Max Weber’s definition was that something is “a ‘state’ if and insofar as its administrative staff successfully upholds a claim on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence in the enforcement of its order.”
I’ve found this definition not to aid my thinking about conflict areas and state failure, where monopolies of any kind are in scarce supply.
Rather, I say
The State is that entity which can retroactively legalize criminal behavior.
Legalizing assault produces a police force. Legalizing murder produces an army.
This assumes that the definition of crime exists in some form outside the law books. I think there’s good evidence for this, in that some behaviors are more or less universally considered to be crimes, although different cultures have fundamentally different legal assumptions. I think this common agreement on “criminal”, outside of the boundaries of government, culture and jurisprudence is the best hope we have for environmental protection globally.
I did a little writing about this earlier, in To bite the hand that feeds: survival (pdf, 4 pages).