The Trajectory of the Nation-State

David Roselle‘s second post in our Emerging Fellows program concerns the apparent decline of the nation-state. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 

Imagining a world of city-states is rather difficult. Questions around the military, currencies, and agriculture pop up immediately with few satisfying answers in response. The premise seems more like a fitting background to a science fiction novel for Kim Stanley Robinson or Octavia Butler than a plausible scenario for our reality. I suspect the reason why has less to with our ability to imagine and more to do with its greater implication. A world of city-states translates into a world without nation-states. And a world without nation-states is arguably even more difficult to imagine. Nation-states are so powerful, militaristically, economically and socially, so embedded into our identities, we’re conditioned to see them as an immutable part of life. Objectively, however, the nation-state is a geopolitical design and like any invention, it’s a part of an evolving system susceptible to change. History shows it has been evolving since its inception.

The nation-state has a 370-year life-span intertwining with the evolution of colonial expansion. It began in what is now present-day Germany. There had been a thirty-year war that stagnated in a bloody stalemate that made unprecedented diplomatic efforts more attractive. Hundreds of plenipotentiaries representing various kingdoms met together to discuss peace efforts. The radical solution was territorial sovereignty. A concept too heretical to have been previously considered because it would have weakened the authority of the Holy Roman Empire. It meant that man considered himself his ruler and no longer God. The peace treaty, known as the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, laid down the foundation for the modern nation-state.

The nation-state unified a network of city-states through the construction of nationalism. By forming a brotherhood, the nation-state established common identity and loyalty among lay people. This strengthened connective bonds between citizens that were further reinforced in times of conflict. After the French and American revolutions, for example, nationalist rhetoric, on behalf of “we the people”, propelled both countries forward to be major, political forces.

Imperialism exported the nation-state’s territorial sovereignty to foreign lands. Through the invention of a new politico-territorial structure, the colony, European nation-states increased their territorial expansion. The magnitude of colonial influence is still felt today. For example, the Berlin Conference of 1884-5 sought to pacify disputes in Africa among European powers by delineating colonial borders. Many of these borders remain, in spite their irrelevance to language, culture or religion to their inhabitants.

Decolonization sparked the next evolution where colonies transformed into nations. After WWII, decolonization efforts, like the Pan-African Congress, spread throughout Africa, Asia, and South America, demanding colonization to end. Unlike Europe, where peace efforts catalyzed sovereign autonomy, it took bloody revolutions to yield change. The 1950-60’s laid witness to uprisings resulting in independence movements overthrowing colonial powers thus leading postcolonial nation-states.

Today, the nation-state is evolving in a post-colonial, hyper-connected, multicultural, globalized world governing more educated citizens than ever before. The question is: will it continue to gain power, will it contract to balance power, or will it collapse in order to birth something new?

© David Roselle 2018