The problem with nation-states

After another study-induced hiatus I’m back with a bit of a rant about why I don’t think nation-states should be the last word in human political organisation. This is not to say that I think the end of the nation-state is close at hand – far from it in fact – but the problems I see with the nation-state model mean that I have to hope there is a way to move past it. In part this post was inspired by a Facebook conversation with a friend about my earlier post which focused on the future of the EU, and this post will further explain some of the positions I took in that one. I’m also not going to go into the history of how nation-states as a concept came into being but it does fascinate me and is probably a good place to start if you want to think more about them as cultural institutions today.

So, first things first: definition. A nation-state is, according to Mirriam-Webster: “a form of political organization under which a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state; especially : a state containing one as opposed to several nationalities” – which shows how awkward it can be to define. If this definition was taking as strictly true then how many countries would actually qualify? Most you care to name have some relatively significant ethnic minority which would count them out… but that’s not actually how we conceive of the nation-state when we bandy the term about. Instead, I would suggest that a nation-state is this: 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. This definition doesn’t exclude minorities from being part of a nation-state, but what it does do is show how pretty much every state in the world defines itself. Even in  Africa, where colonialism jammed different ethnic groups together and made states out of them, the post-colonial inheritors of these states have attempted to define their legitimacy through the shared experience of the colonial yoke.

This is all well and good, but not everyone is always going to fit into the collective identity and narrative of the “nation” bit of the nation-state, and this is where the problem begins. Right at the start of the UN charter in Article I there is a clear expression of the right to self-determination of peoples – but where does this end? Can any ethnic group which self-identifies as distinct from those around it secede and claim a nation-state of its own? If so, what happens to places like Papua New Guinea, where there are about 800 languages spoken by a population of 6 million-ish? If we assume each language represents a distinct cultural group then I guess Papua New Guinea should become 841 new nation-states. PNG isn’t alone in this either, although it may be an extreme example.The good ol’ CIA has a nice list here of the ethnic makeup of the various states of the world. Interesting reading.

Furthermore, each national identity gets created as an expression of “same” and “other,” so people outside it become marginalised and excluded, not to mention possibly discriminated against. Each time a new nation-state forms and defines its national identity in a certain way then a new group will be the “other” and become excluded and marginalised. Take a look at the breakup of the former Yugoslavia to see what happens when this process gets out of control. Then there is the problem of what happens when to different nations want a state in the same place because that’s what their identity and narrative tells them to do – say hello to Israel/Palestine. The idea that a nation should have absolute sovereignty over the territory of its choosing is undeniably flawed, and yet all over the world people still fight for the independence of their own nation from another, larger one. Clearly, if states continue to gain legitimacy from nationalist identities this will go on indefinitely.

The solution as I see it is decentralised federalisation and pan-national states. Getting there won’t be easy, and certain parts of the world will probably always be organised as nation-states, but the idea that nation-states are the only valid way to politically organise large groups of people needs to be dropped to avoid the violence and suffering which comes from identity politics gone mad. After all for most of history empires, city-states, and tribal-level political units all existed and interacted at one time. National identity can continue to exist but it does not need to be the foundation on which our political units are based.


6 responses to “The problem with nation-states

  • mimsicality

    “the idea that nation-states are the only valid way to politically organise large groups of people needs to be dropped”

    I completely agree, and part of this recognization must come from the admission that this model of soveriegnty is quite new, full of ambiguity, and far from bullet-proof. The principles of self-governance and common aspirations are valid, but manifested thus as nation-states, they lead more often to violence and otherization. Any form of identity politics is, inherently, the politics of acceptance and exclusion; and exclusion, the creation of the Other, is a force of violence.

    My personal belief is that the aspiration for human society must begin with self-empowerment and end with freedom: from material want, from political oppression, and most of all from spiritual/psychological fear. The root problem with modern government is that they are not based on concerns of people, but concerns of profit. Profit is a valuable concept, but it is no way to measure or regulate the human experience; creating wealth simply for its market exchange value is an empty endeavor. Human existence thrives on social exchange, the value of people and not the value of dollar bills. To begin to move away from this destructive model of governance, then, we need a complete shift in priorities. That starts with education, empathy, and empowerment at the grassroots level; and, at the global level, with radical reforms and re-imagination of existing institutions.

    …sorry for the tl;dr. This is basically my entire life and I don’t get to talk about it enough with the people of my day-to-day interactions. Great blog post.

    • fromthefourthcorner

      Thanks! I’m glad you liked the post, its always good to know.

      I think the goal of government is to manage the competing interests of different individuals and groups in society for the greatest common good without making anyone’s life worse… although of course how to do that isn’t always clear 🙂 In those terms I think the problem with the nation-stae is that it is by definition exclusionary of some minorities, so we should look for a way of organising politically that embraces and manages diversity rather than shunning it…. if that makes sense!

  • Daniel Rio Tinto

    Good Piece. I believe that “the world state” or the pan-national state is a non-solution, basically because it yields the same problems after all.

    As far as we’ve gone, it seems the liberal argument hasn’t paid off, and it’s losing ground.

    I work trying to understand how anarchy articulate constraints and molds the way actor make decisions when it comes to political violence to ensure survival (be it physical, regime, “way of life”, etc.). It seems that most important than devising the way people is organized is understanding the motivations for which they fight, and how they do it.

    Also, you seem to implicate that during the time where there were city-states, tribal-level organizations and empires, the things were “better”. I would strongly disagree (and would also use Waltz’s reading to support that).

    There is a problem with state-formation, which is very well explained by Holsti’s book (which I strongly recommend if you are interested in those kinds of debates).

    Holsti, K.J., 1996. The State, War, and the State of War (Cambridge Studies in International Relations), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


    • fromthefourthcorner

      Thanks! I didn’t mean to imply that interactions between other forms of political units were in any way better, because I actually generally believe the opposite of that! I was more trying to say that there is no inherent reason why different forms of political units cannot interact with each other so the fact that everything is arranged in nation-states today is historical and structural rather than due to any absolute barrier to heterogenity in international (should really be “interstate”) relations. Thus if something like the EU became a more formalised post-nation-state structure there is nothing to stop it interacting with nation-states like, say, China, which I cannot imagine changing to another form of legitimisation any time soon.

      Cheers for the recommendation on the book – I’ll see if my Uni library has a copy 🙂

      • Daniel Rio Tinto

        Ah! Ok.

        In that sense, I pretty much agree with you (it’s one of the points I make in my MSc work) – while there are some measures of international relations (broad sense) that are restricted to relations between States (mainly diplomacy, etc.), there is a fundamental sort of interactions that are actually available to every political actor. I take this into the perspective of the political use of violence that can be seen in terms of more traditional wars or of people like to (in my opinion incorrectly) call “New Wars”. This is, of course, the security dimension, but once again, I am shielding myself on the realist take that, in the end of the day, our main concern is ALWAYS security and survival.

        Take a look at the book, it’s really worthy – and if you feel stimulated by the topic, it will certainly yield you some good reading time! =)

        Cheers from Birmingham!

  • The future of the nation-state in the information age « fromthefourthcorner

    […] 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 […]

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