- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005

Probably ever since its origin in the wake of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, and certainly over the course of the latter half of the 20th century, the demise of the venerable nation-state has been oft predicted.

But the French and Dutch “no” votes on the European Union’s proposed constitutional treaty show instead the continued resilience of that old political creation in the face of numerous challengers, great and small.

After World War II, a number of theories and movements arose that purported to spell the end of the nation-state and the international system predicated upon it. First, and most menacingly, was the international communist bloc, as typified by the Soviet-backed Communist International (the Comintern). According to Georg Hegel, Karl Marx, and V.I. Lenin (as interpreted and carried out by Josef Stalin), the defining attributes of the international system were wealth and economic class. A much proclaimed “brotherhood/sisterhood of labor” was thought to transcend national borders and expected to sweep away the old, reactionary capitalist states.

Instead, the fissiparous nature of the communist “bloc,” to say nothing of centrifugal pressures within the Soviet Union, won and new nation-states burst forth in Central and East Europe.

But perhaps this can be attributed more to the weaknesses of communism or the Soviet Union. Fair criticisms, so let us look the success of the countries that “won” the Cold War in suppressing nationalism. One by one, from the end of World War II to the independence of Algeria in 1962, the major Western colonial powers lost their overseas possessions and succumbed to the power of newly created nation-states. Whether India and Pakistan (and eventually Bangladesh in 1971), or Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, or Indonesia and Malaysia, or Morocco and Tunisia, the power of the idea of independence and the lure of an indigenous people creating its own nation-state overwhelmed the colonial powers.

Many of these new states, seeking a role in the international system, affiliated with various transnational theories and ideologies to draw strength from their numbers. But they all ultimately proved the enduring strength of the nation-state. An initially promising movement was pan-Arabism, because it had a single charismatic leader (Gamal Abdel Nasser), a unifying identity (Arabness), a rallying cry (opposition to Israel), geographic proximity, a common language, an interlocked culture, and many new and capricious borders.

The union of Syria and Egypt into the United Arab Republic (UAR) in 1958 seemed to set the state for regional unification. But within three years, the UAR dissolved. Similar dalliances came to naught, and the dream of pan-Arabism died a fairly early death, with the final nail the Arab world’s humiliating defeat in the 1967 war.

After dissolution of the communist bloc, many proclaimed a “new world order” of international organizations — the United Nations, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund — reigning supreme. Instead, the U.N. has largely been unable to enforce its will without individual nation-states’ support.

The United Nations’ nuclear watchdog could not prevent North Korea from withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.N. mandates on Chechnya, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, and others are largely ignored by the respective nation-states. World Bank and IMF support to countries in the wake of the Mexican peso crash in the early 1990s, the Southeast Asian currency crisis in the late 1990s, and the Russian default in 1998 seemed more like the nation-state tail wagging the dog.

Following the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98, the idea of global capital markets overwhelming national sovereignty gained credibility. Malaysia’s Mahatir and Singapore’s Lee blamed portfolio “hot money” from international financiers, such as George Soros. Many speculated that countries would lose control of their monetary or financial policies to these titans of global finance. Yet the world’s financiers have been unable to curb the vast financial excesses of the U.S. federal and trade deficits or the supposedly rigid criteria for euro economies. Nor have they forced countries with fixed or quasi-fixed exchange rates, especially China, to abandon them.

Multinational corporations also were to supersede national authority. Companies with operations, employees and capital around the world would owe allegiance to no country. Nations were thought to have little or no leverage against companies that could, in theory, walk away overnight.

Instead, countries have considerable advantages in their dealings with multinationals — from barring export of profits, to limiting foreign holdings of local companies, to enforcing local labor laws. Multinationals face additional disadvantages — the expense of building factories and training workers makes it difficult to walk away, labor mobility in some sectors gives local workers clout, the temptations of indigenous markets makes companies hesitant to pull up stakes or incur governmental displeasure, and advantages of scale increase the costs of shifting to a country with less educated labor.

Since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk dissolved the caliphate in 1924 and the founding of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, elements in the Muslim-majority world have tried to use Islam as a unifying force. The Iranians after the 1978-79 revolution sought to export their doctrine and revolutionary fervor. The anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan fed a similar Sunni movement. Many “Afghan Arabs” saw the international jihad as a mechanism for uniting the umma.

One group, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir, makes restoring the caliphate its raison d’etre. Al Qaeda is many things — terrorist group, terrorist financier, propagandist, purported defender of Mecca — but it most certainly promotes a cause that disregards borders. Yet Middle Eastern states, Osama bin Ladin’s primary target audience, have proved resilient in the face of his calls.

The nation-state remains the minimally reducible element of international relations. It has been maligned and taken to the ash-heap of history so regularly over the years that it’s amazing it still exists. But it does. Not bad for a political entity more than 350 years old.


Falls Church, Va.

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