Illustration by Shonagh Rae of multi-coloured flag
© Shonagh Rae

Last weekend, as sunshine blazed over Europe’s ski slopes, I went on holiday in Switzerland to visit some of my family who live in Val Müstair in the Swiss canton of Graubünden. It is a corner of Europe that could make your head spin if you were a cartographer or a linguist – or if you naively cherish the idea of nation states.

My cousins’ native language is Romansh but my uncle and aunt converse in French and everyone is fluent in German and Italian (which is used interchangeably with Romansh in the region). And while my cousins technically live in Switzerland, the borders of Austria and Italy twist around their region in lines that defy logic. Just down the road, for example, is a district called Livigno, which is part of Italy – but, amazingly enough, is actually cut off from Italy for part of the year and only accessible via a tunnel from, er, Switzerland.

Unsurprisingly, this complex ethnic patchwork has provoked plenty of wars. But these days it works well. That is partly because Switzerland is wealthy, small and a commercial crossroads. But there is another crucial factor too: nobody in the region thinks that a “state” needs to match ethnic identity or linguistic heritage. “Switzerland is not a nation state but a corporation of interests,” my Uncle Marco quipped over dinner. “That’s probably a good thing!”

It is a concept that politicians throughout the world could learn from, even (or especially) in Ukraine. It is taken for granted in most countries that the obvious way to exist is as a nation state. So much so that the main unit of global organisation today is called the “United Nations”, not the “United Peoples”.

But in reality, this nation state idea is a recent arrival on the world stage, and a historical aberration. In centuries past, regions such as Europe have sometimes been united in large political units. Last weekend, for example, a valley near my cousins’ house staged a powerful dance performance by the Origen Foundation to celebrate the 1,200th anniversary of the death of Charlemagne, one of the first pan-European rulers, who once controlled the Alps.

But Charlemagne never aspired to create a single nation; nor did other rulers in Eurasia before the 18th century. Instead, people were organised into multi-ethnic empires or city states (such as Constantinople or Bukhara), tiny local kingdoms, or run along tribal lines (in places such as Central Asia). And while ethnic loyalties and inter-ethnic fights were intense, this did not always match political boundaries.

However, in the 19th century, the idea spread that “states” should be based around separate “nations”. This was often presented as a “natural” development, since it was assumed that “nations” needed their own state. But as Ernest Gellner, the social scientist, observed in his seminal book Nations and Nationalism: “Nations, like states, are a contingency, and not a universal necessity . . .[and] nations and states are not the same contingency.” That is the case, even in France, which is considered a classic nation state. The late historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that the French state gave birth to the idea of the nation – not the other way round.

Today, of course, the concept seems so well entrenched that it is rarely questioned in places such as France. But you only need to look at a map of the world to see how inappropriate – if not crazy – it is to apply it to some parts of the world. The idea of a nation state does not work well in modern Afghanistan, for example, or in places such as Uzbekistan (which was an artificial creation of Stalin). It looks odd in much of Africa, where colonial rulers arbitrarily created some bizarre borders. Even parts of western Europe chafe at the idea (just look at the Catalan region of Spain, or Scotland). And now, of course, that nation state ideal is creating angst in Ukraine, Russia and Crimea too.

Is there any solution? The obvious answer is that we should simply back away from our obsession with nation states and recognise that political structures can be multi-ethnic and that decision-making is often best exercised in a federal manner. For many matters, local democracy is best, at levels well below the nation state – and in an age of globalised business and cyber commerce, many issues today need international decisions, above that nation level.

The great irony of the 21st-century world is that even as national borders look increasingly odd, nationalism itself remains a potent force – and the nation state drives both expansionist moves in Russia and protest in places such as Ukraine. To put it another way, Switzerland might offer a glimpse of a more sensible way for countries to organise themselves – but it also reminds us how rare this type of sensible multi-ethnic collaboration is. And that is a tragedy – not just in Ukraine but in so much of the world.

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