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July 12, 1994 1:00 pm

The nation-state

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The phrases “international community”, and “shared sovereignty” are both, if not quite oxymorons, at least charged with wishful thinking. They are much used in today’s talk of foreign affairs, perhaps in the hope that, like some failed sauce hollandaise, their incompatible ingredients can be made to blend by beating them together hard enough.

Such a technique has worked before. The phrase “nation-state” shows what long repetition of a wishful thought can achieve. Although nations and states are fundamentally different things, we have all come to accept that the blend of them is the basic ingredient of the “world order” - to cite yet another fashionable emulsion. Yet there is a feeling abroad that the era of the nation-state may be fading.

The collapse of the overarching confrontation between two super-powers and ideologies has left mankind having to rethink how best to structure government. This uncertainty plays a big part in the rich world’s present feeling of drift and disorientation. Too much of what goes on in modern life transcends the nation-state and its government. Yet systems of government that attempt to follow by transcending national administration have not achieve loyalty and legitimacy.

Meanwhile, nation-states go on suffering the pains they have always known whenever ethnic feeling rebels against the imposition of state frontiers or laws. These pains are intense at present because of an outpouring of ethnic pride uncorked by the ending of Communist hegemony and also because electorates sense that modern governments are no longer able to shield their societies against change, alien competition or waves of immigrants.

The horrors of Yugoslavia, the discrediting of the United Nations, the worries over the futures of Russia and its ex-satellites, Ross Perot and “the great sucking sound” of free trade with Mexico, Europe’s post-Maastricht tension all these are partly traceable to these two problems. Restated briefly, they are that supranational government is inevitable but still not acceptable, and that even well-established nation-states can no longer confer an adequate sense of identity upon their peoples.

While the phrase nation-state has a noble ring of fittingness - one people who have sensibly decided to obey one government - most nation-states had in fact to be cultivated with much ingenuity. France created a “state nation” and gave it an almost human persona. America created the ultimate idea-based nation. Even Britain embraced a number of nations within its state.

Such civic state-building was helped by the expanding reach of government, by railways, by telegraphs, by the spread of suffrage, by flags, anthems, jingoism, rewritten histories and other 19th century paraphernalia. So successful was the formula and so appropriate to its times, that it was projected potently abroad to create state-empires, such as France’s or nation-empires, such as Britain’s - where that admirable tribe the “English-speaking peoples” were either in control, or ought to be, and ran things from English country houses like Ditchley.

Yet those same technological advances that made nation-states and empires governable now whisk capital and information ungovernably across their frontiers. These advances have created enterprises that can no longer act as national champions if they are to survive against international competition.

Educated elites no longer advance only within their nations; they move in galaxies of film, finance and fashion that bestride nations. And where nation-state governments once revelled in their new-found power to control up to 40 per cent of their economies, today they are marching away from those commanding heights, putting them up for sale and explaining to their electorates that jobs are scarce because of international forces beyond their control.

The supranational challenge goes beyond the economic. The rise of the electronic media is changing a basic tenet of the post-Second World War order - that nations are inviolable, however they may decide to behave within their frontiers, provided that they do not misbehave across them.

Events in Iraq and Yugoslavia have prompted the emergence of a faltering international consensus on acceptable behaviour, though there are already signs of a cultural fault line developing between fast-growing Asia and the mature West over the amount of harshness permissible in government.

So, is the coming of international government now logically unstoppable? Yes, but it will advance with much difficulty, because two of the three ingredients of the rise of the nation-state - identity and legitimacy - are still missing at the higher level. While the principle of non-interference in the affairs of nation-states may be weakening, the willingness of people to die to impose the world’s standards is weakening, too. People must still look to the nation-state for their military security.

Meanwhile, the nation-state has acquired a perverse new economic role. It used to be an engine of progress. Now, in the West at least, it is becoming a comforting symbol of the past, something to hang on to against disturbing forces of change. It is to the original definition of nation “place of birth” that people now turn, away from a world homogenised by international brands and flows.

These then are the ingredients of our disorientation. Supranational government is needed but unwanted. Subnational identity is wistfully desired, but is too often little more than a costume parade. Nation-state government is still much desired but is being undressed, as it were, from above and below. Well-meaning internationalists talk interminably in smoke-filled rooms. Seething realists wish that conviction politics would return and show that this claimed need for a world order would vanish if only the older extroverts among the nation-states could walk tall again.

Given some grave danger of war, which is not hard to imagine, those realists might yet be proved right, because the nation-state remains the one entity that people are ready to die for. But it is just as plausible to predict a dispiriting phase of international ghettoisation in which outrages exist side-by-side with civilised behaviour and the media perpetually tut-tut, and there is neither the motive nor the will in the international non-community to crack down upon the nastiness.

In such an era of leaderless despond, the habit of supranational government would slowly take hold. It is interesting to note that the much vaunted “new world order” is floundering in matters of politics and morality but is taking root in the economic sphere, which is, as has been explained, where the need for it is hardest to deny.

The UN has been discredited by Yugoslavia, but the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade has got stronger. The political and institutional parts of the European Union are set for a phase of painful wrangling, but the extremely intrusive rules system of its internal market has held up through recession.

Even the political aspects of supranational government have something going for them; authority above the level of the nation-state paradoxically helps the amour propre of smaller nations and regions. Portugal holds more sway within the European Union that it would outside it. The flag of Europe flies more often in Scotland, Catalonia, Rhne-Alpes and Bavaria than it does in London, Madrid, Paris and Berlin, precisely because it is a symbol of a counterweight to those old, aloof capitals.

The tentative upshot of all these thoughts is that the nation-state is far from dead. It is still the main repository of loyalty and legitimacy. Asian nation-states are moving into the phase of high self-confidence that pioneers of the nation-state knew in the 19th century. The birth rate of nations is particularly high, as the Russian empire dissolves and the newcomers experience the normal post-colonial agony of poorly matched states and peoples.

Nevertheless the role of the nation-state is evolving. Government will become a more stratified affair, with power, and a little identity, shifting up above national capitals and identity, and a little power, shifting down below them. Westminster, Paris and Washington will detest the sensation. Beijing and Moscow will adapt. Brussels and Bonn/Berlin will smile knowingly. And Ditchley will have business aplenty.

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