First posted October 01, 2016
Try, for a moment, to envisage a world without countries. Imagine a map not divided into neat, coloured patches, each with clear borders, governments, laws. Try to describe anything our society does – trade, travel, science, sport, maintaining peace and security – without mentioning countries. Try to describe yourself: you have a right to at least one nationality, and the right to change it, but not the right to have none.
Those coloured patches on the map may be democracies, dictatorships or too chaotic to be either, but virtually all claim to be one thing: a nation state, the sovereign territory of a “people” or nation who are entitled to self-determination within a self-governing state. So says the United Nations, which now numbers 193 of them.
And more and more peoples want their own state, from Scots voting for independence to jihadis declaring a new state in the Middle East. Many of the big news stories of the day, from conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine to rows over immigration and membership of the European Union, are linked to nation states in some way.
Even as our economies globalise, nation states remain the planet’s premier political institution. Large votes for nationalist parties in this year’s EU elections prove nationalism remains alive – even as the EU tries to transcend it. Yet there is a growing feeling among economists, political scientists and even national governments that the nation state is not necessarily the best scale on which to run our affairs. We must manage vital matters like food supply and climate on a global scale, yet national agendas repeatedly trump the global good. At a smaller scale, city and regional administrations often seem to serve people better than national governments.
How, then, should we organise ourselves? Is the nation state a natural, inevitable institution? Or is it a dangerous anachronism in a globalised world? These are not normally scientific questions – but that is changing. Complexity theorists, social scientists and historians are addressing them using new techniques, and the answers are not always what you might expect. Far from timeless, the nation state is a recent phenomenon. And as complexity keeps rising, it is already mutating into novel political structures. Get set for neo-medievalism.
Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states, says John Breuilly of the London School of Economics. If you travelled across Europe, no one asked for your passport at borders; neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these didn’t really define the political entity they lived in….