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Inspired by the question asking for the difference between these two words.

I used to write "the Baltic States", simply using the words I have previously seen somewhere and was usually seeing the words "state" and "country" as synonyms. They used to be forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union, but with the Soviet Union gone, absolutely no region could still be part of it. If the "state" implies a lesser degree of sovereignty than a "country", this shorter word should be reserved when the union of states forms the entity commonly seen as a single country by others. Apart from "United States of America" I do not remember any very obvious example.

Does the word "state" imply a lesser degree of sovereignty?

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    Estados Unidos Mexicanos Apr 24, 2023 at 11:01
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    Australia also has states, and the word is frequently used in English to describe the Länder of the Federal Republic of Germany. Some cantons of Switzerland use the word to describe themselves (l'État de Genève, for example).
    – phoog
    Apr 24, 2023 at 11:54
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    "State", in US usage is a relic of the fact that the USA was founded as a Confederation of independent states(each colony considered itself sovereign) and then over time, the states lost sovereignty to the federal govt and now, they cannot be considered states in the international sense, but the name has stuck.
    – Eugene
    Apr 24, 2023 at 17:39
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    @MichaelLugo Bavaria is a bad example, as it is officially named "Freistaat Bayern", but it also is a "Bundesland".
    – Hulk
    Apr 25, 2023 at 3:37
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    Does the word "state" imply a lesser degree of sovereignty? Sometimes.
    – RonJohn
    Apr 26, 2023 at 20:24

5 Answers 5

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No. Apparently "country" stems from "contra" as in "the land "opposite of ..." and refers slightly more to the land/territory while "state" stems form "status". So "state" is technically more a relation to the political entity governing a country, while country may refer more to the geographic territory. That being said they are usually used interchangeably as the state is tied to the territory and speaking of the interests and relations of a territory always refers to the political entity.

Though as you have or undoubtedly will realize there is no undisputed definition of what constitutes a state which has probably largely to do with the fact that this has certain ramifications with respect to the relation to other such entities.

Usually the problem is that each plot of land on earth has a flag sticking in it, meaning some entity lays claim to it, so that the creation of new states/countries can only happen through secession or revolution. Which then prompts the question as to whether the resulting structures from that are "legit" or not. Like does the sovereign state from which the new country seceded have the right to uphold the sovereignty within its borders. Like is it still their territory and is rebellion just treated as a criminal act or is the rebellion recognized as a de facto state that itself has the right to assert its sovereignty and should be supported in that goal. And there's a whole theory of states being states through being recognized by other states, though that entails the question what made these other states legitimate to begin with. Or the other hand, is a permanence in territory and population entail that a state after a revolution tied to contracts agreed to before a revolution? So is it still the same state or a different state with many similar features?

Or yet another definition, can there be a country without a state? So if you put the focus on the "a 'state' is a polity that maintains a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence" or on it being centralized or whatnot, could there be collectives without a political entity representing them or that organize decentralized and thus "without a state" or is the state just the organization of people regardless of how that organization looks like?

So what is and isn't a state is a complex matter without a clear definition that settles that all, but no, it is usually not implied that there is a lack of sovereignty by calling it a state. It's the opposite of that.

By calling it a state you emphasize some sovereignty as "country" or rather a sub-country. So the difference is that a unitary state is one country and one central government for that country, so one state, while a federation is a whole bunch of countries with their own local governments and legislation forming a super-group that acts as one entity when interacting with other countries, yet where internally the constituents retain some sovereignty. And that relation can be tighter or loser, can be bottom up or top down. Or things like the EU or UN where the members are fully sovereign countries and where the Union, though technically binding to its members is not acting as a state or country of its own.

Also with respect to the USSR, that naming was likely just an attempt at positive branding. Like the initial idea of socialism as worker self-management and bottom-up organization. And also "soviet" just meant "council" and apparently used to refer to direct democratic workers' councils who organized the revolution. With the idea of a "soviet republic" not being too dissimilar to something like democratic federalism. So the "Union of Soviet Socialist Republics" implied lots of independent workers' movements rising up and joining forces to a powerful superstate, while retaining a bottom-up organization.

