What is a Nation?

Samuel P. Huntington - World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2008

Samuel Huntingdon: argued that Nation States would remain the most powerful actors in world affairs. Was he right?

Nationalism, and National Identity, have long been a passion of mine.  But whatever of its role in defining personal and community identity, as a structure it is in flux.  The concept of the nation state in many ways defined the history of the twentieth century: in the lead up to World War I, the subsequent establishment of the League of Nations and various boundary commissions, then World War II and its various alliances, and the establishment of the United Nations, the European Union and the retrenchment from Empire, establishing so many new nation states all over Africa and Asia in particular. The Nation was sovereign, and inviolable; what happened within the State was solely the preserve of the State, and no other State would intervene in matters domestic (until Kosovo, and after Rwanda).

Recently re-reading Sam Huntingdon’s 1993 essay on the Clash of Civilisations, he mentions early on that ‘Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and different groups of civilisations.” He argues that it is culture that will divide humanity in this new era, rather than ideology (Cold War) or economics.  Twenty years on it’s easy to disagree, perhaps, but I think he remains broadly right; it is however his reliance of the pre-eminence of the nation state that troubles me.

We’ve looked at Bobbit’s market state concept, and Slaughter’s concept of global networks as mechanisms to redefine the state structure. There are other theories, like postnationalism, supranationalism, and technological or internet theories.  We’ve also looked at informal state structures, where government and institutions effectively become detached from people, and entire communities, even entire tribes become essentially stateless within states.  In those circumstances, communities organise themselves in order to sustain themselves, and establish rudimentary rules, economies and quasi-state structures.

We are seeing such infrastructures beginning to assert themselves in the Middle East as it rearranges itself in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.  Syria continues to writhe in anguish, the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) spreads itself across eastern Syria and Western Iraq (including reported court structures), Kurdistan continues to develop its autonomous infrastructures, and Palestine of course – a non State with international recognition and foreign ministries – has long had many of the trappings of state, if not a physical landmass with border integrity.  The BBC’s Newsnight recently had an excellent show on the conflict in Gaza, and included this succinct analysis of how the Middle East is changing.  What it teaches perhaps more than anything else is that physical borders are not what they once were.

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