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Countries, Nations, and States

Member States of the United Nations

How many countries are there in the world? Not everyone agrees. A country is usually defined as a place with an “independent government that controls its own borders,” but whether or not a particular place meets this definition is often a matter of political opinion. Roughly speaking, however, there are about 200 countries in the world. 193 of these countries are members of the United Nations.

By the way, did you know that the word “state” means the exact same things as “country”? This can be confusing to Americans, as we don’t usually think of the 50 U.S. states as being fully independent. But back in 1776, when the original 13 states declared their independence from Britain, they were fully independent (or at least they claimed to be). Over time, the 50 U.S. states relinquished some of their independence to the newly formed federal government, but we still refer to them as states.

The word “ nation” can also be confusing. Although most of us use the words “nation” and “country” interchangeably, in international relations these two words do not have the same meaning. A nation is a tightly-knit group of people who share a common culture; in other words, a nation is the same as an ethnic group.

When the population of a state consists mostly of one ethnic group, we sometimes call it a “ nation-state.” Japan is a good example of a nation-state. The opposite of a nation-state is a multinational state. A multinational state is a country in which there are two or more significant nationalities (ethnic groups). The United Kingdom and the Russian Federation are present-day examples.

Nationalism refers to a strong sense of national pride. This feeling often arises when a nation or ethnic group is trying to shake off colonial rule or some other form of domination by foreigners. The goal of a nationalist movement is to gain full independence—in other words, to become a nation-state.

There are thousands of different nations in the world, but only some 200 states. This is a cause of many of the world’s conflicts.

Check Your Understanding

  1. About how many States (independent countries) are there in the world?
  2. This term means the same thing as a “fully independent country.” 
  3. This term means the same thing as an “ethnic group.”
  4. What is a nation-state? Give an example of a nation-state.
  5. What is a multinational-state? Give an example of a multi-national state.
  6. This term refers to a strong feeling of identity with a particular nation or ethnic group.
  7. This “-ism” arises when an ethnic group is trying to shake off colonial rule. 
  8. Both Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X were black nationalists. The term “black nationalists” suggests that they wanted what? 
  9. In Hawaii today, there are about a dozen Hawaiian nationalist organizations. What is the goal of these organizations?