Examination of its Emergence and Dominance

Q. 1. How and why did the state become the dominant form of political organisation in the modern world?

The modern state is a recent phenomenon, which depicts the consolidation of the separate social institutions into one entity. In Europe, the separate social institutions like the Church, the nobility, and the peasantry had separate roles and functions, which converged in the idea of a modern state. The birth of the modern nation-state led to the submerging of the many diverse institutions into one entity and identity based on the shared history and culture. Over a period of time, the state became the dominant form of political organisation in the world. This essay explores the reasons why the state achieved this dominant personality and the manner in which it was achieved.


It may be pertinent to note at the outset that the modern state has been conceptualised by different thinkers in different ways. Consequently, state has been conceptualised as a structure that allows the dominance of one or some classes by the other (state as a class structure); state has been conceptualised as an organisation that transcends class; state has been conceptualised as a power system and even as welfare system (MacIver, 2013). State has even been conceptualised as a legal system in the Austinian sense where the state is the reflection or manifestation of the relationship between the governor and the governed (MacIver, 2013). State may even be conceptualised as a nation with a people sharing some commonalities (MacIver, 2013). The most significant definition of state was made in the Montevedeo Convention (ILSA, 1933). Article 1 of the Montevedeo Convention defines the state “as a person of international law” which “should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) a government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with other states” (ILSA, 1933, Article 1). In the modern world, the definition of state has come post facto, that is, post the fact of the creation of states. There were already in existence such political units that the Montevedeo Convention defined as states. Strayer (2005) specifies certain characteristics of political units, which include, persistence of time, fixation in space, permanent and impersonal institutions, agreement on the requirement for there to be an authority in power and the ability to make final judgements, and the acceptance of the notion of obedience from the subjects to the authority in power. Those political units that have these characteristics can be described as being modern states (Strayer, 2005). Although the Greek Polis, the Roman Empire and the Chinese and Japanese civilisations also depicted these characteristics, Strayer (2005) argues that in the modern sense, it is the European nation states that have displayed these characteristics, starting with England and France and then spreading on to the other countries in Europe that began to emulate the qualities of the British and French states.

In the 13th century, there were hundreds of political units in Europe; in a sense, Europe was fragmented into many political units. Due to the Roman Empire, there was an existing network of commercial and administrative cities in Europe of that period and more than eight hundred bishoprics that were spread across Europe but, the (Strayer, 2005). By the 16th century, Europe had become more internally connected as compared to what it was in the 12th century. Some cities like Paris and Constantinople had become more integrated. It is around this time that militias also developed in the major cities for the purpose of the protection of the cities. Later in this essay, a point made by Tilly (1985) where he argued that the creation of the modern state to a great extent owes its origin in war making, will indicate the same message that Strayer (2005) gives, which is that modern states also owe their creation as the most dominant political unit to war. Militias in the major cities of Europe developed technologies of war and required the citizens of the city to serve in the militias (Strayer, 2005). The concept of military duty was created and perpetuated, which bound the citizen of the city to the militia and to the city. For instance, the independent city of Venice prescribed duties to the citizens requiring them to serve not only in the military but also in the navy (Strayer, 2005). Over a period of time, one of the most important functions of the modern state has come to be the function of ensuring security of the state, which it does through the establishment of military forces. This point and its significance to the dominance of the state as a political unit will be taken up later in this essay.

To begin with, the significance of state in the modern world cannot be emphasised enough. Strayer (2005) puts is well when he says:

“Today we take the state for granted. We grumble about its demands; we complain that it is encroaching more and more on what used to be our private concerns, but we can hardly envisage life without it. In the world of today, the worst fate that can befall a human being is to be stateless” (p. 3).

