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What makes a state legitimate?

What gives a state its claim to legitimacy in the international order? This is an oft-asked question and the answers have varied over time.

Alexander Murphy, a geographer at the University of Oregon, has developed a typology of different types of state legitimation based on the construction of territorial ideologies.

What do national leaders imagine their territory to be? How does this shape their political-territorial arrangements? The answers will determine the way they define their “regimes of territorial legitimation,” he writes.

The modern state system presupposes a world divided into discrete spaces, each belonging to a particular sovereign country. State boundaries, once established, are to be seen as legitimate. But how is this determined and recognized?

The construction of narratives of national distinctiveness is necessary, writes University of Chicago historian Prasenjit Duara, for peoples to lay claim to specific geographic territories. Only then can these be regarded, by themselves and others, as being, in his words, “regimes of authenticity”.

Murphy has created a model that encompasses the political-territorial and the cultural-historical categories that have allowed for the formation of legitimate political entities.

Peoples that had created culturally, ethnically and linguistically homogenous nation-states, such as Japan and Sweden, have very strong claims to territorial legitimacy. The same is true of states formed as the result of national unification movements; Germany and Italy are two examples. These are all “homeland” nations, even if they also contain minority groups.

We also find ethnically-based states that emerged following the collapse or retreat of empires. Bulgaria gained its independence during the decline the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century, and Uzbekistan from the demise of the Soviet Union in the 20th.

The obverse involves the ethnic core remnants of multi-national states that disintegrated: Austria emerged from the detritus of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Turkey from the Ottoman Empire.

We also find colonial states emerging into nationhood when a colonial empire collapsed and fragmented into individual administrative units. This is in particular the way most Latin American Spanish-speaking states, such as Chile or Venezuela, were born.

Because they all emerged out of the same imperial past and therefore typically have little or no differentiation, ethnically or linguistically, their somewhat artificial boundaries have often been the subject of disputes.

There are also examples of unions of colonies achieving statehood, such as Canada and Australia. In most cases in Africa and Asia, however, individual colonies emerged full-blown as sovereign states within their existing boundaries, regardless of their multi-ethnic nature, whether large (Nigeria) or tiny (Equatorial Guinea). Their territories are simply legacies of empire.

With little or no arguable cultural-historical foundation – the very names sometimes tell the tale, think of the Central African Republic or the Ivory Coast – they are prone to destabilization and internal conflict. Their regimes face substantial challenges in the construction of unifying territorial ideologies, which often fail — Angola and Sudan come to mind.

A number of states were the result of initiatives taken on the part of outsiders. Afghanistan was created to serve as a buffer between two competing empires: tsarist Russia, expanding into central Asia, and Britain, with its Indian Empire. Liberia was the product of an idiosyncratic desire on the part of some 19th century American Blacks to “return” to Africa.

States founded specifically to accommodate an ethnoreligious group, though rare, also fit this category, with Bangladesh and, especially, Israel as prime examples. Religion was part of their raison d’être from the beginning and both result from partitions of extant colonial possessions.

Some states evolve simply because they are physical and environmental units: the world’s many archipelagos (Fiji) and individual islands (Jamaica) are in this category.

Finally, some states lay claim to territorial legitimacy just because in one form or another they have had a longstanding existence as a definable political and historical construct; Egypt and Iran fit this grouping. And they may also have a core ethnolinguistic nationality, as in the case of Ethiopia or Myanmar.

As Murphy notes, interstate and intrastate conflicts are often rooted in territorial arrangements, and so a frame of reference that does not address the geographic context of such disputes will remain incomplete.


Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.


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