Friday, September 5, 2008

Can You See Nations?

It may strike you as odd that I am bringing into question the utility of the nation-state during Russia’s military action in Georgia. But I would argue that conflicts over nationhood only make my point: the pervasive understanding of statecraft as being strictly in the interest of the “nation-state” may obscure the nature of the threats that face humanity.

The ideas of a European Union and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were considered radical years before those projects started. At the very least, we on this Earth must realize that we are all in the same boat, and our destinies are tied to one another. We don’t have to be wedded to a concept, the nation-state, that is fuzzy to begin with and destructive when abused.

That is the basic point I argued in an essay that appeared in a roundtable discussion with Nick Gvosdev and David Andelman. My original salvo was also syndicated through Project Syndicate, appearing in several newspapers around the world in multiple languages. From what I can tell, the piece has appeared in the Japan Times, the South China Morning Post, the Cyprus Mail, the Daily Times (Pakistan), the Brunei Times, the Daily News (Egypt), El Nuevo Diario (Nicaragua), as well as Policy Innovations. Project Syndicate is an incredible concept: Syndicate opinion pieces and make them available in numerous language (mine was translated into French, Russian, Czech, Spanish, Chinese, and German).

In any case, here is the original piece. My argument may be a bit unusual, but I hope it helps move a useful debate. Let me know what you think. I put the piece on the blog because several people expressed interest in commenting on it.

Ending the Nation-State Myth

This fall, thousands of college students will be taught a myth presented as fact. It is a myth that has helped fuel wars and may hinder finding solutions to the world's biggest problems. Though the origin of this myth is cloudy, science has proven its falsity, and a globalized world has rendered it anachronistic. I am talking about the nation-state.

The nation-state myth conflates two ideas, one that is concrete, the state, and one that is fuzzy, the nation. The utility of the state is clear. It is a necessary organizing principle that allows people to pool their resources for the common good and mobilize against common threats, whether they are floods or invading armies. The state is also the final arbiter of law. State power is even on the rise, partly as a backlash to globalization and as a result of growing wealth from energy markets.

But the nation-state as a basis for statecraft obscures the nature of humanity's greatest threats. Pollution, terrorism, pandemics, and climate change are global phenomena. They do not respect national sovereignty, and, therefore, they necessitate global cooperation.

The origin of the nation-state idea is unclear. Most agree that it offered a way to consolidate and legitimize a state's rule over a group of people, whether defined by a common language, culture, or ethnicity. The problem is that the contours of a cultural community rarely coincide with a political entity.

Nor does the ideal of national unity account for internal diversity and conflict. Identities within nations are fluid, even from minute to minute. About 15 years ago, I spent a summer in France's Loire Valley. As many travelers to France will attest, people in the French countryside believe that they, not Parisians, constitute the "true" France.

This division of core and periphery is common in many countries. But I also noticed that a person's identity would change during the course of a conversation. "We French" would give way to "We Gauls," "We Latins," "We Bretons," "We Franks," or "We Europeans" depending on the topic. This ever-changing identity was startling, but, on second thought, it made sense: after all, Charles de Gaulle famously said that it is difficult to govern a country with 246 types of cheese.

China is often thought to be governed by the Han majority. But this group is linguistically, culturally, and even genetically diverse. As the author Ian Buruma recently mused, it is not clear what people mean by "China." Taiwan is an independent state but is officially part of China. Chinese culture and language has spread all over the world. "China" is much more than just a nation-state, Buruma concludes. Taiwanese scholar Lee Hsiao-feng has recently argued that the concept "Chinese" is a meaningless word that was fabricated to justify rule over minorities.

It is difficult to imagine a nation that is confined to one state or a state that contains one nation. Some argue that Japan is an example of a nation-state. In countless heated discussions, I have reminded many Japanese that the Japanese people actually comprise Ainu, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, and Ryuku. Their response is always: "Yes, but we want to believe that there is a Japanese people." They even have a field of study devoted to examining what it means to be Japanese.

