Is Westphalia just a moment- The Impermanence of the Nation State

As I mentioned in another post, I have been reading Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History.  In the book he makes the case that modern liberal democracy is the end stage of human society.  It is very well written, and surprisingly philosophical, but I disagree with the main point.  Earlier I mentioned my hope that humans could evolve past our current liberal democratic system and find something even better, but now I want to talk about the another assumption of Fukuyama’s that seems to be practically taken as a given, that the modern nation state will continue into perpetuity.

Nation states are no more a part of human nature than all the other types of human societies that came before them, it has only been the dominant form throughout the world since the end of WWII and the end of colonialism when the number of states in the world increased from less than 100 to 196 today.  Almost all people in the world today have spent their entire lives inside of a nation state.  People tend to be comfortable with what they know, and their mindset gets stuck in that frame.  When people assume that the nation state will continue into perpetuity it is because that is all they have ever experienced.  Could you imagine telling a King who believed in divine rights that one day the people would be sovereign in much of the world?

Despite this often unstated assumption, there are many challenges to the nation state.  None of which are currently fatal, but all things to consider as human history continues ever forward.

1) Some things that call themselves nation states aren’t- I am not convinced that China is a nation state as opposed to an empire, or that the way that Beijing rules China is drastically different from how it did in the past.  The justifications have changed, no longer does one kowtow to the Chinese leader, and the justifications are wrapped up into economic and political justifications like stability, but China is still a strongly centralized state with a meritocratic bureaucracy (with university scores and the like replacing the test about confucianism)  ruling over a huge group of diverse people.  Furthermore- many of these people don’t fit any kind of definition of a ‘nation’ and kept there by force, such as Tibetans and Uighurs.

2) Post-Colonial States are tearing themselves apart- It turns out just drawing lines on a map and calling them states doesn’t result in cohesion, it results in chaos that can only be contained with force.  What we are seeing, what we have been seeing, is the rejection of these imposed lines once the force that held them together leaves or no longer is compelling.  It is a nice dream that if you take any group of people, put them together, and give them democracy that they will work out their differences and live together, but there has been a constant repudiation of this idea from the Balkans to Africa to the Middle East.  There is also the existential crisis of coherent groups separated by legal lines and the massive amounts of bloodshed they are willing to pay to erase them.  We saw this in Vietnam, Korea still lives with this reality every day where neither north or south recognizes each other because they know that having two Koreas is unnatural, and we are seeing this in Iraq where the three groups are breaking up and ISIS just declared a sunni Caliphate that doesn’t resemble anything from this century.

3) Globalization is erasing economic boundaries:  Nation states are becoming less and less relevant to business as communications and transportation turns the whole world into a marketplace and a factory.  I have not had a job in the United States for about four years, but I have worked in three countries in that time period.  I have been back living in America again for almost a year, but have been working for an Australian company that entire time, and I email daily with colleagues in Nepal.  That is a small scale example, bigger ones include obvious ones like outsourcing production so that products are made in dozens of countries with parts sourced from dozens of others, made by multi-national corporations with branch offices in dozens or more countries, many of which have greater incomes than several nation states.  There is also the example of places, like in some parts of Africa, where the border lines are drawn vertically against the coast, but economic zones and major cities are drawn horizontally along the coast so that  these productive urban zones are more integrated than say the coastal zone with the inside of the country.

These were just the top 3 reasons I could think of.  I didn’t mention other obvious ones like regional integration- such as the EU or what Russia appears to be trying to do in the old Soviet spaces, because the importance of what is going on there to me seems less clear at the moment.  The future is a big place full of unimaginable things.  I considered speculating on what could come after the nation state, but that would be like someone in ancient Athens dreaming of the violence of the the Thirty Years War and the Treaty of Westphalia that followed.  There is something waiting for us out of site beyond the horizon, ready to reorganize the masses of humanity and shape and mold our lives and eventually feel as inevitable as the current nation state, what it is remains to be seen.

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About Leon Whyte

I'm a recent graduate of the Fletcher school of Law and Diplomacy. My interests include Pacific Asia and Security. I am looking for related opportunities.
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