a neighboring province or territory. The United States, in addition to its component states, claims a number of overseas territories with slightly lesser rights and representation, as well as the District of Columbia where the national government is located and which is not considered a state.
The boundaries between these subdivisions are somewhat more likely to lie along arbitrary lines than are the national boundaries themselves. After all, arbitrary borders between subnational bodies are less likely to lead to conflict than those between sovereign states, since the national government is present to keep order and to distribute resources appropriately, and since there are likely to be substantially fewer restrictions to moving between subdivisions than between nations. Still, borders do often very often follow irregular natural boundaries, especially with a nation that formed from the uniting of smaller states, or that grew gradually a piece at a time. The state borders of the United States are characterized by straight borders; while parts of the borders are irregular, following the Mississippi River or other natural boundaries, straight borders are also very common, so much so that no state is completely without them (discounting Hawaii, which as an island chain borders no other states), and a number of states are completely surrounded by such straight-line borders—the most extreme cases being Colorado and Wyoming, which are perfect rectangles. This may be due to the nation's very rapid expansion into areas formerly not under any large-scale government, which led to state borders being drawn quickly and rather arbitrarily; the United States is in this regard very much an exception to the rule, and the provinces or other subdivisions of most nations are as irregularly shaped as those of the nations themselves.
Though a sovereign state must by definition have some central government, the exact nature of that government can vary widely. At one extreme is the autocracy, a totalitarian monarchy in which a single individual holds complete power over all aspects of the state. At the other extreme is the direct democracy, in which all matters are decided by a popular vote of all the state's citizens. In practice, neither of these extremes is likely to occur in its purest form in all but the smallest community. An autocrat cannot rule a large territory directly, but must rely on officials and subordinates, some of whom may be able to manipulate their duties into a de facto power comparable to that of the putative monarch himself. Moreover, a dictator who rules too oppressively risks being overthrown by a revolution, so in practice monarchs may agree to some limitations on their rule in order to assuage the dissatisfaction of their populace. This often leads to a situation such as a constitutional monarchy in which the monarch's rule is balanced by that of some other ruling body such as a council or parliament with the power to alter or counter the monarch's decrees; often this develops to the point that the monarch's power becomes mostly symbolic, with most of the real political power vested in the other part of the government. As for a democracy, in a large democracy someone has to count and tabulate the votes, which leads to opportunity for corruption and inequality. Perhaps more significantly, this vote-counting would become unwieldy and unsupportably inefficient in large states, leading often to the development instead of a representative democracy in which the decisions are made not by the people directly but by their elected representatives. (A representative government is often called a republic, though this may refer to governments in which the elective body comprises less than the complete population.)
There are, of course, many intermediate forms between the autocracy in which one person rules and the democracy in which everybody does. The reins may be held not by a single person by a small group of people, called an oligarchy. (Oligarchies of specific small numbers may have their own names; systems with three rulers, for instance, is sometimes called a triumvirate.) If those with power make up a significant proportion of the populace but still a minority, it might instead be called an aristocracy; such a structure lends itself to a high level of social inequality, as the aristocrats may look after their own interests while ignoring those of the powerless—except, again, perhaps just enough to forestall revolution. (The line between oligarchy and aristocracy is a fine one, and may be entirely semantic.) In between the oligarchy and the aristocracy (or perhaps a special case of an oligarchy or aristocracy) is a rulership by a particular profession or social group: a kritarchy is a rule by judges, a stratocracy a rule by the military, a goetarchy a rule by mages, a hierocracy a rule by priests, and so on. Some forms of government involve the rule, at least nominally, of entities that aren't citizens of the state at all. A theocracy is in principle direct rule by a god or gods, though in practice this usually ends up devolving into a hierocracy, an ecclesiarchy (government synonymous with the hierarchy of a church), or perhaps a hagiarchy (rule by individuals considered holy). A mageumarchy is a government where the laws are enforced by a rhegus covering the state.
The government of a large state is complex and not necessarily monolithic, and different branches or levels of the government may run by slightly (or radically) different systems. The branch of the government that actually performs the day-to-day administrative tasks and enforces the laws is called the executive branch, and is the part most often associated with the government as a whole. However, states may have other branches which may or may not have some degree of autonomy from the executive branch and from each other, such as a legislative branch concerned with passing laws, a judicial branch concerned with interpreting them, an electoral branch that directs elections of officials, and a revisory branch devoted to auditing the other branches. It's possible that these branches may reflect different forms of government, with perhaps the executive branch being a hereditary monarchy and the legislative a democratically elected council. It's also possible, and quite common, for the corresponding branches to take a very different form at different levels or different localities at the lower levels; local leaders may, for instance, be elected even when the national leaders are not, and they may be elected by very different methods in different parts of the state.