So calling subdivisions in the USSR "states" and referring to the country as a Union, rather than a country or empire, was probably meant to emphasize an independence and a mutual nature that likely wasn't there in the praxis.

So technically "states" does not imply a subdivision of a country unless you speak of a union or federation; on its own it rather refers to the independence of a domain. Though ultimately it depends on context and intention of the speaker and in different languages the connotations might vary.

For example, Germany and the U.S. are both federal states, but when people in the U.S. speak about the "federal level" they mean that something is centralized and decided on the level of the federation while when in Germany the "federal principle" is emphasized it's usually the opposite, meaning more privileges and responsibilities are given the the different states rather than the central government. So yeah likely no, but as always it depends.

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    The etymological argument is weak at best (see Etymological fallacy at Wikipedia) but the point about "state" being used to elevate rather than diminish the, uh, status of members of a federation is really the answer to this question, so +1.
    – phoog
    Apr 25, 2023 at 14:24
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If you need to be clear that you are referring to a sovereign state, don’t use the words state, country, nation, or region

English words rarely have a single definition, and all of these are near-synonyms. Except when they aren’t.

Usually, context is enough to discern exactly how the words are being used. “The Baltic states” has always meant Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania before, during, and after their incorporation into the Soviet Union irrespective of if they were sovereign states, states, countries, nations, or some of the above. The proper noun, the Baltic states, on its own, makes no claims about sovereignty.

Some examples might help:

The Baltic States

  • Sovereign State: No, it's a collective term for three sovereign states.
  • State: No, it's a collective term for three states.
  • Country: No, it's a collective term for three countries.
  • Nation: No, it's a collective term for three nations.
  • Region: Yes.

Estonia

  • Sovereign State: Yes.
  • State: Yes.
  • Country: Yes.
  • Nation: Yes.
  • Region: Yes.

Britain

  • Sovereign State: No.
  • State: No.
  • Country: No.
  • Nation: No.
  • Region: Yes.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Island

  • Sovereign State: Yes.
  • State: Yes.
  • Country: No.
  • Nation: No.
  • Region: No.

England

  • Sovereign State: No.
  • State: No.
  • Country: Yes.
  • Nation: Yes.
  • Region: Yes.

The United States of America

  • Sovereign State: Yes.
  • State: Yes.
  • Country: Yes.
  • Nation: Yes.
  • Region: No.

Maine

  • Sovereign State: No.
  • State: Yes.
  • Country: No.
  • Nation: No.
  • Region: Yes.

New England (the one in the USA because there are quite a few around the world)

  • Sovereign State: No.
  • State: it's a collective term for six states.
  • Country: No.
  • Nation: No.
  • Region: Yes.

Cherokee Nation

  • Sovereign State: No.
  • State: Yes.
  • Country: No.
  • Nation: Yes.
  • Region: No.
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  • I completely agree with your opening paragraphs, but can't decide whether the examples reinforce these points, or just muddy the waters! I'd argue that the lack of clear definitions for "state" and "country" make a number of the examples subjective at best. For example, "Britain" tends to be used in the UK to refer to "the UK", and not to refer to "Great Britain" (which itself is often, if wrongly IMHO, used as a synonym for the UK - and even when used correctly, has different political and geographical meanings, depending on context...) Apr 26, 2023 at 9:51
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    I'm willing to accept that England is regarded as a country for historical reasons, despite the fact that it doesn't have any of the trappings of any kind of political entity (e.g. it doesn't have its own government or legislature). But the idea that the UK isn't a country, I can't agree with. To my mind, any entity that has a government and legislature, clear geographical boundaries, its own armed forces, and that issues passports, is a country. Apr 26, 2023 at 10:00
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    @SteveMelnikoff Britain and Great Britain are two different places and neither is a state or a country
    – Dale M
    Apr 26, 2023 at 11:02
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    "Great Britain": agreed. "Britain": depends what you mean by the term. Apr 26, 2023 at 12:00
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To side-step this Q a bit, the issue seems to be whether sovereignty [of a state] is absolute or not. However, some would argue that's not the case in the EU either. So, if you want to compare [Baltic states] participation in the EU vs in the USSR, ultimately the issue is how it came about, whether the government[s] that consented to those moves were legitimate or not, etc.

