The future of the nation-state in the information age

Recently a couple of things have made me think more about whether nation-states will continue to be by far and away the dominant form of political organisation in the world and how technology, particularly information technology, will affect the answer to this question. One of these things was a random conversation with a colleague, while the other is the novel I’m reading at the moment, Neal Stephenson’s  The Diamond Age, which deals with some of these themes (not always in ways I agree with). This post will be my musings on the subject, hopefully corralled into some sort of coherent order.

For starters, it is important to consider  how the concepts of technology, information, and political organisation are related. Put simply, technology is vital to the existence of the modern-state. Benedict Anderson concluded that the printing press was a key factor in the development of national identities because it homogenized language over a broad geographical area, creating a unified sense of “the nation” on linguistic grounds. Charles Tilly took a type of Darwinistic approach to the idea of the creation of the modern state, explaining it as the result of war, therefore those states which were more able to wage war were the ones which survived. This theory implies the importance of technology too, not just on the battlefield but on the ability of the state to generate tax revenue through taxation, which is helped technological advances in communication and transport. Technology and the conception of the modern ideas of the nation, the state, and the nation-state are inextricably linked.

It is also undeniable that the internet and the information technology age in which we live is a massive shift in the way in which people and societies conceive of and mediate their relationship with technology. Whereas the printing press centralised identities around a certain dialect which became the national language, the internet is a decentralizing force, as it breaks down many of the geographic barriers towards communication with people all over the globe. Could this be the beginning of the end for the nation-state, as identities become fixed to concepts and ideas in cyberspace rather than geographic location and linguistic homogeneity in the physical world?

Well, Scottish enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith and William Robertson saw a culture’s means of production as the key reason behind its political organisation. In a capitalist society with a division of labour and a complex web of  economic interactions a state structure was necessary and inevitable as a means of protecting property rights. The rich were seen to have more to gain from this as they had more property to protect, but everyone in society would benefit. Obviously a division of labour helps technology advance through the work of specialists  such as scientists and engineers. The bigger and more complex a society is, the greater it can utilise the division of labour, and the greater the benefits this brings can be.

To use a personal example, a month before my 9th birthday I had a bad accident involving a bike and a window where I cut my upper arm from the skin to the bone, severing muscles, nerves, and an artery. My mum kept pressure on the wound until an ambulance arrived and I was taken to the hospital, where doctors operated for five and a half hours to sew my arm back together. Without a complex society with a division of labour I would be dead. The ambulance that came to get me was a  complex vehicle containing highly specialised equipment, which needed a division of labour to make it. It ran on petrol, which had to be drilled out of the ground, shipped halfway around the world, refined, and shipped halfway around the world again. The medical staff who treated were all highly trained and specialised, and the equipment they used was also made in specialised factories. If they had to build their own homes, grow their own food, make their own clothes and so on then they wouldn’t have had the time to become doctors and nurses and gain all the knowledge necessary for those jobs. Ditto for all the people involved with designing, manufacturing, shipping, and installing all those bits of equipment like heart monitors, artificial ventilation units, microscopes, and so on which were used in the surgery. While I will admit that a bike and a window are both the products of a division of labour as well,  a similar accident could happen in other ways with natural hazards in a pre-division-of-labour society, and the victim would be dead from loss of blood before long. Even in many parts of the world today, or my own country 150 years ago, I wouldn’t put odds on someone surviving something like that. And that’s only one example. Anyone reading this blog probably knows someone alive today who wouldn’t be if we didn’t have division of labour which allowed for modern healthcare.

The reason for this segue is to emphasise my position on why I think large complex societies are desirable, so anyone who tries to argue that we should return to small agricultural communities understands the implications that go along with that. I don’t think that anarchy as a form of government can work in a large complex society so you need a formal set of rules and institutions which govern behaviour amongst people and organisations, protect rights, andensure that inequality is managed so that social tensions do not lead to violence and destruction of property. In short, you need a state. On top of that, small agricultural communities inevitably end up being absorbed by states so unless you can guarantee that the entire world shares your vision and won’t develop their own divisions of labour and state structures, such a proposal is impractical anyway. Nonetheless some people still argue this position. Now, I don’t think that states are inherently good or anything like that, but simply that the benefits of a complex society with a division of labour outweighs its costs – states are a necessary evil. Of course we can still aim to make our state fairer and better at providing for and protecting its citizens than its current model, but any idea of removing the institutions and structures which constitute a state are completely misguided and will never happen, at least in my humble opinion.

