Is the modern state system breaking down?

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 Is the modern state system breaking down?

The debate about the survivability of the modern state system dominates academic and political circles. The increasing rate with which external expansionist nations and transnational organizations like terrorists are attacking sovereign promotes the notion that the modern state system may be seeing its sunset years. Conversely, the emergence of powerful nations with absolute control of their international affairs and can influence global issues without disintegrating is nurturing the thought that the modern state system is still robust and not about to break down. Nonetheless, the authority that nation-states had internally and externally is threatened by globalization and technological advancements. Therefore, the argument presented in the following analysis is that although the modern state system is not breaking down, the threat persists, and configuration might change as it survives into the future. The analysis will delve into the reasons why the modern state system is not breaking down, the threats it faces, and the counterarguments that suppose that its demise is near.

Modern State System

The modern state system is the organization of people and territories into states. These states may be nation-states or not. Nation-states are countries with a culturally-homogenous population, such as Egypt, Germany, France, and Japan. Contrastingly, non-nation-states have several nations comprising different groups of people with diverse cultures within the same national borders, such as Belgium and Canada, which contain two nations. In this system, the global space is divided into independent states or countries, which lay a legitimate claim over their territory, have a form of bureaucracy, and have internal and external sovereignty.  Altogether, states are characterized primarily by bureaucracy, democracy and constitutionalism (Overeem and Bakker. 48). However, there are states that are not democratic and without a constitution.

The Peace of Westphalia of 1640 established the modern state system by introducing the concepts of autonomy and sovereignty in nationhood. This accord was signed to end the protracted war in Europe and usher in diplomacy as a conflict resolution mechanism between nations. For this reason, the modern state system originated in Europe and spread globally through colonialism. There are currently over 200 sovereign states, with 93 of them recognized by the United Nations, two under the United Nations observation (the Vatican and Palestine), and 2 (Taiwan and Kosovo) that are recognized by some United Nations member countries (Armstrong and Read 213). The territories outside the modern state system comprise non-sovereign territories stateless people who aspire to have their own state but are restricted by the existing system and nations in which they reside (Armstrong and Read 214). Kurds are one example of a nation that wishes to have its own state curved out of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Syria.

Why the Modern State System Is Not Breaking Down

The modern state system is not breaking down because of several reasons. In modern times, independent states are respected globally, although few are threatened by their powerful and expansionist neighbors. The international community has set structures and institutions that oversee the protection of the independence and sovereignty of states. For instance, the United Nations recognizes independent states and creates forums for cooperation and conflict resolution, such as the international court of justice (ICJ).

Similarly, powerful countries are the custodians of sovereignty by ensuring weak states are not conquered or obliterated without their consent. The United States is particularly instrumental in protecting the sovereignty of nations through its political, economic, and military might (Nye 16). For instance, the United States is leading the world in condemning the ongoing invasion of Ukraine by Russia and using its economic power to discourage Russia as the invader. Therefore, by leading the UN and NATO, the United States helps tame the expansionist ambitions of countries like China, Iraq, and Iran, which have laid claims on territories belonging to other countries (Getachew 225).  Besides, the United States has soft power, which it uses to influence the politics of other nations across the world and promote democracy (Nye 25). The ideologies of democracy are consistent with those of the modern state system because they are premised on quality, justice, sovereignty, and involvement of the majority of the people. Likewise, China has a similar influence as the United States, although it lacks the longstanding history of global leadership that the United States enjoys. Although it engages in territorial disputes, it prefers using its soft power rather than its military one. For instance, China has the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative aimed at connecting different states with transportation infrastructure without dismantling their national borders (Moldicz 39). Therefore, although it is an economic powerhouse and a potential superpower, it is unlikely to upset the existing modern state system because it cannot overpower the United States, which is its custodian. 