The above statement is very relevant to the importance and significance of the state in the life of the individual. Although, the statement does not say much about the place of the state in the modern world, this can be inferred in the statement above to be one of great and utmost significance. State is the most important political unit in the modern world. This was not always the case as there was a time when the state as we know it did not exist. There were other political units, starting with family, but including feudal lords and dominant religious groups (Strayer, 2005). Over a period of time, the state has emerged as the most important of these political groups and in some senses the only political unit that really matters, at least in the context of international law, which still treats the state as the dominant political unit while also recognising other political units like international organisations (Boucher, 1998, p. 299). The individuals in the pre-state societies owed allegiance to the family, lord, religion, and community and not to the state as no such entity existed at the time. Today, the modern world is a world made up of states or as Morris (1998) puts it: “We live in a world of states. Virtually every landmass of the globe is now the territory of some state” (p. 1).

The question of the achievement of the dominant personality of the state comes from the point that there were other political institutions that were in existence, and are still in existence. This was called into focus in an essay by Christopher W. Morris, Essay on the Modern State, where he argued that the history of the modern state has largely neglected the fact that “our state system has not always existed” (Morris, 1998, p. 3). There were other forms of governance that were in existence and which may be clearly distinguished from the modern state (Morris, 1998). The modern nation-state is the political form that ultimately triumphed over the other political forms, which included political federation, a theocratic commonwealth, decentralised trading partners; and the feudal modes of governance (Morris, 1998). Of these the Church perhaps was the most influential and was part of the pre-state balance of power between the crown, titled landholders, and the church (Chaney, 2012). However, there were too many political bodies in the pre-state period in Europe, which also created a lot of competition amongst the different political bodies. It is against this background that the modern state developed over a period of time.

Morris (1998) writes that the modern state was initially a European phenomenon and it is a fairly recent phenomenon. Tilly (1990) too notes that in the medieval Europe, three striking things occurred: Europe en masse transformed into nation states; second, the European model of nation states spread out in the world; and third, states acting in concert exercised the influence over the territory and organisation of other states. This is supported by the views of Strayer (2005) who notes that the European model of state became the ‘fashionable’ and then the dominant model of states throughout the world, perpetuated through emulation or through colonisation of those territories by European nations that later adopted the European model of state.

One of the arguments that are made to trace the creation of the modern state has been made by Tilly, in which he argues that the origin of the state is in the war (Tilly, 1985). States like France and Spain developed methods and apparatuses of warfare and this led to the development of the technologies of war. War-making and state-making are stated by Tilly (1985) to be the same in that they both have their genesis in war and violence. Tilly (1985) argues that we cannot completely understand the growth and transformation of political forms without understanding the centrality of force in the creation of the states. The state has the role of war-making which is also related to the creation of the state as the principal political form in the world today. According to Tilly (1990), nation states became the dominant political form in the world because they won out in Europe and then slowly spread out in the whole world. The nation state won out in Europe as the dominant political form because the two most powerful nation states, France and England, “adopted forms of warfare that temporarily crushed their neighbours, and that generated as the by-products centralisation, differentiation and autonomy of the state apparatus” (Tilly, 1990, p. 183). Therefore, Tilly (1985; 1990) stresses on the relevance of military conflict to the creation and then the perpetuation of the modern nation-state.

Another argument that is made to explain the creation of state is in the organisation of the state being much more effective in using human resources as compared to the other political units (Strayer, 2005). This is an economic, social, or institutional argument that seeks to explain the development of the modern state in the economic, social, and institutional requirements that were met by the modern state. In other words, the state is a much more complex organisation than any other political unit was, which may explain the fact of the state’s ascendance as the only dominant political unit in the modern times. To explain this, Strayer (2005) notes that European states were able to combine the strengths and utilities of the empires with the city-states, saying that:

“the former were large enough and powerful enough to have excellent chances for survival… At the same time, they managed to get a large proportion of their people involved in, or at least concerned with the political process, and they succeeded in creating some sense of common identity among local communities” (p. 12).

Therefore, the above argument is made to explain the genesis of nation states to the fact of the utility of the nation states in the economic and social contexts. Strayer (2005) makes an argument that it is not just the military warfare that led to the creation of the modern state, because in effect without the economic and social advantages offered by the modern state, there would have been no achievements of the war-making capacities of the modern states like England and France. In other words, the political organisation of the modern state based on the existing models of the early empires and the city states, made it possible for the modern states to achieve the advantages of statehood which also helped perpetuate the idea of state as the dominant political unit.