But this doesn’t mean that the specific form of states which dominates today, the nation-state, is destined to last. As I have written elsewhere on this blog I define a nation-state as a sovereign state (i.e. a political entity which exercises an absolute monopoly on legitimate violence within a clearly defined territory) which defines its legitimacy through some sense of collective cultural identity and shared historical narrative. The shift away from geographically defined identities in the internet age and the associated homogenizing of culture through shared language and experiences is seen by some as an indicator of the coming end of nation-states. I’m not so sure. I think that nationalism is still a huge part of people’s identities even when it’s not acknowledged. Take a look at people’s responses to the upcoming Olympic games and tell me that people don’t care about their nation – banal nationalism is rife in this world. If anything the exposure to the internet and social media in particular makes people more aware of their identities because they are commonly being asked to define them. What you like on Facebook, what websites you visit, what news articles you comment under, who you friend request or follow, forums you engage with, and so on all add up to make you more self-conscious about who “you” are, and most people inevitably include ethno-nationalistic elements to this. As long as nation-states exist and have standardised education  then people from the same country will spend their formative years in the presence of people from the same place and this will continue to make them feel as if they share a connection with those people. The internet might make national identities weaker in some cases but I seriously doubt it will destroy them altogether.

So as I see it the only way that something other than a nation-state will become the dominant form of political organisation globally is if small nation-states join into larger federations where sovereignty is shared – like I described in my earlier post. This is the only way I can see nationalism becoming disentangled from the legitimacy of the state. However, even if that doesn’t happen I think that the information age could have other impacts on the way nation-states themselves operate. Most nation-states are highly centralized, with political decision-making effectively in the hands of a few people whether they are democratically elected or not. One thing the decentralizing nature of the internet might do to this structure is to decentralize it as well. Previous advances in information technology have drastically changed the world. To pick a famous example, the printing press opened up an age of scientific, social and political revolution in Europe as ideas could be transmitted quickly and cheaply like never before. As I pointed out up the top there, this can be seen as one of the key causes of the creation of the modern nation-state as well.  The medium itself was the crucial aspect of this information revolution, as it will no doubt be with the internet’s impact upon our current world, which is only just being felt. I suspect that as our ways of thinking become more used to concepts of decentralized networks rather than hierarchical patterns of control, so the pressure to arrange our political organisations along these lines will also mount. Already Twitter and Facebook have been credited with driving the Arab Spring, and although the vast majority of internet political engagement is really just slacktivism it is undeniable that there is potential for a whole new way of driving political change through information technology. It would be foolish to think that the information age will not have an effect on how our societies are politically organised, but it would be equally foolish to claim that the nation-state is doomed because of this.

No New Zealanders allowed

So if you aren’t in New Zealand or Hawaii you probably haven’t heard that 2 naval frigates from New Zealand have been forced to moor at a commercial dock in Hawaii rather than at the military  facility at Pearl Harbour. The reason is that a law New Zealand passed in 1987 banned nuclear power and weapons from our fair shores. Because the US Navy would neither confirm or deny that individual vessels had nuclear weapons or nuclear material onboard, it effectively banned US naval ships from New Zealand, ending the ANZUS (Australia, New Zealand, United States) alliance. In retaliation New Zealand vessels aren’t allowed to moor with other countries’ vessels at Pearl Harbour during the world’s largest naval exercise, RimPac. I don’t think anyone in New Zealand cares that we have to park our 2 little ships away from the big boys. We certainly aren’t going to give up our nuclear free stance over it.

I also don’t think that many people anywhere else would care that New Zealand is not moored with other navies, and I think plenty would support our nuclear free stance anyway, especially in the wake of the Fukushima incident. The US’s actions in this case miss the point of the whole situation, like that movie:

War crimes and show trials redux: the ICTY, Karadzic, and Kissinger

A while back I wrote this post about how war crimes trials often ending up seeming like show trials imposing the victor’s justice on their defeated foes. I also asked if any high profile defendants at war crimes trials had been acquitted, and today one has been. Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic has been acquitted of one charge of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), although he still faces ten more charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war. Here’s what the ICTY said about the acquittal:

Count 1 of the Indictment charges genocide in relation to the crimes alleged to have been committed between 31 March and 31 December 1992 against the Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats in some municipalities in BiH. Having reviewed the totality of the evidence with respect to the killing of, serious bodily or mental harm to, the forcible displacement of, and conditions of life inflicted on Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities, the Chamber found that the evidence even if taken at its highest, does not reach the level from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that genocide occurred in the Municipalities.

