The terms “nation” and “state” are often used interchangeably, even though they are two distinct concepts. Whereas a nation is a group of people who share common characteristics, a state is a sovereign territory with defined borders, a permanent population, and a functioning government. It is, of course, possible for a state to be the embodiment of a nation. In other words, a state in which the overwhelming majority of people belong to the same nation. This is commonly known as a nation-state.
What Is A Nation?
There is no universal consensus on what exactly constitutes a nation. It is generally agreed, however, that a nation is a group of people with common characteristics. Such characteristics can include a common language, religion, history, or ethnicity. There are countless groups of people in the world that could be defined as nations according to the aforementioned criteria. Most regard the French, for example, as a nation. Indeed, the French have a common language and ethnicity of the same name. Most, though not all, French adhere to one religion, Roman Catholicism. Moreover, most people would agree that the French have a common culture that involves certain customs and traditions.
It is very common for various nations to have countries of their own, known as nation-states. Thus, the country of France serves as the nation-state of the French people; Spain serves as the nation-state of the Spanish people; Italy is the nation-state of the Italian people, and so forth. Not all nations, however, have a nation-state of their own. For instance, the Kurdish people, or Kurds, who are native to the Middle East, do not have a nation-state of their own. Instead, the territory in which they live is spread among several countries, including Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. Many Kurds contend that they should have a nation-state of their own, since they have common characteristics such as a common language, ethnicity and territory.
Some argue that it is not necessary for people to share the same ethnicity, language, or religion in order to be considered a nation. Instead, they argue that a nation can be based simply on shared values. Thus, they would contend, for example, that the United States is a nation because Americans supposedly share common values, even though they descend from many different places around the world, and in many cases, do not share a common language, ethnicity, or religion.
What Is A State?
Unlike the concept of the nation, the concept of the state has legal standing in international law. According to this law, a state needs to fulfill certain criteria before it can be recognized as such. Among these criteria are a defined territory with defined borders, a permanent population, and a government that has effective control over the defined territory and its borders. In the context of international law, the term “state” should not be confused with territorial entities that are called states, but are in fact, subnational jurisdictions of a state. Thus, the U.S. states of Texas and California should not be confused with France or Germany, since the former are just subnational entities of the United States, and not independent actors in the international community. The key difference between a state and a nation is the territorial component. A state requires territory to be recognized as such, but a nation does not.