Note that the right to leave the EU or the USSR is/was codified in the respective treaty [art 50] or constitution [art 72], whereas that's not the case with the US one. So, one might argue that US states have given up more of their sovereignty because of that.

There is the issue of translation etc., but [FAICT] the (1977]) Soviet constitution referred to its members preferably as "republics", using the word "state" to mostly refer to the USSR itself. Whereas the EU mostly uses "member state". However, this is mostly "a distinction without a difference", except for the internal organization of the members implied (the USSR would not have accepted a monarchy as a member.)

(As for some discussion in comments related to this: the USSR constitution, in Russian uses the word государство to refer to the USSR as a state. The loan word штат doesn't seem to appear in that Soviet document. But штат is, of course, otherwise used in Russian, e.g when translating the USA as Соединённые Шта́ты Аме́рики. So, if someone referred to the Baltics states as шта́ты in Russian that might have a different connotation than "state" in English. The Russian wikipedia appears to define штат as only having some/partial sovereignty, and always in the context of a federative structure. OTOH Google Translate offers Балтийские государства as [human checked] translation for "Baltic states". And more broadly, members of the EU don't seem to be referred to as шта́ты in Russian. Likewise, "State of Israel" is translated as Госуда́рство Изра́иль, in Russian Wikipedia.)

As for the US case being unique (in terms using state for entities that cannot secede), that's probably not so. The constituent German word "Länder" (from Bundesländer) is commonly translated as "states" in English. But there is no right of secession in the German constitution either, so it's similar to the US one in that regard. And as someone deftly remarked in a comment, Bavaria officially refers to itself as the "Free State of Bavaria"--Freistaat Bayern. OTOH the German word Staat seems to have the same degree of polysemy as in English, as "State of Israel" is translated as Staat Israel, in the German Wikipedia.

To add some flavor to this, there's the (loan word, I think) "canton" in English, which in usage however seems heard mostly in the Swiss case [meaning the constituents thereof], although legally speaking there's probably not that much of a difference between a Swiss canton and a German Land, in terms of the extent of their sovereignty. And the Swiss themselves use the word Staat (or État in French) to refer to several of structures of the [con]federation, e.g. the Council of States (German: Ständerat, French: Conseil des États, Italian: Consiglio degli Stati; This is somewhat similar to the US Senate in terms of representation, although the "half cantons" only have one Councillor.) OTOH "canton" appears used with a much more restrictive meaning (relative to sovereignty) in countries other than Switzerland. (Fun fact: the RSFSR also had "cantons" in the 1920s, as subdivisions of some its constituent Republics. They were probably more similar to the French case/usage in terms of powers. OTOH (as rightfully pointed out in the comments), the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina appears somewhat more modelled after the Swiss case, down to cantons having their own constitutions, although Wikipedia doesn't even mention the latter as such.)

