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Client state is one of several terms used to describe the subordination of one state to a more powerful state in international affairs. It is the least specific of these terms and may be treated as a broad category which includes satellite state, puppet state, neo-colony, protectorate, vassal state and tributary state. (See also unequal treaty.) The idea that there might be a hierarchy of states, some more or less dependent on others, contradicts the doctrine of Westphalian sovereignty which holds that each state is a distinct, separate and sovereign entity.

Client states have existed for millennia as stronger powers forced their neighbours to become subservient to them as they grew in status and strength. In ancient times states such as Persia and Greek city-states would create client states by making the leaders of that state subservient. One of the most prolific users of client states was Republican Rome which, instead of conquering and then absorbing into an empire, chose to make client states out of those it defeated, a policy which was continued up until the 1st century BC when imperial power took over. The use of client states continued through the Middle Ages as the feudal system began to take hold.

In the 13th century, Korea was overrun by the powerful Mongols. After the treaty in 1260 and invasion of 1270's, the Goryeo became dependency of the Mongolian Yuan Dynastymarker.

In the British empire some people such as the Indian states were technically independent, and the independence of Egypt from 1922 technically ended a British protectorate. Iraq was made a kingdom in 1932. In each case the economic and military reality did not amount to full independence, but a status where the local rulers were British clients.

After 1945, the term was often applied to nations ruled by dictatorships backed openly by either the United States or the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, many Latin American nations such as Guatemalamarker, El Salvadormarker, Nicaraguamarker up until 1979, Cubamarker up until 1959, and Chilemarker under the regime of General Pinochet were seen as U.S. client states, as the U.S. government had significant influence over the policies of those dictatorships. The term also applied to other authoritarian regimes with close ties to the United States during the Cold War, more appropriately referred to as U.S. proxy states, such as South Vietnam, Iranmarker up until 1979, Cambodiamarker under the regime of Lon Nol, the Philippinesmarker, and Saudi Arabiamarker. A good case study of client state building is the U.S. - Iran relations under the Shah.

The term might also arguably be used for those states extremely economically dependent on a more powerful nation. The three Pacific countries associated with the United States under the Compact of Free Association may fall somewhat in this category.

Soviet proxy or "client" states included much of the Warsaw Pact nations whose policies were heavily influenced by Soviet military power and economic aid. Other third world nations with Marxist-Leninist governments were routinely criticized as being Soviet proxies as well, among them Cuba following the Cuban Revolution, the People's Republic of Angolamarker, the People's Republic of Mozambiquemarker, the People's Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam). Within the Soviet Unionmarker itself, entities as the Ukrainian SSR had seats at the United Nations, but remained totally subordinate.

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