Why nation states are not obsolete

By John Roberts

There is a myth abroad that the nation state is nowadays a paper tiger, its place as the rampant danger to peace and stability in the world replaced by other actors. These are variously thought to be such agents as multi-national corporations, terrorists, drug-bands, religious fanatics, rebels and fomenter of civil war. This is a dangerously short-sighted view, however vicious and menacing such anti-human phenomena are. The modern type of nation state evolved early in the 19th century when it was easy enough, particularly in Europe, to see emerging nationalisms as agents of freedom and nationalism. This was despite the way the classic example, the revolutionary French state, had perverted from its original burst of freedom into a tyranny ruled over by an imperialist general who reduced much of Europe to a colonial territory. And, incidentally, seduced the people of France from their former royalist leanings into followers of “strong leaders” who threatened the successive democratic but centralized constitutions that they clung to.

The initial enthusiasm continued through the century in Europe, upsetting established institutions, setting populations free but then promptly shackling them with bonds of military obligation and taxation for purposes of power. The new nation-states became adept at the old games of power politics and war. As a consequence they had to whip up further nationalist feelings to maintain and increase their popular support. The results, crucially in Europe, but spreading throughout the world led finally to two world wars in the 20th century.

The lessons learned in Europe weakened the appeal of nationalism in this continent but the lessons learned in the world beyond were those of the early 19th century. As a result the ex-colonial world since 1945 has stocked up with more weapons than ever before. And the military power is now greater than ever and it is, by and large, still wielded by national governments, even where they are linked by alliances and sometimes dependent upon the power of wealth operating through multi-national corporations.

Nor does the peril halt there. The nation state governments can still, in most cases, call upon the loyalty of populations schooled in one or two centuries of militaristic education and propaganda. The armies still, as a matter of course, prepare to go to war when summoned, even if they do it in alliances that link the killing sprees into group madnesses. Even the dictates of fundamental religion, now thought to be so strong, are not usually able to overcome the habits of nationalist behaviour.

The example of Osama bin Laden is instructive. He and his followers constitute a core of fanatical Saudi Arabians who have attracted fundamental religious believers from other countries. But unless they can seize control in an Arab state, perhaps Saudi, they will never have more than terrorist to cause intermittent trouble. And they will find themselves crushed by the power of secular Arab rulers like Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Khatami of Iran. Gadaffy of Libya or Mubarrak of Egypt. Each of them has at his command the organization of a nation state, equipped with armies and all the paraphernalia of the military power enjoyed by national governments. That is still where the principal threat to international peace resides.

John Roberts is Chair of the Trustees of the One World Trust. He writes here in a personal capacity. This article was first published as World Letter 333, and represents the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union. First published 15 August 2002.

About the Author