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What's the difference between a state and a country? Is there any precise political definition that, perhaps, the UN would follow?

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  • Check this.
    – Alexei
    Feb 19, 2018 at 5:33
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    The UN doesn't use the word "country" very much.
    – phoog
    Feb 19, 2018 at 5:55
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    Can the close-voters explain themselves? Questions about complicated political terms are on-topic for the site, no? Feb 20, 2018 at 18:57
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    @BjörnLindqvist you mean, question about looking into an English dictionary for the meaning of a word?
    – motoDrizzt
    Feb 25, 2018 at 18:55

6 Answers 6

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What's the difference between a state and a country?

There's no hard and fast rule but independent states are the units that are most usually parties to international treaties, conduct foreign relations and so on.

For most places, the concepts of state and country apply to the same territory but there are very many exceptions.

For example:

There is a state called Georgia which is not an independent state, it is a constituent state of the United States of America. There is also a place called Georgia which is an independent state.

The UK is a state but England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are usually considered countries. They are not (currently) independent states although at least England and Scotland were in the past. Wales came pretty close.

Sometimes Wales is described as a principality and sometimes Northern Ireland is described as a province.

Is there any precise political definition that, perhaps, the UN would follow?

No.

The UN, and other bodies, have to be pretty flexible (i.e. vague) in order to accommodate all sorts of complicated political situations. For example consider the Republic of China (ROC) and the People's Republic of China (PRC); The Principality of Monaco - "a sovereign city-state, country and microstate"; Vatican city; The European Union; etc etc.


UN membership

The UN occasionally play fast and loose with terminology too, consider their use of "country" and "state" in the following

How does a country become a Member of the United Nations?

Membership in the Organization, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, “is open to all peace-loving States that accept the obligations contained in the United Nations Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able to carry out these obligations”. States are admitted to membership in the United Nations by decision of the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.

Most often though, UN members are referred to as states.

Note that the EU is an "enhanced observer state" at the UN. EU member states are also individually UN member states. There are many complications to UN membership.

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In short: no. Although there is a concept of "state" in international law, it is somewhat vague and hard to pin down. There is no legal definition of "country" at all, but sometimes the United Nations uses that word to indicate all of the things that happen within a state's boundaries.

For example, Canada is a state under international law. When discussing the economy of Canada, you might use the word "Country" because in strict terms a state does not have an economy. The economy is not a part of a state, but it operates within the boundaries of the state.

What is a state in international law?

This has been discussed in many answers. For example, see my answer here. The Montevideo Convention defines a state as:

The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications:

a ) a permanent population;

b ) a defined territory;

c ) government; and

d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.

Strictly speaking, this definition doesn't apply to anything other than the Montevideo Convention. However, it is often invoked in discussions regarding statehood, even outside of this Convention. It's as good as it is going to get.

What is a country?

There is no definition of a country in international law. However, you will see the term appear in UN reports such as this one. There is nothing legalistic or technical about this use of the term. As an informal term, it appears to be used when referring to activities within a state's boundaries, but which are not properties of the state.

For example, the linked report is discussing economies. Most states do not have an economy themselves, the economy is something "outside" the state.

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Even there is some overlap in the use of the two terms, let's make it simple:

  • "State" - A political / institutional entity, a social arrangement.
  • "Country" - A geographic entity.

So, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a state, but not a country. Its territory contains the countries of England, Scotland and Wales, and some of the country of Ireland. (And you might believe Great Britain can be seen as a single country, but that's debatable.)

This use should be preferred as it aligns nicely with other languages, e.g.:

Language state country
Spanish estado país
Chinese
Japanese
French etat pays
Arabic dawla balad
Hebrew medina eretz
Romanian stat ţară

etc.

(Yes, it's the same in Japanese and Chinese since those are ideogramic languages. But - IIANM, in Chinese they often use 国 for state and for country as well).

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  • Another interesting example for this line of thinking are the terrorist organisations calling themselves "Islamic State of [country/region]". They apparently consider themselves "states" before actually being in control of a country. Which implies the acknowledgement that there is another state in the country they claim.
    – Philipp
    Apr 24, 2023 at 8:37
  • @Philipp: Actually, they were even more 'humble' in this respect, with the names being "The Islamic State in [region/country]", so your point is even more salient. Others may want to cf. Wikipedia.
    – einpoklum
    Apr 24, 2023 at 11:14
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TLDR: country is often understood as a geographical entity, but its boundaries can well be political [i.e. based on political geography], so synonymous to a state's territory. To say nothing of ancillary meanings, identifying it with the population etc.

