According to the standard model of global politics, the world is cleanly divided into a set number of fundamental units called nation-states. By definition, a nation-state is a form of political organization in which the nation, a large group of people bound together by feelings of common identity, is fully congruent with the sovereign state, a polity that exercises complete control over a precisely defined territory.
In the conventional narrative, the nation-state model originated in Europe in the late 18th and early-19th centuries and subsequently spread across the world, becoming fully globalized during the post-WWII decolonization era. As a result of this supposed geopolitical transformation, the terms “nation,” “state,” and “country” became fully synonymous.
But global political organization is far more complicated and chaotic, reminds Martin Lewis, senior lecturer in international history at Stanford University. Many internationally recognized countries fall far short of the nation-state ideal, and a few do not even function as sovereign states. Expecting all countries to act like nation-states can result in severe miscalculations. Imposing regime-change, for example, on a country with an inadequate national foundation can result in rapid state collapse rather than democratic reconstruction. Lewis explores how the world is geopolitically constituted at the ground level, rather than as it is ideally imagined by diplomats, scholars, and foreign-policy experts.