Thursday, September 30, 2010

Observations on the Present-Day Nation-State

In 1964 Bob Dylan released an album entitled The Times They Are a-Changin’.  I was 9 years old.  I have witnessed many changes since then.  Yet when I consider the geopolitical milieu, I borrow from a BTO album released ten years later: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.  Even in the turbulent 1960’s when nearly 30 African states gained their independence from colonial rulers, it is interesting to note that almost no borders changed, nor the total number of countries. 

In most cases when one speaks of a state or a country, the concept described is a “nation-state.”  A “state” is defined as a self-governing political entity and we often use the word “country” interchangeably.  A “nation” is a tight-knit group of people that share a common culture.  The former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and today’s Lebanon, and Spain are examples of multi-national states.  Canada and Belgium are examples of two-nations in one state.  The Kurds, Tartars, and the Roma are examples of stateless nations.  Palestine finds itself in a gray area of not being completely stateless, but certainly not a fully recognized state, with a geographically and politically divided nation.  States require a level of cohesiveness, a common identity, for successful functioning.  This is typically achieved through shared values, norms, and expressive symbols of it nation(s) within that state.  See my posts on 11 August, 21 July, 16 July, 7 July, 28 June, and 5 June of 2009 for further discussion of these elements.  In Renan’s lecture at the Sorbonne in 1882, he explained,

 A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things that actually are one come together to build this soul or spiritual principle. One of them lies in the past, the other in the present. One is the common possession of a rich heritage...; the other is a present accord, the desire to live together, and the will to continue to accumulate and build the common heritage.

One insight expressed by Renan was the present accord, the desire to live together, and the will to continue to accumulate and build the common heritage,” is an essential element in today’s modern nation-state.  When that accord is not present, no matter the past shared heritage, the nation-state is in jeopardy of change.  We see these dynamics in the rise of nationalism.  Seneca, George Orwell, and Charles de Gaulle all expressed the same thought when they explained that patriotism is the love of one’s country (nation-state), where as nationalism is the hatred of another country (nation-state).  That nationalism finds many forms.  Possibly the xenophobia of the Soviet Union, the frustrations in some European countries with some norms practiced by Islam, France’s expulsion of the Roma, and the Middle East’s general love-hate relationship with the decadent West, are some examples of fear of potential change of a nation or nation-state status.  In the United States, some might suggest the Tea Party Movement and the plethora of political pundits on both side of the political spectrum who spend most of their time pointing out the flaws of the other side, but not much time building a common identity among themselves.  They sure know what they are running from, but not quite sure what they are running to.  

In this interdependent world where information, products, services, and raw materials flow almost effortlessly across borders, nation-states find themselves in peril.  Back in the 1960’s and early 1970's that peril was thought to be the demise of the nation-state because the concept has run its course.  Imagine there's no countries, It isn't hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people, Living life in peace, John Lennon penned in 1971.  Today, however, it appears the nation-state is in peril because of this interdependent flow, but for a completely different reason.  Meaning has been lost in the present size and capacity of the nation-state to support a common identity.  Instead of an enlarged common identity, in this era of the “long-tail” and niche markets, we are beginning to see the break-up of nation-states into smaller or sometimes unidentifiable entities.  Scotland and Wales stand on the edge of leaving the United Kingdom.  Greenland moves closer every year to independence from Denmark.  China is farming in Africa and shipping the bounty home.  These farms are almost treated like they are a part of China, not the host countries.  There are only 6 million Russians living in the vast interior of Siberia, with hundreds of millions of Chinese not only on the border, but migrating to that resources rich part of northern Central Asia.  Countries up-river from the Egyptian portion of the Nile are claiming new water rights that could threaten Egypt’s future.  Some suggest a key part of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is really about the flow of water rights as much as religion, culture and heritage. 

We will continue to see inter- dependence grow between countries, but we will also see new pressures put on the present nation-states in the form of common identity fractures.  Those countries that are successful in “running to” shared values, norms, and expressive symbols by realizing they are in a non-zero sum scenario have a better chance of survival.  Those that believe in and practice the historical scenario that: in order to win, someone must lose (a zero sum scenario) may find a common identity in a smaller group, but in so doing will exacerbate the demise of the nation-state they now live in.  It is very possible to see the present number of 195 nation-states break the 200 barrier in the next decade.  Some of those transitions will be peaceful and even be applauded on the world stage (such as the probable creation of Southern Sudan).  Other changes may be accompanied by civil strife, civil war, or regional conflict.  Taken completely out of context I will close with another song, this time from the 1978 movie Grease, sung today by the nation-state: “I got chills, they're multiplying, And Im losin' control…”

No comments:

Post a Comment