Like religion, the nation-state myth requires a leap of faith. Japanese scholar Yoshihisa Hagiwara argues that since it is not grounded in fact, the nation-state myth is bound to dissolve, giving way to an understanding that we are merely individuals who are part of a global community. He laments that the Japanese are especially fond of the idea of "Japaneseness," making it possible that Japan may become the "last hero" of a dying ethos.

Expressions of this notion appear in popular culture. A recent credit card commercial depicts a father and son traveling to Norway to trace their family's origins. After bonding over local beer, food, sweaters, and swimming, they discover their family is actually from Sweden.

If I were to take that trip, I might have gone to Ireland to discover that my Irish ancestors were originally from Scotland. But where were the Scots from? Just across another sea, perhaps. The origin myth continues ad infinitum until we reach humanity's common ancestor, or an actual myth—a black egg in China, a spear in the ocean in Japan, or the interaction of fire and ice in France.

If policymakers are to address today's problems, they must think more broadly. One place to start may be to reexamine the concept of the nation-state, which students around the world are taught is the basic unit of international relations. Beyond the core Realist theories of balance of power, an introduction to ethics in international affairs—moral philosophy, human rights, and the role of nonstate actors—should be mainstreamed in international relations curricula.

As the philosopher Peter Singer showed in his book One World, a united front against the biggest problems facing the world will require a fundamental shift in attitude—away from parochialism and toward a redefinition of self-interest. Enlightened self-interest can be state-based, but interests would be redefined to encompass universal principles such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If these interests are to gain universal recognition, we will need to shed the nation-state myth once and for all.


Michael Bell said...

While subscribing whole-heartedly to the notion that the nation-state is past its sell-by date, perhaps I can offer some insights into the reason for its existence, and the coming reasons for its non-existence!

Human beings have a very strong drive to associate with each other in groups. This operated originally at the level of the kin-group, or the tribe or the village; but as the size and complexity of human settlements increased, the innate need to 'belong' attached itself to the larger units that developed, initially cities, but later on to entire polities ('we Roman citizens'). The sense of belonging is not exclusive in a human: as Devin points out, you can be both French and Loirean (is that the adjective?). So people remained villagers even as they behaved, occasionally contradictorily, as Roman citizens.

But humans are naturally xenophobic - people belonging to different groups tend to compete, sometimes bloodily, so that the stage was set for confrontation between these bigger groupings. The nation state, though, didn't really happen big-time until the invention of printing allowed monarchs or governments to educate (brainwash) their citizens in what Benedict Anderson so perfectly labelled 'national print languages' (Imagined Communities, Verso, 1983). It's reasonable to see the behaviour of nation states during their heyday (1600-1900) as perverting the group-centred loyalty of their citizens for their own purposes, initially perhaps mostly benign, but culminating as the State (now with a capital letter) perpetrated the cataclysms and genocides of the 20th century which have given nationalism such a bad name.

So what will stop it? Why, globalization, of course. There can be discussion about the degree of fairness of globalization, but there can't be any dispute that it is happening, and the most important globalization of all is language. Once we all have babel-fish in our ears, nation states will have lost their main weapon. Without a national print language, there is no nation. People worry about a flattened global culture, with Chinglish elbowing out literary expression; but that won't happen. Just as the Loirean sings his Loire Valley folk songs at one moment, and the Marseillaise the next, just so will the global citizen of the future celebrate his local village ever more fiercely. And the Internet will play a major part in this: never was there such a medium for forming groups. Friends Reunited and thousands of its peers will offer unlimited opportunities for people to satisfy their need to belong.

And the nation state? It will just wither away, more or less gracefully, reduced eventually to the status of a municipal council, worrying over the colour of the street lamps.

Bill Chapman said...

Linguistic divisions remain even if national boundaries crumble. What about promoting the use of the non-national language Esperanto as a second language for everyone?

A good source of information is

neil.nachum said...

Esperanto is part of a future balanced peaceful world.