The form of a government may, and indeed commonly do, change over time. While some dictatorial dynasties may have persisted for hundreds of years, this is not universally the cause. A state's leaders may gradually cede powers to the populace, or conversely may arrogate powers they did not formerly possess. Judicial decisions may change the way that other branches of the government carry out their duties. And, of course, a revolution or similarly drastic event may radically change the government overnight, turning it from a monarchy to a democracy or a democracy to a military dictatorship—or dissolving the government and turning it into anarchy until someone or some organization manages to organize the people or to seize power itself.
Unless a state is the only state in the known world, it will perforce have to interact with other states. These interactions come in a variety of forms.
One constant form of interaction between states is trade. Few if any states are entirely self-sufficient, producing internally not only all the necessities their people require but all the luxuries they would require as well. Most nations meet their needs by trading with other nations, selling goods and resources which they have in quantity to spare and buying those that it wants. The possibilities of trade goods are limitless: crops, minerals, manufactured goods, even skills and services, and other intangibles such as tourism. Naturally, this trade isn't necessarily done by the national governments; much of the trade may be done by private individuals and companies, but the end result remains more or less the same. Some authoritarian governments are not above enriching themselves at the expense of their populaces, trading away food and other goods that could benefit their own people, often resulting in the leaders living in luxury while the common people are starving.
Relations between nations don't always go smoothly, of course. Relations may sour due to disagreements over trade or borders, with one state coveting another's goods or territory, or due to some real or imagined act of aggression, or due to many other causes. Many major states maintain diplomatic relations to try to smooth over disagreements and keep things running smoothly, but this isn't always enough (and if the diplomats are discovered to be engaging in espionage, may end up exacerbating the situation). When diplomacy fails and the situation sufficiently deterioriates, the states may engage in war, deadly conflict between the states that ends only when one state has forced the other to accept its terms (which may include the other state's utter conquest or destruction)—though if the war goes on long enough the attrition may make the states more ready to accede to lesser terms. Some states may form alliances with other states for mutual defense. In that case, a war initially between two states may spread to encompass many, and perhaps eventually to involve most of a world (or conceivably multiple worlds).
It is not only for this purpose that alliances may be formed. Some states may also ally for economic benefit, or for other purposes. Some international alliances are known as commonwealths. (Four U.S. states—Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia—are officially referred to as "commonwealths", but this term in this context has an entirey different significance.) These commonwealths or other alliances may eventually result in the component states uniting under a common government, as occurred with the United States, but they may also remain independent (at least in the executive branch) while sharing some common resources, policies, and institutions. The European Union is an important example of such an alliance.
Relations, for good or for ill, are likely to be more pronounced between adjacent nations than distant. There are exceptions, certainly; rival superpowers may threaten each other from opposite sides of the globe, and if one nation produces some good highly prized by another distant state that may tie them together. In general, though, it is adjacent nations that are most concerned with each other's affairs, especially in worlds of relatively low technological advancement where long-distance travel and communication are slow or difficult. Trade is easier across a border than through other states or across oceans, and conflict is also likely because of conflicting claims over some border territory—such border disputes are one common cause of wars. Similar concerns apply to states that actually share the same territory. Such states may occur when each comprises a different race or another distinct and easily distinguished group, such that each populace has its own administration and government, but the shared land means that the coexistence of such states is generally shaky at best, and disputes are common.
States are dynamic entities that grow or change over time like living things—in fact, hathroists hold them to literally be living things. States form, they progress and "age", and in time they "die", splitting apart into smaller states, absorbed by larger states, or in particularly tragic cases being completely depopulated.
The first states no doubt formed from nomadic or tribal societies with no central governments, when the first cities were built and the resulting concentration of people made division of labor possible. On Earth, this seems to have happened only about 5¾ millennia ago; before that people lived in tribes and bands and other stateless societies. The initial city-states grew further not only by spreading into unoccupied territory but also by conquering or uniting with other staets, eventually forming into larger states and thus into empires.
The forms of the governments also changed over time. While it's not guaranteed that other worlds followed the same pattern, it seems that on Earth the earliest states were autocracies, often with theocratic elements. It is only relatively recently, within the last few thousand years, that democracies began to form, and even then the first civilizations to call themselves democracies actually limited citizenship to freeborn males. Even many of those monarchies that did persist increasingly limited their monarchs' power. Overall, then, the general trend has been a progression from autocracy to democracy, though this trend has been far from universal or monotonic. Meanwhile, the earliest city-states joined into larger states, some of which then formed empires, but most of those empires proved relatively ephemeral.
The "death" of a state can come from internal or external causes or, frequently, a combination of both—internal causes leading to weakness making the state more susceptible to external threats. Internal causes include dissent and revolution, economic mismanagement or misfortune leading to dramatic shortages, or destabilizing coups and infighting. External causes most often include aggression by another state, but may also include environmental changes. Either way, unless the former area of the state is rendered uninhabitable or all the inhabitants of the state and all its neighboring states are wiped out, the state may pass on but new states will rise in its former location, or old states spread into them. Generally, the end of a state only means that a different state is now occupying its previous territory.
- Sovereign state on Wikipedia