Differences Between a Country, State, and Nation

Kosovo became a new independent country on February 17, 2008.
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While the terms country, state, sovereign state, nation, and nation-state are often used interchangeably, there is a difference. Simply put:

  • A state is a territory with its own institutions and populations.
  • A sovereign state is a state with its own institutions and populations that has a permanent population, territory, and government. It must also have the right and capacity to make treaties and other agreements with other states.
  • A nation is a large group of people who inhabit a specific territory and are connected by history, culture, or another commonality.
  • A nation-state is a cultural group (a nation) that is also a state (and may, in addition, be a sovereign state).

The word country can be used to mean the same thing as state, sovereign state, or nation-state. It can also be used in a less political manner to refer to a region or cultural area that has no governmental status. Examples include Wine Country (the grape-growing area of northern California) and Coal Country (the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania).

Qualities of a Sovereign State

State, nation, and country are all terms that describe groups of people who live in the same place and have a great deal in common. But while states and sovereign states are political entities, nations and countries might or might not be.

A sovereign state (sometimes called an independent state) has the following qualities:

  • Space or territory that has internationally recognized boundaries
  • People who live there on an ongoing basis
  • Regulations governing foreign and domestic trade
  • The ability to issue legal tender that is recognized across boundaries
  • An internationally recognized government that provides public services and police power and has the right to make treaties, wage war, and take other actions on behalf of its people
  • Sovereignty, meaning that no other state should have power over the country's territory

Many geographic entities have some but not all the qualities that make up a sovereign state. As of 2020 there are 195 sovereign states in the world (197 by some counts); 193 are members of the United Nations (the United Nations excludes Palestine and the Holy See). Two other entities, Taiwan and Kosovo, are recognized by some but not all members of the United Nations.

Entities That Are Not Sovereign States

Many entities have geographical and cultural significance and many of the qualities of a sovereign state but are not independent sovereign states. These include territories, non-sovereign states, and nations.

Non-Sovereign States

Territories of sovereign states are not sovereign states in their own right. Many entities have most of the most qualities of sovereign states but are officially considered to be non-sovereign. Many have their own histories, and some even have their own languages. Examples include:

  • Hong Kong
  • Bermuda
  • Greenland
  • Puerto Rico
  • Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and England, which are non-sovereign parts of the United Kingdom

The word state is also used to refer to geographic sections of sovereign states that have their own governments but are subject to a larger federal government. The 50 United States are non-sovereign states.

Nations

Nations are culturally homogeneous groups of people who share a common language, institution, religion, and/or historical experience. Some nations are sovereign states, but many are not.

Nations that hold territory but are not sovereign states include:

  • The Indian Nations of the United States
  • Bosnia (Bosnia and Herzegovina)
  • Catalonia (in northern Spain)
  • Quebec
  • Corsica
  • Sicily
  • Tibet

In addition to nations that are non-sovereign states, it can be argued that some nations govern no territory at all. For example, the Sindhi, Yoruba, Rohingya, and Igbo people share histories, cultures, and languages but have no territory. Some states have two nations, such as Canada and Belgium.

Nation-States

When a nation of people has a sovereign state of its own, it is called a nation-state. Populations living in nation-states share history, language, ethnicity, and culture. Iceland and Japan are excellent examples of nation-states: The vast majority of people born in these nation-states share the same ancestry and culture.

Additional References

View Article Sources
  1. "Independent States in the World." Bureau of Intelligence and Research, U.S. Department of State, 27 Mar. 2019.

  2. "Member States of the United Nations." United Nations.