The Nation State Is a Very Obsolete Idea

by Paul Olson, President Emeritus

Recently the BBC quoted Czech conservative, Alex Tomsky: “The nation state as originally conceived has no place at the end of the 20th century, let alone in the 3rd millennium—The nation state is a very obsolete idea… I see the nation state as stemming from nationalism, from the idea of a homogeneous society with a leader, with an authority, with a particular slant to history and ideology… I don’t think it is a positive force. After all it’s caused two world wars in Europe.” Other ‘authorities’ have disputed Tomsky’s kind of notion, especially the Chronicle of Higher Education, and pundits who point to new European nations (e.g. Kosovo and Macedonia) or recent Russian nationalism as contrary evidence.

I believe that Tomsky is right. The violence in Paris, perpetrated by members of several nation states but united in one nihilistic cause, is only one instance in a crumbling of the old order. States no longer have a monopoly even on massive military power.

Often the decline of the national state is attributed to regional associations such as the European Union, or the Organization of African Unity, and they are important in the changing nation-state calculus. Often it is attributed to religious fanaticism, and that certainly plays a role. But these factors are not as important as three deeper changes—the flows of peoples out of their traditional areas caused by wars and climate change; the decline of nation-state idolatry and concomitant military service caused by disillusion with nationalism; and the rise of corporate entities more powerful than nation-state governments caused by the lack of international legal constraints on global capitalism.

In the ‘nation-state’ idea, ‘nation’ means a specific nationality; ‘state’ means a particular government suiting the nationality and having a monopoly on police or army violence (save for self-defense). As Tomsky implies, a nation-state—following the post-Westphalian myth—is one people, one set of borders, one law and one language. To fulfill this myth, the United States pushed the ‘melting pot’ idea to make us ‘one people’ culturally; the Right tells us we need English as our one national language. Nation-state ideology tells us that the state alone can kill—in battle or execution. The nation state is ‘God,’ its mandates coextensive with God’s. Sarah Palin told us the “United States sent troops to fight in the Iraq war on a ‘task that is from God.’” A song from my childhood asserts that God’s (i.e. America’s) great heroes (e.g. Custer, Nathan Hale, WWII fallen hero Colin Kelly) go straight to a Star-Spangled heaven. But it is clear now that any group with weapons can kill, whether it is a state or not.

The nation-state cornerstone of the international order now suffocates partly from many European Union-like supranational arrangements, partly from the appearance of failed states, and partly from the three other changes mentioned above:

1. Increasing refugee and immigrant flows blurring national identities and boundaries: for the first time since the stabilizations after the fall of the Roman Empire in Europe, conquistador destruction of the Native American empires in the New World, and the Asian recoveries after Genghis Khan’s and later Mogul invasions of western/Southern Asia, identifying territories with rooted peoples has become impossible. Immigration and refugee flows, prompted by climate change, wars, starvation and warlord chaos, change ethnic uniformity and invite terror. The flows will not be stanched as climate change worsens and the Defense Department’s climate change-projected migrations occur.

2. Increasing resistance to the idolatry of the nation state and killing in its name. As we become more uprooted and unhealthy, we become less enthusiastic about killing to protect real or imaginary nation-state roots. An Economist article argues that “During the Korean War, around 70 percent of draft-age American men served in the armed forces; during Vietnam, the unpopularity of the conflict and ease of draft-dodging ensured that only 43 percent did. These days, even if every young American wanted to join up, less than 30 percent would be eligible to. Of the starting 21 million, around 9.5m would fail a rudimentary academic qualification, either because they had dropped out of high school or, typically, because most young Americans cannot do tricky sums without a calculator. Of the remainder, 7m would be disqualified because they are too fat, or have a criminal record, or tattoos on their hands or faces… That leaves 4.5m young Americans eligible to serve, of whom only around 390,000 are minded to, provided they do not get snapped up by a college or private firm instead—as tends to happen to the best of them… “

The article observes that the elites of our nation, anomic as they are, do not go to the military.

These American trends correlate with worldwide phenomena. In 1970, 80 percent of the earth’s governments used conscription; now only 45 percent do, most of these for shortened terms and with easy draft escape. Going to war and killing for a government is just not the ‘divine calling’ it once was. Direct killing on the basis of some claimed ultimate calling is more likely.

3. The disappearance of nation states as exclusively the most powerful organizations on the earth as ‘corporate loyalties’ replace ethnic roots. “Transnational Institute” data shows that the world’s 100 largest economies (http://makewealthhistory.org/2014/02/03/the-corporations-bigger-than-nations/) include 37 corporations—six of which are petroleum companies. These corporations frequently control nation-state economies and military activities: for example, the oil industry during the George W. Bush administration. The world’s largest corporation is Walmart, but immediately thereafter come Royal Dutch Petroleum, Exxon Mobil, Sinopec China Petroleum, BP and Petrochina—each of them capable of controlling large nation states.

Nation states no longer exclusively control the machinery of local violence. Consider terrorist groups or failed states like Somalia or Yemen. Consider war lords and strong men, gangs, drug cartels and organized criminals, guerrilla forces, right-wing militias and gun groups, and armies serving corporations in places like the Congo—none new but endemic now almost everywhere.

Amid this chaos, if we seek peace and nonviolence, we must go beyond peace negotiations and international peacekeeping among increasingly irrelevant nation states. We must speak and live for international court sovereignty over corporate entities everywhere, especially in such arrangements as the “Trans-Pacific Partnership”; for relating rootedness to bioregions and neighborhoods instead of border guards, armies, guns, and WMDs; and for conflict resolution processes that teach peace studies and conflict resolution at micro and macro levels in our religious institutions and schools.

Peace must indeed be our profession, but in a new and radical sense.

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