I kind of get it, but Worlds Together, Worlds Apart uses this term a lot and it seems really confusing what fundamentally defines a strong state. In specific, I am learning about Bactria's split from the Seleucid kingdom to become a "strong state". Does a strong state have to be a military state? Or just have a strong military? Maybe just economically strong?

(These questions are just to get the juices flowing; if you can provide a better explanation without answering them, be my guest.)

(Also, any better tag ideas? Leave in the comments, and I don't have enough reputation to create new ones.

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    I would say a combination of the above. Strong enough to have its own foreign policy and not be beholden to other powers. Usually this means enough defensive power to discourage attack. A weak state is either subject to another power, or to internal forces in the state, like a feudal state with a powerless king.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 9, 2014 at 0:20
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    My immediate impression for "strong state" would be one that has a strong government and sense of identity/unity, e.g. the highly centralised Song Empire of China vs the federal-esque Achaemenid Empire of Persia. However, interpreting strong state based on military/economic prowess is certainly possible too. It depends entirely on the context and the write, I would argue.
    – Semaphore
    Aug 9, 2014 at 4:20
  • Where does the Bactria quote come from? Aug 9, 2014 at 17:06
  • I added a tag.. Aug 9, 2014 at 17:07

2 Answers 2


Fukuyama's Origins of Political Order examines that question in depth. I don't have a copy handy, but from memory, a strong state is one that can carry out a policy effectively. There are many examples in history of weak states that cannot implement policies due to the interference of domestic or external stakeholders. (also I'm not sure that there is a difference between "a strong state" and "a strong state in history".)

At the bottom end are what we now call "failed states" - states that are unable to carry out basic state functions. At the top end of the spectrum, strong states, are able to implement difficult policies without consideration for opposing stakeholders.

For example:

  • Pre-revolutionary France; everyone knew the tax structure was broken, but nobody had the power to fix it. France had been a failed state for some time held together by the cunning and the charisma of Louis XIV; Louis XV and XVI lacked either the cunning or the charisma and the failure was revealed.

  • client states that must consult another state before considering new policies.

  • The Articles of Confederation resulted in a weak state; the US Constitution resulted in a stronger state.

  • Greece which was painfully aware that the economy is broken, but found it literally impossible even to meet with the bankers. (the international loan officer offended a greek labor union, so he sat in the official office at the top of the building and was ignored, while the labor union met in the cafeteria on the first floor and continued to run the country into bankruptcy).

  • This month's History Extra (sorry paywall, although there is a free podcast). Contains a very interesting story about Asian participation in WWII. All of Asia knew that they needed to participate in the victory to be a party to the peace. China was too weak a state to negotiate meaningful participation; Siam (Thailand) was a stronger, more effective partner.

  • At the other end, consider German economic reforms in the past century; they implemented changes that were unthinkable for any other nation in Europe.

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    Fukuyama is the clown who proclaimed “the end of history” in 1992.
    – fdb
    Aug 11, 2014 at 14:35

"The State" is a theoretical concept in social science. It has two common definitions, "a body of armed men," and "the method of one class's political repression of all other classes." The definition being used in your world history text is the first definition.

A strong state is one which then fulfills the core requirements of maintaining a body of armed men in its circumstances. Stronger states will maintain a body of armed men in a way which makes the dissolution of that capacity less likely. This isn't just numbers or quality, but also the soft power that results in population growth, legitimacy and capacity to mobilise, the ability to bind outlying semi-governed polities beneath a central or networked will. Less strong states will be susceptible to invasion, successful or unsuccessful revolution or revolt, mass resistance to basic policies (tax, land, family structure) or esoteric policies (customing of luxury goods, public nuisance, courtesy within a single class).

Strong states possess the possibility to impose their will internally and externally, in the final instance by force. Weak states lack this capacity.

Not all "weak states" are necessarily weak countries or nations. A state is not a country, nor a nation, nor a revolutionary class. French states during the great revolution were weak until Napoleon, with rapidly changing policy aims, and a comparatively disorganised military. New innovations in nationalism and non-state networks of power allowed the communities and community of France to enact decisions, despite the weak state. Similarly with these early United States.

Using the second definition, not present in your textbook, a strong state is one that would ensure continued class rule by the socially dominant class. While this obviously has elements of defence of the state against external threats, states are quite willing to fold as long as the system of class rule is maintained (Franco-Prussian War, the English crown's possessions in France). Correspondingly, this second definition of a "strong state" places more emphasis on capacity for internal class repression, or repressive desublimation. This can mean cross-class alliances. A classic example would be the post-war welfare state / full-employment / low inflation nexus in capitalism. This reduced profit and increased the social strength of the working class, but also reduced working class militance. This kind of state extends outside of formal government, and into hegemonic apparatus and the workplace itself.

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    Interesting definition. By this standard, NATO is a strong state, and the countries that comprise it could be weak or strong nations. One or more of the component countries could be weak in the sense of disorganized, unable to impose its will, but as long as the NATO state is strong, they are protected from invasion. One flaw in this is that the strong NATO state does not necessarily prevent a revolution inside one of the countries as you said a strong state should. Or does it? I think there has not been a successful internal revolution in a NATO country since it was established.
    – Mike
    Aug 11, 2014 at 6:15
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    NATO is a military alliance, and not a state at all. It does what the member states wish (after collective agreement) and has no forces outside what they provide.
    – Oldcat
    Aug 11, 2014 at 17:54
  • @Oldcat Agreed that what you say is the conventional definition. I used NATO by Samuel Russell's definition to highlight some uncertain logic that flows from a state merely being "a body of armed men". I am not convinced of the correctness of his definition, I just wanted to illustrate what happens when you take it to its logical conclusion so we could evaluate it in that light.
    – Mike
    Aug 12, 2014 at 1:06
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    A body of armed men is known as an army. Not a state. Of course, many states do have armies, but that's not an exclusive. Rebel armies are the obvious counter-example. And how could a rebel army aim to seize control of the state if they are by definition already a state themselves. These definitions appear to be 20th century communists definitions, aimed at legitimizing oppression of the population by the armed forces.
    – MSalters
    Aug 13, 2014 at 12:09
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    Since your second definition of state relies on the idea of class, you may want to clarify that this is from Marxist point of view.
    – DVK
    Aug 18, 2014 at 17:38

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