Country, nation or state? These three words are often used interchangeably. For example, the United Nations website describes itself as being “founded by 51 countries in 1945… and now providing a forum for 192 member states”. Let’s just run that past one more time : The countries in the United Nations consist of 192 member states. So all three words mean the same thing, right?
In fact nation, country and state all mean different things as the Latin roots of these words illustrate. Nation comes from the Latin ‘natio’ meaning ‘to be born’, and refers to a group of people. Country comes from the Latin ‘contra’ meaning ‘against’ and refers to an area of land with a defined border. Why against? Because at the border, two countries lie against each other. State comes from the Latin ‘status’ whose meaning in English is the same. State refers to the status or power of the government. So a State is an organised community living under one government.
You can have a nation without having a state; think of the Cherokees, the Roma or even the Celtic Fringe*. These groups are defined through cultural and racial ties rather than land ownership or government. You can have a state without a country; think of Palestine or the Free French government in exile based in London in World War 2. You can be a country without being a state; Scotland and Wales are countries that are part of the sovereign state of the United Kingdom. But not all states are sovereign. A state may transfer some of its sovereign powers to the higher entity of a federal government. If so, it becomes a federated state as in the USA, Germany or India.
Each of these words is an attempt to describe the fourth rung on the ladder of society. The bottom three rungs are the individual, the family and the local community. What should you call the next rung up? If you are considering race or culture as the defining characteristic you would call it a nation. If your concerns were territorial you would call it a country. If you were focussing on who rules the people you would call it a state.
So what? Does any of this verbal gymnastics matter ? Well, yes, it does to me because it is a catataxic problem. And it matters to you because the mismatch between the nation and the state is one of the primary causes of geopolitical instability. This stuff causes wars.
This week is a bad week. The terrible tsunami in Japan and the fighting in the desert in Libya seem like unconnected events on different sides of the world. But there is a link. Japan’s crisis is caused by the earth’s fixed tectonic plates colliding with each other. Libya’s civil war is essentially a conflict between tribes. Gadaffi’s tribe against the Rebel tribes. The “tectonic plates” of the nations collide inside the state.
A geologist can identify the “Rim of Fire”. The places where earthquakes are bound to happen because plates collide : New Zealand, Indonesia, Japan, California, Greece, etc. A political analyst can identify the places where conflicts can occur because tribal boundaries are misaligned with those of the state: Bosnia, Kyrgyzstan, Sudan, Israel and West Africa. See my map of West Africa below. Can you spot the difference? Do you foresee a geopolitical tsunami?
footnote* The Celtic Fringe is Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Galicia. They all share Celtic cultures and languages. Where did they come from? Some believe the ancient Celts were pushed to the fringes of Europe by the expansion of the German tribes. But then again, modern day Celts love to portray themselves as victims. There is another version of the story. Maybe the reason why they are on the very western coastal fringe of Europe is that they were seafaring colonists who worked their way up the coastline. Not victims but pirates!