ROUNDTABLE: The Nation-State

ROUNDTABLE: The Nation-State



The Myth of the Nation-State by Devin Stewart

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 non-state 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 re-defined 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.

A version of this essay originally appeared on Project Syndicate.

Response by Nick Gvosdev: The Nation-State is the Best We Have

Devin Stewart has written a provocative essay calling for academia to end "the nation-state myth." To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the nation-state paradigm may indeed be the worst—until one considers the other options.


This judgment may seem harsh—and so let me first enumerate those points where I am in agreement with Devin. I fully concur that it is a myth that "the nation" necessarily commands the exclusive or even the principal loyalty of those living within its bounds. As his Loire Valley anecdote demonstrates, people have multiple, overlapping and sometimes even conflicting loyalties—to their region, ethnic group, co-religionists, fellow speakers of a language or dialect, or even to broader civilizational and trans-national associations.

It is also true that a great deal of suffering has ensued, particularly in the last two centuries, from the efforts to make the boundaries between political entities and ethno-linguistic communities co-terminous. And the artificiality of the nation-state is most clearly on display when attempts are undertaken to try to engineer a "nation" to correspond with a newly-created "state." The attempts by European Union officials to midwife a new "Kosovar nation" that would be neither Albanian or Serbian—down to crafting new symbols—was a project that was dead on arrival.

But if the nation-state is not the building block of the international system, what is? I think that the appeal to a "global citizenship" is still in the realm of utopian speculation. Yes, there are problems confronting us that no single nation-state can solve, but the way forward is much more likely to be the formation of "global authorities" through the collective action of sovereign states (a process Amitai Etzioni sketched out in his 2004 work From Empire to Community) rather than through the disappearance of nations. Despite the veneer of a global identity, most people still identify with smaller, more tangible political entities.

And if the nation-state has become obsolete, what replaces it? Regionalism, along the model of the European Union or UNASUR [Union of South American Nations]? The jury is still out as to their long-term viability. The "network commonwealth" proposed by James Charles Bennett and others—"a loose league of states cooperating on defense, trade, and other issues" defined by shared language and culture?

For a state to be cohesive, it must be more than a random collection of individuals; there must be a sense of community. This may indeed be an "imagined community," in Benedict Anderson's formulation, but being imagined makes it no less real or compelling—and to paraphrase Voltaire, if the concept of a nation did not exist, we would find it quite useful to invent it. Otherwise, it becomes very difficult to reconcile differences and tolerate diversity.

Consider Iraq. Because the sense of Iraqi nationhood is weak—and therefore the levels of trust necessary for people to transcend clans, sectarian affiliations and ethnic communities are lacking—when Iraqi voters have gone to the polls, they have not voted along economic or political divisions, but along ethno-sectarian lines. The same has occurred in Lebanon. In contrast, the divisions among Albanians—into Orthodox and Catholic Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Bektashi—has not precluded Albanian voters for casting ballots for socialists, free-marketers, or nationalists, even if they are voting for someone of a different creed in the process.

I will concede to Devin that the model of one state, one nation should not be blindly imposed. But any state, to remain cohesive, has to provide an answer to the question of how it relates to national communities. Perhaps, using Alexander Solzhenitsyn's formulation, a state might be comprised of many nations—but ones who have come to a lasting and workable agreement on the question of language and who feel they share common traditions and cultural elements. There is also Washington's admonition that citizens whether "by birth or by choice" are fellows of a common country, defined by common "habits and political principles."

In the end, my real concern is that de-emphasizing the nation-state has the unwelcome side effect of weakening democracy. This was something that concerned Ralf Dahrendorf when he penned an essay for The National Interest entitled "Can European Democracy Survive Globalization?" (Fall 2001). In it, he worried, "The weakening of the nation-state by a process of internationalization is by the same token a weakening of democracy." As we have seen with the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty by voters in Ireland—who in this case seemed to have cast ballots not as Catholics, Europeans, or Dubliners but as Irish—there is a real concern around the world with "the emigration of important decisions to spaces for which democratic processes and institutions do not exist."

So, I lean more to Dahrendorf than to Stewart on this issue, and agree with the former that "the nation-state is still the most important political space at the beginning of the 21st century. It may have lost some of its strength, but it remains the inclusive community for most people."

Response by David A. Andelman: Micro-States Are Fractioning from States

I am persuaded that the tectonic plates of the world’s geopolitical structure are shifting. In the coming years, decades perhaps, but certainly before the turn of the next century, the small shards of nations—I like to call them micro-states—will be determining the nature of war and peace, relations between the major powers from which they are fractioning. Our response to these all but overwhelming pressures will set the standards for international understanding or conflict. Many of these pressures, I fear, will be relieved only after enormous bloodshed and at tremendous costs.

