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States v. Nations: An International Challenge

By Andrew Chow, Esq. on September 30, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

FindLaw columnist Eric Sinrod writes regularly in this section on legal developments surrounding technology and the Internet.

The fact that states and nations do not line up neatly on the geographical global map continues to create international problems.

Under the Montevideo Convention of 1933, a state is defined as "an entity that has a defined territory and a permanent population under the control of its own government, and that engages in or has the capacity to engage in, formal relations with other such entities."

There is no minimum size for a state. Monaco, which is only 1.5 square kilometers, is a state. The Vatican, with a population of only about 300 people, also is considered a state.

The existence of a state relies on the concept of territory -- that area of land, air and water circumscribed by the state's frontiers. And sovereignty is a state's right to exercise its authority within that territory.

State boundaries generally are determined by agreements (or armed conflicts unfortunately) between states rather than being dictated by international law. Boundary disputes are not uncommon, and such disputes at times are resolved by arbitration or by the International Court of Justice (World Court).

States can acquire further territory by various means, including accretion, cession or conquest.

Under U.S. law, only the president has the authority to recognize another entity as a state. This exclusive authority is implied from the powers granted to the president under Article II of the Constitution to appoint and receive ambassadors. Interestingly, this authority is discretionary as an optional political act.

The government of a particular state can be recognized by other states if that government is in control of its state without the assistance of a foreign state, that government has the consent or acquiescence of its people, and it shows a willingness to comply with its state's obligations under international law.

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq and ousted the government of Saddam Hussein (looking for alleged weapons of mass destruction). Thereafter, in 2004, the United States announced that full sovereignty had been transferred to a different sovereign Iraqi government. This, then, signaled official recognition of that Iraqi government by the United States.

States have the right of sovereignty, meaning exclusive control of the state's domestic affairs without foreign intervention. This has become controversial when it comes to matters of universal importance, like human rights violations.

States also have absolute control of their natural resources. But this too is controversial when a state causes harm beyond its territory in terms of how it extracts and uses its natural resources.

In theory, all independent states are viewed equally as a matter of international law. However, history has shown that states with power do wield that power for their own benefit and to the detriment of other less powerful states.

A nation, by contrast to a state, is a relatively large group of people who share a common language, culture, ethnicity, descent or history. Oftentimes, nations do not fit in neatly within states. For example, a nation can be spread across multiple states, and/or multiple nations can be contained within a particular state. This predicament often leads to turmoil and conflict.

For instance, at one time, the vast territories of the Russian Empire hosted the largest population of Jews in the world in the "Pale of Settlement." This Jewish "nation" frequently faced periods of discrimination and persecution. Ultimately, many left and moved to places such as Israel. Now the Jews have a state in Israel, yet Israel has a number of different nation groups within its borders.

At one time the various groups of peoples from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia were brought together in the state of Yugoslavia under Tito's rule. That proved unsustainable, and Yugoslavia as a state ultimately unraveled.

The Basque country, primarily in northern Spain, for years has contained separatists who have sought self-determination and independence from Spain. These efforts have been peaceful, and at times, not peaceful. To date, the separatists have not succeeded.

And some have argued that even here in the United States we have a variety of different, cultural nations. Indeed, these differences almost caused our country to fall apart in the Civil War.

Colin Woodard, in his book "American Nations," suggests that there are quite a number of nations within the United States. These nations have names such as Yankeedom, the Deep South, Appalachia, Midlands, El Norte, the Left Coast, and others.

Plainly, state territory lines do not much up neatly with where nations exist. This has led to conflict and continues to do so today. It probably is not realistic to think that the borders around states and nations ever will be a perfect match. Thus, there must be further efforts made to bring nations together within states so that they can coexist better. And, of course, at times, it may be better that some groups may have to separate if they cannot coexist.

Eric Sinrod (@EricSinrod on Twitter) is a partner in the San Francisco office of Duane Morris LLP, where he focuses on litigation matters of various types, including information technology and intellectual property disputes. You can read his professional biography here. To receive a weekly email link to Mr. Sinrod's columns, please email him at with Subscribe in the Subject line. This column is prepared and published for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the author's law firm or its individual partners.

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