If we pause to ask ourselves, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, which political institutions constitute the world’s major depositories of power, we would have to reply: states. It is the same answer that any seasoned observer would have given in 1815. In the course of the last two centuries, state structures have only increased in the scale and scope of their dominion—a fact strikingly illustrated by a glance at the political map. With the exception of Antarctica, the entire land-surface of the planet is now divided into the bright, bold blocks of colour that denote states’ territory. If the United States is green, Canada is red: while inside states’ borders, the colours are homogeneous. The cartographical convention testifies to a certain political reality: however mixed the human experience—social, religious, ethnic—within its borders, unitary state power predominates overall. It is states that have armed forces; control police; mint currency; permit or refuse entrance to their lands; states that recognize citizens’ rights and impose their duties. Since states began, there has also been a slow, complex interaction between those who held power and those who were subject to it. In part of the world—fortunately, a growing one—the arbitrary use of government force is now subject to the checks and balances of a wider political community. The state has evolved, under the pressure of citizens, to become not only a tool of dominion but also an instrument of service. Never in the history of the human race has there been such a successful structure, one which has, de facto, become of crucial importance to all the inhabitants of the planet. No single religion—not even all the religions put together—has ever held as much power as the world’s states possess today.

Since their inception, states have had to come to terms with their own internal heterogeneity: their populations are made up of people who speak different languages, have different traditions, profess different religions and belong to different races. Some states may be more homogeneous than others, but none can consider itself totally uniform. In the course of centuries, states have used a variety of means to pursue a greater degree of homogeneity: some have sought to found their own national identity on religion, others on language, blood or race; the concept of the nation—not to be found in nature—has served precisely for this purpose. States have tried to impose homogeneity on their populations through treaties and negotiations, wars and revolutions; by altering their borders, provoking exoduses or incorporating new territory. Populations have been forcibly converted to the dominant religion and vernacular languages rooted out; where this proved impossible, the die-hards have been deported, repressed or even slaughtered. States have attempted to drum up support by fomenting nationalist or patriotic sentiment against a foreign menace or internal threat; they have tried to strengthen themselves internally through the creation of a unified cultural identity, drawing on the flag, national achievements, even sports teams and television programmes. Other states, more enlightened, have looked for institutional devices to regulate, rather than homogenize, diversity; they have legislated for religious tolerance and, for over two hundred years, have developed forms of consensual government endorsed in constitutional charters.

States have always faced constraints, of course, both at home and abroad. International power politics imposes limitations on sovereignty: only a few states have been fully independent and not had to account for their choices to other, more powerful rivals, whether under threat of open military intervention or through lower grades of pressure. Internal adversaries have posed a different sort of threat. Neither nature nor civil society are great respecters of a state’s frontiers. Men and women love travelling and describing what they see, imitating what their neighbours do, allowing themselves to be convinced and even converted. Trade—the movement of goods and people—has flowed across state boundaries.

Only the most obtuse and despotic regimes, however, have attempted to prevent their subjects from travelling abroad and seeing what life is like elsewhere. Most states have merely sought to regulate international exchange through passports, customs authorities and financial rules. Until a short time ago, state authorization was even needed to translate books, or profess religious beliefs different from the established creed. The apparatus of norms and permits imposed by the state was a sign of its attitude towards the individual: You are mine, the state authority seemed to warn, but I benevolently allow you to travel.footnote1 Going further, states have set up transnational arrangements, bilateral agreements and multilateral institutions to regulate events outside their own borders. An impressive array of sophisticated juridical constructions now exists, including international law, diplomacy and numerous intergovernmental organizations whose services states can draw upon to regulate relations among themselves.

Recently, however, the state system has been showing signs of pressure. The new fissures have not appeared overnight and there is no reason to believe that it will collapse like the Roman Empire; many critics probably exaggerate the size of the cracks. But irrespective of the depth of the present crisis, it is evident that many of the problems of the political organization of contemporary society go beyond the scope of the nation-state. Firstly, a significant number of the problems that states have to address lie outside their autonomous jurisdiction. The planet is experiencing a process of growing interdependence: the US Federal Reserve’s decision to raise the interest rate may provoke a substantial rise in unemployment in Mexico; the explosion of a nuclear power station in the Ukraine can trigger environmental disasters throughout Europe; the lack of prompt information about the diffusion of AIDS in Nigeria may cause epidemics throughout the world.footnote2 Here, state sovereignty is not called into question by armies, missiles and armoured cars, but by elements which spontaneously escape national government control. This process has for some decades now been known as globalization.footnote3 States have naturally sought to react to it, though the traditional response of creating intergovernmental institutions to manage or mediate specific systems—trade, industrial property, nuclear energy or epidemics—has met with only partial success.

Secondly, in the course of the eighties and nineties the state has been challenged by a new critique from within. I am not referring here to the classic process of revolution, whose fundamental aim is to replace one government (or form of government) with another, but to the belief of growing numbers of people that their existing state is too centralized for their needs. Political forces bent on greater local autonomy, or even secession, have gained in strength—witness the myriad smaller states that have sprung up since the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and the USSR. In Canada, Spain, Great Britain and Italy, separatist forces have consolidated their role. We have also seen the painful phenomenon of peoples left stateless, or oppressed by the alien state to which they belong. The interstate system has so far failed, for example, to provide an adequate political community for Palestinians or for Kurds.

Globalization has also brought the problem of mass migration in its wake. In Western cities whole immigrant communities with a language and culture of their own have taken root. Turks in Berlin, Chinese in Los Angeles, Arabs in Paris, Bangladeshis in London, Vietnamese in Montreal, all pose new challenges for consolidated political unity. These are minorities who do not aim at the creation of independent states but do want their cultural identity to be respected and protected.footnote4 Such enclaves within existing political communities will grow in importance in the course of the next century. Will the state system be capable of meeting their needs?