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  • I think the issue of translation is not always "distinction without a difference". For example, in Russian the word in the constitution translated as "state" ("государство") is not assigned the meaning that is used for USA states. For that specific meaning, Russians use other words - for example, "штат" (direct loanword from English) for USA or Indian states, or more formal "subject of federation" for similar entities in Russian Federation. It is sort of implied that государство-state has more sovereignty than штат-state, and this distinction is lost in translation. Apr 24, 2023 at 11:07
  • @DanilaSmirnov: interesting. But that nuance is lost in the (official?) English translation: marxists.org/history/ussr/government/constitution/1977/… Apr 24, 2023 at 11:08
  • @DanilaSmirnov: the word "штат" doesn't seem to appear in the Soviet constitution, only "государство" (and of course "республик"). Apr 25, 2023 at 12:51
  • @DanilaSmirnov: OTOH, you're right of course that the штат word is used in Russian in some contexts, not in the least in the translation of USA -- Соединённые Шта́ты Аме́рики. So, yeah, if someone were to refer to the Baltic states, in Russian as шта́ты, it could have a different connotation than in English. Apr 25, 2023 at 13:02
  • Länder does not come from Bundesländer; rather, Bundesländer is a more specific word to distinguish Länder that belong to the Bundesrepublik from others that do not, such as Frankreich and Brasilien. Also "canton" is used to describe subdivisions of Luxembourg and of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (apparently also of a French arrondissement).
    – phoog
    Apr 25, 2023 at 14:34
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This question seems to be phrased much like a question on English Language SE, so in anticipation of a possible migration there, I'll answer it as such.

Officially, a "state" and a "country" are the same thing, as in your example of the Baltic states, which are a collection of countries around the Baltic Sea in Europe. Those countries are very much countries, in every sense of the word; they're just called "states" in common parlance (I'm not sure why, maybe "Baltic states" rolls off the tongue more nicely than "Baltic countries").

Historically, mostly in Antiquity, there were many so-called "city-states". These were countries in all respects, that were geographically small enough to also be cities. Examples include (historical) Athens (and the surrounding Greek city-states of Troy, Sparta, and so on) and Rome; today The Vatican could be considered a city-state (although it is very different from the city-states of antiquity).

Now a bit of Politics.SE for this Politics.SE answer:

The exception to this being the equivalent meaning between "state" and "province" which has arisen, to my best guess, from the founding of the United States of America. Upon the Founding, the USA was intended to be governed much like the EU is today, where each state (country) has mostly their own laws and customs, but there is a central managed bureaucracy to determine inter-state commerce, transit, and issues concerning all the states in the union (e.g. motions/attacks by the British to try to reclaim the Colonies, affect taxes, and so on). This concept is known as Federalism. Over time, the concept of Federalism has been eroded to the point where the States in the Union function more like provinces do in other countries, hence the common parlance understanding (particularly of non-Americans) of a State to be equivalent to a province, when that was not actually the intent.

Noteworthy is that this trend of a union of states causing erosion in the independence of each state is a (minor, for now) issue in European politics and the creation of the EU. It was one of the reasons promoted in favor of Brexit, and the more wealthy countries in the EU (particularly Germany) have also raised it at various points.

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  • There is also the United Kingdom which is a state (or country) with constituent countries
    – mmmmmm
    Apr 24, 2023 at 21:16
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Three observations which suggest that "country" is a geographical term, and "state" is a political one:

  1. Israel is officially The State of Israel. Despite the fact that some of its neighbours still dispute Israel's right to exist, it doesn't appear as if the Israeli Government considers that the word "state" implies a lesser degree of sovereignty.

  2. Indigenous people in Australia use the word "country" to refer to an area where they have traditional rights, which is consistent with the notion that "country" is about geography. I have also heard the word "nation" used, which, I think, is a linguistic categorisation: a member of the Kulin Nation appears to be someone who uses (or whose ancestors used) one of the Kulin Languages.

  3. "State" always, IHMO, denotes a claim to political identity. In Australia each state has a governor, who serves as the King's representative. This was raised as an issue during the referendum on whether Australia should become a republic during the 1990s: what if Australia decided to become a republic, but Victoria, say, wanted to keep the Queen as Head of State?

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    Yup. While all of the words have very broad shades of meaning, at its heart "state" is an organized collection of people (closer kindred to the French "estates" than you may think), "country" is the place where people live, and "nation" should be kept at the end of a 10-foot pole because you don't know whether the person hearing it will take it to mean "internationally recognized sovereign state", "ethnic or linguistic group or tribe", "political movement", or "collection of sports fans".
    – hobbs
    Apr 25, 2023 at 4:59

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