Every square meter of habitable space on the Earth is under the jurisdiction of a nation state. The nation states, in other words, are also territorial states, in the sense that they exert their political power (sovereignty) over a defined territory. The terms are interchangeable and their use depends on the narrative emphasis: nation state, when talking about political, judicial and cultural structures; and territorial state when referring to geographic area, physical resources, infrastructure, borders and boundaries. There are states, such as the United States and Japan, whose borders coincide with the territorial limits of a shared nationality and there are others that are made up of various cultural nationalities (such as Spain, Canada, Belgium and Bolivia), and there are also cultures that are split into different nation states. Such is the case with the Germans, who are majorities in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Each state acquires a specific name, generally related to its particular cultural condition or political regime. What we often call England, for example, is officially called the United Kingdom, to recognize that it is a territorially plural state that includes Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The official name of Switzerland is the Swiss Confederation, because of its federal structure of autonomous cantons that incorporate four cultures. The United States of America also alludes to its federal nature and the Dominican Republic’s name recognizes its republican form of government. In Puerto Rico, the formal name is the Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico in Spanish, typically written as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico in English. Despite these internal differences, all of these are nation states.

Regardless of the term used for each state, what is important is that it is the fundamental political unit of the modern world. From the Peace of Westphalia of 1647, which put an end to the religious wars of Europe, to the present, the ruling international norm in the world is that the sovereignty (political power) of the nation state is unlimited within its territory. Since then, all people have belonged to some nation state (or territorial state) and it is this state that establishes the rules and policies of daily life and is responsible for the peace, order and well-being of the community. Although the Peace of Westphalia established that all residents would adopt the religion of their monarch, religious diversity later came to be tolerated within the confines of the state and freedom of worship came to be accepted as a fundamental right of citizens. Despite this and other changes in the norms that have occurred over time, states continue to be the sole depositories of sovereign powers. In the case of territories, such as Puerto Rico, that are part of territorial empires, this sovereignty is limited in legal terms, but it is recognized in the sense that some level of self-government is given to defined territorial units and their governments take on the same responsibilities to their residents (citizens) that states with full sovereignty have, but in a more limited form.

Three factors have contributed to the historical success of the sovereign state, whether national or territorial, including the case of Puerto Rico:

1. Government. The modern state is permanent and powerful, is managed by a government that changes composition regularly under electoral systems for political succession that are based on principles of universal suffrage. The state has a monopoly on the use of violence (no other social agent has the authority to use violence to resolve conflicts), by means of the military and police forces; it has the power to collect taxes; it maintains a judicial system throughout the territory; it exercises strong control over the educational institutions and the communications media; and it exercises an enormous influence on the economy (socialist or capitalist) and social well-being. It is presumed that peace and social order depend on the daily actions of a political authority (government administration) and centralized legislation. Passing judgment on violations of the rules of the state, including citizens’ rights, is the exclusive role of the state and is done by governmental, administrative and judicial action.

2. National identity. When a community identifies with a particular territory and considers itself different from the rest of humanity (with defined cultural characteristics and a singular historical experience), the sentiment develops that the community’s well-being is most effectively protected by organizing its own political unit, as a state. The natural loyalty of an individual to the community is extended, therefore, to the fundamental political unit that incorporates it: the nation state and territorial state.

3. Social pact (moral and political consensus). When a people are convinced that their government responds to the aspirations of all sectors of the society and is capable of administering justice and making changes for the good of all (in other words, there is a social pact), the level of loyalty to the state, as the incarnation of the community, is elevated (patriotism increases) and social peace is promoted.

These three historical factors ensure that the nation state or territorial state will continue to be the fundamental political unit of the world today, despite the spread of the global economy over the entire planet and the proliferation of post-modern supra-national institutions.

Author: Roberto Gándara Sánchez
Published: September 11, 2014.

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