What Is the Difference Between a State & a Government in International Politics?

A state is a territory and population controlled by a government.
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Perhaps you've noticed, on the news or elsewhere, that when international politics experts throw around terms like "state," "nation," "sovereignty" and "government," they seem to have special technical definitions for the words. Even though many people don't use those words the way analysts do, it's still important to understand the differences among each term.

1 Government

A government is the organization in charge of creating and administering laws for a region and its people. Governments can exist at national, regional and local levels, with local governments subordinate to higher-level governments. There are even so-called governments in exile, which no longer control the place they were formed to govern, but still claim to represent that place's people.

2 State

Internationally, the term "state" is usually shorthand for "sovereign state," the technical term for an independent country. For example, the U.S., China and Kenya are sovereign states. Of course, the term "state" can also mean a subdivision of an independent country (a state within a state), like California in the United States, Gujarat in India or Queensland in Australia. A state, no matter what the type, has to be controlled by a government. If a region has no government, then it is not a state. Likewise, if a government doesn't control any actual territory or people, the area it claims to represent is also not a state.

3 Sovereignty

"Sovereign" means that the government is the top authority within its territory and doesn't answer to any other country's government. If a government has sovereign control over a particular territory, it can form a sovereign state. Proving that a government has sovereign control over a territory is a key part of convincing the world that the area is a legitimate country.

For example, many Palestinians want their claimed territories to be recognized as an independent country. Those territories are partly administered by Palestinian governments. However, since significant portions of that territory remain effectively under Israeli control, it can be argued that Palestine is not yet a sovereign state. A 2012 U.N. General Assembly vote gave Palestine "nonmember observer state" status, an upgrade that put Palestine on par with the Vatican and represented tacit U.N. recognition of sovereign Palestinian statehood. But in practice, analysts said, the resolution would change little for the Palestinian people, as it was opposed by Israel and the United States, who have refused to treat Palestine as a country until its territorial disputes with Israel were resolved through negotiations.

4 "The Government" and "The State"

There are some international differences in the meaning of the phrase "the government." In parliamentary-style governments in Europe, "the government" can specifically mean the current administration; so when you hear that a country "formed a government," it means that they agreed on which representatives will be in charge of the current parliament, not that they established a whole new system. Americans often say "the government" to mean the whole system, but political scientists prefer to call this "the state."

Evan Centanni specializes in world cultures and human geography. He grew up in Oregon, but has since lived in two other countries and traveled to many more. Centanni is editor of Political Geography Now at www.polgeonow.com. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in international studies and linguistics from the University of Oregon.