Prescriptivism and universalism attempts aside [including in answers here], in English, "country" is hardly unambiguous as Wikipedia would easily explain:

Raymond Williams, a Welsh scholar, wrote in 1975: [...] In English, 'country' is both a nation and a part of a 'land'; 'the country' can be the whole society or its rural area.

[...] cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote in 1997 that "it is clear that the relationships between 'country' and 'nation' are so different from one [place] to the next as to be impossible to fold into a dichotomous opposition as they are into a promiscuous fusion."

The unclear definition of "country" in modern English was further commented upon by philosopher Simon Keller:

Often, a country is presumed to be identical with a collection of citizens. Sometimes, people say that a country is a project, or an idea, or an ideal. [...] We attribute so many different kinds of properties to countries, speaking as though a country can feature wheat fields waving or be girt by sea, can have a founding date and be democratic and free, can be English speaking, culturally diverse, war torn or Islamic.

Likewise, if you check some dictionaries. M-W:

  1. an indefinite usually extended expanse of land : REGION
  2. a: the land of a person's birth, residence, or citizenship
    b: a political state or nation or its territory
  3. a: the people of a state or district : POPULACE

and a few more senses of lesser relevance for our purposes

OED:

    1. a. A tract or expanse of land of undefined extent; a region, district [...]
  1. a. A tract or district having more or less definite limits in relation to human occupation. e.g. owned by the same lord or proprietor, or inhabited by people of the same race, dialect, occupation, etc.; spec, preceded by a personal name: the region associated with a particular person or his works; also fig. Formerly often applied to a county, barony, or other part; in Ireland and Scotland, still to the territory of a clan as the O'Neil Country, Lochiel's Country. [...]

  2. The territory or land of a nation; usually an independent state, or a region once independent and still distinct in race, language, institutions, or historical memories, as England, Scotland, and Ireland, in the United Kingdom, etc. With political changes, what were originally distinct countries have become provinces or districts of one country, and vice versa', the modern tendency being to identify the term with the existing political condition. [...]

  3. The land of a person’s birth, citizenship, residence, etc.; used alike in the wider sense of native land, and in the narrower one of the particular district to which a person belongs,

  4. a. ‘The parts of a region distant from cities or courts’ (J.); the rural districts as distinct from the town or towns [...]

  5. a. The people of a district or state; the nation.

There are some dumbed down on-line dictionaries, typically targeting English learners that only give a subset of these, but it would be pretty wrong to consider the term has an unambiguous meaning, independent of context. Or that geography means only physical geography for the purpose of this notion.

(I'm not giving the dictionary quotes for 'state', because indigochild's answer is better in that regard.)

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In addition to the above, you have an academic definition according to Encyclopedia Britannica:

  • a nation or country is specifically a group of people united by a common languages/s, history, culture, and/or geographic territory.
  • A state is an association of people characterized by "formal institutions of government, including laws; permanent territorial boundaries; and sovereignty (political independence)"
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The USA are one country with 50 states. Germany is one state with 16 countries. Others accept either the USA or Germany as a complete entity that you can have treaties with, whether called a country or a state. On the other hand, say California or Bavaria are NOT entities that others have treaties with. Whether they are called states or countries. "Nation" would probably be a better and more expression.

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  • I strongly disagree that that throwing in the term "nation" in this discussion is very helpful or likely to clarify any ambiguities in terminology.
    – Hulk
    Apr 22, 2023 at 20:17
  • The USA and Germany are both federal republics. Can you clarify why you would describe one as a country-of-states, and the other as a state-of-countries? Apr 24, 2023 at 11:59
  • @SteveMelnikoff I think this is purely based on naming. The German term for the members of the federation is "Land", which translates to country.
    – Hulk
    Apr 24, 2023 at 21:17
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    "Nation" is a community of people with common history, culture, (usually) language. Specifically, there are nations without states, for example Roma Gypsies.
    – Trang Oul
    Apr 25, 2023 at 10:57

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