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Is the nation-state obsolete?

By Michael Lind - posted Tuesday, 15 August 2000

In 1986, the American historian William H. McNeill delivered a series of lectures entitled Polyethnicity and National Unity in World History. He argued that the period of nation-states, which began with the French Revolution in 1789, had come to an end in 1945. In the post-national future, as in the pre-national past, political identity and ethnic identity would be separated as a result of mass immigration and multiculturalism.

A few years later, in 1990, the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm echoed McNeill, announcing the death of the nation-state in his book Nations and Nationalism since 1780. According to Hobsbawm in 1990, nationalism "is historically less important … Nation-states and nations will be seen as retreating before, being absorbed or dislocated by, the new supranational restructuring of the globe".

McNeill and Hobsbawm proved to be better historians than prophets. In the decade between the time that they wrote and the present, nationalism has reshaped the map of Europe and other parts of the world and been the major cause of conflict. More than twenty new sovereign states have appeared. Germany was reunited; the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and recently Serbia have crumbled or lost territory, Czechoslovakia peacefully divided into the Czech and Slovak republics, and Scotland has its first parliament in almost three hundred years. Eritrea has won its independence from Ethiopia, East Timor from Indonesia, and a de facto Palestinian state is gaining its independence from Israel. Contrary to those who have predicted the imminent demise of the nation-state, nationalism is the most powerful political force in the world today.


I said political force – not economic force. The term globalization is used to describe a number of phenomena: increases in trade among capitalist countries, the marketization of former socialist and statist economies, growing transnational communication by means of the Internet and satellite TV and telephony. Globalization is reshaping nations – but it is not replacing nations. A Norwegian may order a product from Thailand over the Internet but he is still a Norwegian; it is the Norwegian government, not the Thai government, that provides for his health care and his state pension out of taxes levied on his fellow Norwegians.

Are immigration and multiculturalism sapping national identity? In a word, no. In the United States, multiculturalism is about race, not about culture or language. The high rate of immigration of Spanish-speakers in some border states is less of a threat to national unity than was the proportionately larger immigration of Germans and other Europeans in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Nor, despite the propaganda of right-wing nativists in some countries, is immigration threatening national unity in Europe or Asia.

Is there a tendency for national sovereignty to give way to supra-national governance? The only region in the world today where national sovereignty appears to be giving way to trans-national governance is in Europe. The European Union, the successor to the Common Market, has many of the trappings of a state: a common currency, a parliament, a flag, even a national anthem. But every failure to agree on what to do in a crisis reveals that the foreign policies of Germany, Britain, France and Italy are still national rather than European policies. If regional organization is not superseding the nation-state in Europe, then that is not happening anywhere.

The nation-state, then, is in no danger of extinction but the multinational state is. For the past two centuries, the major trend in world history has been the replacement of a few large multinational empires by an ever-growing number of mostly small, ethnically homogeneous nation-states. This development is a radical break with the past; the modern nation-state is an invention of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The same industrial technologies that made nation-states possible also permitted imperial nations like the British, the French and the Russians, and later, briefly, the Germans and Japanese, to assemble enormous empires governing many different ethnic nations. Since both kinds of regimes used the same technology, why did multinational empires like the British Empire and the Soviet Union fail in competition with nation-states? After all, in both the military realm and the realm of the market, technical economies of scale should have given the prize to the empires.

The answer is that the nation-state has prevailed in Darwinian competition among rival forms of state organization because of psychological economies of scale. The ethnic nation can be broadly defined to include all people with a common language or culture, or limited narrowly to people sharing a common descent. But whether it is defined broadly or narrowly the ethnic nation is the largest community with which ordinary human beings can have an emotional attachment. Even universal religions like Christianity and Islam tend to inspire less devotion than their ethno-national divisions; a person is not merely a Catholic, but an Irish Catholic, not merely a Muslim but an Arab Muslim.


Most nation-states are relatively small but this need not be a handicap. A small nation-state can take advantage of commercial economies of scale by joining the global market or a trading bloc like the EU or ASEAN, and it can take advantage of military economies of scale by joining a military alliance like NATO. This is something no ethnic minority in a multinational state can ever do.

Nationalism, then, remains the most powerful political idea in the world, notwithstanding the importance of globalization in the economic and cultural realm. It is true that atrocities like ethnic cleansing and genocide have been committed by some nationalists in the name of nationalist ideologies. But it also the case that the greatest record of political murder in human history, far outweighing the death toll in all the wars of national independence, was compiled by Soviet and Chinese communists in the name of international socialism. From the Middle Ages to the present, Christian and Muslim crusaders and terrorists have been willing to murder and torture and plunder in the name of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of Man.

Another myth we commonly encounter is the notion that the world wars of the twentieth century were caused by petty nationalisms of the Balkans. This is nonsense. The ultimate cause of World War I was the ambition of Germany to become the dominant world power by becoming the dominant European power – an ambition that threatened the interests of the Russian Empire, the French Empire, the British Empire and the United States, which was also a colonial power at the time. A general war in Europe might have been triggered by the earlier crisis in Morocco or any number of other events which, like the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, would have been the occasion of the war, but not its cause.

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This is an edited extract from a keynote address at the "The Risks & Benefits of Globalization: Culture and Identity in a Global Society" conference, organised jointly between the New America Foundation and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, July 28, 2000, Washington D.C.

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About the Author

Michael Lind is a Whitehead Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.

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