The Chamber noted that genocidal intent can be inferred from a number of factors and circumstances, including the general context of the case, the means available to the perpetrator, the surrounding circumstances, the perpetration of other culpable acts systematically directed against the same group, the numerical scale of atrocities committed, the repetition of destructive and discriminatory acts, the derogatory language targeting the protected group, or the existence of a plan or policy to commit the underlying offence.  The Chamber noted that although it has heard evidence of culpable acts systematically directed against Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities, and of the repetition of discriminatory acts and derogatory language, the nature, scale, and context of these culpable acts do not reach the level from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that they were committed with genocidal intent.

The Chamber found that whilst the evidence it had heard indicates that the circumstances in which the Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities were forcibly transferred or displaced from their homes were attended by conditions of great hardship and suffering, and that some of those displaced may have suffered serious bodily or mental harm during this process, this evidence does not rise to the level which could sustain a conclusion that the serious bodily or mental harm suffered by those forcibly transferred in the Municipalities was attended by such circumstances as to lead to the death of the whole or part of the displaced population for the purposes of the actus reus for genocide.

If that gave you a TL;DR moment that’s understandable. Damn legal mumbo jumbo! Basically they have said that Karadzic’s actions in relation to this specific charge haven’t crossed the threshold for genocide. I think this is a good sign. I don’t know details of the case but the fact that the court is willing to acquit on this charge shows that defendants are not effectively being convicted before they have been tried. It seems likely that he will be convicted on at least some of the other counts, especially those relating to the Srebenica, but for now the fact that a high profile case can feature an acquittal adds credibility to the international justice system. After all this was a man dubbed the “Butcher of Bosnia” by some in the Western media – not exactly a moniker which implies innocence.

However, until alleged Western war criminals also face charges in a meaningful court the charge that these trials only exist to punish the defeated cannot be ignored. How about we start with Nobel Peace Prize winner Henry Kissinger? As Christopher Hitchens famously pointed out, the case against him is pretty solid. The recent conviction of Charles Taylor for aiding and abetting crimes in Sierra Leone only strengthens the case against Kissinger by establishing a precedent which could see him convicted for even more crimes against humanity. I use Kissinger as an example simply because he’s an easy one, but there are plenty more Western leaders with similar pasts out there. Lets bring them up on war crimes charges!

I don’t think that this will ever happen but if proponents of international justice want to ensure that they are respected then they should fight for justice for all. Seems like a pretty basic principle to me. If Western governments genuinely believe these trials are fair and balanced, and that their own leaders and political figures are innocent of war crimes then why shield them from facing charges? If protecting sovereignty is the issue (a hypocritical excuse that) then they can bring the charges in their own courts. Maybe the defendant can turn up on the back of a flying pig…

Sudan’s problems are bigger than Omar al-Bashir

While Syria’s civil war rolls on with another (presumably doomed) Annan peace planSudan has been rocked by a series of violent protests against the government which president Omar al-Bashir says are nothing like the Arab Spring. Western journalists say otherwise. Well, not all. Anyway as I see it the argument over whether it is or isn’t an extension of the Arab Spring is more a matter of trying to get website views than anything else. I think a more pertinent question is what hope is there for lasting change in Sudan?  Make no mistake, Bashir is not a nice fellow – there’s a reason he’s been indicted for crimes against humanity – but ousting him and establishing democratic structures won’t solve the problems which are plaguing Sudan.

The simplest narrative to explain the state of Sudan today is this: there was a civil war which led to the country losing its oil-rich southern region (now the imaginatively named South Sudan) and now it’s poor. Although the immediate threat of war between Sudan and South Sudan seems to have passed, neither state appears very stable or strong at the moment. Aside from this issue though, there is the problem that Sudan is a large multi-ethnic state dominated by one ethnic group and uneven distribution of wealth and power across different regions has fuelled ethnic tensions. The conflict in what is now South Sudan was one example of this, while another is the crisis in Darfur which is now in state of uneasy peace. Granted, a true democracy in Sudan might alleviate some of these issues but not all. Wealth will still be unevenly distributed because of the uneven distribution of resources. These resources include arable land, and as desertification spreads in the north of the country the people who had lived and farmed there have sought other places to go, and this in fact was one of the key causes of the Darfur conflict.

Although the new state of South Sudan controls most of the oilfields now, the refineries and port where this oil can be put on tankers are in Sudan and thus co-operation is needed to ensure the oil still flows. However, South Sudan plans to build a pipeline through neighbouring Kenya, meaning that Sudan could be shutout of a share of the oil revenue. So to maintain the standard of living that many Sudanese have become accustomed to another source of income may have to be found. Again, the removal of Bashir and the establishment of a democracy in Sudan might make it a more appealing place for foreign investors and aid. However, as global economic woes continue the amount of aid money available will be reduced, and foreign investment relies on something to invest in. In an economy facing regional climate change in the form of desertification, an economy which is 80% agricultural looks like a bit of a problem.

