The End of the Nation State?

If an entity is difficult to define then it’s difficult to decide when it isn’t there. If its origins and its defining characteristics are obscure or controversial then prediction of its obsolescence or continuing viability are fraught. So in hazarding the conjecture that the political-cultural entity dubbed “nation state” has had its day, I felt obliged to add a question mark to the title of this blog.

There seems to be broad agreement that what distinguishes a nation state from other political units such as city states, empires, multinational states, confederations, principalities, etc. is the identification of people with polity: the political and cultural entities are indistinguishable. The unified state embodies a common culture of laws, customs, religion and above all a dominant ‘official’ language, and everyone living within its borders acknowledges that common culture. As a citizen of a nation state you’re united in terms of culture, nationality and government with every other citizen of that same nation state, including those you’ve never met and are never likely to meet. Benedict Anderson encapsulated this characteristic in his resonant phrase “imagined community”.

No two historians agree about when the “nation state” first emerged as a cultural-political entity, though no one doubts that the invention was European. The idea was first clearly articulated in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which in effect asserted that the balance of power among countries depended on the mutual recognition of clearly defined, centrally controlled, independent entities distinguished by territories with clear boundaries. However, no one seriously supposes that the 1648 Treaty marked the birth of the nation state. In some ways, or rather in some cases, nation states emerged in Europe during the period of Romantic Nationalism in the 19th century. In other ways, or other cases, nation states came into existence in early mediaeval times. Perhaps the majority view among historians (though there’s no indication of consensus!) is that the nation-state concept evolved during the centuries of “secularisation” following the Black Death of the 14th century, as the overarching political power of the Church slowly gave way to the rising power of the rulers of separate territories.

However, there’s no common ontogeny. At one extreme, there’s a strong argument for claiming that in cases such as Germany and Italy, nation preceded state. Both these countries, as we recognise them today, were unified during the 19th century, a multitude of separate political units (some of them very small) already unified by language and culture coming together under a single political administration. At the other extreme are cases such as England, where during the 9th and 10th centuries a collection of small separate kingdoms in which related Germanic languages were spoken were driven together by an external threat (the Viking invasions) and owed their survival, and¬†de facto¬†unification, to outstanding military leaders who were also champions of a particular language and culture. The most notable examples were Alfred of Wessex (“Alfred the Great”) and his grandson Athelstan. Here, state clearly preceded nation. So effective was this unification, which created the nation state called England, that it survived the subsequent Danish takeover and the Norman Conquest and proved resilient enough – over a period of centuries – to absorb the newcomers, transformed in some ways but with an inviolate core.

Much the same happened in Scotland during the 13th and early 14th centuries, though in some ways this case was more dramatic. Under the external threats of Norway and particularly England, regions among which travel was difficult and hazardous, regions in which a range of highly diverse languages were spoken (Gaelic, Norse, Welsh, Northern Middle English), were forced together into a single state under one acknowledged government. Thereafter, two nation states sharing a common border, Scotland and England, remained suspicious of each other and not infrequently at war with each other for hundreds of years. Each had been forged in the fires of invasion and bloodshed; and when they were politically unified in 1707 under a single government, their cultural distinctions survived – and they still do. Great Britain is a nation state but it contains more than one nation, an obvious recipe for instability. In broad terms, this explains why the break-up of Britain remains a distinct possibility. Nor is the possibility novel; “Home Rule” for each of the culturally and historically different parts of the United Kingdom was high on the political agenda during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In the light of these examples, one might ask – parenthetically – to what extent the USA can be deemed a “nation state”.

Diversity of origins notwithstanding, the nation-state idea was exported to much of the rest of the world during the 18th and 19th centuries as the more powerful European countries colonised the rest of the world. One consequence of imperial expansion was that European governments conspired to draw lines on maps – of Africa, for example – so that the lands could be parcelled out among their various empires. Those lines separated one externally-imposed nation state from its neighbour, but they meant little or nothing to the indigenous peoples; often they cut through established tribal territories. This is one important reason why there are conflicts within Africa today: state boundaries don’t coincide with cultural ones. Many of the states were never, in any true sense, nation states.

Today, the sovereignty of the individual state is being eroded not so much by the external forces (notably the threat of invasion) as by international agreements and the emergence of supranational blocs such as the European Union, by the rising economic influence of multinational corporations, and by the political power of nongovernmental organisations, which are often international. At the same time, cultural distinctions are being eroded by the growth of international travel and migration and, perhaps above all, by the internet. So both locally (as in the UK and some African countries) and globally, both ‘state’ and ‘nation’ are being challenged and redefined. Hence my conjecture that the ‘nation state’ is unlikely to survive as an entity for much longer.

Many individuals and groups are reacting against this possibility, or rather against the forces that make it likely. In Britain’s EU Referendum of June 2016, one major argument by the “Leave” campaigners – who in the end won the majority vote – was the need for Britain to recover her sovereignty and right to self-determination. Their position was strengthened by widespread discontent concerning the rate of immigration from both EU and non-EU countries, straining the infrastructure (schools, hospitals, transport) and adding ‘unacceptably’ large numbers of people with very different cultures and languages to our ‘imagined community’. No ‘Leave” campaigner to my knowledge has addressed the wider question of the long-term viability of the nation state, either in Britain or elsewhere.

Another challenge to the nation state concept is epitomised by the rise of Islamic State, which contrary to the objections of some commentators is clearly unified by strong cultural links under a single political administration, but doesn’t recognise geographical boundaries. British media persist in calling Islamic State “So-Called Islamic State”, as though to convince us that it isn’t a state (which it is) or Islamic (which it is, though the large majority of Muslims dissociate themselves from its often inhuman behaviour). If only a fraction of the horror stories about Islamic State are true, then all right-thinking people must abominate it. But in broad historical terms, is it anything more than a justifiable reaction of the indigenous peoples to the imposition of state boundaries on the Middle East by imperialist European powers during the 19th and 20th centuries?

Exporting political concepts to parts of the world in which they have no place is guaranteed to produce a backlash in the long term. But this blog is already long enough without inquiring whether attempts to bring democracy to countries where the idea is alien are likely to prove beneficial.


  • Too bad we can’t all just be human beings. But we’ve always had to be something more–and we no doubt always will be… the ego that makes each of us human is the thing that drives us apart.

    Bill Clinton once said perhaps the only thing that might make our increasingly divided world get along would be if aliens came to Earth. Which makes sense; it would unite us in hating them instead of each other.

    On the other hand, the history of our species has been violent and angry and war-mongering–occasionally tempered by peaceful intentions and drawing together… before erupting again into chaos and bloodshed. So it’s kinda just what we are.

    A very thought-provoking blog, Mark… definitely makes me wonder how a shift away from nation-states would play out in the modern world…

    • Mark Henderson

      Thanks, Mishka. I didn’t know the Bill Clinton quotation, but it does seem consistent with my model of external threat forging states!

      This is a subject that’s been on my mind for some time, and is to some extent reflected in the fantasy novel “National Cake Day in Ruritania”, which FBP is considering for publication.

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