Traditionally, a nation-state is a specific form of state, which exists to provide a sovereign territory for a particular nation, and which derives its legitimacy from that function. The state is a political and geopolitical entity; the nation is a cultural and/or ethnic entity. The term "nation-state" implies that they geographically coincide, and this distinguishes the nation-state from the other types of state, which historically preceded it. If successfully implemented, this implies that the citizens share a common language, culture, and values — which was not the case in many historical states. A world of nation-states also implements the claim to self-determination and autonomy for every nation, a central theme of the ideology of nationalism.


Political science uses the term "nation-state" for most existing sovereign states, even if their political boundaries do not coincide with ethnic boundaries.


In some cases, the geographic boundaries of an ethnic population and a political state largely coincide. In these cases, there is little immigration or emigration, few members of ethnic minorities, and few members of the "home" ethnicity living in other countries.


Portugal is seen as one of the best examples of a nation-state. Although surrounded by other lands and people, the Portuguese nation has been the same for almost 900 years. Since its foundation, in 1143, Portugal remained as a single nation living in a single country. Ethnically, Portuguese people are related to Celts, Romans, Germanic peoples like the Suebi and the Visigoths and have been under Moorish control for nearly 500 hundred years being the south of the country the region which have suffered the most. Portugal had a great colonial Empire for more than 500 years. Nowadays, Portugal is a very singular country that is still seen as a nation-state though Galicians are still considered by some the same ethnic stock as the Portuguese (especially those in the north).


Iceland is often seen as a strong example of a nation-state. Although the inhabitants are ethnically related to other Scandinavian groups, the national culture and language are found only in Iceland. There are no cross-border minorities — the nearest land is too far away.


Japan is also traditionally seen as a good example of a nation-state, although it includes minorities of the ethnically distinct Ryūkyū peoples in the south, Koreans, Chinese and Filipinos, and on the northern island of Hokkaidō, the indigenous Ainu minority; see also Japanese Demographics and Ethnic issues in Japan.


Both Iceland and Japan are island nations. Portugal, curiously, is not an island and is surrounded by other historic nations in Europe.


The notion of a "national identity" also extends to countries which host multiple ethnic or language groups. For example, Switzerland is constitutionally a confederation of cantons, and has four official languages, but it has also a 'Swiss' national identity, a national history, and a classic national hero, Wilhelm Tell.


Many historical conflicts have arisen where political boundaries do not correspond with ethnic or cultural boundaries. For example, the Hatay Province was transferred to Turkey from Syria after the majority-Turk population complained of mistreatment. The traditional homeland of the Kurdish people extends between northern Iraq and eastern Turkey, and western Iran. Some of its inhabitants call for the creation of an independent Kurdistan, citing mistreatment by the Turkish and Iraqi governments. An armed conflict between the Kurdistan Workers Party and the Turkish government over this issue has been ongoing since 1984.


Belgium is a classic example of a disputed nation-state. The state was formed by secession from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1830 - protected by the Treaty of London 1839, and the Flemish population in the north speaks Dutch. The Flemish identity is also ethnic and cultural, and there is a strong separatist movement. The Walloon identity is linguistic (Francophone) and regionalist. There is also a unitary Belgian nationalism, several versions of a Greater Netherlands ideal, and a German-speaking region annexed from Prussia in 1920, and re-annexed by Germany in 1940–1944.


China covers a large geographic area, and uses the concept of "Zhonghua minzu" — "a Chinese people" — although it also officially recognizes the majority Han ethnic group, and no fewer than 55 national minorities.


Where part of the national group lives in a neighboring nation-state, it is usually called a national minority. In some cases states have reciprocal national minorities, for instance the Slovaks in Hungary and the Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) in Slovakia.

National minorities should not be confused with a national Diaspora, which is typically located far from the national border. Most modern diasporas result from economic migration, for example the Irish Diaspora.


The possession of dependent territories does influence the status of a nation-state. A state with large colonial possessions is obviously inhabited by many ethnic groups, and is not a mono-ethnic state. However, in most cases, the colonies were not considered an integral part of the motherland, and were separately administered. Some European nation-states have dependent territories in Europe. Denmark contains virtually all ethnic Danes and has relatively few foreign nationals within it. However, it exercises sovereignty over the Faroe Islands and Greenland.


The origins and early history of nation-states are disputed. A major theoretical issue is: "which came first — the nation or the nation-state?" For nationalists themselves, the answer is that the nation existed first, nationalist movements arose to present its legitimate demand for sovereignty, and the nation-state met that demand. Some "modernization theories" of nationalism see the national identity largely as a product of government policy, to unify and modernize an already existing state. Most theories see the nation-state as a 19th-century European phenomenon, facilitated by developments such as mass literacy and the early mass media. However, historians also note the early emergence of a relatively unified state, and a sense of common identity, in England, Portugal and the Dutch Republic.


In France, Eric Hobsbawm argues, the French state preceded the formation of the French people. Hobsbawm considers that the state made the French nation, and not French nationalism, which emerged at the end of the 19th century, the time of the Dreyfus Affair. At the time of the 1789 French Revolution, only half of the French people spoke some French, and between 12% to 13% spoke it "fairly", according to Hobsbawm. During Italian unification, the number of people speaking the Italian language was even lower. The French state promoted the unification of various dialects and languages into the French language. The introduction of conscription, and the Third Republic's 1880s laws on public instruction, facilitated the creation of a national identity, under this theory.