If Omar al-Bashir can be removed it will be a victory for human rights and international justice, and if Sudan can develop stable democratic structures then the country will better placed than it now is to deal with its myriad issues. Nonetheless the examples of Egypt and Libya have shown that the transition from dictatorship to democracy is never easy, and Sudan’s challenges are if anything bigger than either of those. Optimism is a good thing but its easy to get carried away. Of course, the Sudanese people have to actually get rid of Bashir first, and I doubt that there will be any appetite in the West for a Libya-style intervention in this case. And then if Bashir is ousted, what is to stop conflict flaring up again between groups looking to take over from him?

Sudan’s future looks bleak, and so does that of South Sudan. Ironically, people in both countries may have been better off in the long-term if they had stayed as one state. All hail the law of unintended consequences!

These are a few of my favourite names

Okay, so names are important in international politics. Different countries call geographical features different things to suit their own ends – take the Persian Arabian Islamic Gulf as an example. Then there are the disputes over the names of nations themselves, as in the case of the Republic of Macedonia, which when it was admitted to the UN had to be called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia so as not to piss off Greece and Greek Macedonians. Then there are names in certain languages that get transliterated into English one way and then changed to another, like Peking/Beijing or Mumbai/Bombay, while in other cases the choice of when to accept local spellings and when not is weirdly ambiguous. I follow football and it always strikes me as odd that the team from the Bavarian city of Munich known as Bayern Munchen in German is rendered as Bayern Munich in English. Why? Shouldn’t it be Bayern Munchen or Bavaria Munich?

There is also the highly politicised argument about what to call various categories of nations based on their economies and politics. The old 1st world, 2nd world, 3rd world system lost its middle category at the end of the Cold War but is still commonly used. The “West” is a term often used to mean rich countries with a strong European influence on their politics but if that includes the North American and Australasian states then it pretty much encircles the globe so it is west of everything, including itself. The now popular term “Global South” for poorer countries is equally stupid in my opinion as I happen to live in the most southerly capital city in the world and I daresay my country is richer than say Afghanistan, Mongolia, or Haiti in the northern hemisphere, to name a few. I’d guess that Australians, and Brazilians feel the same way as well. The categories of “developed” and “developing” are too value-laden for a lot of people, as are industrialised and industrialising and unindustrialised so there isn’t really a way I know of to name these categories satisfactorily. Nonetheless I’m pretty sure there are at least some categorical differences between countries like Sudan, Congo and Somalia, and Sweden, Switzerland and Monaco.

Having established that names can be important, I think it’s also good to enjoy them for their merits. Not everything has to be a big serious issue all the time. Here’s a few of my favourites, with the reasons why I like them:

Anyone else have any favourite names? Or have I just out-geeked everyone?

Can we please drop the debate about religion causing war?

The whole religion causes violence (and specifically large-scale violence between social groups, or war) argument has always irritated me because it implies that it is somehow possible to separate the religious aspect of one’s identity from the rest of that identity. I don’t deny that the way in which people represent their place in the world and their relationships to the rest of humanity can lead to violence and conflict, but I don’t think there is anything special about religion in this context. Granted that religion is often a massive part of identities which become part of the justification for war, for instance in the Balkans, but the few hundred years of secular society we have to draw examples from don’t exactly indicate that non-religious identities are less prone to violence. People of the same religion also often fight each other, and these conflicts can also shape the identities of the groups involved. For example, just look at the way in which the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812 – a war between two nominally secular and predominantly Protestant nations – was recently celebrated (yeah, celebrating war is fine apparently).

Like democratic peace theory (which I wrote about here) the religion causes war argument often relies on defining terms so that they suit the proponent’s position. For example, Stalin is often presented as someone who have killed in the name of atheism as a counterexample to people killing in the name of religion. Atheists dispute this by either arguing that he wasn’t actually atheist, or that he killed in the name of communism not atheism. However Marxist-Leninism as an ideology is explicitly atheist – so killing priests and bishops is not just a political action against the power of the church but an action to free the people from the shackles of religious thought. A more nuanced argument is that in this context Stalin’s ideology is effectively a religion, but this smacks of a circular argument – religious ideology causes violence so if your ideology is violent it must be religious,  even if you explicitly say it is anti-religious. Another sort of argument which is like those used to defend democratic peace theory is to list all the horrific acts in history which could be called “religious” and say “look, there’s way more of these than secular or atheist ones” while not acknowledging that from a historical perspective the extent of secular/atheist thought is miniscule so of course there are less examples to draw on.