Also, many countries have their statehood delinked from religion. Apart from the Islamic nations in the Middle East and North Africa, most other countries tolerate diverse religions and do not have state religions. This means that their political and economic activities were conducted with little or no religious considerations and that the clerics have no political power. In the same vein, most nation-states across the world are republics, and very few are monarchies. Therefore, modern states can be equated to republics in which power is dispersed across institutions rather than vested in an individual monarch. Even the current monarchies have an element of people participation to guarantee their stability and legitimacy. For instance, although the United Kingdom has a monarch, it has a parliament where public decisions and policies are made. Similarly, although it is recognized as an independent sovereign state, the United Kingdom comprises four nations with some level of autonomy. In the same vein, the United States is a federation of 50 states, which also have some level of autonomy. Although these hybrid structures of sovereign states are rare, their stability is premised on the modern state system.

Threats to the Modern State System 

The modern state system is confronted by several threats that could influence its survivability in the future. First, globalization is a significant threat because it promotes international cooperation and interdependency between nations. Consequently, although modern states retain their sovereignty, their autonomy is declining in a globalized world (Rosenau 118). Secondly, some powerful states are interfering with the sovereignty and independence of other countries. For instance, Russia is attacking Ukraine to undermine its independence and ambition of joining the international community through joining the European Union and NATO, while countries like Iran and China lay claims on territories belonging to their neighbors. Thirdly, regional and global institutions are increasingly exerting their influence on sovereign states, undermining their independence and autonomy. For instance, the United Nations has 193 member states, up from the original 51 founding states in 1945. This body promotes peace, security, and friendly relations between nations, while encouraging adherence to human rights, improved living standards, and social progress (United Nations para 1). This body responds to and prevents aggression of one state on another using diplomacy. Similarly, regional bodies, such as the European Union, have a significant economic influence on their members, reducing their autonomy (Navari 52). Also, the World Trade Organization regulates global trade and reduces the authority of sovereign states to establish nationalistic trade systems that may undermine international trade. This body also acts as an arbiter in trade disputes between nations. Fourthly, informal groups such as terrorist groups and drug cartels threaten the modern state system by violating domestic and international law and threatening the sovereignty of nations by engaging various institutions in countries. These groups are transnational and do not recognize national borders. Besides, they are not claimed by any one state and claim to operate autonomously from any state influence. In addition, they are not interested in having their own identity and sovereignty because they lack territory ownership or jurisdiction. However, they have a significant influence on the stability of states.

However, these threats are few and not sufficient to initiate the demise of the modern state system. Already, the current configuration of the modern state system has managed to keep these threats at bay. Therefore, they are yet to gather a critical mass of supporters who would initiate a system change to dismantle the existing one. Indeed, any attempts to undo the modern state system have been resisted by a majority of the states across the world, which are contented with the status quo.


 The modern state system is not breaking down. Although its lifespan will not end soon, it is faced with several threats. The threats include globalization, transnational terror groups, and drug cartels, transnational bodies, and powerful countries that ignore state boundaries. However, the system will survive further because it is supported by many countries that value sovereignty and autonomy and is protected by the United States, which is a global hegemony that champions the ideals of the system.


Works Cited

Armstrong, Harvey W., and Robert Read. “The non-sovereign territories: Economic and environmental challenges of sectoral and geographic over-specialisation in tourism and financial services.” European Urban and Regional Studies vol. 28, no. 3, 2021, pp. 213-240.

Getachew, Adom. “The limits of sovereignty as responsibility.” Constellations vol. 26, no. 2, 2019, pp. 225-240.

Moldicz, Istvan Csaba. “Geopolitics of Belt and Road Initiative and China’s international strategic relations.” Contemporary Chinese Political Economy and Strategic Relations, An international Journal, vol. 4, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-282.

Navari, Cornelia. “Modelling the relations of fundamental institutions and international organizations.” International Organization in the Anarchical Society. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019. 51-75.

Nye Jr, Joseph S. Is the American century over? John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Overeem, Patrick, and Femke E. Bakker. “Statesmanship beyond the modern state.” Perspectives on Political Science, vol. 48, no. 1, 2019, pp. 46-55.

Rosenau, James N. Distant proximities: Dynamics beyond globalization. Princeton University Press, 2003.

United Nations. “History of the UN.” 2015.,living%20standards%20and%20human%20rights.

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