In Depth

52 ideas that changed the world: 33. The nation state

Some feared the demise of the nation state, but Brexit, Trump and rising populism show its influence remains

In this series, The Week looks at the ideas and innovations that permanently changed the way we see the world. This week, the spotlight is on the nation state:

The nation state in 60 seconds

“As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me,” George Orwell wrote as German bombers dropped explosives on London in 1941. 

“They do not feel any enmity against me as an individual, nor I against them… Most of them would never dream of committing murder in private life. On the other hand, if one of them succeeds in blowing me to pieces with a well-placed bomb, he will never sleep any the worse for it.” 

So what had turned these normal people into killers? “He is serving his country,” Orwell wrote, “which has the power to absolve him from evil.”

England Your England was written by Orwell in a fit of concern that British people and culture might soon be wiped out by the forces of Nazism. But in committing to paper those things that define Britishness (and flagging the role that a sense of Germanness played in turning normal citizens into killers), Orwell highlighted the role of the nation state in the modern mind. 

A nation state is an ideal in which cultural boundaries match political ones. It is used to describe an area where the majority of people are bound together by a common culture, and is distinct from a multinational state, where no one ethnic group or culture dominates. 

The relationship between the nation, nationhood and nationalism is complex, but is deep rooted in people’s beliefs about themselves. As Britain prepares to leave the European Union at 11pm today, it is worth remembering the “take back control” slogan that brought us to this point.

As Tom McTague writes in The Atlantic, Britain has for centuries “struggled with the challenge facing the modern nation-state: how to balance control and influence”. As globalisation has swept the planet, it has become more difficult to define who is making decisions: individual nations or wider, international powers. 

This has led some to argue that the next era of world affairs will see “the death of the nation state”. As British-Indian author Rana Dasgupta notes in The Guardian, “after decades of globalisation, our political system has become obsolete… spasms of resurgent nationalism are a sign of its irreversible decline”.

How did it develop?

Prior to the formation of nations, the planet was instead divided into multiethnic empires. These groups of countries – for example, the Russian Empire, Ottoman Empire and British Empire – were not focused on shared culture and were not founded on the concept of a nation state. Instead, they contained a wide spread of cultures and nationalities ruled by a single monarch or government.

This was replaced in the 1600s, with the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, a series of treaties that ended the European wars of religion that caused almost eight million deaths. It set in place the “Westphalian system”, in which each state had sovereignty over its own territory. This laid the foundation of the modern nation – a place with borders defining its beginning and end.

The origin of the concept of the nation state is disputed by historians and philosophers such as Michel Foucault and Jeremy Black. They boil down the issue to the esoteric question of what came first: “The nation or the nation state?”

British historian Eric Hobsbawm argued that in the example of France, the state made the French nation, as opposed to the nationalism of French people, which did not emerge until the end of the 19th century. But, in the case of Germany, historian Hans Kohn said that the nationalists of the Volkisch movement were responsible for creating the notion of a unified German nation state.

Volkisch was at first a cultural movement, which began in the late 19th century. But under the Nazis it became political and advocated for a pure German state.

The nation state is not always cohesive. Botched international diplomacy has often spliced countries along arbitrary lines, meaning that the inhabitants are bound by newly defined borders, but nothing more.

A famous example of this is the Sykes-Picot Agreement, signed in secret by the UK and France in 1916. It gave Britain control of what is today southern Israel and Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq, while France controlled southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In the New Yorker, Robin Wright writes that the pact “still haunts” the modern Middle East, fuelling territorial disputes in the region that, according to Iraqi governor Nawzad Hadi Mawlood, have killed “hundreds of thousands”. “It changed the course of history,” Mawlood argues, “and nature.”

In the 21st century, loyalty to the nation state has been manipulated, with negative consequences, a number of times. In each case, an enemy is created, one that threatens the purity of the nation state and its shared culture and values. The rise of Nazism, founded on the “annihilation of all enemies of the Aryan Volk”, is perhaps the most obvious example of nationhood being exploited to devastating ends. 

