Nation States are losing control of their borders, their laws and their economies. Do they still have a role to play in the future of the world?
John Lennon suggested that it wasn’t hard to imagine there’s no countries, but for most people it is difficult to picture a world that isn’t based on the nation state. A lack of imagination, however, cannot stop the forces that mean the nation state is becoming increasingly irrelevant and obsolete. As populism erupts across the world, from Narendra Modi in Indian to Victor Orbán in Hungary, we are witnessing the death throes of the current political system. The nation state is in decline.
A nation state is a blend of people who share common attributes and characteristics – a ‘nation’, with organised political sovereignty over a defined space – a ‘state’. In practice, supposed nation states often end up comprising peoples with as many differences as things in common, with governments attempting successfully or otherwise to impose a unified identity.
The history of the nation state is complex. We can trace its foundations to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, a series of treaties which ended the Thirty years’ war and established a new order in Europe based on peaceful co-existence between sovereign states. It also meant that European nations now looked outside of Europe for territorial conquests and used colonial plunder to strengthen their states back home.
Some nation states were forged out of revolution. The United States and France are prime examples of this. At the time of the French revolution only half of the population spoke French and still less spoke the French used by the government. Eric Hobswarm argues that the French state made the nation, not any popular form of nationalism. Germany, however, was forged out of a sense of nationalism popularised by 19th century politicians. The sense of common identity was at first a cultural movement, the Völkisch movement in German-speaking states, which was then exploited for political ends. By the 19th century the advent of industrialisation, state-mandated education and mass media facilitated the development of a sense of nationalism that found outlet in the creation of the nation state.
The dismantling of the great empires at the end of the First World War also saw an increase in the number of nation states. These nation states often contained a mix of nationalities, however, and it was therefore necessary for Minority Treaties to be signed by the nation states in order to guarantee the rights of minorities within the new territories. Minorities would therefore have a right to appeal directly to the League of Nations if they felt they were being discriminated against. The League had no real way of ensuring that rights were protected, however, and by the 1930s was basically irrelevant to international relations. Decolonisation in the aftermath of the Second World War saw the exportation of the nation-state model. Again, the borders were largely arbitrary and in reality all this did was to cement conflict within the new nation states. With the removal of the colonial oppressor, a lot of the issues that bound different peoples together were gone.
The post-war years were, however, the heyday of the western nation state. The state possessed a high level of control over the economy as governments controlled money flows. Comparatively high taxation was possible and therefore national development was almost assured. As far as capitalist societies can ever be equal, these post-war nation states were amongst the most equal capitalist societies ever known. State spending on welfare, education and healthcare addressed some of the more striking areas of inequality and if the government committed to changing something, it actually had the power to effect this change.
Why then, is the nation state now in decline? Nation states rely on control. Of borders, people, capital. When this control is lost, what is the point of the nation state? Donald Trump was able to hit on a truth in a tweet in 2016 which argued that “A nation without borders is not a nation at all. We WILL Make America Safe Again!” The first part of the tweet was accurate. A nation that cannot defend its borders cannot decide who is a citizen or who contributes to or is a beneficiary of the state. What then, is the point of the nation? Globalisation has been removing the power of the nation state to enforce any kind of governance. Businesses can up and leave to avoid taxation or regulation. The internet, accessed by over 4 billion people in 2018, means that it is possible for people to use bitcoin and blockchain to take control of money supply from the governments and central banks. The ‘gig’ economy, fuelled by apps, costs national governments billions in taxation. Cyber-attacks can be launched from other countries and are increasingly difficult to guard against. As nation states lose control of capital, they lose the ability to effect change, so inequality grows, along with dissatisfaction with what governments are able to offer.
The hastily thrown together post-colonial nation states have not prospered either. Generally held together by ‘strong men’ i.e. dictators, they benefited from the fact that the nation state was considered inviolate – national sovereignty was to be respected, whatever was happening behind a country’s borders. The cold war led to them being propped up by the superpowers and the ending of this ‘support’ has led to a collapse of state authority which is often replaced with militant religious ideology, which has little interest in nationalism. Radical Islamists are creating networks which cross borders and undermine the nation state by collecting their own taxes and creating their own trade routes. Groups like the Islamic State do not seek to take over nation states, but instead hark back to the empires that existed before the nation state.
Should we seek to bolster the nation state against the forces which are destroying it? In reality, this is unlikely to work. Attempts to shore up nations such as Iraq after the fall of dictators have been largely unsuccessful and it is unlikely that even western nations can hold back the tide. Europe is finding it impossible to secure its borders against mass immigration from failed nation states such as Libya, and this is a situation unlikely to be mediated as more nation states fail and climate change encourages others to seek a new life. Knee jerk reactions to immigration, such as Trump’s much vaunted wall are simply nationalist politicians attempting to reinforce ideas of national segregation. They are unlikely to do anything to prevent immigration, or the loss of control of the borders.
What we can do is accept that the nation state is no longer fit for purpose. We need both more local solutions and more global ones. It is necessary to think globally in terms of financial regulation. Businesses find it all too easy to reduce their tax obligations which of course makes all nation states poorer. It is not impossible to build systems which can track the flow of money and impose taxation. After all, if businesses can channel money to pay less tax, then that money can be tracked by the same systems. We should also think about how to redistribute this wealth to help mediate the single biggest inequality in the world: citizenship. Improving the quality of life of those who are not, by accident of birth, citizens of wealthier states, is much more likely to encourage people to remain where they are than building walls or placing armed guards on borders.
Equally, we must also think more locally. Devolving power to regions or cities may help engage people with the democratic process. There may be a place for the nation state if it rests within other, democratic structures. If a nation then begins to fail or even suffer any sort of turmoil we will not see a total breakdown of institutions. The EU, for all its many faults, is at least a step in this direction. That Europe, the birth place of the nation state, decided that there may be life beyond its tightly controlled borders and a need for ‘ever closer union’ suggests that the growing instability of the nation state is something that needs to concern everyone. We also need a system of accountability for nation states. The UN is hampered by the need for consensus, leading coalitions of nations to act somewhat arbitrarily when faced with human rights violations or nations waging wars against other nations. Woodrow Wilson, when urging self-determination, did not envisage the nation state being totally left to its own devices within its borders. There was always supposed to be legal protections for minorities and for smaller nation states facing threats from the more powerful. The failure of this part of his vision has also condemned the nation state. Is there a place for nation states in the 21st century and beyond? I do believe that there is. However it won’t be the dominant role assumed for so long and nor will it necessarily be the default setting for political authority. We need to debate and discuss alternatives and be willing to accept that tightly controlled borders no longer work in a global world.