The Nation State

The Nation State: An Essay

The nation state as the general form of state organisation is a product of the last 100 years. Before then, most of the world was ruled by empires, whether colonial (such as the British) or territorial (such as the Russian). The Treaty of Berlin in 1878 had seven signatories, the 1919 Treaty of Versailles was signed by 32 countries, and the United Nations now has 193 members. This essay traces the origin and implications of this revolution in the world's political affairs.

Nation states have three great advantages from previous forms of state organisation. Their lack of centralised dictatorship has enabled their societies and economies to develop, they are the sole environment in which democracy can appear, and they do not have a tendency to increase their territory. They have been made possible by a form of economic prosperity which does not depend on the ownership of land but on trade, industry, and capital investment. The enormously greater economic added value of that prosperity has created in each state a civil society which adopted a cultural self-identity which we call nationality. In a nation state, that nationality is the source of legitimacy in its political system.

The problems now faced by nation states are primarily economic and environmental: population, resources, climate change, infrastructure, education, meeting their peoples' expectations, and managing the flow of world trade and finance. These problems of course arose earlier, but until about 100 years ago most states were also afflicted with actual or threatened wars, internal or external. With the end of empires and the formation of nation states, these wars have largely ceased. This remark may seem surprising given the many actual and potential conflicts which still rage, but in comparative historical terms it is true. The major wars of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries were not caused primarily by nationalism, as is commonly supposed, but by the ambitions of empires (actual or attempted), countered by other empires or by nation states. The relatively few present-day wars are due to boundary disputes or disputes within nation states which have yet to be formed, and to al-Qa‘eda’s war against the nation state itself.

The essay has three principal theses, one relating to the nature of a state, one relating to the origin of nation states and the third to their development from previous forms of government. We first note that origin of political power lies with legitimate authority. A legitimate ruler can expect to have his or her instructions obeyed. When civil wars occur, as they have in the history of most countries, the cause is invariably a dispute between two or more authorities claiming to be legitimate.

Secondly, we relate the origin of nation states at a particular time and place, namely the western edge of Europe in the 16th and 17th century, and for a specific historical reason. Until then and in other places, the primary loyalty of states was not to a nation but to a ruler or dynasty, or sometimes to an oligarchy, army, church, or tribal chieftain. These forms of government were legitimate and stable, but their stability was impermanent. Violent conflicts over succession of rulers, territory, forms of government, or subjection to other states broke out at regular intervals and partly undid the effect of previous stability, preventing the development of a civil society and nationality. West European states were protected from these conflicts by the Holy Roman Empire in central Europe, which was strong enough to defend them from predatory states to the east but not strong enough to interfere in their internal affairs. Perhaps for this reason, the West European states benefited from long-lived and stable dynasties. Further, the Holy Roman Empire was too weak to prevent the formation of city states in Northern Europe and Italy which became very wealthy through long-distance trade. These wealth and trade patterns were eventually shared with the West European states and began development of the modern economy.

These two factors were not present to a sufficient degree in those parts of Asia, Africa, and America where empires with strong political identities existed. Empires (such as the Chinese) could be large, stable, and efficient, but were subject to periodic invasions, rebellions and dynastic civil wars. Dynasties lasted only for a few decades or centuries. Their very efficiency as a system of government discouraged independent commercial activity. The city states which flourished in East Africa and South East Asia did not acquire sufficient wealth or independence. The unique circumstance of the Holy Roman Empire arose through the conflict of loyalties between the Empire and the Papacy, a form of dispute which did not occur elsewhere.

Our third thesis relates to our definition of a nation state as one in which political legitimacy lies within the nation. This is contrasted with states in which legitimacy lay outside the nation, which we call pre-national states and classify into eight categories: personal state (usually called monarchy), theocracy, city state, oligarchy, territorial empire, trading (or colonial) empire, military state, and tribal state. Oligarchy occurred in historic city states and in the early stages of many post-colonial states. A colonial empire generally had a nation state at its core, but its colonies were not states. A military state was one where the army was responsible only to itself, such as the Egyptian Mamluks (1250-1517) or the Iraq of Saddam and his predecessors (1958-2003), different from the temporary military rule which occurs when civil institutions fail during the development of a nation state. A tribal state was one where government was carried by negotiation between one dominant tribe and others. Pre-national government was effective because its authority lay outside the people it ruled so that it could arbitrate their disputes, and before the appearance of nationality such a form of government was the only one possible.

It follows that there is a point in the history of each nation state when the national sense becomes sufficiently strong to demand that legitimacy is transferred from the external authority to the nation, by overthrow of the pre-national ruler and/or establishment of institutions to make the ruler accountable. Such a change is a major turning-point, often accompanied by political violence, and if the institutions of national accountability are not present it can be a leap in the dark which causes temporary political instability. It is expressed in three phases. In Phase I, the state is unified by a competent and legitimate pre-national ruler under whose government the nationality can develop. Phase II is the act of national self-assertion already described. In Phase III, a Constitution is established under which national control over the government is expressed. These three Phases can generally be identified with specific historic events in each country.

The essay analyses in detail the nature of these various forms of pre-national and nation state and traces their establishment and development in about 95 countries. Empires have now gone, and the sole remaining theocracy is the Vatican City. Other states lie in five categories:

  1. states whose traditional institutions have adapted to nationality and constitutionalism;
  2. those with a well-defined nationality but whose traditional institutions failed and which had therefore to develop new ones;
  3. former colonies with a well-defined nationality, institutions, and civil society;
  4. those left by their colonial administrations with weak or unclear nationality, institutions, and civil society;
  5. states whose development has been distracted by theocratic or imperial ambitions.

In a few countries tribal rule still functions, but it is ineffective in modern conditions.

Countries which have weak nationality, institutions, or civil society have often adopted an autocratic or oligarchic form of government as a sort of substitute or parallel monarchy, until sufficient social, economic, and national development has occurred for constitutional government to prevail. In these circumstances autocracy or oligarchy can be a legitimate expression of nationality so long as it does not become sectarian, and it has often been replaced, peacefully or otherwise, by constitutional rule. Since the Constitutions of autocracies and oligarchies may be weak, nominal, or (more rarely) non-existent, changes in their governments are often extra-constitutional, resulting in unpredictable and unstable regimes. Nevertheless, that has been the experience of many nation states in the course of their development.

In many states, advances have been made in recent decades in both nationality  and constitutionalism.  There are some, such as Libya and Syria, which are currently undergoing the painful process of transition. Whereas infrastructure and educational development is possible under any form of legitimate government, only with national and constitutional institutions and civil society can a state achieve significant social, economic, and commercial progress.

A contingent thesis of this essay is that historical research into states would be greatly illuminated if their economic added value could be ascertained, as that would determine their potential for growth of a civil society.

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