The theorist Benedict Anderson argues that nations are "imagined communities" (the members cannot possibly know each other), and that the main causes of nationalism and the creation of an imagined community are the reduction of privileged access to particular script languages (e.g. Latin), the movement to abolish the ideas of divine rule and monarchy, as well as the emergence of the printing press under a system of capitalism (or, as Anderson calls it, "print-capitalism"). The "state-driven" theories of the origin of nation-states tend to emphasize a few specific states, such as France and its rival England. These states expanded from core regions, and developed a national consciousness and sense of national identity ("Frenchness" and "Englishness"). Both assimilated peripheral regions (Wales, Brittany, Aquitaine and Occitania); these areas experienced a revival of interest in the regional culture in the 19th century, leading to the creation of autonomist movements in the 20th century.


Some nation-states, such as Germany or Italy, came into existence at least partly as a result of political campaigns by nationalists, during the nineteenth century. In both cases, the territory was previously divided among other states, some of them very small. The sense of common identity was at first a cultural movement, such as in the Völkisch movement in German-speaking states, which rapidly acquired a political significance. In these cases, the nationalist sentiment and the nationalist movement clearly precede the unification of the German and Italian nation-states.


The idea of a nation-state is associated with the rise of the modern system of states — often called the "Westphalian system" in reference to the Treaty of Westphalia (1648). The balance of power, which characterizes that system, depends for its effectiveness upon clearly defined, centrally controlled, independent entities, whether empires or nation-states, which recognize each other's sovereignty and territory. The Westphalian system did not create the nation-state, but the nation-state meets the criteria for its component states (assuming that there is no disputed territory).


The nation-state received a philosophical underpinning in the era of Romanticism, at first as the 'natural' expression of the individual peoples (romantic nationalism — see Fichte's conception of the Volk, which would be later opposed by Ernest Renan). The increasing emphasis during the 19th century, on the ethnic and racial origins of the nation, led to a redefinition of the nation-state in these terms. Racism, which in Boulainvilliers's theories was inherently antipatriotic and antinationalist, joined itself with colonialist imperialism and "continental imperialism", most notably in pan-Germanic and pan-Slavic movements. This relation between racism and nationalism reached its height in the fascist and Nazi movements of the 20th century. The specific combination of 'nation' ('people') and 'state' expressed in such terms as the Völkische Staat and implemented in laws such as the 1935 Nuremberg laws made fascist states such as early Nazi Germany qualitatively different from non-fascist nation-states. Obviously, minorities, who are not part of the Volk, have no authentic or legitimate role in such a state. In Germany, neither Jews nor the Roma were considered part of the Volk, and specifically targeted for persecution. However German nationality law defined 'German' on the basis of German ancestry (as it still largely does), excluding all non-Germans from the 'Volk'.


In recent years, the nation-state's claim to absolute sovereignty within its borders has been much criticized. A global political system based on international agreements, and supra-national blocs characterized the post-war era. Non-state actors, such as international corporations and non-governmental organizations, are widely seen as eroding the economic and political power of nation-states, leading to their eventual disappearance.


Nation-states have their own characteristics, differing from those of the pre-national states. For a start, they have a different attitude to their territory, compared to the dynastic monarchies: it is semi-sacred, and non-transferable. No nation would swap territory with other states simply, for example, because the king's daughter got married. They have a different type of borderer, in principle defined only by the area of settlement of the national group, although many nation-states also sought natural borders (rivers, mountain ranges).


The most noticeable characteristic is the degree to which nation-states use the state as an instrument of national unity, in economic, social and cultural life.


The nation-states typically had a more centralized and uniform public administration than its imperial predecessors: they were smaller, and the population less diverse. (The internal diversity of, for instance, the Ottoman Empire was very great). After the triumph of the nation-state in Europe, regional identity was subordinate to national identity, in regions such as Alsace-Lorraine, Catalonia, Brittany, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. In many cases, the regional administration was also subordinated to central (national) government. This process was partially reversed from the 1970s onward, with the introduction of various forms of regional autonomy, in formerly centralized states such as France.


However, the most obvious impact of the nation-state, as compared to its non-national predecessors, is the creation of a uniform national culture, through state policy. The model of the nation-state implies that its population constitute a nation, united by a common descent, a common language, and many forms of shared culture. When the implied unity was absent, the nation-state often tried to create it. It promoted a uniform national language, through language policy. (When Italy was united as a political entity, the majority of the population could not speak Italian.) The creation of national systems of compulsory primary education and a relatively uniform curriculum in secondary schools, was the most effective instrument in the spread of the national languages. The schools also taught the national history, often in a propagandistic and mythologized version, and (especially during conflicts) some nation-states still teach this kind of history.


Language and cultural policy was sometimes negative, aimed at the suppression of non-national elements. Language prohibitions were sometimes used to accelerate the adoption of national languages, and the decline of minority languages.

In some cases these policies triggered bitter conflicts and separatism. Where it worked, the cultural uniformity and homogeneity of the population increased. Conversely, the cultural divergence at the border became sharper: in theory, a uniform French identity extends from the Atlantic coast to the Rhine, and on the other bank of the Rhine, a uniform German identity begins. To enforce that model, both sides have divergent language policy and educational systems, although the linguistic boundary is in fact well inside France, and the Alsace region changed hands four times between 1870 and 1945.


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