I am struck in the otherwise excellent comments of Devin Stewart and Nick Gvosdev by their failure even to utter the phrase "self-determination." It is this concept, more than any other, that I believe will become the gold standard for understanding what constitutes a nation in the future.

This concept, otherwise known as "democracy" at least in the Western sense, was invoked by Woodrow Wilson back in 1919 as he prepared to depart for the Paris peace talks that led to that catastrophe known as the Treaty of Versailles. In my book, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today, I point out that this failure to properly apply, let alone understand, the nature of this concept led to the creation of a host of artificial constructs that should never have been called nations.

As these peacemakers paid lip-service to self-determination, they blithely proceeded to assemble a host of nations that served their own purposes—large, weak, heterogeneous countries that the major powers could control easily for their own benefit. They ignored at each turn, and hélas to our own peril and misfortune a half century or more later, the needs and wants of the people whose fate they were determining.

So today, the nations that were assembled in the early decades of the twentieth century are now coming apart—sometimes peacefully, often in a more bloody fashion. We have seven nations where once there was a single Yugoslavia. We have two countries where there was once Czechoslovakia. We have ten nations where there was once the Soviet Union. I am persuaded that before long there may be 20 or more. There are three countries in what was once the Raj. The pressures are growing for that artificial construct called Iraq to be undone into its feuding ethnic and religious components. And then there's China—a kaleidoscopic country in which Tibet and Xinjiang are demonstrating only the beginnings of powerful centrifugal forces of future unrest and pressures for true self-determination.

Both Messrs Stewart and Gvosdev seem to grapple with the concept of what should constitute a nation or an independent government. Yet in the end, we really have little fundamental understanding about who can or should decide what constitutes a nation—and at what point in its gestation should it receive such a benediction? I'm by means certain. 

What I do believe, and what I have said often, is that every nation, every people, if left to their own devices (and this is critical, especially with superpowers or would-be superpowers poised to send troops in at the slightest provocation), winds up with a government that they deserve and that suits them. This should be our watchword, and what we teach our students as they return to their classrooms just as the tectonic plates of the world have begun to shift yet again.

Final Response by Devin Stewart

Andelman correctly identifies an important phenomenon in international relations: Peoples' struggle for self-governance. But the world is also witnessing a countervailing trend that Gvosdev mentions: The unifying of states, ceding national interest to greater authorities, to treaties, economic agreements, and political unions. What kind of system do we want?

Taking Andelman's thesis, the proliferation of nations and states could continue ad infinitum, down to the tribe or clan. As my friend Robert Dujarric said recently, international relations are primarily about power. That a group gets power is not an automatic good, especially if it results from the bloodshed that Andelman predicts or if it is used to harm the rights of individuals.

Moreover, from a logical perspective, it seems preferable to begin with the premise that we are all human and that our interests and actions are global, no matter how much we would like to pretend we are separate from others. Beginning with the perspective that one's actions will have an impact on others can lead to a more ethical approach to policy and statecraft. This enlightened understanding of self-interest is what the Dalai Lama associates with the venerable attitude of "wholesomeness."

It is sometimes said that the United States should be called the United Nations since it is actually composed of many peoples, and that the United Nations should be called the United States since each state does not actually represent a nation. This trope is useful to challenge basic assumptions about the international system.

The U.S. economy and political environment benefit from the pluralistic notion of America as an idea rather than a static people, blood, or race. In terms of statecraft, the United States derives soft, moral power from its openness, too. Anyone can be an American, and that confers some legitimacy to American preeminence, however fleeting. Not only does America's diversity give it internal strength, but a country that looks like the world should also appear less threatening to that world.

In America's case, the concept of nationhood, though abstract, more closely resembles reality. Gvosdev argues that the nation-state is the best tool we have for organizing international politics. He can surely agree that the record of the nation-state is mixed at best. As Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff has noted, "idolatry" of the nation-state can cause individuals "to forget the higher law commanding them to disobey unjust orders," which can lead to catastrophes such as Nazi and Stalinist oppression. He concludes, "It is the individualism of human rights that makes it a valuable bulwark against even the well-intentioned tyranny of linguistic or national groups."

Finally, I would suggest that the nation-state in its current form is not necessarily a permanent fixture in the international system. The concept has only been around for a few hundred years out of human history's millions. Some European states that we think of as ancient or old, such as Italy or Germany, only unified in the 1800s and have existed in their current incarnation for less than 100 years. And they are already giving up power to a supranational authority, something that would have been considered a pipedream just decades ago.

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