While there are competing narratives on why the modern state became the dominant political unit, there is something to be said for the argument put forth by Tilly (1985; 1990) which emphasises on the role of military conflict in the creation and perpetuation of modern state. Morris (1998) accepts that the relationship between the development and the growth of the modern state and war and military conflict is indeed very complex. The development of France and England as states at a time when they were simultaneously developing their war technologies does indicate that preparation for war has been one of the primary impetus for state’s functions in the last 5 centuries.

In the modern world, state is the only political unit that is permitted to have military, and this is a condition that has helped perpetuate the dominance of the state as a political unit. State has the monopoly over the use of legitimate force (Strayer, 2005, p. 16). This legitimacy is also perpetuated through the structuring of the international law in the earlier times as was related to war, which can be traced back to the writings of Hugo Grotius (De Jure Belli ac Pacis) (Bethlehem, 2014). In the modern times, the understanding of what war is and the state’s role in the war making also links state as a political unit to this concept, which is important. The International Humanitarian Law (IHL) is also structured to primarily regulate war between states and to provide protection to soldiers and prisoners of war. The legitimacy of the state as the only political unit that can enter into war is an important point here. States are also supported in the war making and self-preservation when it is of military necessity; the writings of Julius Stone support this where he notes that a country at war may be justified in departing from international law if in the interest of self-preservation (Stone, 1954, p. 352). The International Court of Justice noted that in certain circumstances countries would even be justified in taking steps for self-defence which may involve nuclear weapons; this has been linked to the right of the state to its survival (Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons, Advisory Opinion, 1996 I.C.J. 226, 1996). Therefore, the link between the state’s right to survive and the right to take military action is recognised by international law itself.

From the perspective of its gaining dominance, it may be argued that state has become inevitable as Strayer (2005) points out that with modernisation touching any part of the world, the peoples of that part may have no choice but to form a state of their own or to take refuge in some existing state (p. 4). The state is the only political unit, which is recognised by the international law to have authority to establish military. The state is also the only political unit that has the power and the organisation to establish relatively permanent political institutions. This is different from the unstructured and interpersonal manner of conducting work that was found in the primitive societies, which worked to an extent but was not complex enough to be incorporated into an effective political unit. The benefits that the state provides to the citizens in terms of there being a more effective organisation within which the human resources can be utilised, and the economic and security benefits that comes from being a state, are some of the reasons why the individual shifted allegiance from the family, religious authority and community to the state. The awareness that the preservation of the state is for the common good and the highest social good, may be the reason why the state became the most dominant political unit over a period of time. As has been said, “the state gave greater peace and security, more opportunity for the good life, than loose associations of communities; that is why it should be supported” (Strayer, 2005, p. 10).

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To conclude this essay, the modern state was not the only political unit in the world. In Europe where the first modern states as we know them today developed, there were other political entities like religious authorities, landholders and communities. These political units were ultimately subsumed within the state, which emerged as the only dominant political unit. The reasons why the state emerged as the only single dominant political unit can be traced to the role played by war making, which has emerged as the legitimate function only of the state. States became dominant because only they had the organisational capacities to optimise human resources and centralise economic, social and institutional capacities. The states are superior in their organisational capacity and because of the centralisation of the institutions and social and economic functions, it is the state that becomes the legitimate authority for protecting the unified political entity. Therefore, there are both military as well as economic and social reasons for why the states came to be created and why they became the most dominant form of the political unit in the modern world. The international law as it is goes on to perpetuate this dominance of the state because the international law is structured to recognise states as the principal subjects of international law. Even the law of war recognises state as being the legitimate authority to make war and to protect itself through military recourse. It is the self-preservation of the state that becomes important and takes precedence allowing state to take all measures to counter any threat to itself.


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  • ILSA. (1933, December 26). The Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States signed at Montevideo, Uruguay, on, during the Seventh International Conference of American States. Retrieved from https://www.ilsa.org/Jessup/Jessup15/Montevideo%20Convention.pdf
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