The Rwandan genocide in the mid-1990s is another example of “defence of the nation state” being violently mobilised against a minority. In the New Yorker, Philip Gourevitch says the murder of between half a million and one million Tutsi Rwandans during a 100-day period was founded on the “state ideology” of “Hutu Power”. “State-sanctioned killings were generally referred to as ‘work,’ or ‘clearing the bush’,” Gourevitch writes. 

The message to Hutus was clear, the nation had to be purged of Tutsis, leaving behind a dominant and singular ethnic group. As Orwell noted during the bombing of London in 1941, most “would never dream of committing murder in private life”. But under the guise of “serving [their] country”, Rwandans took to the streets with machetes and 10% of the population was murdered in the ensuing chaos.

As Dasgupta writes in the Guardian, “the waning of the nation state” is arguably “the most momentous development of our era”. “National political authority is in decline,” he writes, “and, since we do not know any other sort, it feels like the end of the world.” 

Globalisation and the rise of international bodies such as the EU have weakened the concept of the nation state in the 21st century, giving rise to Theresa May’s controversial assertion in 2016 that there is now a large number of people who consider themselves “citizens of nowhere”.

However, this is causing a backlash, with “a strange brand of apocalyptic nationalism” rising from the ashes of the old nation-based order. This, Dasgupta notes, is the origin of “the wall-building and xenophobia, the mythology and race theory, the fantastical promises of national restoration” favoured by populist politicians across the planet.

Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of America, or Viktor Orban, Hungary’s populist, anti-immigration prime minister, offering financial benefits to mothers to have more Hungarian children are both examples of this xenophobia and promise of national rebuilding. Both are built on the concept that Americans and Hungarians are born a part of the nation state and thus share something fundamental that outsiders can never join.

John Bew, professor of history and foreign policy at King’s College London, argues that we are currently living through the “revenge of the nation state”. The growth of a “rules-based international order”, based on the need for mutual prosperity and safety, has created a growing resentment from some countries, Bew suggests, leading to the increasingly aggressive actions of nations like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia.

In Britain, the decision to leave the EU can be seen as a lesser example of the same aggressive response to the weakening of the nation state. “Take back control” the Leave campaign told UK voters, and they did.

As McTague writes in the Atlantic: “Brexit is a real-life proxy for some of the most fundamental questions facing all nation-states today… Ultimately, how ordinary citizens can retain control over their lives and livelihoods in a world in which more and more areas of life are deemed beyond national political control.”

How did it change the world?

The nation state, emerging from the treaties of Westphalia, first ushered in a period of peace that, following the brutal destruction of the Thirty Years’ War, brought much needed stability to Europe.

With national borders clearly defined, the idea that citizens were united by more than just their geography became deep-rooted – leading to the foundation of national identity, defined by American political scientist Rupert Emerson as “a body of people who feel that they are a nation”.

That people began to feel they were the nation, as opposed to people living within borders, was exploited to devastating effect throughout the 20th century. In Germany, Rwanda and beyond, service to one’s country facilitated crimes that, as Orwell noted, no “normal person” would ever consider committing in everyday life.

But as politics and economics became more internationalised, the nation state saw its influence dwindle. Sir Mark Lyall Grant, a former adviser to various British prime ministers, writes that pressures on the nation state’s “traditional monopoly of currency and force... will increase significantly in the next few years”.  

However, there is an ongoing pushback against the decline of the nation state. In 2016, French nationalist politician Marine Le Pen, addressing a crowd chanting “this is our home”, declared “the time of the nation state is back”. Praising the Brexit vote, Le Pen added that we are returning in the West to “the time of borders”. 

The early 21st century has been significant for the return of nativist politics. Like Orwell’s concerns that England would disappear in the 1940s, arguments about the “demise of the nation state” may also transpire to be misplaced.


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