Another point which I don’t see raised often in these arguments is the place of those cases where religion causes peace.When I was researching my Masters thesis in Bougainville for instance I often heard from people there about the vital role church groups played in bringing warring factions together to negotiate peace terms. This was in a conflict which was sparked by resources and ethno-nationalism and later became a complex mix of inter-tribal violence, but where all concerned parties were Christian, and even where they were different sects of Christianity that meant nothing in the context of the war there. Other examples are the Latin American Council of Churches being actively involved in peace programmes in Colombia and Guatemala, Desmond Tutu in Apartheid and post-Apartheid South Africa, Muslim peace activists in America, and the work of conflict negotiator, academic, and Christian, John Paul Lederach. I could go on, but I’m guessing you’ve got the point now. Religious doctrine can just as easily lead to peace as war, so why focus on the negative side of it?

I recently perused some parts of a book called “The Myth of Religious Violence” by a Christian theologian called William T Cavanaugh. I enjoyed what I read because it articulated a lot of ideas I personally had about this subject. For a start he talks about how hard it is to define religion anyway, and that before the enlightenment the dichotomy between religious and secular did not exist and thus all arguments must be made in the context of Western thought from the enlightenment onwards, and then he goes on to argue that the debate about religion causing violence serves to legitimate the violence used by secular Western governments while deligitimating the violence used by other, non-secular groups (specifically Muslims). An article by him here summarises the book quite nicely. Here’s quote from it:

The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them, the hordes of violent religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality.

I don’t deny that people who are explicitly religious sometimes commit violence for explicitly religious reasons, but to say that religious thought leads to violence, or even that religious worldviews have a tendency to be more violent than secular ones, is to take very complex sets of data and find the conclusion that you wanted. This is especially true when talking about large-scale violence or war – such events are the outcome of many different factors which include the  geographical, the historical, and the socio-cultural. Identity undeniably plays a huge part in this and for much of the world religion is a crucial part of identity, so of course we would expect it to be called upon as a reason for violence. However to focus only upon the religious aspects of identity is to obscure the deeper questions about how and why certain groups feel the need to commit violence against others.

By constantly rehashing the debate about the link between religion and war we risk discounting other factors from our explanations of violence at large scales. At a practical level too, the constant promotion of the idea that religion leads to war may risk excluding religious groups from negotiating peace terms and working towards reconciliation between conflicting factions. Finally, it risks creating a new framework where secularism, and to a lesser extent atheism, becomes something which because it is considered more peaceful can be violently promoted around the globe. Please, can we just drop this debate? There is no obvious clear link and the search for one is dangerously distorting of the way in which we view humanity, by splitting it into the enlightened, peaceful atheists and the deluded violent theists.Even if this is not what atheists are seeking to do such oppositional thinking will only serve to fuel fundamentalism as it aims to defend itself against the perceived attack of secularism.

If people really want to help create a more peaceful world they should seek to develop a social space where all beliefs and identities are respected and included, and where violence is condemned no matter what the cause. To say that any belief system is better than any other not only smacks of cultural imperialism but also just serves to deepen divisions and create more conflict.

Note: In case you’re wondering I don’t identify as either atheist or religious.

Patterns of thought and politics: Maori in Wakefield’s New Zealand

Having had some time off from blogging to go to exams, I’m now back and first up I’m posting another essay I wrote a couple of years ago – this one is about how Edward Gibbon Wakefield presented Maori (the indigenous people of New Zealand) in his plans for colonisation of the country. It’s not technically on the subject of international relations but it does tie into some of the themes about nationalism, national myths and identity which I have been exploring recently in this blog.  Because Wakefield was heavily influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers like Adam Smith, it also covers some of their ideas about the relationship between the means of production in a society and its political structure. Although there are some obvious flaws in the way this was presented I do think there is some merit to these ideas. Personally, I  find the first contact/pioneer/colonial part of my country’s history fascinating, and the impacts of the actions of a few people at this time are still being felt today. However there is a tendency within New Zealand to oversimplify the narrative about the dynamics of the early interactions between Maori and Europeans (pakeha) and I think that hinders our understanding of contemporary race relations. Knowing our past is vital for understanding our present and building our future. (I know that sounds cheesy as crap but I honestly believe it is true). Anyway, the essay itself is in PDF form on this page: